Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The poem you are writing

leave a comment »

We have gone back to thinking of poetry as something more than a bundle of techniques. Which is to say that we have gone back to emphasizing that there is something more to poetry than accomplishment…The literary career is sometimes a hideous notion. It brings out the worst in critics and reviewers. It develops cliques and antagonistic loyalties when what a poet most needs is to learn from that which most opposes him or her, most disturbs, most confronts…Good poems transcend these problems, and we find them. More to the point, the act of writing transcends everything for those of us who need to write. They can take away from you everything but this: the poems you have written, the poems you are writing.

Marvin Bell, “The Impure Every Time”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

When Del met Elron

leave a comment »

Last week, I posted a quote about the legendary acting teacher and performer Del Close, who is revered as one of the founders of modern improvisational comedy. (Close served as the “house metaphysician” for years on Saturday Night Live, and his students included John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Mike Meyers. He only rarely appeared on camera himself, but you might recognize him from a very peculiar cameo in one scene in The Untouchables, in which he plays the alderman who tries to bribe Eliot Ness.) While reading about his life, I also came across the interesting claim that Close had met L. Ron Hubbard sometime in the early fifties. As Kim Howard Johnson notes in the biography The Funniest One in the Room, Close was a science fiction fan in his teens in Kansas, reading such pulps as Startling Stories and making plans to publish his own fanzine, and his attention was caught by a noteworthy development in the genre: “During the summer of their sophomore year, Del introduced [a friend] to Dianetics, the book by then-science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, and Del led them in experiments in prebirth awareness.” There was nothing particularly unusual about this—dianetics was unquestionably the story of the year among fans, and a majority of readers were disposed to approach it favorably. Most teenagers in the midwest had to be content with observing the movement from a distance, but fate intervened, as Close recalled years later:

I immediately fell madly in love with [local actress Aneta Corsaut]…I was utterly enthralled with this young lady. I used to go down to Wichita—well, that’s where the bus went, then you get a bus from Wichita to Hutchinson, which is about thirty-five miles further on. That’s where I met L. Ron Hubbard, was visiting Aneta.

Hubbard had moved to Wichita at the invitation of his benefactor Don Purcell, a local real estate investor and businessman who had rescued him after the sudden implosions of the dianetics foundations in Los Angeles and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Close documented his visit to Hubbard, which seems to have taken place sometime in second half of 1951, in an autobiographical story in the comic book Wasteland, which he wrote with John Ostrander in the late eighties. I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of the issue, and it’s quite something. It opens with a dramatization of one of Close’s dreams, in which he’s living on an island with a goat, a lion, and a “mother bear.” He’s reluctant to leave, protesting that he can’t breathe water, but the goat butts him off the edge of a cliff. The scene then cuts to the auditing session in Wichita, where Hubbard, identified as “Elron,” asks Close: “Strange dream. Were you delivered with forceps?” Hubbard proposes that they check with Close’s mother, but the teenager refuses to consider it. After offering his interpretation—“Well, I don’t ordinarily deal in dreams—leave that to the psychiatrists—but this is obviously a birth dream”—Hubbard invites Close to have a fencing match. As they cross sabers, Hubbard suggests that the bear, who hums rhythmically throughout the dream, is a memory of the mother’s heartbeat, while the pressure of the goat’s horns represents her ribs. He informs Close that this will be their last auditing session, saying that he’s having “some serious difficulties with the powers that be,” and gives the unwary fan a whack across the face. Before they part ways, Hubbard muses over turning dianetics into a religion, and he’s thrilled when Close asks him to autograph his novel Death’s Deputy: “I don’t have a copy of this myself! Let me buy it off ya!” Close leaves, thinking to himself: “I feel like the goat has kicked me out again.” And the story ends there.

There’s no way to know for sure, but the account strikes me as utterly convincing, with many small details that would never occur to anyone who was simply fabricating a story. Hubbard’s suggestion that they call Close’s mother recalls an incident in the book Dianetics, in which an anonymous patient—actually John W. Campbell himself—recounted a birth memory that was then checked directly with the source:

Objective reality did not matter but this patient had a mother near at hand and objective reality was established simply by returning her in therapy to his birth. They had not communicated about it in detail. The recording of her sequence compared word for word with his sequence, detail for detail, name for name.

Hubbard had fenced with Jack Parsons in Pasadena, including one memorable incident with the woman who became his second wife, as George Pendle recounts in Strange Angel: “Hubbard, regaining his composure after the initial ferocity of the attack, fought the formidable Betty back a few steps and stopped the assault by rapping her smartly across the nose with his foil.” And Hubbard’s identification of the humming bear with the mother’s heartbeat recalls a similar lecture that Campbell gave to Frederik Pohl in 1950, after asking if he ever had migraines:

And I said, “No, I’ve never had a migraine headache,” and [Campbell] said, “Most people do, and I know how they’re caused—they’re caused by the fetal memory. Because in the womb of the mother, there are these rhythmic sounds. There’s this slow one”—the food gurgling down her intestinal canal or something—“and a rapid one which is her heartbeat.” And he beat them out simultaneously on the desk and I got the damnedest headache I ever had in my life.

The comic is also filled with numerous touches that aren’t conclusive in themselves, but which ring very true, like the fact that Close asks Hubbard to sign a copy of Death’s Deputy. (It’s probably Hubbard’s best novel, but it’s fallen into obscurity, and it isn’t a title that would occur to most people.) Johnson’s biography of Close takes it as an accurate representation:

The comic book story agrees with the accounts Del would give to friends of his time with Hubbard. In his later years, Del would explain that Hubbard cured his asthma in 1951 at the Witchita Dianetics Foundation; however, Del also said that Hubbard taught him to smoke Kools. He claimed that Hubbard was always complaining about the AMA and the IRS, reiterating his desire to start a religion. His retellings of his experiences with Hubbard remained consistent, and there is little doubt he was being truthful.

