Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category
One of the most difficult truths that we all have to face sooner or later is that every human life tends to take the same shape. When we’re young, we’re all convinced that we’re exceptional, and that our lives will be qualitatively different from the ones we see around us. Eventually, though, we come to recognize that as unique or unusual we may be in other ways, when you stand back, every life is strikingly similar in its overall structure, however much it may differ in the particulars. We all tend to pass through the same phases at roughly the same intervals, and that’s as true in our thirties, forties, and beyond as it was when we were children. It’s a realization that has inspired some fascinating academic research—notably the work examined in the classic book The Seasons of a Man’s Life and the epic Grant Study of men from Harvard and Boston—and some great works of art, from John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom to Michael Apted’s Up series and the trilogy of films by Richard Linklater recently crowned by Before Midnight. And although the process may not be more any striking for writers than it is for anyone else, we’re certainly more likely to muse and obsess about it in print.
Recently, I was talking this over with a friend of mine who is also a writer around my own age. We bonded over the fact that we’re both trying to figure out a balance between work, life, and family, and that all of these elements tend to reach a period of peak intensity, inconveniently, at around the same time. Like most writers, we spent our twenties learning the craft and slowly building up a body of work, published or not, until we finally began to see the results of our efforts. At the same time, we’ve gotten married and settled down after years of moving from one city to another, and are either starting families or preparing to do so. And these aspects of life don’t always comfortably coexist. As a writer, I’ve reached a curious point where I’m the only one responsible for my own success or failure: I’m surrounded by people who are dying to see me do good work, and if I don’t achieve the goals I’ve set for myself, it’s solely because I haven’t been able to live up to those expectations. Under other circumstances, this would be a time at which I’d be focusing on writing to the exclusion of all else. As usual, though, the reality is a little more complicated.
But that’s also probably how it should be. Last year, Lev Grossman, the senior book critic at Time and author of the novel The Magicians, posted an essay on writing and fatherhood that I’ve thought about frequently since. Here’s the money quote:
I personally needed to have kids to become the person and the writer I wanted to be. This is not a universal thing; I’m not recommending having children as a writing tip. I think it only applies to people who even as adults are the emotional equivalent of frozen cavemen, and who need somebody to thaw them out and seriously kick the shit out of them, emotionally speaking, before they have any idea who they are or what they’re doing. I was one of those people. Having children did that for me…
I bitch and moan a lot about how I’m always changing diapers and giving baths and making school lunches and strapping and unstrapping little people into and out of car seats while I could be writing books…But it’s also true that I never wrote a book I was proud of till I had children.
And while I wouldn’t quite put myself into the frozen caveman category, I absolutely agree that it’s only by going through the radical changes brought about by life’s major transitions that a writer can grow, both as an artist and as a human being. I may not write as much or as quickly as I once did, and it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out a mode of living that brings both sides of my life into balance. But that’s what it means to enter a new phase: we don’t evolve into something new as much as we have it happen to us, whether we’re ready or not, and it’s up to us to become the sort of person who can integrate all these conflicting pieces into a harmonious whole—or at least to come close enough to it on a daily basis to remain reasonably sane and happy. The result, whatever form it takes, can’t help but be good for craft, which consists in its own way of an endless series of rebalancings, compromises, and improvisations. Like everything else in life, it takes time, flexibility, and a willingness to accept the things we can’t change. And if we’re lucky, when the next phase arrives, we’ll be ready for whatever it brings.
I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth a number of times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that Norton Juster’s fantasy contains the most moving passage I’ve read in any modern novel. Shortly before leaving the kingdom of Dictionopolis on his quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, our young hero Milo has the following exchange with King Azaz the Unabridged, who has just been asked who will accompany Milo on his journey:
“A very good question,” replied the king. “But there is one far more serious problem.”
“What is it?” asked Milo, who was rather unhappy at the turn the conversation had taken.
“I’m afraid I can only tell you when you return,” cried the king, clapping his hands three times.
After many adventures, Milo and his friends arrive in the realm of Digitopolis, where they have a similar exchange with Azaz’s brother, the Mathemagician:
“But there is one problem even more serious than that,” he whispered ominously.
