Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“It was two hours to Philadelphia…”

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"Outside a diner in Herald Square..."

Note: This post is the fifty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 52. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Four years ago, I took a bus from New York to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Étant Donnés for the first time. I’ve mentioned before that I like to tackle each part of a novel in turn, focusing on researching, outlining, and writing one section at a time while leaving the rest relatively undefined. Here, though, I was taking this approach to its extreme. At that point, I’d already been working for more than nine months on the novel that would later become The Icon Thief, a story that depended enormously on interpretations of Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic final masterpiece. I’d written solid drafts of Parts I and II, which spent a lot of time speculating on the work’s history and meaning, and I knew that Part III would climax at the doorway of Étant Donnés itself. Yet although I’d studied photographs and diagrams of the installation, read countless critical studies, and even paid an exorbitant amount of money for a reproduction of Duchamp’s original Manual of Assembly, I’d never gone to see it in person. There’s no particular reason for this; it’s only two hours by bus, and most sane writers would have made this pilgrimage early on, probably before a word of the rough draft had been written.

When I boarded the bus that day, then, it’s fair to say that I was in a state of considerable apprehension. I was excited about seeing the installation at last, but part of me also worried that I’d discover something during my trip that would ruin my plans for the novel’s conclusion. (As it happens, I did stumble across one inconvenient fact at the museum that forced me to rethink the logistics of the ending, but I’ll deal with story when I come to it.) But there was a reason I’d waited so long. I don’t generally talk about character and its creation in mystical terms: I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters, particularly about their objectives and specific actions, but I’m usually content to keep them at arm’s length—which in my case is probably a good thing. When I do research on location, for instance, I try to regard the scene through the eyes of the primary character, but I’m also thinking as a writer, noting down ideas, retracing my steps, and looking for useful details or bits of business. If I’d gone to Philadelphia earlier in the process, that’s the detached mode in which I’d have been operating, and it’s possible that I wouldn’t have been thinking of my characters at all.

"It was two hours to Philadelphia..."

On the day I finally did go, however, I was in a very different state. I’d been living with the character of Maddy Blume for a long time—even longer than I’d spent working on the novel itself—and I knew deep down that it was important for me to spend this last trip as much in her head as possible. I’ve noted elsewhere that every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, and in this case, I had good reasons to identify myself with Maddy: we’d both been obsessed with Étant Donnés for a long time from a distance, and much of my own research process ended up in the novel itself, refracted through her point of view. She worked at a firm whose offices resembled those of my old company, she lived on my block in Brooklyn, and when I envisioned her violent struggle with Sharkovsky, I staged it to take place within inches of my own desk. As a result, it was easy for me to put myself in Maddy’s shoes. I wasn’t being stalked by a killer, but I was being followed by something equally insidious: an unfinished novel that I suspected would rise or fall based on what Maddy could do at that museum.

Not surprisingly, many of the small details in Chapter 51 of The Icon Thief—as well as many of the chapters that followed—reflect my experience that day. And in retrospect, I’m glad that I waited to go. One of the wisest pieces of advice on creativity I know comes from the great film editor Walter Murch, and it’s a point that I frequently repeat to myself:

Each stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage—partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium you’re working in right then…It would be deadly if you did solve all the problems in the script—you do not want to be asking for the gods’ help at every stage—because then everything subsequent would be a mechanical working out of an already established form…

In this case, the unsolved problem in the story happened to coincide with the mystery within the plot itself, which strikes me as a good way of attacking the conclusion of a novel that had previously been planned and outlined almost to a fault. Instead of approaching this trip with a writer’s objectivity, I was going to the museum, like Maddy, in a state of nervous anticipation. And neither Maddy or I knew what to expect…

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

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