Creative Nonfiction

What Can We Steal From Isaac Asimov’s I. Asimov?

Title of Work and its Form: I. Asimov, memoir
Author: Isaac Asimov
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be found in countless independent bookstores across the country or even on those great big megawebsites that don’t need your money quite as much.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure


Ken’s note: This post is going live on January 2, 2013, which would have been Isaac’s 93rd birthday.  Although the Good Doctor is gone, here’s hoping that his countless fans take this opportunity to celebrate his memory and his massive body of work.

Who knows why, but Isaac Asimov is one of the first few authors with whom I fell in love.  I was in awe of the fact that he published such a wide range of books…and so many of them!  Science fiction was one of my first loves; Asimov was one of the Big Three and even had a magazine named after him.  I remember reading my first copy of I. Asimov to tatters even though, as Asimov admitted, his life was not the most exciting ever.

I. Asimov is the man’s third autobiography.  In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt are thick monsters that recount the entertaining minutiae of Asimov’s life through the late 1970s.  With a decade having passed (and illness clearly becoming more of a concern), Asimov acceded to those who insisted that he fill in the remaining blanks of his life story.  In his introduction, Asimov describes the book’s form:

So what I intend to do is describe my whole life as a way of presenting my thoughts and make it an independent autobiography standing on its own feet.  I won’t go into the kind of detail I went into the first two volumes.  What I intend to do is to break the book into numerous sections, each dealing with some different phase of my life or some different person who affected me, and follow it as far as necessary-to the very present, if need be.

Instead of following a strict chronology and describing the life as it was lived, Asimov presents 166 vignettes of varying length.  Sure, the first few stories are about his upbringing and his parents, but isn’t this a logical place to start for anyone seeking to tell their story?  It’s also fitting that the last few vignettes describe his struggle to remain healthy and to work in the face of increasing infirmity.  (The illness was far worse than the public understood, of course.  Asimov had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during a 1983 heart bypass operation.)

What are we, Asimov suggests with his structure, but the sum of the people we have loved and the passions we have fostered?  In the 90th section, Asimov describes how much he loves the busywork of creating indexes for his books.  In the 104th section, he pays tribute to Judy-Lynn del Rey, a friend who died very young.  A hundred pages later, he recounts the vacations he took at a favorite resort and how he came to have a science fiction magazine named for him.

I. Asimov benefits from the variety granted by the book’s form.  If you don’t want to read about the fear of travel that kept Asimov largely bound to the Northeast, no worries.  Just skip a few pages and read about his friendship with Hugh Downs.  Not interested in Hugh Downs?  Turn the page and read about how it felt to discover one of his books had become a best-seller.

The book takes on a stream-of-consciousness feel because of its structure.  In a way, you feel as though you are sitting down with Isaac, having a beer.  (Well, he would have a coffee or something because he was a teetotaler for most of his life.)  If you could still chat up Asimov, he would only tell you the parts of his life that he felt were most interesting, an effect that is maintained in the book.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider the use of connected vignettes to eliminate dead weight.  Have you ever been trapped at a party with the most boringest guy in the world?  You ask him about his day, and he says, “Well, I woke up and I needed to get out of bed so I rotated my body ninety degrees and put my feet on the floor.  But I did so slowly because I wasn’t sure how cold the floor was.  But the floor wasn’t cold.  I put my full weight on my feet and walked to the bathroom, alternating steps between my right foot and my left foot.  I had to take a shower, so I started the water, making sure there I turned the left-hand spigot to make the water warm enough…”  Vignettes let you get to the important part!
  • Consider the use of connected vignettes to simulate the feel of a conversation.  Let’s say you could have dinner with Thomas Jefferson.  You would want TJ to do the same thing Asimov did: tell you interesting stories that span the whole of his lifetime.  Not only would he focus on some of the more interesting stories, but you would also gain insight into the man’s mind based upon what he tells you and when.

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