Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner

The dot and the line

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Dots

Take a blank piece of paper and put a dot in the center. It’s the single most basic creative act imaginable—aside from deliberately presenting the viewer with an empty page, which is a different sort of statement—and it lies at the beginning of any work of art. Even the most complicated drawing or story is essentially an assemblage of dots or individual units, and in most media, the process can’t help but be sequential: you start with one unit, then add another, and even in works that unfold more rapidly in the author’s mind and hand, in theory, you could see each dot falling into place in sequence if you could slow the tape down far enough. And looking at that single dot reminds us of how much meaning and information can be packed into the simplest of artistic gestures. As Christopher Alexander notes in The Nature of Order, with the addition of a dot:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

When we add a second dot, another dimension is created. With it comes the possibility of direction and relationship: two dots imply a line, although the way in which it runs remains unclear. No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story. Two dots or words set side by side convey a meaning, as subtle as it might be, greater than the sum of the constituent parts, and much of the resultant power comes from that invisible line. In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

Halftone

And when we add a third dot, we get something even more powerful. Instead of a line, we have a triangle, with all the possible variation it implies. This last leap—assuming that we’re confining ourselves to the two-dimensional page—is arguably the most profound, and any advances we make with a fourth or fifth dot are only incremental, and may even detract from the composition as greater complexity is introduced. This is why the rule of three is so central to all forms of storytelling: it’s the minimum number of elements required to convey shape, whether spatial or temporal, and if we’re convinced that simplicity matters, it’s not surprising that a story with three acts can seem more organic and satisfying than one with four or five. (This isn’t necessarily true, of course, but it’s worth noting that units of narrative often fall into odd numbers, probably because it preserves the idea, initially present in the number three, of a center. As Milan Kundera says: “I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape. All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven.”)

It might seem like an empty exercise to reduce the creative process to such simple components, but it’s one that every artist should do from time to time, whether the unit in question is a dot, a word, or a musical note. As we grow more sophisticated in craft, we tend to think of our works in terms of their larger structures: many writers approach a story on the level of the paragraph, for instance, just as chess players see the board in chunks of pieces. Yet it’s important not to lose sight of the meaning implied in our most basic choices and juxtapositions. If there’s one characteristic that the greatest creative geniuses have in common, from Beethoven to James Joyce, it’s an uncanny ability to drill down into individual units while keeping the overall shape of the work in mind. That kind of intimate engagement with each piece is, necessarily, invisible: most artists would prefer that the dots and words fuse or blur together when the work is finally experienced, leaving an impression of a coherent whole. And emphasizing the parts over the whole can turn into another kind of indulgence, the kind that John Gardner called frigidity. But neglecting those pieces carries a risk of its own. And we often end up with a more beautiful work once we take a few dots away.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2014 at 9:38 am

“Wolfe entered the visitors’ room…”

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"Wolfe entered the visitors' room..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Given the recent lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven” and its alleged similarities to “Taurus” by Spirit, there’s been a lot of talk online about where homage—or a common artistic language and tradition—shades into plagiarism. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s clear that Jimmy Page, for all his talents, crossed the line on more than one occasion, and that he profited handsomely by borrowing uncredited ideas from artists who died poor and neglected.) Writers frequently steal from one another, just as they cull images and stories from the world around them, and in most cases, it’s all part of the process of bricolage, the endless gleaning of material that occupies much of an author’s time. Creativity, as I’ve said frequently before, is about combinations, and artistic genius often has more to do with finding unexpected connections between existing components than inventing something new altogether, although the two often go hand in hand. Shakespeare, for one, was a master of uniting disparate stories gleaned from his wide reading into a surprising whole, and a play like The Merchant of Venice is practically a collage of appropriated material, assembled into a strange new animal by juxtaposition and the animating force of the playwright’s imagination.

We see the same principle at work today, perhaps more so than ever, given the range of potential sources that artists have at their disposal. Years ago, I read a critic—I can’t remember who—who argued that Quentin Tarantino’s truest precursor was Joseph Cornell, and while it’s hard to imagine two less similar temperaments, the comparison is a clever one. Tarantino is our most inspired collagist, and like Cornell, his combinations are an expression of a peculiar view of life. For Cornell, it was about finding beauty while excavating and combining the most unlikely of objects, and for Tarantino, it’s both a kind of cultural salvage mission and a metaphor for how he sees the world. Tarantino’s films are loaded with coincidences, cruel ironies, and tricks that the universe plays on its characters, all of which are just another word for fate. That sense of multiple protagonists jostling one another for room, and of one plot segueing abruptly into another before the previous story has had time to conclude, is inseparable from his view of filmmaking as a pileup of influences, and it’s hard to see which tendency came first. The result may seem chaotic, but it’s all of a piece, and that sense of a larger vision behind it is a big part of what separates Tarantino from his imitators.

