Archive for February 2011
Writing is easy. Just put a piece of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.
Yes, I’ve got a novel to write, and a lot of other things on my plate at the moment, but somehow it seemed much more important to spend the weekend making clever name cards for my Oscar snacks:
Happy Oscar night!
When I was younger, the main struggle was to be a “good writer.” Now I more or less take my writing abilities for granted, although this doesn’t mean I always write well. And, by a wide margin, I’ve never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, “This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years—this just feels transparent.”…I was admittedly somewhat conscious that this was a good sign—that it might mean that I was doing something different, pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and to the characters in those stories. But it still felt like a leap into the void.
As I mentioned yesterday, no other writer has influenced the way I watch the movies as much as Roger Ebert. When I write about film, or indeed about much of anything, I’m really channeling three distinct voices: Ebert, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson. Kael is the voice of enthusiasm, a reckless love of being alone in the dark; Thomson, of irony, perversity, and a sense of how strange the experience of moviegoing really is; but Ebert provides the indispensable foundation, a kind of practical common sense about how movies really work. Unlike Kael, who could afford to be selective, and Thomson, who is more of a curmudgeon than a regular critic, Ebert is a real journalist, perhaps the last of the greats. Aside from breaks for health reasons, he’s written about essentially every movie to come out in Chicago over the past five decades, and many others besides—and on deadline. It’s no surprise, then, that his body of work is both so rich and so gloriously makeshift, with an underlying pragmatism embodied in Ebert’s Law:
A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.
In other words, no genre or subject can be dismissed out of hand. A film deserves to be judged according to its own intentions, which is why Major Payne and The Godfather Part II both get three stars, and why a critic who sees ten or more movies a week needs to keep an open mind. Yet too much objectivity is also a mistake. All decent criticism is written in the first person—it’s the closest most of us can get to honest autobiography—and at its best, Ebert’s body of work is like a lunchtime conversation with a man I’ve come to think of as a friend. Perhaps because of his television shows and public appearances, I feel that know Ebert in a way that I don’t know Kael or Thomson, much less Manohla Dargis. Ebert flourished at a time when a critic could still be a colossus, as well as a companion. (I still remember where I was when I learned that Gene Siskel had died.)
In the end, though, Ebert deserves to speak for himself. My own favorite Ebert review is probably that of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, a nominally positive three-star review which, when combined with second thoughts and a trip to Cannes, resulted in an unusual amount of introspection. I also like the snapshot of his life that we get in his review of Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy—and can there be any greater proof of how these reviews keep otherwise forgotten movies alive? A few more favorites, plucked essentially at random, include Infra-Man, The Life Aquatic, and, moving down the list, Big Foot and Basic Instinct 2. And there are thousands more, on movies good, bad, and consigned to oblivion. It’s as rich a body of work as any living writer can claim. And it changed my life.
François Truffaut: Jean Douchet, a French film critic, made a witty comment on that scene [at the beginning of Psycho]. He wrote that since John Gavin is stripped to the waist, but Janet Leigh wears a brassiere, the scene is only satisfying to one half of the audience.
Alfred Hitchcock: In truth, Janet Leigh should not have been wearing a brassiere. I can see nothing immoral about that scene and I get no special kick out of it. But the scene would have been more interesting if the girl’s bare breasts had been rubbing against the man’s chest.
Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favorite books on storytelling is David Mamet’s On Directing Film. Since I’m preparing to outline my second novel over the next couple of weeks, I read it over again the other day—it’s only a hundred pages or so—and if anything, my admiration for it has only increased: it’s probably the single most useful guide to creating a plot I’ve ever seen. I’ve spoken about his advice here before, but today, I thought I’d highlight the three questions that Mamet reminds authors to ask themselves while writing:
1. What is the scene about?
2. What is the protagonist’s objective?
3. How do we know when we’re done?
It sounds simple, I know, but these three questions are the key to all good fiction. I was so invigorated by reading On Directing Film again, in fact, that I ran to the library to borrow a copy of Mamet’s other major book on writing, Three Uses of the Knife. Unfortunately, the second book isn’t nearly as good: instead of the chatty, inviting style of On Directing Film, which is structured around a series of classes that Mamet taught at Columbia University, Three Uses comes off as compressed and crabby, which was also true of his more recent Bambi vs. Godzilla.
