Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2013

Kant vs. the trees

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Immanuel Kant

An extreme case is Kant, who would work in bed at certain times of the day with the blankets arranged around him in a way he had invented himself. While writing The Critique of Pure Reason he would concentrate on a tower visible from the window. When some trees grew up to hide the tower, he became frustrated, and the authorities of Königsberg cut down the trees so that he could continue his work.

—George F. Kneller, The Art and Science of Creativity

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June 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

The business of making

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Wood sculpture by David Esterly

At that messy halfway point, in mid course, the work will tell you what needs to be done next, if you’re open to it. The work will tell you where it wants to go. That halfway point is where the real creativity comes in, in the act of making. As observers of art, we pick that up—we mimic the creation of the work in hearing it, reading it, seeing it. That’s why, with the greatest art, you almost have the sense that you are making it yourself: you’re picking up the embedded creativity that occurred in the making of the thing. Inspiration comes in the business of making.

David Esterly, to Harvard Magazine

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June 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

“Tzaddikim knew how to be patient…”

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"Ilya glanced at his fuel gauge..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 53. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the first things a writer needs to realize is that it can be a mistake to base a character too closely on yourself, or to have the plot of a novel track literal events from your own life. Part of this lies in the importance of detachment: when you’re writing about yourself—or a thinly disguised surrogate—or relating incidents that really happened, it can be hard to maintain the necessary objectivity. A reader who doesn’t know you personally can’t be expected to take the same interest in the details of your inner life, at least not before the material has been refined and rethought, and it’s easier to do this when you depart enough from the facts to make their implications seem new. Much of the creative process consists in searching for metaphors or analogies for your own experience, which allow you to deal with what concerns you while regarding the result with a clear eye. In The Spooky Art, for instance, Norman Mailer advised young New York writers to deal with the events of 9/11 indirectly, keeping the emotional core while shifting it into another context:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations can derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go after it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was traumatic for so many.

And an experience doesn’t need to be traumatic to lend itself to fictional transmutation. Nearly every choice I’ve made as an author—and writing is really just a series of choices—can be traced back to something in my own history or personality, transformed into something very different that still reflects its hidden origins.

"Tzaddikim knew how to be patient..."

Take Ilya’s religious background. I knew from early on that one of the primary characters in The Icon Thief would be Jewish, and it’s hard to think of any one decision that had a greater influence on the novels that followed: the art world and conspiracy elements that dominate the first installment are gradually toned down, but Ilya’s background and his ambivalence about the two sides of his personality—the Scythian and the Tzaddik—are central to the trilogy, and I don’t think the question is fully resolved until the last page of Eternal Empire. At first, like Wolfe’s Mormonism, this was a detail that I introduced almost at random, merely because I thought it seemed promising: I liked the idea of a hit man who read the Sefer Yetzirah, and I knew that it would allow me to bring in a lot of material that I’d always found interesting. And although these themes never quite come to the forefront of these novels, they’re always there in the background, providing insight into Ilya’s character and a kind of counterpoint to the main action, with its recurrent motifs of interpretation, history, and exile.

Most of all, it allowed me to approach aspects of my own inner life from an unexpected angle. If there’s one theme that I seem condemned to revisit endlessly in my own fiction, it’s the problem of interpretation, of how we find meaning in texts, stories, and the world around us. I’m not the first writer to be drawn to Jewish models as a lens for examining these issues: Borges, among others, has done more with this tradition than I ever could. Still, in creating Ilya, I found that I was inventing a figure who was oddly like myself, as different as we are in most external respects. Like me, he’s drawn to texts and traditions of exegesis, like the midrashim and the cabala, both because of the inherent beauty they possess and because they stand in contrast to what we can and can’t understand about the world around us. The world may be a text, but it pushes back against us in ways that we don’t encounter on the printed page, and just because we’re good at kind of interpretation doesn’t make us good at the other. Ilya’s struggle to come to terms with the way his world works, and with the contradictions of his own personality, gave me a way of dealing with my own. And as the novel draws to its climax, we’re about to find out who Ilya really is…

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June 28, 2013 at 8:43 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

Disrupting the printed page

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A page from House of Leaves

Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere—although I haven’t been able to find the exact reference—that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same. Stevenson’s advice is generally taken as a warning against the use of ornate vocabulary that doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the line, but in my own work, I’ve also applied it to the level of paragraphs and chapters. Not every chapter should read the same way, of course: a climactic moment should feel different from a chapter primarily devoted to setting up information for a coming run of scenes, and a novel that was written in the same tone throughout would soon grow dull. When you glance quickly over the text without reading it, though, every page of my fiction looks pretty much like any other. Along with the many other arbitrary rules I follow, I’ve never used narrative devices like found documents or diagrams, I stick to one typeface, and I’ve done what I can to make the surface of the book look as seamless as possible, presumably on the theory that any visual device that calls attention to itself can only distract the reader from the story.

This may seem like something other than a matter of style, since it’s primarily visual, but I don’t know what else to call it: it affects the balance between dialogue and description, helps determine paragraph length, and has a subtle but very real influence on the narrative register of my stories. A book that alternates between many different tones often reflects this on the page: the stylistic shifts in a novel like Ulysses are visible at a glance. This is also true of popular fiction, which can alternate between long passages of rapid dialogue, extended sections of description, and strings of short paragraphs and sentence fragments for action scenes. Part of the reason I’ve tried to keep my novels visually consistent is a desire to see if I can get the same effect through the writing alone. In a way, it’s another constraint I’ve laid down for myself: I try to make the story’s events as colorful and interesting as I can while remaining within the same narrow visual range. It limits my range of options while forcing me to develop other skills to compensate, and thus far, I’ve been pleased by the result.