“What is it?” gasped Milo, who was not sure he really wanted to know.
“I’m afraid I can tell you only when you return. Come along,” said the Mathemagician, “and I’ll show you the way.”
Finally, at the very end of the novel, after Milo has returned in triumph from the Castle in the Air, he finally learns the truth:
“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”
“I remember,” Milo said eagerly. “Tell me now.”
“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
“Do you mean—” stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
And for the remainder of the ride Milo didn’t utter a sound.
In a book that’s as full of wisdom as any I know, this may be its wisest and most mysterious moment, and it never fails to choke me up a little. Like most aspects of The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s something that can be hard to appreciate until you’ve grown up and had a chance to absorb some of its lessons on your own. Anyone who decides to pursue a life in art—or any urgent but impractical dream—does so in defiance of all the odds. As I’ve mentioned before, a writer needs to be irrationally optimistic to believe that he or she can succeed where so many others have failed: no matter how detached or objective you try to be in other aspects of craft, you wouldn’t be taking this risk at all if you didn’t believe, deep down, that somehow you were the exception to the rule, despite all early evidence to the contrary. As Paul Graham has pointed out, young people have an advantage here, because they don’t know how impossible their goals are:
One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing.
But really, it doesn’t have anything to do with age. There was a point in my life—heck, it might have been earlier this morning—when I was convinced that I wanted nothing more than certainty: a guarantee, or at least a preponderance of evidence, that the stories I wrote would be read. Even now, though, I’m not sure that will ever be the case. There’s still a decent chance that the next story I submit to Analog will be rejected, or that the novel I’m currently revising without a contract in hand will never see the light of day. On an even more basic level, there’s always the fear that I’ll wake up one morning and find myself unable to write at all, despite the fact that I’ve done so nearly every day for years. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing more impossible than the idea that a writer can start with a blank page and turn it into something that other people will want to buy and read. Even if it’s not precisely impossible, it’s still exceedingly unlikely, and that essential implausibility of the writing life is something that never goes away. And if I’ve managed to come even this far, it’s because I’ve learned to forget how impossible it really is.
We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art, yours and mine, what we are talking about—and the only way to know is to have lived and loved and cursed and floundered and enjoyed and suffered. I think I don’t regret a single “excess” of my responsive youth—I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.
One of the great satisfactions of my life over the last few years has been the chance to write and publish more short fiction. I began submitting stories to Analog mostly because I thought seeing my work there would be inherently cool, and I never thought it would attract much attention. (It certainly wasn’t for the money. As I’ve mentioned before, from a financial point of view, writing short stories is a losing proposition, and Stephen King breaks down the numbers even more amusingly in the introduction to his classic collection Skeleton Crew.) Over time, though, as I began to rack up a few more sales, I noticed something funny: people began to remember who I was. In fact, I’d say that if a casual reader recognizes my name now, it’s more likely because of my short fiction than my novels, at least judging from the reaction that I’ve seen online.
This is just a roundabout way of saying that I was incredibly pleased to see my name on the cover of the September issue of Analog, which includes my novelette “The Whale God” as its lead story. You can even read an excerpt here, along with what may be the kindest thing anyone has yet said in public about my work in any medium:
Alec Nevala-Lee provides our lead story for September, and it’s just the sort of thing he’s proving to be a master of: a tale set in an atypical location, with science fiction that arrives from an unexpected direction.
That more or less sums up the kind of story I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I first started watching The X-Files. And I don’t take it for granted. Every sale still feels like a gift, and if anything, it only makes me try harder. Right now, I’m working on a new story, and the pressure is on to make it as good as I possibly can—because what I’ve discovered, much to my surprise, is that somebody might actually read it.
“The Whale God” is available now in the September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, for sale online and at bookstores and newsstands everywhere. I’ll also be writing more about the origins of the story sometime in the next few weeks.