It’s a shame, because Mamet is still just about the smartest man in movies—his intelligence shines through in all of his commentary tracks—and, judging from his earlier book, he has more useful information to impart about the craft of storytelling than anyone else I can name. In his recent work, sadly, the desire to teach seems to have given way to the temptation to lecture, a tendency which probably isn’t unrelated to his simultaneous slide into cultural conservatism. The title of Three Uses of the Knife, for instance, comes from the blues musician Leadbelly, but you need to go back to On Directing Film to figure out what Mamet means by it:
As Leadbelly says about the blues, he says in the first verse use a knife to cut bread, and in the second verse use a knife to shave, and in the third verse use it to kill your unfaithful girlfriend. It’s the same knife, but the stakes change, which is exactly the way a play or movie is structured. You don’t want to use the knife in the first verse to cut bread and in the second verse use it to cut cheese. We already know it can cut bread. What else can it do?
This is invaluable advice—you don’t want to hit the same beat twice in a row, unless you’re writing for television, in which case you’ll probably need to hit the same beat over and over again. On Directing Film contains dozens of similarly lucid pieces of guidance; Three Uses of the Knife yields perhaps two or three, because Mamet’s obsessively tight style has squeezed out the rest. Which tells me that what the world really needs is a great book of conversations with Mamet. And guess what? As luck would have it, it exists.
That I can write as well as I do without having to think about my style is due to my having been as a child steeped in the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare. I was taught to hold the Bible in such reverence that when one day, as I was buying a pennyworth of sweets in a little shop in Dublin, the shopkeeper tore a leaf out of a dismembered Bible to wrap them in, I was horrified, and half expected to see him struck by lightning. All the same, I took the sweets and ate them.
Yesterday I finally got around to reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker piece on Middlemarch—by all odds the most intelligent novel ever written—and its influence on her own life. If you’re a subscriber, Mead’s article is well worth reading in full (especially for her discussion of an inspirational quotation inexplicably misattributed to George Eliot, a subject on which I have some strong opinions), but I was struck in particular by her thoughts on how her attitudes toward the book have changed over time. Mead writes:
I have gone back to Middlemarch every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting. In my judgmental twenties, I thought that Ladislaw, with his brown curls and his callow artistic dabbling, was not entirely deserving of Dorothea; by forty, I could better measure the appeal of his youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing, at least to his middle-aged creator, who was fifty-three when the book was published.
This, of course, is the measure of a great work of art: its ability to reveal new perspectives as we approach it at different times in our lives. Most of us, I imagine, have a book or movie or album that serves as a similar sort of milestone, with our evolving feelings toward it charting how much we ourselves have changed. For Roger Ebert, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In an article first published two years ago, he writes:
In 1962, Marcello Mastroianni represented everything I dreamed of attaining…Ten years later, he represented what I had become, at least to the degree that Chicago offered the opportunities of Rome. Ten years after that, in 1982, he was what I had escaped from, after I stopped drinking too much and burning the candle at both ends.
And now Ebert has left the movie behind entirely. Recently, he wrote movingly of the fact that he will no longer be able to discuss the film shot by shot at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder, as he’s done on four separate occasions, and concludes:
Well, now I’ve outlasted Marcello. I’ve come out the other side. He is still standing on the beach, unable to understand the gestures of the sweet blond girl who was his waitress at the restaurant, that day he was going to start his novel. He shakes his head resignedly and turns to walk back into the trees and she looks after him wistfully. I am in the trees with Marcello.
As for the equivalent work in my own life, I’m tempted to say that it’s the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, which has slipped imperceptibly from the imagined soundtrack of my adulthood to a reminder of a period I’ve already left behind. Or perhaps it’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which has evolved, as I’ve grown older, from escapist fantasy to handbook for adult life to the book that I’m most looking forward to giving to my own children. I suspect, though, that it might actually be Citizen Kane, which I once saw as a challenge and call to art, and which currently seems—now that I’m five years older than Welles was—more like a warning, or a rebuke. Or perhaps all of the above. What about you?
The merely egoistic satisfactions of fame are easily nullified by toothache, and that has made my chief consciousness for the last week.
So work on my second novel is coming along pretty well. Research is winding down; location work is finished. I’ve got a fairly good outline for Part I, a sense of the personalities and backgrounds of a dozen important—though still nameless—characters, and…
Hold on. I have a dozen important characters, but aside from a few holdovers from my first book, I haven’t named them yet. And I need to come up with some names soon. I have just over two weeks before I start writing, but even in the meantime, there’s only so much work I can do with signifiers like “best friend” and “ruthless assassin.” (Note: not the same person.) Characters need names before they can really come to life. And it’s often this step, even before the real imaginative work begins, that feels the most frustrating, if only because it seems so important.