"Ezekiel is among the exiles in Babylon..."

I’ve always approached The Icon Thief and its sequels as collages, with their elements thrown together as coherently as I can manage, and sometimes the sources show. In City of Exiles, for instance, there’s a major plot thread in which a female FBI agent consults a prisoner for help in tracking down another killer, and as at least one reviewer has pointed out, this sounds a lot like The Silence of the Lambs. I was fully aware of the parallels as I was writing it, as well as of the fact that a law enforcement officer turning to an imprisoned criminal for insight has become a cliché of its own. And no surprise: it’s a nifty little device, and like many tropes that thrive over time, it’s a way of injecting a touch of suspense into scenes of exposition. (Much of the last season of Hannibal has been devoted to ringing as many variations on that theme as possible, and a lot of the fun comes from noticing how blatantly it refers to its own predecessors, including Jonathan Demme’s movie.) As with most things in fiction, familiar elements can work just fine if invigorated by context and specificity, and if I’ve done my job, the scenes between Wolfe and Ilya will work both as part of the story and as a nod to Harris. Or, as John Gardner speaks of an homage to Edgar Allan Poe in The Art of Fiction: “The reader both sees the image in his mind…and sees Poe grinning and waving from the wings.”

Still, if I was going to use this device at all, I wanted to combine it with something else, which is why Chapter 31 also includes the first major introduction of the theme of Ezekiel’s vision, a motif that will recur periodically until the end of the novel. I’m aware that some readers feel that this material seems tacked on, but in fact, it predates much of the plot: I’ve wanted to write a novel about the merkabah for years, and such elements as my interpretation of the tragedy at the Dyatlov Pass and the ultimate nature of Karvonen’s mission were designed as solutions to mysteries for which the vision would provide the clues. It also serves the immediate needs of the story by giving Wolfe a way into Ilya’s head. The one thing Wolfe and Ilya—who otherwise might be the least similar characters in the entire series—have in common is a fascination with scripture and its interpretation, even as they approach it from radically different directions, as a Mormon and a Russian Jew. As usual, when I created these characters, I had no idea that they’d end up spending so much time together, and if their backgrounds make for a nice fit, it’s because they both emerged from my own interest in how we read texts, religious and otherwise. And when all your characters are aspects of yourself, they’ll often have surprising things to tell each other…

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

“Ilya kept an eye on the building…”

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"Ilya kept an eye on the building..."

Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If you ever happen to walk past 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, you’ll see what looks at first like an ordinary Greek Revival townhouse, painted to blend in with the buildings on either side. When you study it more closely, however, you’ll see that the windows are blacked out, and if you try the front door, it appears that there’s nobody home. In fact, the entire house is a fake—it’s a combination elevator and ventilation shaft for the subway, disguised as an ordinary brownstone. (You’ll see similar structures in London and Paris, the latter of which Umberto Eco discusses at length in Foucault’s Pendulum, which is where I first encountered the concept.) These vents exist solely for a utilitarian purpose, but for the sake of the neighborhood, they’ve been constructed to pass at first glance for buildings like any other. And although these hidden entrances to the underworld are fascinating in themselves, I’ve also come to think of them as an analogy for a certain kind of writing, which is equally concerned with keeping the ductwork of the story safely out of sight.

It’s possible, if you like, to think of the chapters in a novel as a series of houses lined up on a city street. Each one may be very different on the inside, and their exteriors have small peculiarities of design that are visible to a practiced eye, but for the most part, they have the same general size, shape, and proportions. Still, the initial impression can be misleading. Some chapters are intended as important edifices in their own right, or as places where the reader can move in and linger for a time; others are there purely to fill a functional role in the story, to prop up a plot point or relieve narrative pressure from the novel’s depths. (I don’t think it’s an accident that television writers refer to expository scenes or dialogue as “laying pipe.”) The trick, of course, is to make each chapter seem like an important destination in itself, even if it’s really there for structural or practical reasons. And one of the less glamorous parts of writing a novel consists of detailing and furnishing these interstitial chapters so the reader will think of them as something besides mere infrastructure—or, even better, not think of them at all.