On Saturday, I participated in a panel at the Printers Row Lit Fest on “The Lure of Noir,” moderated by the journalist and mystery writer Robert Goldsborough. I had a great time and really enjoyed meeting my fellow panelists, the authors Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, and Libby Fischer Hellmann. (My wife and daughter were also there, although the latter chose to grow fussy at the exact moment the panel began, so they missed most of the discussion.) As always, the panel gave me a lot to think about, and I particularly enjoyed the questions at the end, one of which allowed me to go on at length about my love for The Third Man. The most interesting question, though, was one for which I didn’t have a ready answer. In essence, the question was this: as an author, how do you come back to yourself after writing in such detail about human evil? My intuitive response, which I gave, was that it’s actually much easier to write about evil than good, and I tend to struggle much more with the latter. Even as I said this, though, I found myself wondering why.
My favorite example from my own work is the novel City of Exiles, which was partially conceived as a confrontation between two moral extremes. On the one hand, you have Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, whom I deliberately designed to be as amoral and chilling a figure as possible: if the novel as a whole, as I’ve mentioned before, was something of an attempt to construct a thriller from first principles, I tried to do much the same thing with the central villain. Karvonen kills without remorse, usually on contract or to protect himself, and also because he’s simply good at it. And in laying out his backstory and inner life, I quietly incorporated many of the signs of a textbook sociopath, including setting fires and cruelty to animals. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Thomas Harris mentions “sadism to animals as a child” as one of Hannibal Lecter’s signs of sociopathy in Red Dragon, only to never mention it again in any of the sequels, probably because it didn’t work well for a character who increasingly became the hero of his own series. You can show your antihero committing murder with impunity, but the reader won’t forgive him if he hurts a cat.)
The result was a character who was paradoxically a real pleasure to write: in fact, I don’t think any other character has ever made such an easy transition from my head to the page. This wasn’t the case for Karonven’s opponent, Rachel Wolfe, who I’d conceived to be as principled and ethical as Karvonen was vicious. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Wolfe was raised as a devout Mormon—a detail that I introduced almost at random in The Icon Thief—and although she’s starting to question aspects of her faith as the story begins, it still informs many of her life choices. She doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she starts every day with a prayer. These days, Mormonism is often used as a cultural punchline, so part of the challenge was to create a character who was unironically heroic, straightlaced, and admirable, and to have all these aspects of her personality arise from the same place. I think I succeeded, and Wolfe is one of my own favorite characters, but it took a long time to get it right. If Karvonen arose fully formed in the first draft, Wolfe was more the product of countless small revisions and adjustments until she began to resemble the ideal figure I’d imagined.
When I look back it now, though, I can see that it wasn’t Wolfe’s Mormonism that made her hard to write, but the fact that she was a stronger, more ethical person than I was. Norman Mailer, following Hemingway, has written about the difficulties involved in creating characters who are better than the author himself. In his candid, probing essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Mailer notes:
I had a horror of creating a voice which could be in any way bigger than myself…I was now creating a man who was bigger and stronger than me, and the more my new style succeeded, the more I was writing an implicit portrait of myself as well.
That’s been my experience, too. Ultimately, evil is easier to write because it only asks us to magnify our own worst qualities. I don’t think I have many sociopathic tendencies, but like every writer, I’ve had my share of petty, vindictive feelings, and there’s something clarifying and therapeutic about working them out in a fictional setting: if nothing else, I can take comfort in the fact that I’m not really much like Karvonen at all. With Wolfe, by contrast, I’m implicitly writing about my own limitations. I don’t have her integrity or sense of duty, as much as I wish I did. That, in a nutshell, is why writing about good is so hard: it’s easier to write honestly about the moral traps we’ve avoided—perhaps because of our own caution or timidity—than the higher standards we’re unable to meet. But as difficult as it may be, we still need to do both.
Today, I’m starting the rough draft of a new novelette that I’ve been brainstorming and researching for the last week and a half. As usual, I’ve begun by putting together a detailed outline of the entire story, and as tends to happen, it’s almost ludicrously comprehensive: the current version runs to about 7,000 words for a story that I expect to top out, after revision and cutting, at 10,000 words or so. I’ve justified this approach in the past by arguing that an outline like this is really more of a stealth first draft, allowing me to work out issues of plot and character without worrying about details of language and expression. And in approaching the writing process in this way, I’m unconsciously following the good advice of David Mamet:
As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.
