Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2013

The lure of the scary story

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Edgar Allan Poe

With the death of the neighborhood video store, we’re also witnessing the end of a childhood rite of passage that I suspect a lot of people my age can remember: the trip through the dreaded horror aisle. It always stood in its own section of the store, just a few steps away from the comedy or drama shelves, and it had a terrifying fascination of its own. If you were eight or nine years old, you had to work up your courage just to walk past it, even as you couldn’t resist stealing a look. Back in the day, I definitely spent a few scary minutes staring at those video boxes, and I can still recall being freaked out by the covers of the likes of Pumpkinhead or The Unnameable. I don’t think kids these days will ever have quite the same experience—maybe browsing through the horror titles on Netflix gives them a similar illicit thrill—but I have no doubt that they’ll still find their own ways of scaring themselves. Having just finished judging the third, fourth, and fifth grade entries in the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, I’m impressed all over again by how shrewd a child’s sense of horror can be: dark, gruesome, and often surprisingly funny.

In fact, the best horror stories often have unexpected affinities with jokes. Both a joke and a scary short story are written expressions of an oral tradition, possibly the oldest ones we have. They tend to be brief, punchy, composed with an eye to economy, and every word counts, especially near the end. Both are marked by an escalation of tension that reaches a cathartic punchline, but their resolutions are very different: the joke surprises us, casting the previous situation in an unexpected light, while the horror story offers us the realization of all our darkest fears, which turn out to be even worse than we expected. Both have an uneasy relationship with the first-person point of view: few if any good jokes are told in the first person, and it’s a problematic choice for all but the greatest horror stories. And neither are particularly amenable to being analyzed in the way I’ve been doing here. To take apart a joke is to kill it, and to attempt to explain away the dread a scary story evokes destroys its magic, although not always its elemental power.

Stephen King

This may be why horror, like humor, is so subjective. Either you find something funny or scary, or you don’t. One reader may be terrified by a story that another dismisses with a shrug, and good luck convincing either of them otherwise: it’s a reaction that has little to do with aesthetic merit and everything to do with the sparks the story sets off in the reader’s imagination. That may be why the best horror stories leave so much to implication. Like a painting, or a haiku, that seems all the more vivid because it captures only the evocative core of its subject, a good horror story is as notable for what leaves out as what it includes. This takes skill and experience, and one of the hardest things to master is knowing when and how to end it, ideally at a moment that leaves us with the maximum of dread. Poe was a master of this: his stories open in a leisurely fashion that has dated badly—I dare anyone to read the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” without skipping ahead—but his endings are crisp, brutal, and utterly modern, which goes a long way toward explaining why his stories have lasted.

My own favorite scary short story is H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” which I’ve revisited on an annual basis without ever getting tired of it: it’s one of the rare Lovecraft stories in which the baroque language fits the characters and themes, and it remains wonderfully atmospheric and horrifying. Next would be the best tales from Stephen King’s two great early collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, especially “The Boogeyman,” “Strawberry Spring,” “Gramma,” and “The Jaunt,” and his late masterpieces “Dolan’s Cadillac” and “The Ten O’Clock People.” A few more random favorites: Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” Michael Bishop’s “Within the Walls of Tyre.” These are all very different stories, with some skewing toward fantasy or science fiction, but all manage the difficult trick of ending at just the right moment, leaving us with an impression of dread that’s impossible to shake. (This is one reason why my own stories don’t qualify as horror, even if some of them, like “The Boneless One” or “Kawataro,” are clearly indebted to the genre: Analog generally doesn’t go for dark endings.) If you’ve never read them before, you might want to seek them out now. There’s no better time than tonight.

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October 31, 2013 at 9:41 am

Quote of the Day

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Pete Seeger

A productive mistake is: (1) made in the service of mission and vision; (2) acknowledged as a mistake; (3) learned from; (4) considered valuable; (5) shared for the benefit of all.

