Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The twenty crucial minutes

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Philip Guston

There are twenty crucial minutes in the evolution of each of my paintings. The closer I get to that time—those twenty minutes—the more intensely subjective I become—but the more objective, too. Your eye gets sharper; you become continuously more and more critical.

There is no measure I can hold on to except this scant half-hour of making.

One of the great mysteries about the past is that such masters as Mantegna were able to sustain this emotion for a year…

I have a studio in the country—in the woods—but my paintings look more real to me than what is outdoors. You walk outside; the rocks are inert; even the clouds are inert. It makes me feel a little better. But I do have a faith that it is possible to make a living thing, not a diagram of what I have been thinking: to posit with paint something living, something that changes every day.

Philip Guston, “Faith, Hope, and Impossibility”

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2016 at 7:30 am

The cyborg on the page

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Locutus of Borg

In an excellent anthology of his short stories, the author Joe Haldeman describes an exercise that he used to give to his students at M.I.T., where he taught a course on science fiction for many years. Reading it, I found myself wishing—for just about the first time ever—that I could have taken that class. Here’s what Haldeman says:

For this assignment, I gave each student a random number between 8 and 188, which corresponded to page numbers in the excellent sourcebook The Science in Science Fiction, by Peter Nicholls, with David Langford and Brian Stableford. They had to come up with a story using that scientific device or principle. I further restricted them by saying they had to use a story structure from one of the stories in our textbook The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg. The point of the assignment was partly to demonstrate that art thrives under restrictions. (It was also to give them a starting point; many had never written fiction before, and a blank page or screen is a terrible thing.)

Haldeman notes that he always does his own assignments, at least to demonstrate the concept for a couple of pages, and that in this case, he was given the word “cyborg” and the structure of Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.” The result was a solid short story, “More Than the Sum of His Parts,” which was later published in Playboy.

Not surprisingly, I love this idea, for reasons that longtime readers of this blog will probably be able to guess. Constraints, as Haldeman observes, are where fiction flourishes. This partially because of the aforementioned tyranny of the blank page: any starting point, even a totally random one, is better than nothing at all, and a premise that is generated by chance can be more stimulating than one of great personal significance. (When you’re trying to write about something important to you, you’re often too intimidated by the possibilities to start, while it’s easy to get started on a premise that has been handed to you for free. As Trump might put it, what have you got to lose?) There’s also the fact that a kind of synergy results when you pair a story structure with a concept: the dialogue between form and content yields ideas that neither one could have generated in isolation. Nearly every story I’ve ever written has resulted from a pairing of two or more notions, and I’ve developed a fairly reliable intuition about which combinations will be the most fruitful. But I haven’t really experimented with structure in the same way, which is why this exercise is so useful. When I brought it up with Haldeman, he said that the assignment is designed to make students think of form as a tool—or a toy—that can be explored and enjoyed independently of plot, which is a point subtle enough that a lot of writers, including me, never get around to playing with it. But when I take my scheduled break in a couple of months to work out a new story, I’m going to give it a try.

Schema for Joyce's Ulysses

It’s revealing, too, that the story that Haldeman uses to illustrate his point is about a cyborg, since that’s what we’re really talking about here—a mixture of artificial and organic parts that theoretically forms a single viable organism. (In the actual story, it doesn’t turn out well.) Sometimes you start with a few components from off the shelf, or an assortment of discrete pieces of information, and once you start to combine them, they knit themselves together with newly grown tissue. In other cases, you begin with something more natural, like the chain of logical events that follow from a dramatic situation, and then add parts as needed. And incorporating a bit of randomness at an early stage results in solutions that never would have occurred to you otherwise. There’s a famous design exercise in which students are told to draw the human body in a state of movement, and then to construct an apparatus that will support the body in that position. At the end, the teacher points out that they’ve been designing furniture. That’s how writing works, too. Writers are frequently drawn to metaphors from carpentry, as when Gabriel García Marquez compares writing to making a table, or when José Saramago says that any chair he makes has to have four stable feet. But the result is more interesting when you don’t think in terms of making a table or a chair, but of creating a support system that will hold up the bodies you’ve set in motion. A cyborg carries his essential furniture with him at all times, stripped down to its purest functional form. And that’s also true of a story.