All the same, I sometimes look at the outlines I write and wonder if they consume more of the process than they really should, and I’m occasionally reminded of Borges’s parable about the map of the empire that was the size of the empire itself.
Really, though, a detailed outline isn’t a map or a blueprint—it’s a prototype. Over the last month, I’ve been reading Jesse Schell’s appealing book The Art of Game Design, inspired by the fact that some of my most meaningful recent insights into structure and narrative have come from video games. Schell spends a long chapter discussing the importance of prototyping and testing, which he sums up as The Rule of the Loop: “The more times you test and improve your design, the better your game will be.” The problem, at least when you’re operating under a deadline, is that it’s hard to build and test a full working version of a complex system like a game—or a novel—more than a handful of times. And the solution is to start with a very rough model that addresses potential problems without troubling itself too much about quality. Schell advises game designers to employ the spiral model of software development, as conceived by the engineer Barry Boehm:
- Come up with a basic design.
- Figure out the greatest risks in your design.
- Build prototypes that mitigate those risks.
- Test the prototypes.
- Come up with a more detailed design based on what you have learned.
- Return to step 2.
On its face, this isn’t so different from what most writers do: we start with a rough draft that we know isn’t going to be pretty, read it over to get a sense of the major issues, then take it through iterations of revision and editing until it starts to resemble the story we hoped to create—or takes a different, more surprising shape altogether. What’s worth remembering, though, is how rough that initial prototype can be. As Schell points out, when you’re designing a video game, you can make a version on paper to test the basic mechanics of the premise: you can cut Tetris pieces out of cardboard and slide them down a paper screen, or use graph paper to map out a level of a first-person shooter like Doom, pushing around cutout monsters while a player moves and attacks. It’s crude, and it can’t be mistaken for a finished game, but that’s part of the point: the rougher it is, the more likely you’ll see fundamental problems that a more polished version might have misled you into overlooking.
Which brings us back to the outline. The outlines I write are rough, ugly versions of entire stories, or of large sections of a novel, and reading them over before I start the day’s work allows me to think about the story on a relatively high level: I’ll often print it out and make changes by hand to fix things like transitions, the order of scenes, and anything that doesn’t seem clear or logical, which is much more efficient than confronting these problems after I’ve already begun the draft. Later, of course, there will be issues I can’t address directly until some version of the story itself has been written, but it’s rare that I’ll get that far only to find that some major element of the narrative is untenable, as occasionally happened in the old days. The result is a fast version of the loop that Schell describes, and it allows me to pack a greater number of iterations into the limited time that I have. An outline that approaches the length of the story itself may seem excessive, and it does consume a disproportionate amount of the process. But in the long run, it saves me a lot of trouble.
When I was young I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame. Now that I am getting old my first book is written to amuse children. For aside from my evident inability to do anything “great,” I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession; but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.
At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
—John Keats, in a letter to George and Thomas Keats
Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities of a little program called Scrivener. It’s a word processer expressly designed for writers, and I’ve been hearing more and more about it on writing forums: it sometimes seems as if every aspiring novelist or screenwriter has a copy, and most of the reviews are raves. Along with such alluring toys as a virtual corkboard, an integrated outlining system, automatic backups, and a character name generator, it offers what looks like a useful way of organizing notes and research. Instead of keeping your materials in a bunch of widely scattered files, as I tend to do, Scrivener allows you to access them more easily by storing them in a virtual, searchable binder. It also lends itself to nonlinear approaches: instead of starting at the beginning and working your way through to the end, you can attack scenes individually and easily move them from place to place. To all appearances, it’s a thoughtful, intelligently conceived piece of software, and at the moment, it’s on sale at Amazon for only $40.
