Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 22nd, 2011

Sarah Vowell’s banyan tree

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The AV Club has a terrific, if massively long, interview today with the author Sarah Vowell, who rather charmingly seems capable of talking for hours on end in perfectly formed paragraphs. Halfway through the interview, which focuses on her new book Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell offers up one of the most striking descriptions I’ve ever seen of a writer’s mind works:

When I went to Hawaii, I had never seen a banyan tree before. A banyan tree is this tree that starts with one trunk, and then when the branches branch off, little tendrils sprout off the branches and eventually grow down to the ground and take root and become another trunk, and more and more branches and tendrils develop off of that, so each banyan tree becomes its own monster-looking forest. And when I first saw one of those trees, I thought, “That is how I think.” Little thoughts just sprout off and drip down and take root, and then they end up supporting more and more tendrils of thought, until it all coheres into one thing, but it’s still rickety-looking and spooky.

Obviously this has particular meaning in the context of Vowell’s own work, which is notably digressive, but it applies to many other writers as well. There’s a certain kind of ragpicker’s brain that tends to be drawn to writing for a living—it’s one of the few acceptable excuses for spending one’s life as a generalist—so “rickety-looking and spooky” seems as appropriate a way as any of describing a writer’s mind. Vowell continues:

I always found that when I was a college student and researching my papers always the night before—and this was before the Internet—I’d be in the library and I’d find one thing, and see something else and want to follow that, which now is how the Internet has taught us to think, to click on link after link after link. But there is something inherent in research that fosters that way of thinking, and then there’s this other interesting thing, and that builds and builds. When I’m writing, I have all these index cards, and I sit on my living-room rug and move them around until they make sense.

Which is something to which I can certainly relate—playing solitaire with index cards is basically what I do for a living. (And yes, the rug is the only place where this works.) I can also relate to Vowell’s description of how easy it is to get distracted while researching a paper in college, which is probably why I became a writer and not any kind of serious academic. But between this interview and Mamet’s advice for aspiring playwrights (and ping-pong players) to drop out of school, I’ve recently begun to wonder how useful conventional education is for writers, or whether a writer needs to go to school at all. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about this, and about what kind of education, if any, a writer needs.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2011 at 9:09 am

How is playwriting like ping-pong?

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My best friend, Jonathan Katz, was for a number of years the kid Ping-Pong champion of New York State. And when he was twelve or thirteen he wandered into Marty Reisman’s Ping-Pong parlor in New York City. Reisman was then the U.S. champion in table tennis and a genius, an absolute genius. Jonathan asked him, “What do I have to do to play table tennis like you?”

Reisman said, “First, drop out of school.”

That would be my advice to aspiring playwrights.

David Mamet, to Playboy

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2011 at 7:55 am

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