If every story is a cyborg, there’s also a range of approaches to how visible the parts should be. Some wear their artificial components openly, like Locutus of Borg, so that the result is a style in itself, while others keep their enhancements hidden. A book like Joyce’s Ulysses, with its endless experiments and pastiches in form, looks like a manufacturer’s catalog, or a fashion spread in which the same handful of models show off various possible outfits. I don’t recall offhand if Joyce assigned the various epic episodes, literary styles, and symbols to the chapters of Ulysses at random, but I’d like to believe that he did, simply because it’s such a pragmatic tool: “Let the bridge blow up,” Joyce once said, “provided I have got my troops across.” Sometimes the writer takes pleasure in making the joints between the pieces as invisible as possible, and sometimes it’s more fun to play up the artifice, or even to encourage the reader to spot the references—although a little of this goes a long way. It’s a matter of taste, which is another reason why the use of randomness at an early stage can be a good thing: the more detached you are from the big conceptual blocks of the plot, the more likely you are to make the right decisions when it comes to the details. If you’re the kind of writer who wants to crank out a story a week for a year, as Ray Bradbury once advised, Haldeman’s exercise is invaluable. (As Bradbury says: “I dare any young writer to write fifty-two stories that are all bad.”) I wouldn’t want to take the same approach for every story, since there comes a point at which the author himself starts to resemble a machine. But when used wisely, it’s a nice reminder that every story is more than the sum of its parts.

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2016 at 8:56 am

Quote of the Day

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August 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #16: “Witches Must Burn”

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Witches Must Burn

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

If you’re a science fiction fan, it’s tempting to relate the current presidential election to the stories that you’ve read in the past, as if the extreme scenarios that earlier writers have envisioned can help us make sense of our predicament. When Donald Trump came up at a panel I attended this weekend, which included such writers as Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford, one of the participants—I think it was David Brin—compared him to Heinlein’s imaginary demagogue Nehemiah Scudder. (“Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election,” Heinlein once wrote. “The next election was never held.”) But an even better reference point is the novelette “Witches Must Burn” by James E. Gunn, which appeared in Astounding in 1956. It opens with a mob burning a university to the ground, forcing the protagonist, a psychologist named John Wilson, to flee for his life. Watching a news broadcast, he sees that Harvard is in flames. Outlined against the fire is the leader of the movement, an obvious McCarthy surrogate named Senator Bartlett, who has roused “lowbrows” into a revolt against “eggheads.” Bartlett says grimly:

They are not to blame who have taken justice into their own hands…They are to blame who have driven the people to this desperate end. And they are paying the price for placing themselves above the people and above the welfare of humanity.

When we think of the contempt for “experts” and “elites” that underlies such phenomena as the rise of Trump and the Brexit disaster, it isn’t hard to draw a parallel. Gunn, in fact, was inspired by the flight of intellectuals from Germany and Italy before World War II, and he later remembered: “The story I contemplated imagined a revolution from which…science would be restored to its original position as a respected member of the tribe with a special talent for making miracles.” Most of the story runs more or less along those lines, with Wilson trying to get in touch with an underground that can get him safely out of the country. But then it takes an unexpected turn. Toward the end, Wilson comes face to face with the leader of the resistance, a man named Pike, who asks him whether he really wants to run away to Brazil. When Wilson says that he doesn’t have a choice, Pike replies: “The human problems must be lived with. You’re a fool, John Wilson, and worse—you’re a fool who knows he is right, who is sure that he has the Answers if They will only listen.” Pike continues:

You think that because you’re a little brainier than the Lowbrows your convictions are superior; it isn’t true. Because you can manipulate a few people…you think that you know people. Nuts, Dr. Wilson! Senator Bartlett knows more about people than you will ever know. He accepts them for what they are, and he manipulates them by the millions. By any standard, you are a failure.

And a little later, Pike adds: “Nature has a way of scrapping failures. The eggheads are being scrapped now so that the components can be used for more valuable organisms.”