"From somewhere to his left came a scream..."

In practice, these chapters can give a writer more trouble than any other. A scene that is inherently dramatic only asks the author to fully realize its potential; one that exists solely to get the characters from one place to another has to be dressed with just as much care, if not more. The best solution, obviously, is to cut this kind of transitional material whenever you can, but that isn’t always an option. In that case, the writer needs to tackle the scene as if it were crucially important on its own terms, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Chapter 15 of City of Exiles provides a good example of a chapter that exists primarily for structural reasons, although I’d like to think this isn’t immediately apparent. It’s here mostly to serve as a bridge between two sequences: Ilya has obtained information about Karvonen’s next target, but before I can bring him to the following stage, I need to give the reader a sense of his plans and action in the meantime. (I also need to set up the next chapter, in which Ilya visits the bookstore that Wolfe and Asthana have been watching.) The scene itself is a quiet one, with Ilya staking out the office building where the target is likely to appear, but if I cut it, the crucial string of chapters that follow will seem undermotivated. I did what I could, then, to at least make it readable: I used the structure of the stakeout itself to give it a clear shape, invested it with as much incidental detail—most of it gathered on location—as I could manage, and tried to give Ilya some interesting things to think about. Whether or not the reader notices any of this is beside the point; my only real goal is to keep the momentum going for a few pages, convey the information that the story requires, and move on. In the end, if nothing else, the pipes have been laid. And they’re about to take us to much more interesting places…

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2014 at 9:50 am

A writer’s vocabulary

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The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

A few days ago, I took an online quiz designed to test your vocabulary. You start by ticking off a list of words of varying difficulty whose definitions you think you know, from “midget” to “inveigle,” and then work your way through a series of more exotic creatures: “tenebrous,” “portmanteau,” “embonpoint,” “terpsichorean.” (Note that the entire test is conducted according to the honor system, and there’s no way of verifying whether you only think you know what a word really means.) I ended up ranking somewhere in the ninetieth percentile, which is pretty good, but with the following caveats: 1. English is the only language I know well. 2. I studied Latin and Greek in college, and even though I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, it gives me a definite edge for words like “hypnopompic” and “uxoricide.” 3. I write for a living, which means that the English language is the equivalent of my professional vocabulary. When you factor in the technical terms and phrases acquired in the course of learning any complicated trade, the working language of a doctor or engineer is probably just as large, and arguably more useful.

In fact, for most writers, a large vocabulary can be as much of a hindrance as a help. For every author like Cormac McCarthy, who rightly takes enormous pleasure in digging up obscure, vivid, evocative words, there are a dozen others who would be better off restricting themselves to the words on the first page of that test. A writer who sprinkles the page with the likes of “terpsichorean” had better have a sensational ear; otherwise, it’s a mark of frigidity, of showing off in tangential ways at the expense of the flow of the narrative. Which doesn’t imply that a writer doesn’t need an extensive vocabulary, or that he needs to avoid words that might send readers to a dictionary—it only means that he needs to exercise discretion and good taste when it comes to bringing it into play. And it’s impossible to make those kinds of judgment calls without an extensive storehouse of uncommon words at your disposal, which allows you to drill down into the nether regions of the language on the few occasions when it’s really necessary. For a writer, having a big vocabulary is a little like knowing karate: you learn it so that you’ll never need to use it.

Illustration from the Golden Book Animal Dictionary

So what words does a writer need to know? Nouns and verbs, above all, and particularly the proper names of everyday objects: furniture, clothing, architectural elements, plants and trees, body parts, modes of transport, and whatever technical vocabulary the story requires. For a thriller writer, this means the routine jargon of law enforcement and forensics; in fantasy, the names of weapons and armor; in science fiction, the language of physics, biology, and any number of other fields, used only when necessary to clarify the action. In practice, I find myself consulting the dictionary less often than reference works like The Ultimate Visual Dictionary; The English Duden, with its lovingly detailed and annotated illustrations of everything from factory floors to barbershops; and The AIA Guide to New York City and other locations, a wonderful source of descriptive material for real places and buildings. Again, though, the point isn’t to interrupt the narrative for a lengthy digression on architecture, but to know that the information is there, available if you need it, even while it remains safely in the background in the meantime.

