What Can We Learn about Writing from Flaubert’s Letters?

In short? That even talented writers suffer. A lot.

When we are trying to find wisdom in order to learn to write well, we usually get Stephen King’s On Writing and some other books. A less straightforward way would be to look at the notes or letters of writers. The Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas-Llosa is a loyal follower of Gustave Flaubert, the french writer that is known as the precursor of the modern novel. Vargas-Llosa has said that after reading Flaubert’s letters he realized that with work, insistence and perseverance one can make up for the lack of talent.

Below I share some of the most interesting passages that I found in Flaubert’s correspondence (Steegmuller, 1980) at the time he was writing his masterpiece: Madame Bovary. Most of these passages come from letters addressed to his friend and lover Louise Colet, with whom Flaubert had a very strange relationship (but that is ‘harina de otro costal‘). Flaubert’s sentences in those letters show the process of writing the best sentences one could write. We usually assume that sentences flow out of talented writers in an effortless way. However, reading Flaubert’s letters we can see how one of the best writers struggles when trying to produce the written perfection.

It all started in September in 1851. Back then he wrote to Louise Colet:

Last night I began my novel. Now I foresee difficulties of style, and they terrify me. It is no small thing to be simple.

September 20, 1851

A month after he began Madame Bovary he says that he was enjoying the challenge of writing with a style that was foreign to him.

I am finding it very hard to get my novel started. I suffer from stylistic abscesses; and sentences keep itching without coming to a head…This makes me so desperate that I enjoy it considerable…A fortnight from now I hope to be in gear, but the colors I am working with are so new to me that I keep staring at them in astonishment.

October 23, 1851

A year later, he describes a stage in which he felt he was making no progress at all.

How I wish it were five or six months from now! I would be over the worst—the parts where I find myself least productive: that is, where the idea must be struck most persistently in order to force it to yield return.

September 4, 1852

In another letter he tells Colet how he is giving up his entire life to work on just one page of the book.

Last week I spent five days writing one page, and I dropped everything else for it—my Greek, my English; I gave myself up to it entirely. What worries me in my book is the element of entertainment. That side is weak; there is not enough action. I maintain, however, that ideas are action. It is more difficult to hold the reader’s interest with them, I know, but if the style is right it can be done. I now have fifty pages in a row without a single event.

 

January 15, 1853

And even though he was working hard, he reveals that he is insecure about the quality of his work. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to learn the immediate impact of Madame Bovary.

Will what I have written be good? I have no idea.

December 23, 1853

Finally, in one of his last letters to Louise Colet in 1854, Flaubert recapitulate how intense the process had been.

Next September it will be three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (especially when the style is one which expresses my personality so little as that of the Emperor of China), living continuously with the same characters, in the same surroundings, clobbering oneself to maintain the same illusion.

We would expect that this level of perfectionism should produce some damage on one’s well-being. What you would not expect, however, is that your own mother would be able to describe that damage in such an eloquent way. In a letter to one of his closest friends, Flaubert shares his mother’s assessment.

‘Your mania for sentences’, my mother said, ‘has dried up your heart.’

September, 1855

Flaubert’s correspondence shows us that writing is hard even for talented individuals. More important, the correspondence also shows us that if you achieve written perfection, then you might want to be careful with your heart.

References

Steegmuller, F. (1980). “The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857.” Cambridge: Belknap.

Genetic Diversity and Economic Development

If we think that diversity can have an impact on organizational outcomes, it would make sense to also look at higher-level outcomes. Ashraf and Galor (2013) do that. They study the effect of genetic diversity on economic development at the country-level. They find that an intermediate level of genetic diversity is associated with ‘the highest’ level of economic development. The results show that there is an ‘inverted-U’ relationship between genetic diversity and economic development: a trade-off exists between the positive and negative effects of diversity on productivity.

