How did you become a writer? It seems incredible, but I decided to become a writer after a dream I had the summer after my freshman year of college. In the dream, I had returned to my high school to be part of an alumni panel on what to do with your life after high school, but I felt fraudulent giving the very advice I most desperately sought. At one point, I impetuously stood up and interrupted the proceedings: "Yeah, but how do I decide what to do with my life?" The question was rhetorical, meant to stump the faculty and expose the panel for the generic one-size-fits-all platitudes it was, but the dream version of my ninth-grade biology teacher met my eyes and replied without missing a beat. "Well, Brian, listen to your small thoughts. That's what you have to do." I woke up with a start and jotted "Small Thoughts" down on a Post-It. The next day I pondered what that phrase might mean, idly going over my class notes from that year. In the margins of my applied math seminar, my object-oriented programming lecture, my philosophy course, I discovered shards of poems, character sketches, ideas and germs for essays and stories. My small thoughts. "I have a writer's brain," I thought, discovering as I noticed the marginalia as if for the first time that literature was, it appeared, simply what my brain did when confronted with experience. I threw my weight behind the tendency.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). At eighteen I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and have never quite been the same since. The latest book to have quite that brain-rewiring effect on me has been Finite and Infinite Games, which has effectively managed to become a permanent part of how I process and interpret the world. For the sheer prowess of the sentence, I go back again and again to Thoreau, Annie Dillard, David Foster Wallace. In verse, those who have most expanded my sense of what is possible in language have been Forrest Gander, Arthur Sze, Ben Lerner, K. Silem Mohammad. In drama: Caryl Churchill, Charles Mee. In fiction and in the imagination: Donald Barthelme, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges.
When and where do you write? In college, I remember stopping abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk and pulling out a notebook to scribble a thought before it fled. A passing professor cheered me on: "That's the idea that's going to put it over the top!" I still try to be that kind of person, but of course larger-scale projects require a deliberate approach as well as a kind of ready opportunism. As of late I'm working on a book-length collaboration and so much of my writing gets done across the desk from my coauthor. As anyone with a running partner or "gym buddy" can attest, few things so cut off the easy, ignoble escapes of energy and attention like the simple presence of another human being. No virtual collaboration technologies are ever quite the equal of thinking through a problem aloud in the same room.
What are you working on now? The lion's share of my attention is going toward a new book, a collaboration with Tom Griffiths titled Algorithms to Live By, which I'm incredibly excited about. Meanwhile, I'm nurturing a host of other projects – essays, articles, and software – as well as editing the poetry journal Ink Node.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? For me, writer's block is an umbrella term that encompasses two distinct phenomena. The first is restlessness, lack of a fixed purpose. The second is procrastination: you have purpose but you're not seeing to it. I regard creation as a kind of inhalation-exhalation process. Or a four-stroke engine, if a mechanical metaphor suits more than a biological one: Intake, Compression, Power, Exhaust.
If you're feeling uninspired, you need inhalation / intake. Sally forth. Meet new people. Fill your calendar. Read. Converse. Get involved. Scavenge – as both creatures and cylinders must.
If you know what you should be saying but aren't saying it, you need exhalation / compression / power. Steal away. Empty your calendar and embrace solitude. Retreat. Cloister. "Go up garrett at once," as Thoreau puts it.
What’s your advice to new writers? Content matters as much as form; having something to say is at least as important as saying it with impeccable craft. To a college student, my advice would be double-major. Develop a base of knowledge and a line of passionate inquiry that isn't simply writing itself. Your writing will be the means of pursuing that inquiry. Make sure you're keeping yourself supplied with questions.
Bio: Brian Christian is the author of The Most Human Human, which was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller and a New Yorker favorite book of 2011, and has been translated into ten languages. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Gizmodo, AGNI, Gulf Coast, and Best New Poets, and in scientific journals such as Cognitive Science. Christian has been featured on The Charlie Rose Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and has lectured at Google, Microsoft, the Santa Fe Institute, and the London School of Economics. His work has won several awards, including fellowships at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, publication in Best American Science & Nature Writing, and an award from the Academy of American Poets. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Christian holds degrees in philosophy, computer science, and poetry from Brown University and the University of Washington. He lives in San Francisco and is currently at work on his second book of nonfiction, in collaboration with Tom Griffiths, titled Algorithms to Live By.