Pete Seeger

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October 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Protecting the throughline

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David Mamet

The life of a screenwriter might seem like an enviable one, but really, it’s a thankless job. You’re generously compensated for your time, with a career that countless other writers are dying to achieve, and in theory, you’re in a position of enormous creative power: without you, there’s no movie. In practice, though, you’re boxed in by constraints on all sides. Your only tools are dialogue and structure, and maybe, if you believe William Goldman, it’s really just structure alone. You’ll get notes from every producer and executive in sight, few of whom are writers themselves, and if you can’t make the requested changes, you’ll be fired, even if it’s your own story. Even after all that, you’ll never get the credit you think you deserve: there simply aren’t any famous screenwriters, at least not to the extent that we reward actors and directors. (As John August says: “Your mom probably doesn’t know any screenwriters other than you.”) And although this state of affairs often leaves screenwriters cynical and bitter, it also clarifies your thinking enormously, like any work done under pressure, about what battles really count and what you can afford to let slide.

Even if you don’t need to worry about studio notes, you can still learn a lot from how screenwriters prioritize what to protect. What matters most is the throughline, which we can temporarily define, for the sake of convenience, as the core of the screenplay that a writer is ready to guard with his life. In the useful interview collection Tales From the Script, the screenwriter Joe Forte says:

People want to change scenes or dialogue. You work with that. But the thing that I try to influence is theme, that emotional throughline. That’s what the movie’s about…It orients everything. It’s the registration mark that goes through your movie. And if you can bring people back to that, that’s why you try to stay involved as much as you can—or are allowed to be.

Elsewhere, while discussing the production of the movie Maverick in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman calls it the spine:

I must explain that I am willing and happy to do any changes here because I am not threatened by anything that’s happening—nothing is altering the spine of the movie…I get very crazy if you mess with the spine. Otherwise I am totally supportive.

William Goldman

So what is the throughline, really? You can think of it, if you like, as the theme or emotional heart of the story, but that’s a little vague, and if nothing else, the throughline needs to be clear, if only so you have a vivid sense of what you’re trying to preserve. To paraphrase David Mamet in On Directing Film—which, as I’ve said many times before, is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read—the throughline is the essential problem, with a definite end, that occupies the protagonist through the climax of the movie. The castle needs to be taken; the princess has to be rescued; the hero is desperate to get money or respect or physical safety. He or she pursues this objective through a series of logical steps, and when the objective has been achieved, or our protagonist has failed spectacularly, the story is over. That’s really it. Theme, emotion, character, and suspense are all precipitates of that clean, well-defined progression, and without it, the story will just sort of lie there, no matter how good the writing is. And that’s why the throughline needs to be protected above all else.

This is as much true for novelists, who tend to work in solitude, as for screenwriters operating under the scrutiny of a bevy of producers. Novelists may not be getting notes from a dozen different studio executives, but as the rewrites and discarded drafts pile up, it can be just as easy to lose sight of the central thread of the narrative. By the time you hit the fifth or sixth draft, or the fiftieth, you run the risk of focusing on side issues while forgetting what the story is really about. You don’t need to share this information with anyone else, particularly with your readers, and if asked, you might want to maintain a discreet silence. But it’s essential that you at least be able to explain the throughline to yourself, because it’s the only thing that will carry you through the ups and downs, both internal and external, that any writing project has to survive. Because in the end, as Mamet points out so beautifully, the throughline is nothing less than a metaphor for the act of writing itself:

It’s not up to you to say whether the movie is going to be “good” or “bad”; it’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home. This is exactly the same principle as the throughline. Do your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop.

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October 30, 2013 at 8:47 am

Quote of the Day

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October 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Fourth time around

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Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

The other day, for the first time in years, I watched Eyes Wide Shut. It’s no longer my favorite Kubrick film, but I’d definitely rank it in his top three or four, and I still believe that it’s among the most undervalued movies of the last two decades. I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it, or, more precisely, since the first four times I saw it—which is the number of times I paid to see it in theaters. I was there for the very first screening on opening day, and later went back that same night, which is the only time I’ve ever done this. (On my second viewing, I saw it with a friend who disliked it so intensely that she walked out halfway through, and she only came back because she had to give me a ride home.) Since then, I’ve probably seen it, in bits and pieces, another dozen times. And what I found when I watched it again this weekend is that it remains a great movie: undeniably flawed, but rich, intricate, and ingenious in ways that I can still appreciate even if I know every beat or line of dialogue by heart. It was like listening to an album you haven’t picked up since you were in high school, but the moment you press the play button, you realize that you never stopped carrying it around in your head.

And it made me regret the fact that I may never have the chance to repeatedly explore a movie in quite the same way. When I was younger, I’d often pay to see movies multiple times, both for new releases and for old favorites that were returning to theaters: I’ve seen The Red Shoes on the big screen maybe four or five times, Casablanca the same, Blue Velvet at least three, and when they first came out, I saw movies like The Dark Knight, Children of Men, and Minority Report three times each. And, of course, I endlessly rewatched my favorite movies at home. If I had to guess, I’d say that the films I’ve watched most often with a reasonable amount of attentiveness would be Blue Velvet, The Usual Suspects, and maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I’ve long since lost track of the actual number of viewings—twenty or thirty? Which doesn’t even consider the uncounted viewings of my ten favorite movies. As a result, I tend to think of each of these films as a unified whole to an extent you can’t when you’ve only seen them once or twice: I’ve internalized them the way you absorb a piece of music, treasuring odd little moments and continuity errors, and I can effortlessly relate an image in the first ten minutes to a passing echo near the end.

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame de...

Those days, alas, are over. I’ve already mentioned how my moviegoing life has experienced a decisive shift since the birth of my first daughter—it’s hard enough to get out to see a film once, let alone three times—and it’s also affected the way I watch movies at home. We’re trying to keep Beatrix away from screens of any kind, particularly television and movies, for the first two years, and this means that I can no longer just casually pop in a DVD when I’m home alone. Even after the baby goes to bed, there’s more pressure to catch up on the countless films my wife and I have missed than to revisit an old favorite. This means that it’s no longer possible to get to know a movie in the way I once did: I need to content myself with a first impression. Two years ago, for instance, I finally saw The Earrings of Madame de… by Max Ophuls, which blew me away like few movies before or since. If I had a chance to rewatch it a few times, I’m sure it would become one of my favorite films, but as it stands, all I retain of it are a few moments, a handful of images, and that initial sense of discovery.

It doesn’t help that I don’t have the same memory for these things that I once did: aside from a few vivid exceptions, like The Master, I’m lucky if I can remember three or four good scenes from a movie I saw last year. In short, another chapter of my movie life is closing. As time goes on, it’s going to be increasingly hard for a movie to become a part of me in quite the same way; every now and then, an outstanding film may leave a lasting mark, but otherwise, I’ll need to be content with movies that live somewhere outside my head, rather than burrowing in deeply. But there’s one possible loophole. Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan. (More likely, I’ll end up becoming intimately familiar with the likes of Caillou.) Later, as she gets older, she’ll go through the same phases that I did, and I like to think that I’ll see her cueing up Singin’ in the Rain or Mary Poppins to watch yet again. Clearly, then, all I need to do is show her Madame de… I’m sure she’ll love it.

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October 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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October 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Won’t somebody please think of the children?

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Victorian classroom

There aren’t many universal rules in writing, but here’s one that comes as close as any other: in the vast majority of cases, dialogue is best indicated with a simple “he said” or “she said.” Any attempt to change it up with forced synonyms (“exclaimed,” “opined,” “interjected”) will only distract the reader, and to most editors, it’s the sign of an amateur. In my own work, I take this to an almost comical extreme: I only use “said” or “asked,” with an occasional appearance from “replied,” and when I can, I try to avoid using them at all. Maybe I’m thinking of the tale, possibly apocryphal but probably not, of the editor who received a submission in which every single line of dialogue used a different tag—and even if this is an exaggeration, it isn’t too far from the truth. The other day, I was reading through a nonfiction book on psychology, released by a major publishing house, and over the course of just a few pages, I encountered the following, culled here at random:  “observed,” “added,” “ventured,” “directed,” “moaned,” “sobbed,” “protested,” “insisted,” “clarified,” “roared,” “bellowed,” “challenged,” “sputtered,” “accused,” “screamed.” And don’t even get me started on the adverbs.

