Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Reorganizing the peace

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In his book Experiment in Autobiography, which he wrote when he was in his sixties, the novelist H.G. Wells defined what he saw as his great task ahead: “To get the primaries of life under control and to concentrate the largest possible proportion of my energy upon the particular system of effort that has established itself for me as my distinctive business in the world.” He explained:

I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business…And that is where I am troubled now. I find myself less able to get on with my work than ever before. Perhaps the years have something to do with that, and it may be that a progressive broadening and deepening of my conception of what my work should be, makes it less easy than it was; but the main cause is certainly the invasion of my time and thought by matters that are either quite secondary to my real business or have no justifiable connection with it. Subordinate and everyday things, it seems to me in this present mood, surround me in an ever-growing jungle. My hours are choked with them; my thoughts are tattered by them. All my life I have been pushing aside intrusive tendrils, shirking discursive consequences, bilking unhelpful obligations, but I am more aware of them now and less hopeful about them than I have ever been. I have a sense of crisis; that the time has come to reorganize my peace, if the ten or fifteen years ahead, which at the utmost I may hope to work in now, are to be saved from being altogether overgrown.

As it turns out, Wells was exactly right, and he lived for another fourteen years. And his notion of rethinking one’s life by “reorganizing the peace” has preoccupied me for a long time, too, although it wasn’t until I read this passage that I was able to put it into words. Wells associated such problems with the lives of creative professionals, whom he compares to “early amphibians” trying to leave the water for the first time, but these days, they seem to affect just about everyone. What troubled Wells was the way in which the work of artists and writers, which is usually done in solitude, invariably involves its practitioners in entanglements that take them further away from whatever they wanted to do in the first place. To some extent, that’s true of all pursuits—success in any field means that you spend less time on the fundamentals than you did when you started—but it’s especially hard on the creative side, since its rewards and punishments are so unpredictable. Money, if it comes at all, arrives at unreliable intervals, and much of your energy is devoted to dealing with problems that can’t be anticipated in advance. It’s exhausting and faintly comic, as Wells beautifully phrased it:

Imperfection and incompleteness are the certain lot of all creative workers. We all compromise. We all fall short. The life story to be told of any creative worker is therefore by its very nature, by its diversions of purpose and its qualified success, by its grotesque transitions from sublimation to base necessity and its pervasive stress towards flight, a comedy.

But the artists were just ahead of the curve, and these “grotesque transitions” are now part of all our lives. Instead of depending on the simple sources of gratification—family, work, religion—that served human beings for so long, we’re tied up in complicated networks that offer more problematic forms of support. A few days ago, the social psychologist Jane Adams published an article in the New York Times about the epidemic of “perfectionism” in college students, as young people make unreasonable demands on themselves to satisfy the expectations of social media:

As college students are returning to school after their winter breaks, many parents are concerned about the state of their mental health. The parents worry about the pressure their kids are putting on themselves. Thinking that others in their social network expect a lot of them is even more important to young adults than the expectations of parents and professors…Parents in my practice say they’re noticing how often their kids come away from Facebook and Instagram feeling depressed, ashamed and anxious, and how vulnerable they are to criticism and judgment, even from strangers, on their social media feeds.

And this simply places more of us in the predicament that Wells identified in artists, whose happiness was tied up with the fickle responses of tastemakers, gatekeepers, and the anonymous public. The need to deal with such factors, which were impossible to anticipate from one day to the next, was the source of many of the “entanglements” that he saw as interfering with his work. And the only difference these days is that everyone’s a critic, and we’re all selling ourselves.

But the solution remains the same. Wells spoke fondly of his vision of what he called the Great Good Place, borrowing a phrase from his friend Henry James:

I require a pleasant well-lit writing room in good air and a comfortable bedroom to sleep in—and, if the mood takes me, to write in—both free from distracting noises and indeed all unexpected disturbances. There should be a secretary or at least a typist within call and out of earshot, and, within reach, an abundant library and the rest of the world all hung accessibly on to that secretary’s telephone. (But it would have to be a one-way telephone, so that when we wanted news we could ask for it, and when we were not in a state to receive and digest news, we should not have it forced upon us.)

This desire for a “one-way telephone” makes me wonder how Wells would view our online lives, which over the last decade have evolved to a point where the flow of energy seems to pass both ways. Wells, of course, was most famous for his science fiction, in which he foresaw such future innovations as space travel and nuclear weapons, but this might be his most prescient observation of all: “We are therefore, now and for the next few hundred years at least, strangers and invaders of the life of every day. We are all essentially lonely. In our nerves, in our bones. We are too preoccupied and too experimental to give ourselves freely and honestly to other people, and in the end other people fail to give themselves fully to us.”

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2018 at 8:45 am

Quote of the Day

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I never am a part of the thing till this moment [of writing]. It is a bit worrying that I so rarely feel even a momentary belonging. I suppose I have to dwindle it down to the palm of my hand. I would indeed rather spread myself out to its height and length.