If anything, those Kools might be the most convincing detail of all—they were Hubbard’s cigarette of choice from at least the early fifties until his death. Close’s account is particularly valuable because it’s one of the few outside glimpses we have of Hubbard during a crucial period in his career, when he was transitioning from dianetics into what would soon become the Church of Scientology. If Close can be trusted, the transformation into a religion was on the founder’s mind as early as 1951, which is a useful data point—its earliest prior appearance in the public record was a letter from Hubbard to Helen O’Brien, dated April 10, 1953, in which he wrote: “I await your reaction on the religion angle.” Which doesn’t mean that it was a coherent plan. Hubbard rarely seemed to know what he was doing from one week to the next, and for most of his improbable life, he was improvising.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Knowledge of poetry, which is gained, as in science or other areas, by induction and deduction, is likely to remain provisional by falling short in one of two ways: either it is too specific, too narrow and definite, to be widely applicable—that is, the principles suggested by one poem are not likely to apply in the same number or kind to another poem; or, the knowledge is too general, too abstract and speculative, to fit precisely the potentialities of any given poem. Each poem in becoming generates the laws by which it is generated: extensions of the laws to other poems never completely take.

A.R. Ammons, “A Poem is a Walk”

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

The variety show

leave a comment »

In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of West Side Story, and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of Hamilton, and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

The essential point for architecture is that the perceiver is a building already, that as well as the inhabitant he is an ideal rival of the contemplated structure, matching himself against it not just to see how well it will fit him, but how well it measures him.

Robert Harbison, The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

The back matter

with 2 comments

“Annotation may seem a mindless and mechanical task,” Louis Menand wrote a few years ago in The New Yorker. “In fact, it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands.” Like most other aspects of writing, it can be all these things at once: mindless and an exercise of meticulous skill, mechanical and formally challenging. I’ve been working on the notes for Astounding for the last week and a half, and although I was initially dreading it, the task has turned out to be weirdly absorbing, in the way that any activity that requires repetitive motion but also continuous mild engagement can amount to a kind of hypnotism. The current draft has about two thousand notes, and I’m roughly three quarters of the way through. So far, the process has been relatively painless, although I’ve naturally tended to postpone the tricker ones for later, which means that I’ll end up with a big stack of problem cases to work through at the end. (My plan is to focus on notes exclusively for two weeks, then address the leftovers at odd moments until the book is due in December.) In the meantime, I’m spending hours every day organizing notes, which feels like a temporary career change. They live in their own Word file, like an independent work in themselves, and the fact that they’ll be bundled together as endnotes, rather than footnotes, encourages me to see them as a kind of bonus volume attached to the first, like a vestigial twin that clings to the book like a withered but still vigorous version of its larger sibling.

When you spend weeks at a time on your notes, you end up with strong opinions about how they should be presented. I don’t like numbered endnotes, mostly because the numeric superscripts disrupt the text, and it can frustrating to match them up with the back matter when you’re looking for one in particular. (When I read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I found myself distracted by his determination to provide a numbered footnote for seemingly every factual statement, from the date of the Industrial Revolution to the source of the phrase “nothing new under the sun,” and that’s just the first couple of pages. Part of the art of notation is knowing what information you can leave out, and no two writers will come to exactly the same conclusions.) I prefer the keyword system, in which notes are linked to their referent in the body of the book by the page number and a snippet of text. This can lead to a telegraphic, even poetic summary of the contents when you run your eye down the left margin of the page, as in the section of my book about L. Ron Hubbard in the early sixties: “Of course Scientology,” “If President Kennedy did grant me an audience,” “Things go well,” “[Hubbard] chases able people away,” “intellectual garbage,” “Some of [Hubbard’s] claims,” “It is carefully arranged,” “very space opera.” They don’t thrust themselves on your attention until you need them, but when you do, they’re right there. These days, it’s increasingly common for the notes to be provided online, and I can’t guarantee that mine won’t be. But I hope that they’ll take their proper place at the end, where they’ll live unnoticed until readers realize that their book includes the original bonus feature.

The notion that endnotes can take on a life of their own is one that novelists from Nabokov to David Foster Wallace have brilliantly exploited. When reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. As D.T. Max recounts in his fascinating profile of Wallace:

In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to [editor Michael] Pietsch…He explained that endnotes “allow…me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns…5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.

What’s particularly interesting here is that the endnotes physically shrink the size of Infinite Jest—simply because they’re set in smaller type—while also increasing how long it takes the diligent reader to finish it. Notes allow a writer to play games not just with space, but with time. (This is true even of the most boring kind of scholarly note, which amounts to a form of postponement, allowing readers to engage with it at their leisure, or even never.) In a more recent piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller offers a defense of notes in their proper place at the end of the book:

Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff. That’s partly true…Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.

An index turns the book into an object that can be read across multiple dimensions, while notes are a set of tendrils that bind the text to the world, in Robert Frost’s words, “by countless silken ties of love and thought.” As Heller writes of his youthful job at an academic press: “My first responsibility there was proofreading the back matter of books…The tasks were modest, but those of us who carried them out felt that we were doing holy work. We were taking something intricate and powerful and giving it a final polish. I still believe in that refinement.” And so should we.

Quote of the Day

with one comment

This power [of the poet], first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control…reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: