Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘On Becoming a Novelist

The Sea Captain syndrome

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The Sea Captain on the Simpsons

The other day, after recounting the famous story that John Gardner tells about writer’s block in On Becoming a Novelist, I suggested that Gardner’s inability to figure out a small point of his story was really a reflection of deeper uncertainties. He sensed intuitively that he didn’t know the narrative or his characters well enough to move forward, so his mind seized on a tiny, seemingly trivial detail—the question of whether a certain woman would accept an hors d’oeuvre at a party—as a way of stalling the process, thus buying himself an extra week for unconscious reflection. The hors d’oeuvre didn’t matter in itself; it was only the excuse he needed for a necessary break. And this strikes me as being more generally true of writer’s block itself. I’ve talked about writer’s block here before, noting that the best way of dealing with it is by establishing a routine that fools the creative faculty into thinking that something useful is taking place, even if it isn’t. But it may be more accurate to think of writer’s block less as an impersonal scourge than as a condition tied inextricably to the conditions of writing itself, just as an illness can emerge from a breakdown in the body’s homeostasis.

What I’m proposing is that there are two opposing forces that play a role in any creative artist’s life: the urge to produce and the urge to postpone. Both sides are essential, and at their best, they work together. If we didn’t feel driven to get something down on paper, even on our worst days, we wouldn’t do much of anything at all: half of writing consists of meeting quotas or cranking out words when we’d rather be doing anything else. Left to itself, though, that inclination can lead to shoddy work, or, worse, a kind of deception that the writer imposes on both the reader and himself, as fake insight or emotion stands in for the real thing. Hence the importance of postponement—the ability to know when to pull back, or to wait for the second good idea. It’s a principle that governs everything from Walter Murch’s admonition that an artist should leave “a residue of unresolved problems for the next stage” to David Weinberger’s simpler motto “Include and postpone.” David Mamet notes somewhere that the first thing that occurs to the writer is often the first thing that occurs to the audience, too, so an author needs an internal mechanism in place that prevents him from going with a convenient idea simply because it exists.

The Sea Captain on The Simpsons

Under ideal circumstances, these two impulses exist in harmony, pushing against each other so that the writer oscillates between extremes of productivity and idleness. Average them out, and you’ve got a decent writing life. If either tendency starts to take control, however, it can cause real problems. We all know how it feels when the urge to postpone consumes everything else: we spend more time on research, or we suddenly feel the urgent need to reply to a few old emails, and it can leave us paralyzed with inactivity. Yet the urge to produce can be even more dangerous, precisely because it’s so seductive. I’m a pretty good writer; I’ve trained myself to crank out five hundred words in an hour on just about any subject, and I don’t lack for ideas for long. But when I look back at some of my old work, I can see that this kind of facility can be a trap in itself. Whenever I get notes on a draft, for instance, I immediately come up with five different ways of addressing each problem, but just because the answers come easily doesn’t mean they’re correct. And there are times when I’ve realized, in retrospect, that I would have been better off rejecting the first ideas that presented themselves and waiting for something better to come along.

That’s the greatest danger of writer’s block: it’s so painful that we’ll do anything we can to avoid it, even if it means falling into the opposite extreme. I sometimes think of it as Sea Captain syndrome, named after an exchange involving Captain McCallister on The Simpsons, as he presents a proposal to Mr. Burns:

McCallister: “I’ll need three ships and fifty stout men. We’ll sail ’round the Horn and return with spices and silk the lives of which ye have never seen.”
Mr. Burns (angrily): “We’re building a casino!”
McCallister: “Arrr…Can you give me five minutes?”

I’ve spent much of my writing life coming up with five-minute solutions to problems that really should have taken five days—or five weeks—to solve, and it’s been a liability as much as a strength. The healthier approach, which I’m still trying to master, is to regard productivity and postponement as complementary states, the warp and woof out of which the writing life is made. The former feels a lot better than the latter when you’re in the middle of it, but like all artificial highs, you pay for it in the end. Better, perhaps, to see writer’s block, rightly, as a necessary condition to creativity, even if it leaves us saying, as the Sea Captain does elsewhere: “Yarr…I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2014 at 8:35 am

Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre

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John Gardner

“I myself am stopped cold,” John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist, “when I cannot make out how a character would deal with the situation presented to him. If the situation presented is trivial, one’s perplexity can be maddening.” Gardner continues:

Once during the writing of Mickelsson’s Ghosts I found the novel’s heroine being offered an hors d’oeuvre, and I couldn’t tell whether she would accept it or not. I forced the issue, made her refuse it; but then I found myself stuck. It didn’t matter a particle which choice she made, but damned if I could move to the next sentence. “This is ridiculous,” I told myself, and tried a little gin—to no avail. It seemed to me now that I knew nothing about this woman; I wasn’t even sure she’d have come to the party in the first place. I wouldn’t have. Stupidest party in all of literature. I quit writing, put the manuscript away, and took out my frustration on woodworking tools, making furniture. A week or so later, in the middle of a hand-saw cut, I saw, as if in a vision, the woman taking the hors d’oeuvre. I still didn’t understand her, but I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.

This story has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, close to a decade ago, and it isn’t hard to see why. Every writer has had the experience of clocking along nicely on a novel or short story, only to be stopped cold by some absurdly tiny question or detail—which is really what we mean when we talk about writer’s block. It’s one thing to find yourself baffled by the big, overwhelming narrative issues at stake; the larger the problem, the more potential handholds it offers for grappling. With something like Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, you don’t know where to start, and a sentence that nearly any reader would pass over without particular notice starts to loom like the finger of Jehovah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (For what it’s worth, here’s the sentence that Gardner finally wrote, which occurs shortly after the midway point of the novel: “Hardly aware that his gloom was deepening, Mickelsson bulldozed the plate toward her, urging her to take an hors d’oeuvre. ‘Oh!’ she said, smiling brightly, and, lifting her hand from Blassenheim’s arm, wide eyes unblinking, carefully took the nearest on the plate.”)

Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner

These miniature crises can befall a writer countless times over the course of any career, and I suspect that Gardner, who was possibly the shrewdest writing teacher we’ve ever had, chose the hors d’oeuvre example because it’s almost comically insignificant. (There may be a buried pun, here, too: hors d’oeuvre literally means “apart from the main work”—the canapé that threatens to derail the whole entrée.) Looking at the situation from the outside, an objective observer could naturally suggest a number of possible approaches, exactly as they must have occurred to Gardner himself: you could write the sentence both ways and see how each version played, or simply cut out the interaction altogether and move on, or try a little more gin. But writer’s block has a logic of its own, and it feeds on itself in an exceptionally vicious way. When you’re stuck on an important point, you can at least take consolation in the fact that you’re tackling something that might have stumped Tolstoy or Flaubert; when you can’t bring a character to take an hors d’oeuvre, you feel that you have no business writing fiction at all. It all turns into a crisis of confidence, and it feels more depressing the more trifling the problem becomes.

Yet there’s something more subtle at work here. When he found that he simply couldn’t write the rest of the sentence, Gardner took a long break, and it wasn’t until he was absorbed in an unrelated manual task that the answer popped into his head—”as if in a vision.” The phenomenon he describes is a familiar one: insight often takes the form of a sudden intuition that appears after a long process of consolidation, occurring below the level of conscious thought, and it tends to emerge when we’re doing something else entirely. Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, then, was less important in itself than as a kind of signal that the story had to render a little longer. In all likelihood, his uneasiness with the story or this character had been simmering for some time, and it happened to crystalize at the moment the plate of hors d’oeuvres appeared, when it might easily have hit a sentence before or later. Stewing over this apparently insignificant problem bought him a week of reflection, and when the solution appeared, it brought the rest along with it: “I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.” Writer’s block is hell, but when we’re stuck on something small, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that it isn’t about the hors d’oeuvre at all, but the entire oeuvre.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2014 at 9:08 am

The way of the writer

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Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2012 at 9:50 am

Lessons from great (and not-so-great) television

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It can be hard for a writer to admit being influenced by television. In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner struck a disdainful note that hasn’t changed much since:

Much of the dialogue one encounters in student fiction, as well as plot, gesture, even setting, comes not from life but from life filtered through TV. Many student writers seem unable to tell their own most important stories—the death of a father, the first disillusionment in love—except in the molds and formulas of TV. One can spot the difference at once because TV is of necessity—given its commercial pressures—false to life.

In the nearly thirty years since Gardner wrote these words, the television landscape has changed dramatically, but it’s worth pointing out that much of what he says here is still true. The basic elements of fiction—emotion, character, theme, even plot—need to come from close observation of life, or even the most skillful novel will eventually ring false. That said, the structure of fiction, and the author’s understanding of the possibilities of the form, doesn’t need to come from life alone, and probably shouldn’t. To develop a sense of what fiction can do, a writer needs to pay close attention to all types of art, even the nonliterary kind. And over the past few decades, television has expanded the possibilities of narrative in ways that no writer can afford to ignore.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider a show like The Wire, which tells complex stories involving a vast range of characters, locations, and social issues in ways that aren’t possible in any other medium. The Simpsons, at least in its classic seasons, acquired a richness and velocity that continued to build for years, until it had populated a world that rivaled the real one for density and immediacy. (Like the rest of the Internet, I respond to most situations with a Simpsons quote.) And Mad Men continues to furnish a fictional world of astonishing detail and charm. World-building, it seems, is where television shines: in creating a long-form narrative that begins with a core group of characters and explores them for years, until they can come to seem as real as one’s own family and friends.

Which is why Glee can seem like such a disappointment. Perhaps because the musical is already the archest of genres, the show has always regarded its own medium with an air of detachment, as if the conventions of the after-school special or the high school sitcom were merely a sandbox in which the producers could play. On some level, this is fine: The Simpsons, among many other great shows, has fruitfully treated television as a place for narrative experimentation. But by turning its back on character continuity and refusing to follow any plot for more than a few episodes, Glee is abandoning many of the pleasures that narrative television can provide. Watching the show run out of ideas for its lead characters in less than two seasons simply serves as a reminder of how challenging this kind of storytelling can be.

Mad Men, by contrast, not only gives us characters who take on lives of their own, but consistently lives up to those characters in its acting, writing, and direction. (This is in stark contrast to Glee, where I sense that a lot of the real action is taking place in fanfic.) And its example has changed the way I write. My first novel tells a complicated story with a fairly controlled cast of characters, but Mad Men—in particular, the spellbinding convergence of plots in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”—reminded me of the possibilities of expansive casts, which allows characters to pair off and develop in unexpected ways. (The evolution of Christina Hendricks’s Joan from eye candy to second lead is only the most obvious example.) As a result, I’ve tried to cast a wider net with my second novel, using more characters and settings in the hopes that something unusual will arise. Television, strangely, has made me more ambitious. I’d like to think that even John Gardner would approve.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

Quote of the Day

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If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held onto your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.

—John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2010 at 6:04 am

For the novelist who has everything

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Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)

1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)

2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.

3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)

4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)

5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).

Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.

Quote of the Day

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Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

—John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2010 at 12:42 am

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