In general, however, the only real solution is to read and write endlessly, and to treat words both as valuable possessions in their own right and as means to a larger view of the world. John Gardner’s advice here, which is brilliant, is to go page by page through the dictionary, making a list of all the common words that you don’t use on a regular basis, which not only extends your lexical range but broadens the universe of actions and situations that you can readily describe. I’ve never gone quite as far as this—like most writers, I actively add words to my vocabulary only according to the demands of a particular project—but I probably should. A big vocabulary is useful to the extent that it encourages you to see things, both in the world around you and your own imagination, that only become visible once you know their names. And this implies that in the long run, the best way to expand your vocabulary is to broaden the range of written experiences you’re trying to evoke. Whenever you write about a subject or way of life you haven’t explored before, you’ll find yourself seeking out the words that the action itself demands—and once you’ve acquired the words you need to tell the story you have in mind, they become a part of you forever.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2014 at 9:27 am

“Powell studied his father…”

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"Powell studied his father..."

Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 12. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Critics, as we all know, have a way of reading meaning into a literary work that the author didn’t realize was there. This tendency covers everything from the crackpots who find ciphers in the works of Shakespeare to serious scholarly analysis, and when a writer comes forward to say that none of the symbolism or themes his critics have uncovered were intentional, we’re likely to take him at his word. The author himself should know his own work best, after all, and it’s likely that many would echo the opinion of the philosopher Frank Cioffi, writing about Freudian dream analysis, who dismisses it an activity similar to “whatever Pyramidologists are doing when they discover allusions to mathematical and scientific truths in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid”—in other words, finding or imposing meaning where none exists. Yet the truth is a little more complicated. Theme, in particular, is a tricky beast, and it has a tendency to manifest itself in ways that even the author can’t anticipate. And when it comes to teasing out the inward meaning of a story, it often happens that the actual writer, who is personally tied up with the text to a greater extent than any reader, is less than capable of seeing the novel as it stands in its own right.

In fact, novels have a lot in common with dreams. When John Gardner talks about the “continuous fictional dream” of fiction, he’s primarily speaking about its effect on its readers, but it also applies to the author himself, who dreams his way into events and characters that never really happened. Colin Wilson takes the connection one step further, speculating that writers and mystics draw on a common intuitive, dreamlike mode of insight, which he called Faculty X. And you don’t need to push the analogy further than common sense would require to find it useful. Every writer knows how it feels to introduce an image or detail on impulse, just because it felt right, only to find later that it fits perfectly into a larger symbolic pattern of which he was only dimly aware. There’s nothing mystical about this: it only reflects how a novel evolves on the largest level in parallel to the smallest, with each piece in constant feedback with every other, and how it all ultimately emerges from the inner life of the author at the time. Much, probably most, is wholly conscious. But the inherent complexity of the writing process means that there will also be emergent properties in the text that the author couldn’t have anticipated when he began.

"A bronze sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky..."

And just because these aspects weren’t intentional doesn’t mean they aren’t important, or can’t be a source of meaning. In psychotherapy, dream analysis is less important for the symbolism it uncovers from any particular dream than for the ongoing role it plays in the dialogue between the therapist and the patient—it’s one of many available paths toward insight. The same is true of an author who goes back to reread his own work after a sufficient length of time has passed. Even if he didn’t mean to introduce certain themes or effects, if he notices them there after the fact, it can shed new light on a novel that he thought he knew by heart. When I go back to read City of Exiles, for instance, which is a novel I finished close to two years ago, I’m struck by how it returns repeatedly to themes of parents and their adult children. Part of this was intentional: as I’ve noted before, I wanted to expand the emotional scope of the story so that the characters weren’t as isolated as before. I gave Wolfe a few scenes on the phone with her mother, and here, in Chapter 12, I introduce the figure of Powell’s father, briefly mentioned in The Icon Thief, who suffers from dementia in old age. That much, at least, was deliberate.

