Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

The perfection of imperfection

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Dejan Stojanović

We love the dangerous cliffs of mountains, winding roads and rivers; jagged canyons and waterfalls seem most beautiful. We love the shadow of a cloud obstructing the sun and watch both the cloud and its cheerful shadow. There is something perfect to be found in the imperfect: the law keeps balance through the juxtaposition of beauty, which gains perfection through nurtured imperfection. Everything that looks too perfect is not perfect: it is too perfect to be perfect—real perfection is not too obvious; it requires effort while riding over the winding roads and flying to the clear sky to find the shadow of a cloud that was alive not long ago. That’s why we love the imperfect shapes in nature and in the works of art, look for an intentional error as a sign of the golden key and sincerity found in true mastery.

Dejan Stojanović

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2014 at 9:00 am

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The colorist’s challenge

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John Ruskin

You may, in the time which other vocations leave at your disposal, produce finished, beautiful, and masterly drawings in light and shade. But to color well, requires your life. It cannot be done cheaper. The difficulty of doing right is increased—not twofold nor threefold, but a thousandfold, and more—by the addition of color to your work. For the chances are more than a thousand to one against your being right both in form and color with a given touch: it is difficult enough to be right in form, if you attend to that only; but when you have to attend, at the same moment, to a much more subtle thing than the form, the difficulty is strangely increased,—and multiplied almost to infinity by this great fact, that, while form is absolute, so that you can say at the moment you draw any line that it is either right or wrong, color is wholly relative. Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch that you add in other places; so that what was warm a minute ago, becomes cold when you have put a hotter color in another place, and what was in harmony when you left it, becomes discordant as you set other colors beside it; so that every touch must be laid, not with a view to its effect at the time, but with a view to its effect in futurity, the result upon it of all that is afterwards to be done being previously considered. You may easily understand that, this being so, nothing but the devotion of life, and great genius besides, can make a colorist.

John Ruskin

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

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Erase and rewind

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The Cardigans

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your personal one-hit wonder?”

More than most other kinds of art, pop music feels like a numbers game. Each year, thousands of new tracks are released, many by unknown artists, and they percolate up through the ether, dropping one by one, until the survivor emerges as the song of the summer. Nowadays, it all feels downright Darwinian: record labels and radio stations may still serve as gatekeepers, and occasionally we’ll all end up with a copy of the same album whether we like it or not, but there are more ways for independent music to reach us than ever before. In practice, though, it turns into a long tail distribution, with a handful of outliers overwhelming the countless songs at the unlucky end, which might as well not even exist. To a greater or lesser extent, that’s true of all media: if you’re trying to make it in any industry, you naturally tend to measure yourself against the artists you know, forgetting that they’re all drawn from the highly skewed sample set of the names you’ve heard in the first place. Everyone else is invisible, until, suddenly, one of them isn’t.

In music, the process can seem especially ruthless, simply because the scale involved is so vast. Even in these days of easier access to production and distribution, there seem to be limits on how many new books, movies, or television shows the world can absorb, but a song can be streamed, judged, and forgotten within minutes, and it’s still impossible for even a professional critic to hear more than a fraction of what’s available. When a song invades the popular consciousness, or even your own brain, it can seem both inevitable and inexplicable. Music of all kinds operates within stark limits, and most big singles these days sound more or less alike, probably because they pass through the laptops of the same handful of superstar producers. Yet within those constraints, a world of variation is still possible, and a song that survives long enough to be heard by anyone is by definition an exceptional result, with the delta-qs, as Pynchon puts it in the story of Byron the immortal light bulb, lining up just right.

Jason Derulo

That’s why we associate the one-hit wonder more with music than with anything else. It seems intuitively unlikely that an author could produce a great novel by accident and be left with nothing else to say, but with music, an artist—or, more accurately, the sum of all artists—is actively collaborating with statistics. A hit single can seem like a fluke because it probably is; if it differs from hundreds of similar songs released the same year, it’s in indefinable ways that the artist himself often has trouble replicating. This isn’t for lack of opportunity: if you make it high enough on the Billboard charts, you’re usually granted another shot. It’s at that point, though, that regression to the mean extracts its revenge. If an artist’s followup single is almost always viewed as a disappointment, it’s only because we’re measuring it against an outlier of outliers. But even if it achieves a measure of commercial success, or leads to a lasting career, for a lot of listeners, it can’t have the same power as the song that grabbed us in the first place.