Yet I’m slightly hesitant. This isn’t because I doubt that Scrivener would save me a lot of time: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it would make my process considerably more efficient. At the moment, for instance, I’m working on an idea for a new short story, and I’m finding it challenging to keep all the pieces straight. I have a hardbound notebook in which I record my initial thoughts, which I jot down as they occur to me. Once I have a sense of the plot and subject matter, I’ll start to do some research, both online and in print. Usually this means creating text files where I can type notes as I read, but for a longer article, I’ll often want to mark it up on paper. Yesterday, for example, I copied and pasted a number of useful blog posts into Word, printed it out, and read it with pen in hand—and today I plan to retranscribe most of these notes back into a text file, where they’ll be more readily available. Using a program like Scrivener would save me at least one step, probably two, and allow me to do all of this considerably faster.
But here’s the thing: I need the process to be slightly inefficient, because it’s in those moments of downtime, when I’m transcribing notes or doing basic housekeeping to make sure that everything I need is in one place, that the story starts to come together. The most beautiful description I’ve seen of this phenomenon comes from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, as he describes the editor Walter Murch at work on an old flatbed editing machine:
The few moments [Murch] had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.
I also suspect that Murch was the “sly and crafty guy”—identified only as “Francis Ford Coppola’s mixer”—quoted in an interview with Michael Hawley, one of the developers of SoundDroid, in Programmers at Work:
Don’t forget that five minutes of rewind time is never dead time. If you are a good mixer you are always planning out the gestures and effects you’re going to be making, you’re mentally going through the process to help put down a coherent five minutes of performance. With your machine, you have lost that thinking time.
In other words, a program like Scrivener bears an analogous relationship to more conventional forms of word processing—including the humble typewriter and pen—as Final Cut Pro does to traditional editing machines. And as useful as the new software can be, there’s always a price. That doesn’t mean that we should avoid all such changes: Murch, after all, eventually switched to computer-based editing, and I have a feeling that I’m going to start using Scrivener more seriously one of these days. But we always need to remain conscious of the potential cost, building elements of silence, consolidation, and randomness into our own routine to preserve what might otherwise be lost. If we don’t, I suspect that we’ll give up more than we gain, and if this turns out to be the cost of working more efficiently, I can only reply, to quote another famous scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”
Ideas are poison. The more you reason, the less you create.
As I’ve noted on this blog many times before, good ideas are cheap. Today, I’d like to make the case that they’re also dangerous, at least when it comes to bringing a story to its full realization. And I say this as someone who has a lot of good ideas. Nearly every novel or short story I’ve written hinges on a clever twist, some of them better than others. (I’m still pleased by the twist in “Kawataro,” and wish I’d done a slightly better job with the one in “The Voices.”) It’s partly for this reason that I tend to focus on suspense and science fiction, which are genres in which conceptual ingenuity is disproportionately rewarded. In some cases, as in many locked-room mysteries and the kind of hard science fiction we find in my beloved Analog, the idea or twist is all there is, and I’m probably not alone in occasionally saving time by skipping ahead to the surprise at once, without having to sit through all the bother of plot or characterization.
Which isn’t to say that a dynamite idea is always a bad thing. A story like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” for instance, turns almost entirely on the revelation in its final sentence, but that doesn’t make the rest of it any less satisfying—although it also doesn’t hurt that the story itself is relatively short. The real mistake is to assume that the creative process hinges on the idea. As I mentioned in my recent post on Shakespeare, a story’s premise is often the least interesting thing about it: nearly every idea has been done before, and the more it lends itself to being expressed in a single knockout sentence, the more likely someone else has written it already. As a result, an artist who commits himself to the cult of the idea, rather than its execution and elaboration, will eventually start to seem desperate, which goes a long way toward explaining the curious downward arc of a man like M. Night Shyamalan, a director with a sensational eye and considerable talent long since betrayed by his ideas.
It should come as no surprise, then, that good ideas can be the most dangerous, since they’re inherently seductive. A writer with a great original idea is more likely to overlook problems of plot, structure, or language, when a merely decent idea that demands flawless execution may ultimately result in a more satisfying story. I’ve said before that a writer is best advised to start out from a position of neutrality toward his own material, and to allow his passion to flow from the process, and I still think that’s good advice. I’ve learned to be very suspicious of ideas that grab me at once, knowing that it’s going to be hard for me to remain objective. And I’ve found that sustained detachment, which allows me to evaluate each link of the chain on its own merits, is much more valuable than an early rush of excitement. Otherwise, I run the risk of turning into the producer described by David Mamet in On Directing Film, who “sees all ideas as equal and his own as first among them, for no reason other than he has thought of it.”