Sometimes I use characters from real life, and sometimes I use their real names—when I do, it’s always in celebration of people that I like. Once or twice, as in October Light, I’ve borrowed other people’s fictional characters. Naming is only a problem, of course, when you make the character up. It seems to me that every character—every person—is an embodiment of a very complicated, philosophical way of looking at the world, whether conscious or not. Names can be strong clues to the character’s system. Names are magic. If you name a kid John, he’ll grow up a different kid than if you named him Rudolph.
I can’t speak to the experience of other writers, but for me, coming up with names for characters becomes more of a nightmare with every story. Unless you’re Thomas Pynchon, who can get away with names like Osbie Feel and Tyrone Slothrop, names need to be distinctive, but not so unusual that they distract the reader; evocative, but natural; easily differentiated from one another; not already possessed by a celebrity or more famous fictional character; and fairly invisible in their origins. (I still haven’t forgiven Michael Crichton for the “Lewis Dodgson” of Jurassic Park.) As a result, it takes me the better part of a day come up with even ten passable names. And it isn’t going to get any easier: the more stories I write, the more names I use, which means that the pool of possibilities is growing ever smaller.
So what do I do? Whatever works. Sometimes a character will have a particular ethnic or national background, like the seemingly endless parade of Russians in Kamera and its sequel, which provides one possible starting point. (Wikipedia’s lists are very useful, especially now that I no longer have a phone book.) I’ll consult baby name sites, scan my bookshelves, and occasionally name characters after friends or people I admire. And the names are always nudging and jostling one another: I try to avoid giving important characters names that sound similar or begin with the same first letter, for example, which means that a single alteration may require numerous other adjustments.
Is it worth it? Yes and no. It certainly isn’t for the sake of the reader, who isn’t supposed to notice any of this—the best character names, I’m convinced, are invisible. And with few exceptions, I’d guess that even the names that feel inevitable now were, in fact, no better or worse than many alternatives: if Conan Doyle had gone with his first inclination, it’s quite possible that we’d all be fans of Ormond Sacker and Sherrinford Holmes. But for the writer, it’s an excuse to brood and meditate on the essence of each character, even if the result barely attracts the reader’s attention. So I feel well within my rights to overthink it. (Although I’m a little worried about what might happen if I ever have to name a baby.)
To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age. Youth is wholly experimental. The essence and charm of that unquiet and delightful epoch is ignorance of self as well as ignorance of life. These two unknowns the young man brings together again and again, now in the airiest touch, now with a bitter hug; but never with indifference, to which he is a total stranger, and never with that near kinsman of indifference, contentment.
There are certain things I do if I sit down to write…I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning…I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.
It’s not any different than a bedtime routine…Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know. And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.
—Lisa Rogak, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King
Le Carré: Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep…I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer…
Interviewer: With this monkish routine, how many words do you produce each day?
Le Carré: I don’t know. When it’s going well it goes terribly fast. It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day, which for me is about twenty-two pages. When it’s going badly, it isn’t really going badly; it’s just the beginning. The first page and the first chapter are a matter of endless fiddling, cutting out all the good bits, putting in a whole lot of verbiage. Actually, it’s my only way of thinking. Without a pen in my hand I can’t think. And by the way, not every aspect of the monk is observed.
Today the AV Club tackles an issue that is very close to my own heart: to what extent can we enjoy art that contradicts our own moral beliefs? The ensuing discussion spans a wide range of works, from Gone With the Wind to the films of Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, but I’m most intrigued by an unspoken implication: that morally problematic works of art are often more interesting, and powerful, than those that merely confirm our existing points of view. When our moral convictions are challenged, it seems, it can yield the same sort of pleasurable dissonance that we get from works that subvert our aesthetic assumptions. The result can be great art, or at least great entertainment.
For me, the quintessential example is 24, a show that I loved for a long time, until it declined precipitously after the end of the fifth season. Before then, it was the best dramatic series on television, and its reactionary politics were inseparable from its appeal. Granted, the show’s politics were more about process than result—nearly every season ended with the exposure of a vast right-wing conspiracy, even if it was inevitably uncovered through massive violations of due process and civil rights—and it seems that the majority of the show’s writers and producers, aside from its creator, were politically liberal to moderate. Still, the question remains: how did they end up writing eight seasons’ worth of stories that routinely endorsed the use of torture?
The answer, I think, is that the writers were remaining true to the rules that the show had established: in a series where the American public is constantly in danger, and where the real-time structure of the show itself rules out the possibility of extended investigations—or even interrogations that last more than five minutes—it’s easier and more efficient to show your characters using torture to uncover information. The logic of torture on 24 wasn’t political, but dramatic. And while we might well debate the consequences of this portrayal on behavior in the real world, there’s no denying that it resulted in compelling television, at least for the first five seasons.
The lesson here, as problematic as it might seem, is that art needs to follow its own premises to their logical conclusion, even if the result takes us into dangerous places. (As Harold Bloom likes to point out, reading Shakespeare will not turn us into better citizens.) And this is merely the flip side of another crucial point, which is that works of art knowingly designed to endorse a particular philosophy are usually awful, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. At worst, such works are nothing but propaganda; and even at their best, they seem calculated and artificial, rather than honestly derived, however unwillingly, from the author’s own experience. As usual, John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says it better than I can:
The question, to pose it one last way, is this: Can an argument manipulated from the start by the writer have the same emotional and intellectual power as an argument to which the writer is forced by his intuition of how life works? Comparisons are odious but instructive: Can a Gulliver’s Travels, however brilliantly executed, ever touch the hem of the garment of a play like King Lear? Or: Why is the Aeneid so markedly inferior to the Iliad?
In my own work, I’ve found that it’s often more productive to deliberately construct a story that contradicts my own beliefs and see where it leads me from there. My novelette “The Last Resort” (Analog, September 2009) is designed to imply sympathy, or even complicity, with ecoterrorism, which certainly goes against my own inclinations. And I’m in the middle of outlining a novel in which the main character is a doubting Mormon whose experiences, at least as I currently conceive the story, actually lead her to become more devout. This sort of thing is harder than writing stories that justify what I already believe, but that’s part of the point. In writing, if not in life, it’s often more useful to do things the hard way.
The author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.
For any writer who has ever despaired over finding just the right title for a novel or story, take heart: even the very best authors can’t figure it out. Borges, for one, likes to point out that the titles of nearly all the world’s great books are pretty bad:
Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.
From among my own favorites, I need only mention In Search of Lost Time—the greatest novel ever written, as well as perhaps the most embarrassing title—and any of Updike’s Rabbit or Bech books. (Rabbit Redux may be the ugliest title I’ve ever seen, although there are plenty of competitors, including Bech: A Book.) There are, of course, exceptions: Gravity’s Rainbow is hard to beat for a title that is beautiful, relevant, and evocative. Other good ones: Pale Fire, House of Leaves, The Name of the Rose (which the author cheerfully admits was meant to be meaningless). But in general, it’s safe to say that most great books have terrible titles.
I’m not even that fond of my own titles, possibly because I’ve spent way too much time staring at them on the first pages of recalcitrant Word documents. Kamera was never called anything else, even before I had a plot, although it was initially spelled Camera, inspired in part by an R.E.M. song. (The alternative spelling is the result of a complicated triple pun that I can’t explain without spoiling a plot point.) By contrast, Midrash, the tentative title of my second novel, took me forever to come up with, and may still end up being changed. (If the title seems cryptic now, consider yourself lucky: I originally wanted to call the novel Merkabah, which almost gave my agent a heart attack.)
As you can see, I’m fond of cryptic one-word titles, although I’m aware that they don’t necessarily sell the novel. (In any case, I’m not sure if any title can really “sell” a novel at all—unless we’re talking about something like The Nanny Diaries.) The best titles, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t advertisements for the book so much as cryptograms, coded messages on which the reader is invited to project his or her own interpretations. The more opaque, or even meaningless, the better. Which may be why my own favorite title for any novel is The Information, by Martin Amis, which is about as cryptic as it gets. (Too bad the novel itself isn’t very good. But perhaps that was inevitable.)
[M]y father struggled through half a page [of The White Peacock], and it might as well have been Hottentot.
“And what dun they gie thee for that, lad?”
“Fifty pounds, father.”
“Fifty founds!” He was dumbfounded, and looked at me with shrewd eyes, as if I were a swindler. “Fifty pounds! An’ tha’s niver done a day’s hard work in thy life.”