Joan Murray, in a letter to W.H. Auden

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

Flowers of evil

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Note: Spoilers follow for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The best way to start talking about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which is a movie that I liked a lot, is to quote from one of its few negative reviews. It’s the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production company founded by veterans of the legendary Studio Ghibli, and it’s impossible to watch it without being reminded of its predecessors, as the critic David Ehrlich notes on IndieWire:

Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be a great film—it occasionally struggles just to be a good one—but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run…Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect—a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth…There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and [director Hiromasa] Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is…Borrowing liberally from [Studio] Ghibli’s signature iconography, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib…There’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.

Ehrlich concludes with a note of paradoxical praise: “There’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.” I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower a lot more than Ehrlich did, and I don’t agree with everything that he says here. (For instance: “The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem.” Yet when it comes to the Ghibli style, cheapness is in the eye of the beholder. When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in this country, Leonard Klady of Variety wrote dismissively of its “adequate television technical craft,” and it isn’t hard to see how he reached that conclusion about one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) But Ehrlich’s argument is also fundamentally sound. Watching Mary awakened me to the extent to which the qualities of the films of Hayao Miyazaki are vulnerable to imitation, or even parody. It isn’t just their nostalgic settings or young female protagonists, but their pacing, which inserts extra beats of quiet into scenes that most movies tend to skip entirely. The characters in a Miyazaki movie are always pausing to absorb or react to what they hear and see, and they always wait until the others are done talking before they speak for themselves. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is full of such moments, and in a medium that is acutely conscious of timing, this can’t be accidental.

This may seem like a minor point, but every movie is the sum of countless small touches, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower gets so many subtle things just right that it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft and technique involved. It’s about an ordinary girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a school of magic, but unlike certain other stories in the same vein, it doesn’t conclude with her embracing this new world. Instead, after realizing that its inhabitants are borderline sociopaths, she rejects it and returns gratefully to her old life. (At the end, when she tosses aside the flower of the title, it reminded me of Dirty Harry throwing away his badge.) This is a startling choice, but the movie earns it, mostly through some surprisingly understated design work. Mary’s home village is every bit as enticing as the ones in Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service—you can’t help but want to live there. The magical Endor College is grotesque by comparison, as Ehrlich writes:

It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale…The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential.

Yet he also complains: “There’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world…We don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there.” But if I had to decide between her village and Endor College, I know which one I’d choose.

And what I liked the most about Mary and the Witch’s Flower was how it quietly repurposes the tools of Studio Ghibli as a statement against a certain kind of storytelling. Miyazaki often draws inspiration from other works of art—Ponyo is essentially a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and Spirited Away has touches of Lewis Carroll—but the result usually seems to refer to nothing but itself. Mary isn’t just a refutation of Harry Potter, but of all the children’s movies that offer the consoling fantasy that we’d be able to solve our problems if only we had access to magic, and that the answer to heartbreak in this world lies in escaping from it entirely. The best of the Studio Ghibli movies end with a return to everyday life, but it’s weirdly encouraging to see a studio of younger animators applying this lesson in defiance of all the forces that might encourage them to make other forms of entertainment. Miyazaki is old enough at this point to do whatever he likes, and Studio Ponoc is willing to follow his example in ways that aren’t obvious. The great temptation with Mary and the Witch’s Flower must have been to imitate only the attributes of its models that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising. What it really achieves is something richer and more subversive, and in positioning Miyazaki’s values so directly against those of its rivals, it amounts to a declaration of purpose. Mary may be a knockoff, but its heart is in the right place, and we need it now more than ever.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

The strategy of discovery

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The essential feature of a strategy of discovery lies in determining the sequence of choice of problems to solve. Now it is in fact very much more difficult to see a problem than to find a solution for it. The former requires imagination, the latter only ingenuity. This is the sense of Kosambi’s definition of science as the cognition of necessity. The general advance of science has, in fact, taken place in following out the solutions of problems set in the first place by actual economic necessity, and only in the second place arising out of earlier scientific ideas. At any given time there are usually a set of challenging problems like the doubling in bulk of the cubic altar at Delphi, which involved extracting a cube root, or the finding of the longitude, which led to Newton’s laws, or the curing of the silkworm disease in France, which helped Pasteur to arrive at the idea of the germ theory of disease. The danger in science is that the number of such recognized classical problems tends to be limited. The efforts of scientists, generation after generation, are concentrated on solving them and on elaborating on the solutions.

It is this tendency that has kept science for long periods of its history within narrow bounds. It is by breaking with it and finding new problems in outside life that it expands into new fields. Some of the greatest scientists of the past, like Newton, Darwin, and Faraday, set themselves to find and solve problems according to a plan of their own. Faraday, for instance, early in his career set himself the general problem of finding the connections between the separate forces of physical nature—light, heat, energy, and magnetism—and, taking them pair by pair, nearly completed the program…Viewed in the perspective of evolutionary history, science marks a conscious elaboration of the experience provided by the sensory and motor organs of the body. It extends consciously and socially the unconscious processes of learning, common to all higher animals. An animal can learn by experience; man in using science goes beyond this and experiences to learn.

