Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2013

“A little gratuitous exercise every day…”

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William James

As a final practical maxim, relative to those habits of the will, we may, then, offer something like this: Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things…

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state…As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out.

William James, The Principles of Psychology

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March 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

“It’s not one particular clever trick…”

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John Warnock

It’s not one particular clever trick…I’ve been in the business since 1963, so I’ve been writing programs for more than twenty years. With lots of experience you collect hundreds of algorithms over the years; you remember tricks you’ve learned, you remember bugs you’ve had, and blind alleys you’ve gone down. You remember all the things you’ve done wrong and all the things that have worked out well. It’s a matter of picking and choosing from that smorgasbord to make a good menu, so to speak, to do a given task. You can have a great dish here and a great dish there, but together they may taste like dog food. Putting a meal together in a very delicate and sophisticated way is what makes a good cook. Putting the pieces of a program together in the same way is what makes a good computer programmer.

John Warnock, in Programmers at Work

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March 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

David Mamet and the limits of craft

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Helen Mirren and Al Pacino in Phil Spector

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ve no doubt gathered that I like David Mamet. While I generally agree with Lawrence Weschler that Walter Murch is the smartest person in America, there was a time in my life when I would have ranked Mamet at least a close second. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about craft from his essays, interviews, and commentary tracks, and in particular, his little book On Directing Film is the most useful guide to storytelling I’ve ever seen. As I’ve mentioned before, I discovered it at a point when I thought I’d figured out the writing process to my own satisfaction, so reading it was a little like having an efficiency expert visit your business for a day and set you straight regarding best practices. I encountered it too late for it to have any real influence on The Icon Thief, but it was a major reason I was able to get City of Exiles from conception to finished draft in under a year, and it’s since become an indispensable part of my approach to writing. I try to read it again every six months or so, especially when I’m starting a new project, and I’m still amazed by its level of insight and practicality.

Yet there’s a shadow side to Mamet’s intelligence and mastery. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what it is, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, ever since seeing Mamet’s latest movie, Phil Spector, which aired over the weekend on HBO. Like all of his films, it’s watchable, full of good dialogue, and admirably streamlined: it clocks in at just over ninety minutes, and there isn’t an ounce of fat on the screenplay. All the same, it feels weirdly like half a movie, or a brilliant sketch of something better, which is true of nearly all of Mamet’s work as a director. I haven’t seen a movie of his I didn’t like—I even enjoyed Redbelt—but there’s something clinical and detached about his style that leaves even his best films feeling a little thin. And the more I think about it, the more it seems like an inevitable consequence of his approach to craft. Mamet’s method is as rigorous as mathematics: you figure out the sequence of objectives for each character, then craft the scene and the individual shots to convey this information as simply as possible. Hence his beloved story about Stanislavsky:

Stanislavsky was once having dinner with a steamboat captain on the Volga River and Stanislavsky said, “How is it that among all the major and minor paths of the Volga River, which are so many and so dangerous, you manage to always steer the boat safely?” And the captain said, “I stick to the channel; it’s marked.”

David Mamet

If nothing else, Mamet’s movies stick to the channel, and his philosophy as a director has always been that you shouldn’t stray much to either side. Most famously, he believes that if a script has been properly written, the actors just need to say the lines clearly and without inflection, and the words themselves will do the work—although if Phil Spector is any indication, even Mamet can’t always get this from Pacino. This approach to storytelling is unimpeachably correct, and if you’re going to imitate any director, you can’t go too far wrong by following Mamet: at worst, you’ll end up with a first draft that is mechanical but basically efficient, which is far from the worst that can happen. (As T.S. Eliot says in one of his essays, a poet who imitates Dante will wind up with a boring poem, but someone who imitates Shakespeare is likely to make a fool of himself.) But Mamet has essentially transformed himself into a director who delivers brilliant, clean, unimpeachable first drafts. And it’s no accident that the best movies based on his work—which I’d argue are The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross—were made by other directors.