When I told my wife about this, reading aloud a few choice examples to illustrate, she told me that in grade school, she’d been given exactly the opposite advice: the teacher had written up an entire chart of alternative dialogue tags, telling students that these synonyms for “said” would help make their writing more vivid, and had even assigned homework in which you were supposed to replace “said” in every sentence with a more colorful cousin. I don’t remember being given that particular exercise, but I don’t doubt for a second that it exists, and that it’s still being given to this day. Half the process of becoming a good writer consists in realizing that adverbs aren’t your friends, adjectives should be used sparingly, and a big vocabulary can be as much an obstacle as an asset—in short, forgetting just about everything you learned in elementary school composition, with an assist from The Elements of Style. Hearing this, my wife said that our daughter will run into trouble when she gets this assignment, which she’ll fail because I’ll tell her to use nothing but “said.” “If she’s really smart,” I replied, “she’ll do it just that one time, get the A, and move on.”

Among schoolchildren

The more I thought about it, though, the more I was struck by how badly we teach writing to kids, and how much essential information we omit at the expense of pointless exercises, even when it wouldn’t be any harder to teach something useful. To take a simple example: ensuring that the lead character in a story has a clear objective and attempts to address it in logical ways isn’t any harder to teach than the idea that every essay should have a thesis statement, supporting evidence, and conclusion—which isn’t to say that it’s easy. In practice, you’ll end up with a lot of stories in which the objective is as clumsily introduced as in those stereotyped essays we’ve all produced in grade school: topic sentence, three sentences of factual support, and a concluding sentence that restates the thesis, repeated five times until the end of the page. It’s a dumb, mechanical way of teaching expository writing, but eventually, you’ll end up learning how to structure a paragraph. Writing fiction works much the same way, and I’d much rather have aspiring writers learn such rules at a time when it could actually inform their most creative years, rather than haphazardly relearning it as adults.

Or, on an even more basic level, take the fact that writing is cutting. I don’t think I ever had a teacher explain the importance of revising our work for length, which is the heart of good writing: we were too busy being told to write at least a thousand words on the causes of Shay’s Rebellion. The rule to cut ten percent from everything we write should be a teacher’s dream—it’s simple, effective, and easily quantified. So why isn’t it something students are taught? Maybe because it’s hard enough to get some kids to write a complete sentence, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason. I just finished judging entries for the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, and as I read through several hundred stories, I was struck above all by their energy: it’s bursting from the page in the stories told by third, fourth, and fifth graders. It’s a fragile energy, of course, and there’s always the danger that it will be stifled by a textbook’s worth of dos and don’ts. But since we’re going to feed them a set of rules anyway, I don’t see why we can’t adjust it, at the proper time, to give them the tools they’ll need to write fiction more seriously. Because the only way these lessons will ever stick is if they can write stories that other people will want to read—and once they’ve gotten a taste of it, they’ll figure out the rest on their own.

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October 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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Stephen Crane

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

Stephen Crane, “The Wayfarer”

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October 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The inscription on Brougham Bridge

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The inscription at Brougham Bridge

But on the 16th day of October…your mother was walking with me along the Royal Canal, to which she had perhaps driven; and although she talked with me now and then, an undercurrent of thought was going on in my mind which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance. An electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth the herald (as I foresaw immediately) of many long years to come of definitely directed thought and work by myself, if spared, and, at all events, on the part of others if I should even be allowed to live long enough distinctly to communicate the discovery. Nor could I resist the impulse—unphilosophical as it may have been—to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula with the symbols i, j, k:

2 = 2 = 2 = ijk = −1

which contains the Solution of the Problem, but, of course, the inscription has long since mouldered away.

