How I write (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
A Preface to the 15th year Italian edition of The Black Swan.
On The Black Swan
I remained undeterred by the insults in the rejection letters. Something I experienced even more acutely with The Black Swan, editors were not content in rejecting the book as a wise businessperson would reject an investment, by saying something like it may be great but I do not wish to take the gamble or politely appeal to caution.
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No; they went out of their way to explain with a lot of precision why it would flop, why nobody would read it. Both Fooled by Randomness and its successor The Black Swan were treated by the industry like Yevgenia Krasnova’s Story of Recursion(which few realize was about The Black Swan recursively talking about itself and its own future).
All books acquire retrospective qualities after they become successful.
Books are not written for book editors
My belief has always been that primo, “books are not written for book editors” and secundo, almost all book editors don’t know it –it turns out that there are good editors in some elite houses (such as Will Murphy in New York, Will Goodlad in London, and those who replaced them) but these were still outside my reach then.
Predictably, I refused to be edited, feeling that it disrupts the inner harmony of the text; the manuscript showed a fiercely stubborn personality, which editors easily confirmed upon meeting its author.
Fooled by Randomness
Finally, I miraculously managed to get temporarily published by a newly founded aggressive internet house who traded my refusal to be edited against lower royalties.
The house was so patently incompetent (yet aggressive) that they rapidly became financially insolvent –the managers burned their cash on first class transatlantic seats and lavish author parties (not mine). But I had no reason to complain: only an incompetent-but-aggressive publishing house would have accepted to publish me.
To cheat, Fooled by Randomness had been promoted to some as a business book (although the only business in it is its dismissal of business as both a vulgar and a random thing); to others as a philosophy of science manual though the demand for these was so limited that the last books in that category that were read beyond a narrow group of graduate students were by Karl Popper, fifty years earlier.
H ow do
H ow do I write? The common fallacy is that if you want people to read you in the future, you must project something related to the future, focused on the contemporary and be as different from the past as possible –say by populating your work with space machines, high technology, and revolutionary ideas. My U.S. publisher still tries to squeeze modern art on the cover when I am looking elsewhere.
No, no; it’s
No, no; it’s the exact opposite. I stood the idea on its head. If you want to be read in the future, make sure you would have been read in the past. We have no idea of what’s in the future, but we have some knowledge of what was in the past. So I make sure I would have been read both in the past and in the present time, that is by both the comtemporaries and the dead. So I speculated that books that would have been relevant twenty years in the past (conditional of course of being relevant today) would be interesting twenty years in the future.
Another discovery I
Another discovery I made then, and to which I have been adhering until the present. If you consider writing a creative endeavor, then avoid practicing it in mundane matters as it may both dull your vitality and make it feel like drudgery, work. I find it painful to write outside of my books (or mathematical papers) –and immensely pleasurable to write in book form. So I limit my emails to one or two laconic (but sometimes incomprehensible) sentences, postcard like; the same with social media posts that are not exceprts from books. There is still such a contraption called a telephone. Likewise, I don’t read letters and emails longer than a postcard. Writing must have some solemnity. Reading and writing, in the past, were the province of the sacred.