Based on their results, the authors indicate that (Ashraf & Galor, 2013: 38)

(i) increasing the diversity of the most homogenous country in the sample (Bolivia) by 1 percentage point would raise its income per capita in the year 2000 CE by 39%, (ii) decreasing the diversity of the most diverse country in the sample (Ethiopia) by 1 percentage point would raise its income per capita by 21%…

The following image extracted from the paper shows this curvilinear relationship:

Ashraf and Galor 2013

Ashraf and Galor (2013)

They explore some mechanisms through which genetic diversity has an impact on economic development. In particular, they look at interpersonal trust and scientific knowledge creation. They find that (Ashraf & Galor, 2013: 8)

…the analysis indicates that genetic diversity is negatively associated with the extent of cooperative behavior, as measured by the prevalence of interpersonal trust, and positively associated with innovative activity, as measured by the intensity of scientific knowledge creation.

This study has received some attention from news sites. Check one of the author’s website here.

References

Ashraf, Q., & Galor, O. (2013). The’Out of Africa’hypothesis, human genetic diversity, and comparative economic development. The American Economic Review, 103(1), 1.

 

Darwin’s Fox

After traveling around Tierra del Fuego, observing the Fuegians and spending time with Jemmy Button‘s tribe, Charles Darwin arrived in Chiloé, the second largest island in Chile. In this region, Darwin explored the main island and the surrounding areas. In his journal, Darwin (1989) describes an interesting situation that took place when he arrived to San Pedro island, located in the southeast side of Chiloé.

‘A fox, of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is an undescribed species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching their [Beagle’s officers] manoeuvres, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.’

Zorro Chilote

This little fox (Lycalopex fulvipes; syn. Pseudalopex fulvipes), known as Darwin’s fox and Zorro Chilote (Fox from Chiloé) ‘is perhaps one of the rarest, least known and world’s most threatened canid’ (Jimenez, 2007). Even though Darwin found this ‘more curious or more scientific’ fox in 1834, we have not gained much knowledge about this specie. Some estimate the population of the Darwin’s fox to be close to 500 (in Chiloé) (Yahnke et al., 1996). Recent studies show that the Darwin’s fox does not only live in Chiloé, but also in the coastal area close to Valdivia. The Nahuelbuta National Park (5415 ha.) is a coastal forest that remains the only mainland area in which the fox has been observed. Because of the distance between this Park and Chiloé, some speculate that this mainland population may have come from captive foxes.

It seems that there is some agreement regarding the extent to which this fox is in danger . However, it is not clear yet how to protect it.

References

Darwin, C. (1989). Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s” Journal of researches”. J. Browne (Ed.). Penguin Books.

Jiménez, J. E. (2007). Ecology of a coastal population of the critically endangered Darwin’s fox (Pseudalopex fulvipes) on Chiloé Island, southern Chile. Journal of Zoology, 271(1), 63-77.

Yahnke, C. J., et al. (1996). Darwin’s Fox: A Distinct Endangered Species in a Vanishing Habitat. Conservation Biology, 10(2), 366–375.

How To: Deal with Journal Rejections Thinking About the Easter Island

The Easter Island is a very enigmatic place. If you do a brief research on the Island, you would realize that there are many different views about the history of the island. It has been well established, however, that the construction of the Moais stopped in the late 18th century. Why? I think we do not know.

I visited the Island after my first year in the Ph.D. At that time, I already had a journal rejection (or maybe even more than one). Although short, this academic experience led me to observe some of the things you can see in the Island with a surprisingly creative view (maybe too creatively).

After riding a bike for a couple of hours (see my post about biking around the Island), I made it to the quarry were the Moais were built. Although you can see many pictures before landing on the Island, it is still really interesting to walk around dozens of Moais lying on the ground in different positions. I walked around the external side of the volcano Rano Raraku and then I walked into the crater. When I was coming back from the crater, I ran into some rats and horses. I had to wait until the horses decided to move from the trail so I could keep going back to the entrance of the Park.

Rano Raraku, Easter Island

Rano Raraku Volcano.