When I read Chapter 12 again now, though, I find that this scene—which on the surface feels like a detour from the rest of the novel— encapsulates the rest of the story in miniature. Powell’s father, we learn, was an analyst at Thames House, which is my veiled way of referring to MI5, and his obsession with Russia went a long way toward shaping his son’s career. Now, however, his mind and personality are a shadow of what they once were, and Powell is reduced to looking through his father’s notes and files, which become increasingly disorganized near the end, to find clues to the mystery that he’s trying to solve. He does this in his father’s study, which was once a forbidden area, surrounded by images from the Soviet era: Russian encyclopedias, many of them censored or incomplete, and a miniature sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Chekist secret police. It’s a mirror, in other words, of the journey that Ilya takes later in the novel, faced with his own surrogate father, Vasylenko, now transformed into a much more sinister figure, but who knows that secrets that Ilya needs to discover. None these parallels were conscious at the time; now, they feel glaringly obvious, even a little schematic. I could say that I didn’t mean it, but that doesn’t make it any less real. The dream has a logic of its own…

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2014 at 9:34 am

How to repeat yourself

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John Gardner

Writers are generally advised not to repeat themselves. After I’ve finished the rough draft of a story, one of my first orders of business is to go back through the manuscript and fix any passages where I’ve inadvertently repeated the same word in the same sentence, or within a short run of text. Knowing how often you can use a word is a matter of taste and intuition. Some words are so common as to be invisible to the reader, so you can, and should, use the word “said” exclusively throughout a story, even as dialogue can usually be varied in other ways. Other words or phrases are so striking that they can’t be used more than once or twice in the course of an entire novel, and I’ll sometimes catch myself maintaining a running count of how often I’ve used a word like “unaccountable.” Then there are the words that fall somewhere in the middle, where they’re useful enough to crop up on a regular basis but catch the reader’s eye to an extent that they shouldn’t be overused. Different writers fall back on different sets of words, and in my case, they tend to be verbs of cognition, like “realized,” or a handful of adverbs that I use entirely too often, like, well, “entirely.”

Whenever I’m sifting through the story like this, part of me wonders whether a reader would even notice. Some of these repetitions jar my ear to a greater extent than they would for someone reading the story more casually: I’ve often revisited these pages something like fifty times, and I’m acutely aware of the shape of each sentence. (Overfamiliarity can have its pitfalls as well, of course: I’m sometimes shocked to discover a glaring repetition in a sentence that I’ve read over and over until I can no longer really see it.) But I encounter this issue often enough in other authors’ books that I know it isn’t just me. Catching an inadvertent repetition in a novel, as when Cormac McCarthy speaks twice in Blood Meridian of something being “footed” to its reflection, has the same effect as an unintentional rhyme: it pulls you momentarily out of the story, wondering if the writer meant to repeat the same word or if he, or his editor, fell asleep at the switch. And a particularly sensitive eye can pick up on repetitions or tics that even an attentive reader might miss. In his otherwise fawning study U & I,  Nicholson Baker complains about John Updike’s overuse of the verb “seemed,” which even I, a massive Updike fan, hadn’t noticed until Baker pointed it out.

Nicholson Baker

But repetitions can also be a source of insight, especially when you’re coming to grips with an earlier draft. A writer can learn a lot from the words he habitually overuses. If you find yourself falling back on melodramatic adverbs like “suddenly,” you might want to rethink the tone you’re taking—it’s possible that you’re trying to drum up excitement in a story that lacks inherent dramatic interest. My own overuse of verbs like “realized” might indicate that I’m spending too much time showing characters thinking through a situation, rather than conveying character through action. You can learn even more from longer phrases that reappear by accident. As John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction, discussing a hypothetical story about Helen of Troy:

Reading…lines he has known by heart for weeks, [the writer] discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery: The brooch Helen threw at Menelaus the writer has described, he discovers, with the same phrase he used in describing, much later, the seal on the message for help being sent to the Trojans’ allies. Why? he wonders. Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And the comparison to dreaming is a shrewd one. “Repetitions are magic keys,” Umberto Eco writes in Foucault’s Pendulum, and although he’s talking about something rather different—a string of sentences randomly generated by a computer—there’s a common element here. When you write a first draft, you’re operating by instinct: you accept the first words that come to mind, rather than laboriously revising the text, because you’re working in a mode closer to the events of the story itself. At its best, it’s something like a dream, and the words we select have a lot in common with the unmediated nature of dream imagery or word association in psychoanalysis. Later, we’ll smooth and polish the surface of the prose, and most of these little infelicities will be ironed away, but it doesn’t hurt to look at them first with the eye of an analyst, or a critic, to see what they reveal. This doesn’t excuse us from falling back on the same hackneyed words or phrases, and it doesn’t help a writer who thinks entirely in clichés. But it’s in our slips or mistakes, as Freud knew, that we unconsciously reveal ourselves. Mistakes need to be fixed and repetitions minimized, but it’s still useful to take a moment to ask what they really mean.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

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