How I Write: Alan Lightman
Published: April 5, 2001
|In his essays, short stories, novels and scholarly writings, Alan Lightman explores the worlds of science and art, often examining their conflicting viewpoints. The physicist, who wrote the critically acclaimed novels, The Diagnosis (National Book Award finalist, 2000) and Einstein's Dreams, teaches both writing and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lightman's books have been translated into 30 languages. His essays and stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.|
Credits. Novels: The Diagnosis (finalist, National Book Award for fiction, 2000), Good Benito (1995), Einstein's Dreams (1993). Short fiction: "Always Ask for Cash," Story (Winter, 1997), "Maine Light," Boston Review (April/May 1996). Books on science: Great Ideas in Physics (new edition, 2000), Time for the Stars: Astronomy for the 1990s (co-author, 1992), Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe (1991).
Why: In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, "Ask yourself in the silent hours of your night: Must I write?" That's why I write. I cannot not write.
When and where: If I'm working on a book, I usually write every day for five or six hours. After that, I'm totally exhausted. My personal best time is morning or early afternoon. I have a family life, and I teach, so I have to balance my life.
How: When working on the first draft of a novel, I'll make lots of small-scale--local--revisions. Chapter by chapter, line by line. After I've finished the draft, I'll let a few weeks go by and then read the whole book and do a global revision. The local revision is getting the wording of a sentence or a scene right. The global revision is related to getting a character right or a theme expressed the way I want, working on the overall architecture of the book.
Influences: I read fiction, lots of foreign writers, such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie. I think you get a lot from broad reading, not just different techniques but different mentalities. I also like to travel as much as I can to countries different than my own. Travel shows you a much bigger world than the one you know, which is a key thing for a fiction writer. The more worlds you have seen, the more you are able to create another world for the reader.
Writer's block: The kind of stuck I get is not being able to figure out how to handle a scene. What helps? Brooding, getting disgusted with myself, letting it sit, pacing. I get stuck more when I'm trying to decide what book to do next out of the many books I want to do. I call it waiting to be overwhelmed by a particular idea.
Advice: In general, traveling and reading widely are excellent things for a writer to do. One thing that relates to a writer's vision of the world is that books are sacred objects. A book represents another world, another mind and it's something precious. Books are what connect the generations of humans over thousands of years.
Photograph by Jean Lightman