And we’ve seen much the same progression in Mamet’s prose, which has devolved from the wit and lucidity of On Directing Film to something crabbed, aphoristic, and airless. Bambi Vs. Godzilla contains five or six pages that include some of the best storytelling advice imaginable—if you’re curious, it’s in the chapter “The Wisdom of the Ancients”—surrounded by material so tight and hermetic that reading it becomes physically enervating. The same is true, sadly, of Three Uses of the Knife, and I’m too discouraged to even try The Secret Knowledge. Which is just a reminder, as if we needed one, of the pitfalls of genius. Mamet remains the most intelligent living writer I know, and when it comes to the nuts and bolts of craft, he’s right about almost everything. But being consistently right for forty years can be dangerous in itself. Mamet is very good at what he does, and unlike a lot of artists, he knows the reasons why. But there’s a point where logic and craft take you only so far, at least not without being willing to embrace the possibility of failure or foolishness. Mamet, like most smart men, simply can’t take that risk. And although he’s still the best there is at sticking to the channel, there’s a chance that a lot of viewers will simply decide to change it.

Quote of the Day

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Kenneth Burke

I felt that the man who strove for dignity, nobility, and honour should have his task made as difficult and as hazardous as possible, and that in particular he should be forgiven no lapses in style.

Kenneth Burke, Towards a Better Life

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March 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

“I can’t take much more of this…”

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"You're saying that the Rosicrucians had something to do with this?"

(Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 40. You can read the earlier installments here.)

It’s always a little dangerous to ask a writer where he gets his ideas. In the afterword to Lolita, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

I’ve always loved this story, which sticks in the mind because it initially seems so inexplicable, and later seems so right. There’s also the fact that the entire anecdote may have been a typically Nabokovian invention: no trace of the original article, or ape, has ever been found. My own suspicion is that the story is designed to deflect attention from the novel’s more sensational elements to the more impressive, and fiendishly difficult, task that the author had set for himself—the detailed, alluring, empathetic rendering of the sorry figure of Humbert. Yet part of me also wants to believe that the ape, or the story, was real, if only because it serves to illustrate how far a novel can depart from its earliest germ of inspiration.

The Icon Thief, for instance, is a complicated novel encompassing Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Russian mafia, as well as much else, but its true beginnings lie in the story of a peculiar double suicide in the New York art world. Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake were young, intelligent, and attractive, and both had achieved great success in their fields: Duncan had parlayed an acclaimed computer game and animated short into a studio development deal, while Blake had collaborated with such artists as Beck and Paul Thomas Anderson, doing design work for Sea Change and Punch-Drunk Love. Both had been frustrated by their experiences in Hollywood, however, and after they returned to New York, their friends reported that they had grown increasingly paranoid, convinced that they were being targeted by a conspiracy of Scientologists. One evening, Blake came back home to find that Duncan had killed herself with an overdose of pills and alcohol; the following week, he took a train to Rockaway Beach and drowned himself in the ocean. (I’ve written out most of these details from memory, but you can find full accounts here and here.)

"I can't take much more of this..."

At first glance, this might not have much to do with novel I ended up writing, but when I first encountered the story, it crystallized a previously shapeless mass of ideas I’d been mulling over for a long time. I wanted to write about the art world, and also about paranoia, and the story of Duncan and Blake united both themes in a single tragedy. My own characters would be imaginary, of course: Maddy isn’t Teresa Duncan, although she’s based in part on similar people I knew in New York, and Ethan doesn’t have much in common with Jeremy Blake, aside from his intelligence and youth. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write a novel about a folie à deux, a kind of shared delusion, that would be imbedded in the story so deeply that the reader wouldn’t sense it was imaginary—if I’ve done my work properly—until the end of the book. My characters would see plots and conspiracies at work in their own lives, never realizing that the stories they were telling were a way of making sense of their personal disappointments. And although much of the story remained unclear, I knew how at least one thread would end: Ethan, I was convinced, would walk into the sea.