James E. Gunn

This is a dramatic departure from the tone of the story so far, and in fact, this entire section emerged from Gunn’s discussions with John W. Campbell, who forced him to rewrite the story’s conclusion. (Or as Gunn drily notes: “In his characteristic contrarian way, Campbell took the opposite position—that people had a right to be upset at the scientists…I was convinced—or, if not convinced, persuaded, since it was Campbell who would authorize payment.”) You can hear a lot of Campbell here:

You blame the Lowbrow because he wants security more than the truth…But nobody wants security more than you do. You want the world to admit how right you are, no matter what the truth is—because then you won’t have to change your beliefs. The Lowbrow seeks his security in human convictions and faiths and strong attachments; you seek your security in the assurance of Absolute Law. Both are static; both are equally deadly.

And here:

Too long [the universities] served as fortresses of isolation, walling in the learned man, the eggheads of yesterday and today, insulating them from humanity and its problems. What you were doing was so much more important than the problems of the little man who kept tugging at your sleeve, trying to get your attention. Finally he had to try something else. He gave you exactly the kind of trouble he had: insecurity and the fear of sudden death. Maybe, his instincts said, he could learn something from your efforts to solve the problem.

“He was wrong,” Pike concludes. “Your only solution was to run.” And Pike ultimately convinces Wilson to give himself up to the lowbrows, so that he has no choice but to come to terms with the social forces that he tried to dismiss or ignore:

Force yourself to admit their viewpoint into your understanding. Discover, as a psychologist, what your patient really is and how to cure him, rather than demanding that the patient be some hypothetical patient you can cure. Try to understand why the witch-burner and the witch are children of the same confusion, fathered by the same inner necessity. Learn to sympathize with the emotional need for scapegoats in an era of bewilderment when old gods are toppling and old ways of life are falling.

When I spoke to Gunn about the story, he said that it took him years to understand why Campbell made him change the ending, and it seems that he never entirely agreed with the decision. (It’s also impossible to separate it from Campbell’s instinctive distrust of the scientific establishment, which he thought was just as resistant to change as anyone else.) But it’s a message that is worth remembering for other reasons. The eggheads are victims, but they’re also failures, because they were unable to understand the concerns of the people who were susceptible to Bartlett precisely because they were vulnerable and neglected. And if we can’t heed that warning, then we have no one else to blame if nature decides to scrap us, too.

Written by nevalalee

August 24, 2016 at 8:49 am

Quote of the Day

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Meyer Schapiro

The modern artist…is attracted to those possibilities of form which include a considerable randomness, variability and disorder, whether he finds them in the world or while improvising with his brush, or in looking at spots and marks, or in playing freely with shapes—inverting, adjusting, cutting, varying, reshaping, regrouping, so as to maximize the appearance of randomness. His goal is often an order which retains a decided quality of randomness as far as this is compatible with an ultimate unity of the whole…And he provokes within himself, in his spontaneous motions and play, an automatic production of chance.

Meyer Schapiro, “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art”

Written by nevalalee

August 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

The graying lensmen

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The Hugo Losers Party

There were thousands of fans in attendance at last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, but I swear that I kept seeing the same fifty faces. With the exception of a reading that I did with a few writers from Analog, all of my events revolved around the history of science fiction, which an emphasis on stories and authors from the golden age. Not surprisingly, the audience at these panels tended to skew older, and many attendees had clearly been coming to Worldcon for decades. I was almost always the youngest panelist at the head table, and I can’t be sure that I wasn’t also the youngest person in the room on more than one occasion. Whenever we discussed the genre, the same handful of names kept popping up, and many of them would have inspired blank stares from a younger crowd: John W. Campbell himself, of course, but also writers like E.E. Smith, author of Gray Lensman, and A.E. van Vogt. (At one point, at a discussion titled “Classics in the Corner,” I said: “I’m not sure how many people read E.E. Smith these days.” A lot of hands shot up, which led another panelist to observe: “This is probably the wrong room to ask that question.”) And although I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at most similar gatherings, and it seems to get older every year, it felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd gathers to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community is beginning to forget.