And the more talented the writer, the greater the risk. All writers have their moments of cleverness and ingenuity; the labor of turning a bad sentence into a good one is the sort of work that encourages the development of all kinds of tricks, and a writer who knows how to get published consistently can only get there with a lot of shrewdness. It’s worth remembering, then, that there are two sides to craft. The word evokes a set of proven tools, but it also carries a negative connotation: when we describe a person as “crafty,” that isn’t necessarily a compliment. The real point of craft is to cultivate the ability to treat all premises as fundamentally equal, and which rise or fall based only on how honestly the author follows through. It treats the best premise in the world as if it were the worst, or at least as if it required the same amount of time and effort to reach its full realization—which it does. It’s the author, not the idea, that makes the difference. And it’s frightening how often a great idea can turn a good writer into a bad one.
Last week, the website Brain Pickings posted some observations on the art of writing from Samuel R. Delany, the legendary author of Dhalgren and other classic works of speculative fiction. I haven’t read much Delany, but his track record is one that any writer could envy, and the article gave me a lot to think about. Delany begins by drawing a distinction between good writing and talented writing. The former might best be understood as writing grounded in the principles of Strunk and White: it’s clear, unambiguous, mindful of such matters as structure and pacing, and skilled enough to understand the virtue of simplicity. The latter is harder to define. Delany writes: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully—that good writing, that stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.” He goes on to list some of the attributes of talent, which include the ability to articulate sensations and insights that we’ve all experienced but never been able to verbalize on our own. And I was especially taken with this observation:
If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.
This struck a chord with me, because I’ve often asked myself to what extent it would be possible to redeem a bad story by simple application of the technical rules I’ve found consistently useful. Cut the first draft by at least ten percent, start the action as late in the story as possible, trim beginnings and endings of scenes, overlap moments of transition, structure the plot as a series of clear objectives: these are all tricks that can be employed more or less mechanically once the raw material is in place. (A few of these tools, especially the last one, are more useful when implemented during the planning stages, but you can also get away with it later in the process, especially if you’re willing to fake it a little.) And although I haven’t tried it myself—unless you count the hard work of turning one of my own rough drafts into a readable story—I’d like to believe that I’ve acquired enough technical proficiency to take a bad story and transform it, as Delany notes, into something clear, simple, and logical, or what Stephen Sondheim might call “a proper song.”
The question is whether this is enough. Delany goes so far as to say that good writing “produces most bad fiction,” and while it’s a little unclear what he means by this, it’s best understood as referring to bad published fiction. Bad fiction that doesn’t even rise to the level of good writing is likely to remain unseen, but we’ve all seen published fiction that hits the necessary marks while remaining otherwise forgettable. And Delany is right when he implies that this is a real risk for otherwise capable writers. When we visualize the arc of writer’s progress, most of us like to think of it as a slow, steady ascent from one level of skill to the next. In reality, though, it looks more like the phase change diagram I’ve posted above: as the writer gains heat, once he learns the basics, he’ll go through a dizzying period in which he seems to get better with every story. At a certain point, though, usually after he’s figured out the rules to his own satisfaction, he enters a kind of holding pattern, and he continues to produce fiction that bubbles along on the same level without breaking into the next.
This is where merely good writing runs the risk of becoming a trap. Delany isn’t that far here from Norman Mailer, who compared craft to the cask of brandy under the neck of a St. Bernard that rescues the writer when he wanders too far into the wilderness. I’ve noted before that craft, with its purely technical solutions to problems, can prevent a writer from fully engaging with the implications of his own material, when he might have been forced to deal with it more honestly without the safety net that good writing provides. And as essential as they are, it’s all too easy to settle for the virtues of clarity and logic, which are challenging enough for most aspiring writers. The real question is what causes the jump from good writing to talented writing, and unfortunately, the point at which each phase ascends to the next level isn’t nearly as clear as it is in physics. But if the analogy I’ve used here works at all, there are two big lessons: 1. Most of us need to pass through one phase to get to the next. 2. You can’t turn down the heat, even, or especially, when you think you’re bubbling along quite nicely.