Needless to say, that isn’t how it turned out, and in particular, Ethan’s ultimate fate—which I’ll be discussing in a few weeks—ended up being very different from what I’d envisioned. All the same, you can see signs of the original conception throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 40, which gave me more trouble than any other scene in the entire novel. It’s here that Ethan lays out his paranoia in stark terms, connecting the Rosicrucians not only to the events of the story so far, but to everything from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Black Dahlia murder. This chapter was originally much longer, with a lot of additional detail, and even in its final form, it walks a fine line: Ethan has to be paranoid enough to make his final break with Maddy believable, but not so much that the reader concludes that it’s a complete fantasy. (Remember, my goal isn’t to make the reader believe that Ethan’s theory is objectively true, but true within the context of the story, which presents itself as a conspiracy novel, with all the conventions that the genre implies.) I’d like to think that it works, but it’s hard for me to get enough distance from it to be sure. In any case, it has the intended effect, and Maddy leaves Ethan’s apartment in a fury. She’s never going to see him again…

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March 28, 2013 at 9:10 am

Quote of the Day

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March 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A few thoughts on chapters

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Little, Big by John Crowley

When you think about it, there’s really no reason that a novel needs to have chapters. Early constraints on the size of printed reading material, like scrolls or cuneiform tablets, meant that the first extended narratives were naturally divided into smaller units, like the books of the Iliad, and the conventions of oral storytelling lend themselves to longer works that are essentially collections of shorter pieces, from The Thousand and One Nights to The Canterbury Tales. A novel that tells a single story, even from multiple points of view, doesn’t necessarily need to be divided at all, unless, as in Proust’s case, the story can’t fit comfortably within a single volume. Yet with a handful of exceptions—often, oddly enough, in novels by Irish authors—every novel consists of a number of chapters. And while it’s tempting to think of chapters as a courtesy to the reader, who otherwise might be daunted by plunging into an unbroken block of text, it’s also worth asking a few simple questions about how they work.

Basically, a chapter is a unit of narrative that advances the story while also looking ahead to the next big development. This makes it fundamentally different from a scene, although many novels rightly stick to one scene per chapter. A scene, in itself, can accomplish a lot of things—establish character, convey information, set a mood—and it can often be read as a self-contained set piece. A chapter, by contrast, gains meaning from its role in the novel’s overall structure, and in particular from how it points the way forward. In its final shape, it looks both ways, by influencing the reader’s sense of what has happened so far and where the story is going, which often requires more than one scene. Chapters, in short, are about anticipation. And this gives us a useful clue about the proper placement of chapter breaks, which should ideally fall at the exact moment when the reader is given something to anticipate. Nabokov, for instance, places his chapter breaks in Lolita with the precision of a thriller:

I answered, perhaps a bit testily, that my wife was safe and sound, and still holding the receiver, I pushed open the door and said:

“There’s this man saying you’ve been killed, Charlotte.”

But there was no Charlotte in the living room.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

All of this is fairly abstract, but it hints at some practical rules for how chapters should be constructed. The fact that a chapter hinges on anticipation implies that it should break off slightly before its moment of resolution—hence the tip, which I’ve shared elsewhere, that if an extended sequence in a novel isn’t flowing smoothly, the author should try cutting the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. A lot of writers, including myself, feel the need to tie a bow on the end of every scene, and we’ll often approach our first draft with a few extra paragraphs at the beginning and end as we ramp ourselves into the story and ease our way out of it. This can be useful in a rough draft, when we’re imagining the scene for the first time, but in the rewrite, this introductory and concluding material can usually be cut with profit. The first draft of a chapter tends to be written as if it were meant to be read on its own, but it never is: it’s part of a larger structure, and when we leave only the middle, it’s easier to join the pieces. Here’s Nabokov again:

She got in and slammed the door. The old garage man beamed at her. I swung onto the highway.

“Why can’t I call my mother if I want to?”

“Because,” I answered, “your mother is dead.”

Still, a chapter represents a break in the action, as well as a pause in the reader’s attention, and the physical fact of that page of white space makes demands of its own. To make the transition easier, I try to start every chapter by clearly indicating the lead character—an important consideration in novels like mine, which jump frequently from one point of view to another—and grounding it in a clear objective and situation. In practice, this means postponing other kinds of information until later. For instance, chapters that start with an extended passage of description, or even just a line or two to sketch out the setting, tend to break the flow. It’s usually better, instead, to open on dialogue or a tight focus on a particular character’s actions, and then pull back to set the scene, much as a television show will often come back from commercial on a closeup, then cut away to a wide shot that indicates the overall setting. Chapter breaks are a lot like cuts in a movie, and like film editors, who have their own set of similar rules, novelists should strive to make the transitions as invisible as possible, so that nothing but the story remains.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2013 at 8:49 am

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