And repeating that kind of impact over time is rare enough that a lot of listeners, like me, ultimately give up on trying to be completists. There was a time when I thought that I had to listen to everything a band or artist produced before I could express an opinion on their work, or name one of their songs as a favorite; now, I’m content to endlessly replay a song like “Erase/Rewind” without feeling as if I need to be familiar with the complete works of the Cardigans. It also frees you from potentially embarrassing investments of time. I’m not necessarily ashamed of the fact that I’ve probably listened to Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say” more than any other single of the last five years, but I’m a little relieved that I don’t feel obliged to check out everything else he’s done. I’ve learned to be grateful for three minutes of diversion without taking on the burden of fandom. That may not be fair to the artists involved, and it’s more of a reflection of the way I listen to music in my thirties than how I might have approached it ten years ago. But I still hold out hope that somewhere, someday, I’ll hear at least one more song that will change my life.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2014 at 10:10 am

Quote of the Day

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Edgard Varese

There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is a consequence of this interaction. Possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals.

Edgard Varèse

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“He knew that he had waited too long…”

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"He knew that he had waited too long..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 48. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the trickiest aspects of writing a story, especially when you’re working within a familiar genre, is the management of nuance. Nuance, in general, is a good thing in fiction: life itself is nothing if not composed of ambiguities, and we tend to judge authors by how well they reproduce those subtleties and unknowns. Yet clarity also counts, and much of the revision process is spent trying to trike a balance between an accurate representation of the world’s uncertainties and the clean line of narrative that a readable novel demands. Nuance, in itself, can amount to a stylistic device: its homely details and smoothly rendered contradictions become a way of concealing how schematic the story really is. A mystery novel, for instance, is a sort of confidence game, an intricately designed puzzle that pretends to be an organic sequence of events. The dead ends and red herrings that the author builds into the story are as calculated as anything else, and the result only works if the sleight of hand remains invisible.

This can also apply to character, in even more insidious ways. Fiction rests on its ability to create the illusion that names on a page are real men and women, even as they occupy roles within the overall picture. Too much emphasis on one side of the equation can throw off the entire story, so writers find ways of sustaining fiction’s simulation of reality while simultaneously advancing the plot. This is why fiction places so much weight on motivation, which can be a fiction in itself. One of the few points on which most professional writers can agree is the importance of a clear sequence of objectives: as both David Mamet and Kurt Vonnegut have said, at any given point in the story, it should be fairly obvious what the protagonist wants and how he or she intends to get it. In real life, we don’t always know why we do things, and while some writers have devoted their careers to evoking that kind of ambivalence, in practice, fiction demands a little more clarity than strict psychological accuracy would allow. And much of the challenge of creating compelling characters lies in figuring out how much nuance is enough.

"You want to cut my hair?"

In many cases, it’s the story itself that provides essential clues. We’re usually told that characters should shape the plot, rather than the other way around, but in fact, it’s both permissible and desirable to have the line of influence run both ways. None of us exist in isolation from the world around us; our personalities aren’t cleanly demarcated, but blur into our interactions with others and the situations in which we find ourselves. A decision that might seem perfectly logical and considered at the time later turns out to have been shaped by outside forces of which we’re only dimly aware, and it’s only in retrospect that we start to see how we were part of a larger pattern. The ongoing dialogue between character and story reproduces this in miniature. Character only has meaning in the fabric of the narrative within which it’s embedded, and the needs of the plot can provide crucial, and surprisingly nuanced, information about behavior—often in ways that would never occur to the author if he were creating a character without any context.

In City of Exiles, for example, Lasse Karvonen is as close to a classic villain as any I’ve written. He’s a sociopath with all of the usual warning signs—including pyromania and cruelty to animals as a child—and most of his actions arise from a cold, nearly inhuman pragmatism. Yet he has one big weakness: his sentimentality toward his home country of Finland. At this point, it’s been long enough since I wrote the novel that I don’t really remember if I introduced this trait with an eye to how it would pay off later on, but toward the end of the story, it creates his first real internal conflict, as he struggles over whether to obey an order from above by eliminating his Finnish accomplice. For the most part, it seemed best to render Karvonen in shades of black and white; this is such a complicated story that it needed a storybook villain to drive the action. But I found that giving him a moment of hesitation in Chapter 48, as he decides whether or not to kill the young woman who has given him her trust, paid off on multiple levels, which is always a sign that you’re on the right track. And perhaps it’s not surprising that such a late change of heart ultimately leads to his downfall…

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2014 at 10:05 am

Quote of the Day

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George Crumb

A system of proportions in the service of a spiritual impulse.

George Crumb, on music

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The great teachers

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schwiebert

In his recent New Yorker review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, Nathan Heller offers up a piece of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me fifteen years ago:

The best advice I ever got in college came from the freshman-year adviser to whom I had been assigned…I had come into her office with a dog-eared copy of the catalogue. I thought that maybe I would take a class on Keats? And physics? My adviser, who taught history, shook her head. “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.”

I’m not sure if I ever articulated this principle to myself as clearly as it’s stated here, but a fumbling version of it guided many—though not most—of my choices in college. I was able to audit courses from the likes of Cornel West and Stephen Jay Gould, and when it came time to select a major, I was guided primarily by the idea that I should spend my time in a department that was ranked among the best of its kind, which is how I ended up in classics. But if I have one regret about how I spent those four years, it’s that I didn’t follow this tip more systematically. There were a lot of great classes that I could have attended but didn’t, and I won’t have a chance again.

Fortunately, though, the scope of this advice isn’t confined to college. When I look at my own bookshelves, I get the sense that I’ve been unconsciously following this model all along, at least when it comes to the authors I read. There’s a wild array of titles and subjects here, and I picked up many of these books on little more than a lucky hunch. What unifies most of them, though, is the aura they radiate of lives spent in pursuit of difficult intellectual goals, and the ability to convey them in ways that shed light onto unexpected corners. It’s why Edward O. Wilson’s books on ants share space with the work of statistician and graphic designer Edward Tufte, and why I keep The Plan of St. Gall a few shelves away from books by or about Colin Fletcher, George Saintsbury, Pauline Kael, Roger Penrose, Kimon Nicolaides, and Saul Bass, along with such otherwise inexplicable titles as Chinese Calligraphy and Ship Models: How to Build Them. These books don’t have a lot in common except for the fact that they’re all the work of great teachers, and I’ve found that it’s best to follow them wherever they decide to go, without worrying too much about the subject.

Edward O. Wilson

Recently, for instance, I’ve become interested in the work of Ernest Schwiebert, a legendary author among fly fishermen who remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. I’ve never been fishing in my life, but after encountering Schwiebert—thanks, as with so many other books that have changed my life, to a glowing mention in The Whole Earth Catalog—I’ve started to think of him as a mentor and kindred spirit. Angling is an appealing sport, even from the confines of an armchair, because of the multitude of skills and states of mind it requires, and there are times when I feel that Schwiebert, who was a Princeton-trained architect and author by trade, is really talking about something else:

Its skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge. It also combines the primordial rhythms of the stalk with the chesslike puzzles of fly-hatches and fishing, echoing the blood rituals of the hunt without demanding the kill.

Take out the reference to physical dexterity and grace, and you have a pretty good description of how it feels to write a novel, which requires a constantly shifting balance between intellectual precision, brute force, intuition, and luck. And this is ultimately true of any craft, which goes a long way toward explaining why I find myself reading books on urban planning, coding, theater, animation, and other subjects that have only a tangential connection to what I do for a living. At one time, I thought I was looking for particular insights from other fields that would turn me into a better writer, but that isn’t necessarily true; the challenges that writing presents are so specific that approaches from other disciplines are useful primarily as metaphors. What really matters, I’ve found, is spending time in the company of great teachers and craftsmen. Those qualities of temperament—curiosity, diligence, an embrace of serendipity combined with ruthless pragmatism—remain constant across all forms of workmanship or expression. And even after college, we can find role models and examples in all the best teachers, regardless of their areas of expertise, as long as we’re willing to seek them out.

Written by nevalalee

September 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

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