A page from The Tunnel

All the same, I sometimes get a little jealous of novelists who seem comfortable with radical typographical or visual experimentation. I’ve never managed to get through all of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, for example, but it still occupies a treasured place in my home library: every few months, I’ll leaf through it, my eye caught by its oddly sinister flags, shifting fonts, and stretches of comic strip narrative, each of which stands like an island in the middle of the sea of Gass’s prose. The same is true of the works of such authors as John Barth and Georges Perec, not to mention House of Leaves. When I flip through a novel in a bookstore and come across a diagram or unexpected illustration, I’m always a little tickled, as if I’ve stumbled on a bonbon for browsers. Indeed, a striking typographic trick will often make me more likely to buy a book, or at least remember it: they’re like advertisements within the text for the author’s ingenuity, or cleverness, which may be one reason why I resist them in my own work, at least in the absence of any overwhelming reason to the contrary.

And while I wouldn’t rule out using graphic elements in my fiction in the future, I have a feeling that their presence would be as systematic as their absence has been so far. I’m most comfortable when operating within clearly defined rules, even if they’re only obvious to me, so any attempt at formal experimentation I’d make would probably be closer to something like Dictionary of the Khazars, my favorite novel of this kind, which embeds considerable typographic and visual invention within an attractively uniform surface. It’s a choice that can have unexpected consequences these days, when it’s likely that many of my books will be read on Kindle or a similar format over which I have less control: few, if any, of the novels I’ve mentioned above would survive that transition. When all of your sentences look more or less the same, you don’t need to worry about how they’ll appear in print, and I’ve been glad to leave that aspect of my novels to professionals who know what they’re doing. That way, I can focus on trying to put variety into the story itself, regardless of how it’s laid out on the page—which is more than hard enough as it is.

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June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The edge of the canvas

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The Mystery of Picasso, Part 2

In my senior year in college, I took a course on studio painting. For a classics major who had no serious aspirations for a career in art, it was a fairly random choice, and I suspect that I may have been motivated by the sense that my undergraduate years were ending with too many avenues left unexplored. I was lucky to get in all: the course was open to perhaps twenty students, and we had to audition by executing a painting on the spot in black and white acrylic. I’ve always been a decent sketcher and amateur artist, so I made the cut, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t meant to be a painter. At some point, I hit a wall on how much progress I could make, and although my instructor predicted that I could produce respectable work once I managed to break through, it never really happened. (Based on some of my written assignments, he did say I’d make a good art critic, and although that isn’t the way my life ultimately went, I’d like to think that it had some impact on the stories I ended up writing.)

But I enjoyed the class enormously, largely because of the technical and practical insights it afforded. I’d never done much in the way of work with my hands, so I particularly liked the process of stretching canvases. There was a woodshop at the Carpenter Center that we could use to cut stretchers to size, and I loved wielding the table saw and pneumatic nail gun, as well as the pliers and staples that we used to stretch the canvas itself. You have to staple part of it, then pull the rest tight, followed by several applications of thick gesso with repeated strokes of the knife, and my proudest moment was probably when the instructor used my prepared canvas as an example for the other students. (I believe his exact words were: “You can all hate Alec now.”) My experience here—and my subsequent dismantling of a semester’s worth of paintings, which I rolled up and brought with me to New York—later informed the chapter in The Icon Thief in which Ilya takes apart a painting for easier transport. And it also taught me some valuable lessons about the act of creation itself.

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 6

More than anything else, I came away with an understanding of how a painting is a snapshot of a process that takes place in time. I’d already learned much of this from Clouzot’s great movie The Mystery of Picasso, which uses stop-motion photography to show the remarkable evolution of Picasso’s canvases in the studio: figures are added or subtracted, the style moves from representational to expressionistic and back again, and the entire composition is successively destroyed and rebuilt. After a certain point, you realize that one of an artist’s most crucial creative choices is knowing when to stop. A painting can be refined and toyed with indefinitely, and if you’re not satisfied, you can always add another layer. These stages are usually invisible in the finished work, but you can occasionally see them on the edge of the canvas, which stands as a geological record of each stratum of work. For a while, I went through a pretentious phase in which I would check out the edges of the canvases in galleries, and I always felt a quiet satisfaction when I noticed a thin line of cadmium red that hinted at some earlier, hidden chapter in the painting’s history.

And the result has shaped the way I think about literary art as well. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that I began writing more than seven years ago, and although the current manuscript is pretty tight, you can still catch glimpses of the older, messier version that lurks beneath it, visible even after fifty drafts. What used to be an entire subplot has been condensed to a paragraph; a sentence that had one meaning in the original narrative now plays another role entirely, even as it lingers on as a vestigial remnant of the story that used to be there. I’d like to believe that I see similar traces in the works of other writers: Infinite Jest, for instance, contains lines that feel like artifacts of an earlier draft, one more openly indebted to Pynchon, and you can see a similar form of accretion in the last, unrevised volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which a character said to be dead in one chapter turns up alive in the next. Every work of narrative art is a snapshot, often taken at a time enforced by deadlines, mortality, or artistic exhaustion, and although it presents itself to the viewer as a unified whole, you can often pick out its earlier incarnations just by looking at the edge.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

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