I love coffee. Over the past decade or two, I’ve alternated between seeing it as an occasional treat and regarding it as essential to survival, and at the moment, I’d rank it among one of life’s basic necessities. I’m drinking a cup of it right now, seated a few feet away from the proximate cause of my recent decision to fully embrace caffeine. Every morning, usually between five and six, I’m awakened by a series of coos and squeals from the next room, signaling that my daughter—now five months old—has decided to start her day. If it’s the weekend, I pick her up, change her, and bring her downstairs to the kitchen, which, like the rest of the house, is silent and peaceful in the predawn light coming through the windows facing the yard. After I set her down in her little chair, the first thing I do is boil a kettle of water. Green tea, which for a long time was my beverage of choice, just won’t do. I need something stronger, preferably with cream and sugar, as I set up my laptop on the dining room table and start to contemplate the morning’s work. With my first cup in hand, my head clears and I start to write. And I’m happy.
It’s possible that much of what we think of as modern civilization we owe to coffee, which arrived on the European scene just when it was needed the most. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives us nice a sense of the mystique of coffee at the beginning of the seventeenth century:
The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine) so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bitter…which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend so much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our ale-houses or taverns; and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion, and procureth alacrity.
This description, which Burton based on the travel notes of the poet Sir George Sandys, remains as true as ever: the primary reason we drink coffee is still to “procure alacrity.” The introduction of coffee into European society created a third place, a social gathering point for ideas to be traded, and it kept us sober during the day for long enough to transact business. Later, it provided necessary fuel for the Industrial Revolution: as Mark Pendergrast observes in his book Uncommon Grounds, early factory workers quickly learned to subsist on coffee and bread, which only shows us how little has changed over the ensuing three centuries.
And it’s possible that coffee also affected the creativity of the culture in more profound ways. J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, wrote a curious little book called My Lady Nicotine, in which he notes that the flowering of culture in the age of Shakespeare coincided with the introduction of tobacco:
The Elizabethan age might be better named the beginning of the smoking era. No unprejudiced person who has given thought to the subject can question the propriety of dividing our history into two periods—the pre-smoking and the smoking…I know, I feel, that with the introduction of tobacco England woke up from a long sleep. Suddenly a new zest had been given to life. The glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto only concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into their mouths and became philosophers.
You could say much the same thing about coffee, which turned people into what the pharmacologist Louis Lewin, quoted by Pendergrast, calls “coffee house politicians who drink cup after cup…and by this abuse are inspired to profound wisdom.” Lewin calls the symptoms of caffeine usage “a remarkable loquaciousness sometimes accompanied by accelerated association of ideas,” which sounds about right to me. (It’s also true that the effects of caffeine in such settings are hard to separate from those of nicotine. Pendergrast quotes a contemporary observer of the London coffeehouse: “The whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.”)
And writers and artists of all kinds—who quickly turned coffee into an essential component of the bohemian life—have long been aware of how deeply coffee affects us, both creatively and in smaller, more human ways. As one of them writes:
Everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop…Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.
I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything—social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.
The former quote is from Balzac; the latter, from Jerry Seinfeld. And it’s my lady caffeine who joins them—and all of us—together, as we enjoy one of the most profound pleasures that life has to offer.
I work in the morning. I sit comfortably in an armchair, opposite my secretary. Luckily, although she’s intelligent, she knows nothing about literature and can’t judge whether what I write is good or worthless. I speak slowly, as I’m talking to you, and she takes it down. I let characters and symbols emerge from me, as if I were dreaming. I always use what remains of my dreams of the night before. Dreams are reality at its most profound, and what you invent is truth because invention, by its nature, can’t be a lie. Writers who try to prove something are unattractive to me, because there is nothing to prove and everything to imagine. So I let words and images emerge from within. If you do that, you might prove something in the process.
A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.
Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.
As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.
Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.
And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.
I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.
This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.
We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.
On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.