Before getting to the entrance, I ran into a special Moai. The Moai was (and it is probably still like that) lying horizontally. However, the interesting part was that the Moai was not a single piece of rock anymore. The statue was broken into several pieces.

brokenmoai

Broken Moais.

Looking at the Moai I got what I would describe as an interesting piece of wisdom from the Easter Island. In a less elaborated way, I thought:

“The craftsmen that carved this statue spent a long time working on it. Unfortunately, this Moai got completely destroyed and useless after being broken off the wall of the volcano. Could they repair it? It does not seem they could. You, as a researcher, can also spend a long time ‘carving’ a research paper. However, and fortunately, when it is rejected from a journal, the paper is not broken for good. You actually can repair it and try again.”

So, yes, fortunately, as a researcher you do not end up with a broken Moai when a paper is rejected from a journal. And if the Rapa Nui (native Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island) kept carving Moais, you definitely have to keep trying to get your paper published.

I think it works.

If you ever meet me and hear me saying “well, it is not a Moai”, then you will know what just happened.

How To / STATA: Draw a Random Sample from Panel Data

Assume we have a data set containing firm data across years. The variable id uniquely identify a firm. The variable performance is some kind of financial performance of the firm and the variable year indicates when that performance happened. Thus,  we have a small panel where firm-year is the unit of analysis.

If you want to draw a random sample from a data set like that, you shouldn’t directly use the command –sample-. If you use it, then you will lose the panel structure of the data (or at very least you are very likely to lose it!). What you should do instead is to randomly select firm ids and then keep all the observations (all years) for each of the randomly selected firm ids. Below you can see an example of a STATA code to perform this operation. Remember we have three variables: id, year, performance.

use "yourdataset.dta", replace

tempfile paneldata
save `paneldata'

collapse (mean) performance, by(id)
keep id
sample 50

tempfile randomsampleid
save `randomsampleid'

use `paneldata'

merge m:1 id using `randomsampleid'

drop if _merge == 1
drop _merge

After opening the data set, we save a temporary file called paneldata (lines 3-4). Then we get rid of the repeated ids using –collapse– and then we drop all the variables and we keep only id (lines 6-7). In line 8 we use the command –sample– so STATA randomly select, ins this case, a 50% of the total number of unique ids (-help sample– to see other options, such as defining the number of observations you want to draw from the original set). In lines 10-11 we save this subset of ids in a temporary file called randomsampleid.

Finally, we return to the panel data (line 13) and then we merge it using the randomsampleid. It is a m:1 merge because in the panel data the id variable does not uniquely identify each observation but it does that in the using data. Those observations that are successfully merged are the ones that STATA randomly chose for you, so we get rid of the rest in line 17.

Biking around Easter Island

Biking around the Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is a great idea. If you like to ride a bike, it is maybe the second best idea after the one you had when you decided to actually visit Easter Island.

I biked around the Island during winter, which seems to be a great season for biking if you are lucky enough not to see rain (I was lucky enough not to see rain at all during 5 days). I have not been to the Island in summer but I think it is probably not such a good idea to bike around the Island during summer (around 30°C and a lot of humidity).

In total, I biked around 120 km (75 mi) in 4 days. I was on the road (biking/walking/taking pictures) around 3-5 hours per day depending on the route I chose and the places I visited.

LAN Airlines' 767 at Easter Island's Airport

LAN Airlines’ Boeing 767 at Easter Island’s Airport

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How To / STATA: Calculate Variables for Groups of Observations

In management research, we usually need to create a variable that measures the experience of firms. Firms accumulate experience as they make acquisitions or invest in companies in certain countries. Sometimes this experience has an effect in future decisions, so we calculate variables that measure the number of times a firm has made an acquisition or has invested in a certain industry or country. In STATA, this can be done using the command –bysort– and –gen– (i.e. –generate-) or –egen-. In this post I will calculate an experience variable using a fictitious dataset.

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