John Desmond Bernal, Science in History

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

The lawgivers of poets

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Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support. The outset and remembrance are there…there the arms that lifted him first and brace him best…there he returns after all his going and comings. The sailor and traveler…the anatomist chemist astronomer geologist phrenologist spiritualist mathematician historian and lexicographer are not poets, but they are the lawgivers of poets and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem. No matter what rises or is uttered they sent the seed of the conception of it…of them and by them stand the visible proofs of souls…always of their fatherstuff must be begotten the sinewy races of bards. If there shall be love and content between the father and the son and if the greatness of the son is the exuding of the greatness of the father there shall be love between the poet and the man of demonstrable science. In the beauty of poems are the tuft and final applause of science.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

Are you sitting down?

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Colin Wilson

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 26, 2016.

In the past, I’ve often mentioned what I’ve come to see as the most valuable piece of writing advice that I know, which is what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

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.

You don’t try to do everything at once, which is probably impossible anyway. Instead, there are days in which you do “careful” jobs that are the artistic equivalent of housekeeping—research, making outlines of physical actions, working out the logic of the plot—and others in which you perform “inventive” tasks that rely on intuition. This seems like common sense: it’s hard enough to be clever or imaginative, without factoring in the switching costs associated with moving from one frame of mind to another. The writer Colin Wilson believed that the best ideas emerge when your left and right hemispheres are moving at the same rate, which tends to occur in moments of either reverie or high excitement. This is based on an outdated model of how the human brain works, but the phenomenon it describes is familiar enough, and it’s just a small step from there to acknowledging that neither ecstatic nor dreamlike mental states are particularly suited for methodical work. When you’re laying the foundations for future creative activity, you usually end up somewhere in the middle, in a state of mind that is focused but not heightened, less responsive to connections than to discrete units, and concerned more with thoroughness than with inspiration. It’s an important stage, but it’s also the last place where you’d expect real insights to appear.

Clearly, a writer should strive to work with, rather than against, this natural division of labor. It’s also easy to agree with Mamet’s advice that it’s best to tackle one kind of thinking per day. (Mental switching costs of any kind are usually minimized when you’ve had a good night’s sleep in the meantime.) The real question is how to figure out what sort of work you should be doing at any given moment, and, crucially, whether it’s possible to predict this in advance. Any writer can tell you that there’s an enormous difference between getting up in the morning without any idea of what you’re doing that day, which is the mark of an amateur, and having a concrete plan—which is why professional authors use such tools as outlines and calendars. Ideally, it would be nice to know when you woke up whether it was going to be a “careful” day or an “inventive” day, which would allow you to prepare yourself accordingly. Sometimes the organic life cycle of a writing project supplies the answer: depending on where you are in the process, you engage in varying proportions of careful or inventive thought. But every stage requires some degree of both. As Mamet implies, you’ll often alternate between them, although not as neatly as in his hypothetical example. And while it might seem pointless to allocate time for inspiration, which appears according to no fixed schedule, you can certainly create the conditions in which it’s more likely to appear. But how do you know when?

David Mamet

I’ve come up with a simple test to answer this question: I ask myself how much time I expect to spend sitting down. Usually, before a day begins, I have a pretty good sense of how much sitting or standing I’ll be doing, and that’s really all I need to make informed decisions about how to use my time. There are some kinds of creative work that demand sustained concentration at a desk or in a seated position. This includes most of the “careful” tasks that Mamet describes, but also certain forms of intuitive, nonlinear thinking, like making a mind map. By contrast, there are other sorts of work that not only don’t require you to be at your desk, but are actively stifled by it: daydreaming, brooding over problems, trying to sketch out large blocks of the action. You often do a better job of it when you’re out taking a walk, or in the bus, bath, or bed. When scheduling creative work, then, you should start by figuring out what your body is likely to be doing that day, and then use this to plan what to do with your mind. Your brain has no choice but to tag along with your body when it’s running errands or standing in line at the bank, but if you structure your time appropriately, those moments won’t go to waste. And it’s often such external factors, rather than the internal logic of where you should be in the process, that determine what you should be doing.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem that much different from the stock advice that you should utilize whatever time you have available, whether you’re washing the dishes or taking a shower. But I think it’s a bit more nuanced than this, and that it’s more about matching the work to be done to the kind of time you have. If you try to think systematically and carefully while taking a walk in the park, you’ll feel frustrated when your mind wanders to other subjects. Conversely, if you try to daydream at your desk, not only are you likely to feel boxed in by your surroundings, but you’re also wasting valuable time that would be better spent on work that only requires the Napoleonic virtues of thoroughness and patience. Inspiration can’t be forced, and you don’t know in advance if you’re better off being careful or inventive on any given day—but the amount of time that you’ll be seated provides an important clue. (You can also reverse the process, and arrange to be seated as little as possible on days when you hope to get some inventive thinking done. For most of us, unfortunately, this isn’t entirely under our control, which makes it all the more sensible to take advantage of such moments when they present themselves.) And it doesn’t need to be planned beforehand. If you’re at work on a problem and you’re not sure what kind of thinking you should be doing, you can look at yourself and ask: Am I sitting down right now? And that’s all the information you need.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2018 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books

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