Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

The painter’s process

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Hiram Williams

The good painter also understands the creative process. He expects the following pattern to be commonplace: a mulling over of ideas; a gestation of these ideas over a period of days, months, or years; the reappearance of the idea from the lower reaches of his mind; the attempt to embody the idea, now fully formed, through the medium; the finding of his intention (what idea plus the medium looks like); the visualization of his intention, which is his statement—the finished painting. Some persons call this “self-expression.”

It is to be noted that a painting is not arrived at straight on by simple transference of idea from mind to canvas. The painting is achieved obliquely through an encounter, a kind of dialogue with the medium and surface while the painter is trying to pin down the idea.

The painter “trying to pin down the idea” uses materials, and out of the struggle with and through these materials the picture comes to be finally resolved. The struggle is intense and at times extremely painful.

Hiram Williams, Notes for a Young Painter

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2014 at 7:30 am

The two circles of tension

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Mary Wigman

Creative ability belongs to the sphere of reality as much as to the realm of fantasy. And there are always two currents, two circles of tension, which magnetically attract one another, flash up and oscillate together until, completely attuned, they penetrate one another: on the one hand, the creative readiness which evokes the image; on the other hand, the will to act whipped up to a point of obsession, that will which takes possession of the image and transforms its yet fleeting matter into malleable working substance in order to give it its final form in the crucible of molding.

Mary Wigman

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in Theater

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A musician’s day

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Erik Satie

An artist must regulate his life. Here is my precise daily schedule. I rise at 7:18, am inspired from 10:30 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14. A healthy horseback ride on my property from 1:19 to 2:35. Another round of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:07. From 5:00 to 6:47 various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, swimming, etc.). Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20. Afterwards from 8:09 to 9:59 symphonic readings out loud. I got to bed regularly at 10:37. Once a week I wake up at 3:14 a.m. (Tuesdays).

Erik Satie

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

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Frank Lloyd Wright on music and architecture

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Frank Lloyd Wright

Music and architecture blossom on the same stem—sublimated mathematics. Mathematics as presented by geometry. Instead of the musician’s systematic staff and intervals, the architect has a modular system as a framework of design. My father, a preacher and music teacher, taught me to see—to listen—to a symphony as an edifice of sound. All my lifetime I have listened to Beethoven—especially—as the master architect of all time: the most profound student of Nature known—one whose inspired imaginative resource is beyond comparison. I am grateful to music and to him for genuine refreshment in architecture—my field of creative endeavor. Dissonance will take care of itself.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“The greatest and most terrible sight…”

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"Feeling the ground shake..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 45. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the dangers of writing any kind of fiction, literary or mainstream, is how quickly the story can start to exist within a closed circle of assumptions. The rules of a genre aren’t a bad thing: as I’ve noted elsewhere, they’re essentially a collection of best practices, tricks and techniques that have accumulated over time through the efforts of countless writers. A trick that survives is one that has repeatedly proven itself, and much of the pleasure of reading comes from watching as the author honors, subverts, or pushes against the constraints that the narrative imposes. The trouble is when a story moves so far from the real world that its characters cease to exhibit recognizable human behavior, as its internal rules become ever more strict and artificial. A show like The Vampire Diaries, for instance, takes a surprisingly casual approach to murder, with the average episode boasting a body count in the high single digits, and the reaction to each additional death amounts to a shrug and a search for a shovel. Within the confines of the show, it works, but the second we start to measure it against any kind of reality, it comes precariously close to collapsing.

That’s true of literary fiction as well. Even great authors operate within limits when it comes to the kinds of situations and characters they can comfortably depict. In Genius and Lust, Norman Mailer draws a memorable comparison between the tonal ranges of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller:

The cruelest criticism ever delivered of Henry James is that he had a style so hermetic his pen would have been paralyzed if one of his characters had ever entered a town house, removed his hat, and found crap on his head (a matter, parenthetically, of small moment to Tolstoy let us say, or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal). Hemingway would have been bothered more than he liked. Miller would have loved it.

The more closely we read certain writers or genres, the more we see how much they stick to their particular circles. Sometimes that circle is determined by what the author can talk about through firsthand experience; sometimes it’s the result of a genre enforcing an unstated decorum, a set of rules about what can and can’t be said.

"The greatest and most terrible sight..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, these rules can lead to a suspension of emotion, at least of certain kinds. A murder mystery never shows much regret over the fate of the departed; it’s too busy moving on to a trail of clues to waste any time in mourning. Suspense works along similar lines. Sometimes a pivotal death will serve to motivate an ensuing course of action, but along the way, the bodies tend to pile up without much in the way of consequence. I wouldn’t say that my own novels take this as far as The Vampire Diaries, but when I look back on The Icon Thief and its sequels, there are times when I get a little uneasy with the way in which the plot advances on moments of casual violence. (On a much higher level, you can hear some of the same ambivalence in Francis Coppola’s voice when he talks about The Godfather, and by the time he gets to The Godfather Part III, he seems outright weary at having to supply the hits and kills that the audience has come to expect.) There’s a mechanical pleasure to be had in seeing a story run fluently through those conventions, but when you step briefly outside, you start to see how limited a picture of the world it really presents.

That’s why I’m particularly proud of Chapter 45 of City of Exiles. It’s a short chapter, as short, in fact, as I could make it, and my agent even suggested that it be cut. I’m glad I kept it, though, because it represents one of the few points in the entire series when we pull away from the primary characters and depict an event from an outside perspective. In it, I introduce a character named Ivan, fishing on the ice with his dog, who happens to witness the crash of Chigorin’s private plane. In some ways, my decision to cut away here was a pragmatic one: none of the passengers is in any condition to directly experience what happens, and there’s a world of difference, in any case, between describing a plane crash from the inside and showing how it appears on the ground. On a more subtle level, I wanted to depart from the closed circle of the novel to reinforce the horror of the moment, even if it’s described as clinically as everything else. Objectively speaking, City of Exiles is a violent book, and there are times when the faces of the victims start to blur together. Here, for once, I wanted to suggest how it would feel to a man who didn’t know he was part of the story. Ivan won’t be coming back again, but it was important, if only for a moment, to see through his eyes…

Quote of the Day

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Albert Einstein and Arthur Eddington

The mathematics is not there till we put it there.

Arthur Eddington

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The oilman’s divorce, or the problem of luck

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Harold Hamm

Money may not be everything, but it’s certainly a clarifying force, especially when seventeen billion dollars are on the line. Right now, the news is filled with coverage of what may end up being the most expensive divorce in the history of the world, a courtroom battle currently being waged between Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm and his wife Sue Ann. This kind of story possesses a certain guilty fascination of its own—if Ms. Hamm gets even a quarter of her husband’s fortune, she’ll be richer than Oprah—but it also raises some unexpected philosophical questions. At the moment, Hamm is claiming that his stake in Continental Resources, the company he founded almost five decades ago, was built entirely on luck, since the discovery of oil deposits depends on so many factors that are fundamentally beyond human control. Ms. Hamm, by contrast, says that it was all thanks to her husband’s skill and hard work. Which leaves us with the odd prospect of one of the world’s wealthiest men disclaiming all responsibility for his own success, while his soon-to-be ex-wife insists that he isn’t giving himself enough credit.

Of course, it isn’t hard to see why they’d stake out their particular positions. Under laws governing equitable division, assets that were actively earned over the course of the marriage are split between the two parties, while passive assets, or those in which chance played a role, remain undivided. The underlying presumption is that a marriage is a partnership in which both parties collectively participate, and the work of one can’t be separated from the presence of the other—an argument that breaks down when luck is involved. If Sue Ann can successfully argue that Harold’s fortune was derived from his own efforts, she’s entitled to up to half of everything; if Harold makes the case that it’s due to luck, he clings to the lion’s share. In the end, it’s likely that the decision will fall somewhere in the middle, and I’m very curious to hear Judge Howard Haralson’s final ruling on the subject. Because while Harold Hamm is clearly pressing his case beyond what he really believes about his own abilities—”He must be squirming inside,” as a psychologist notes in the NBC News story—he isn’t entirely wrong. And it took only a multibillion-dollar divorce suit for him to admit it.

Daniel Kahneman

We all tend to underrate the role that luck plays in human endeavor, whether successful or otherwise, especially when we’ve done well for ourselves. The truth is probably closer to what Daniel Kahneman sets forth in Thinking, Fast and Slow, using what he says is his favorite equation:

Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

That’s particularly true of something like oil and gas, which remains a punishingly uncertain industry even with modern geological and technological expertise. There’s a reason why more than a few wildcatters used divining rods to locate petroleum deposits: even with considerable skill and experience, a lot of it comes down to luck, persistence, and time. David Mamet likes to say that everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, except that some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. And wildcatting, along with so much else, works much the same way.

So while it’s easy to dismiss Hamm’s argument as disingenuous—his success in building one of the largest energy companies in the country can’t be entirely divorced from his own actions and decisions—I’d prefer to think of it as a moment of rare candor, however little he might believe in it himself. As John Bogle likes to point out, choosing an investment fund manager based on past performance is a little like staking money on the winner of a coin-flipping contest: given enough participants, someone is bound to get ten heads in a row, but that doesn’t mean you should bet on the streak in the future. That’s as true of running a company as managing a mutual fund. What seems like a smart decision may really have been a lucky break, and it’s only in retrospect, as we construct a narrative to make sense of what happened, that we emerge with the myth of the business visionary. If Kahneman’s formula holds true, as it does in most things in life, Harold Hamm might well be entitled to keep most of what he earned. Admitting this would involve giving up many of our most cherished notions about success. But with seventeen billion dollars at stake, even one of the richest men in the world might have to concede that it’s better to be lucky than good.

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2014 at 8:58 am

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