And these fears are far from groundless. A high point of the weekend, at least for me, was a roundtable discussion held by the academic conference about Campbell and the golden age. The tone of the panel was reverent, if not toward Campbell personally then toward his impact on the field, and the only discordant note was struck by a panelist who noted that his writing students aren’t especially interested in Campbell these days—if they’re even aware of who he was. In response, Robert Silverberg said: “You can’t see oxygen, either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the dissenting voice had a point. For a lot of younger writers, Campbell is a tertiary influence, at best, and he certainly isn’t the living presence that he was for the fans and authors of an earlier generation. His place has largely been taken by more recent artists whose struggles and victories seem more urgent than those of writers whose best work was published before World War II. When you look more closely, of course, you find that their concerns are far closer to the present than they might first appear, and you can draw agonizingly important lessons from their example. But this takes time and energy that a lot of younger writers have rightly devoted to other matters. It was Campbell himself, I think, who observed that readers are essentially hiring writers to perform a service: to think more deeply about a subject than they can for themselves. And my hope is that the book I’m writing will do some of the necessary legwork, allowing writers and readers my age or younger to plunder Campbell, Heinlein, and all the rest for what they have to offer.

The June 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

This only reflects my own journey, which has more in common, in many respects, with the young writers who aren’t aware of Campbell than with the older fans and authors whom I’ve encountered along the way. I came into the genre as randomly as most of us do, assembling my picture of it from an assortment of heterogenous materials: a single issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, now lost, which I got for Christmas when I was twelve and replaced a few days ago with a copy I bought at the dealer’s room at the convention; novels by writers like Madeline L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and Orson Scott Card; and the nearly simultaneous discovery of Jorge Luis Borges and The X-Files. None of it was systematic, or even conscious, and my exposures to older influences weren’t exactly in the best possible order. (When I mentioned at a panel that the first Heinlein novel I ever read was The Number of the Beast, there was an audible gasp.) I’d been writing science fiction seriously for almost ten years before I realized that I was harking back, without knowing it, to stories like “Who Goes There?” and Sinister Barrier. It wasn’t until I began thinking about this book that I sought out authors like Smith or van Vogt, and I’m constantly confronted by areas that I have yet to explore. Part of me wishes that I’d been more deliberate about it much earlier, but that isn’t how fans evolve. And in trying to go back and build myself into the kind of reader who is capable of tackling Campbell and the others on their own terms, I’ve become more conscious both of what the different generations of fans have in common and of the ways in which they continue to diverge.

But I’ve also come to realize that older and younger fans are snapshots of a single continuum. The Futurians, as I’ve noted before, were incredibly young when the fan community began—most of them were still living with their parents—and the patterns that they inaugurated are still being played out online. We think of these guys as men with white beards, but that’s only because what they alternately created and rebelled against has endured to the time of their grandchildren. (When Slan won the Retro Hugo award for Best Novel on Thursday, A.E. van Vogt’s granddaughter was there to accept it, and she got the most rapturous round of applause that I heard all weekend.) On the last night of the convention, I found myself at the Hugo Losers Party, which began decades ago as an informal gathering in George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s hotel room and has been transformed since into a lavish event with hundreds of guests. It felt like a real moment of catharsis, after a weekend that had been charged with powerful emotions and occasional tensions, and it threw a random sampling of attendees onto the same dance floor and shook them all up. Looking around the Midland Theatre, I saw emerging writers and aging legends standing side by side, or crowding into the same elevator, and it was more clear to me than ever how one ripens into the other. Virtually everyone enters the fandom at a young age, and even if the years have started to show for some, it only puts me in mind of what James Caan reminds us in The Way of the Gun: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” And I should only be so lucky to survive as long.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

Quote of the Day

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Photograph by Helen Levitt

[Luck] is one of the cardinal creative forces in the universe…It is true that most artists, though they know their own talent and its gifts as luck, work as well as they can against luck, and that in most good works of art, as in little else in creation, luck is either locked out or locked in and semi-domesticated, or put to wholly constructive work; but it is peculiarly a part of the good photographer’s adventure to know where luck is most likely to lie in the stream, to hook it, and to bring it in without unfair play and without too much subduing it. Most good photographs, especially the quick and lyrical kind, are battles between the artist and luck, and the happiest victories for the artist are draws.

James Agee, in the introduction to A Way of Seeing by Helen Levitt

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2016 at 7:30 am


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