William Rowan Hamilton, on the discovery of quaternions

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October 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

Richard Strauss’s ten rules of conducting

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Richard Strauss

  1. Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
  2. You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.
  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were Mendelssohn: Fairy Music.
  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.
  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.
  6. If you think that the brass is now blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
  7. It is not enough that you yourself should hear every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words they will go to sleep.
  8. Always accompany the singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
  9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.
  10. If you follow these rules carefully you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.

Richard Strauss, “Ten Golden Rules for the Album of a Young Conductor”

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October 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

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On the novelist’s couch

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Sigmund Freud

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Freud. Psychoanalysis may be a dying science, or religion, with its place in our lives usurped by neurology and medication, but Freud’s influence on the way we talk about ourselves remains as strong as ever, not least because he was a marvelous writer. Harold Bloom aptly includes him in a line of great essayists stretching back to Montaigne, and he’s far and away the most readable and likable of all modern sages. His writings, especially his lectures and case notes, are fascinating, and they’re peppered with remarkable insights, metaphors, and tidbits of humor and practical advice. Bloom has argued convincingly for Freud as a close reader of Shakespeare, however much he might have resisted acknowledging it—he believed until the end of his days that Shakespeare’s plays had really been written by the Earl of Oxford, a conjecture known endearingly as the Looney hypothesis—and he’s as much a prose poet as he is an analytical thinker. Like most geniuses, he’s as interesting in his mistakes as in his successes, and even if you dismiss his core ideas as an ingeniously elaborated fantasy, there’s no denying that he constructed the central mythology of our century. When we talk about the libido, repression, anal retentiveness, the death instinct, we’re speaking in the terms that Freud established.

And I’ve long been struck by the parallels between psychoanalysis and what writers do for a living. Freud’s case studies read like novels, or more accurately like detective stories, with the analyst and the patient navigating through many wild guesses and wrong turns to reach the heart of the mystery. In her classic study Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

In the Dora paper, Freud illustrates the double vision of the patient which the analyst must maintain in order to do his work: he must invent the patient as well as investigate him; he must invest him with the magic of myth and romance as well as reduce him to the pitiful bits and pieces of science and psychopathology. Only thus can the analyst sustain his obsessive interest in another—the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator—and keep in sight the benign raison d’être of its relentlessness.

To “the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator,” I might also add “of a writer.” The major figures in a novel can be as unknowable as the patient on the couch, and to sustain the obsession that finishing a book requires, a writer often has to start with an imperfect, idealized version of each character, then grope slowly back toward something more true. (Journalists, as Malcolm has pointed out elsewhere, sometimes find themselves doing the same thing.)

Janet Malcolm

The hard part, for novelists and analysts alike, is balancing this kind of intense engagement with the objectivity required for good fiction or therapy. James Joyce writes that a novelist, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” and that’s as fine a description as any of the perfect psychoanalyst, who sits on a chair behind the patient’s couch, pointedly out of sight. It’s worth remembering that psychoanalysis, in its original form, has little in common with the more cuddly brands of therapy that have largely taken its place: the analyst is told to remain detached, impersonal, a blank slate on which the patient can project his or her emotions. At times, the formal nature of this relationship can resemble a kind of clinical cruelty, with earnest debates, for instance, over whether an analyst should express sympathy if a patient tells him that her mother has died. This may seem extreme, but it’s also a way of guarding against the greatest danger of analysis: that transference, in which the patient begins to use the analyst as an object of love or hate, can run the other way. Analysts do fall in love with their patients, as well as patients with their analysts, and the rigors of the psychoanalytic method are designed to anticipate, deflect, and use this.

It’s in the resulting dance between detachment and connection that psychoanalysis most resembles the creative arts. Authors, like analysts, are prone to develop strong feelings toward their characters, and it’s always problematic when a writer falls in love with the wrong person: witness the case of Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lecter—who, as a psychiatrist himself, could have warned his author of the risk he was taking. Here, authors can take a page from their psychoanalytic counterparts, who are encouraged to turn the same detached scrutiny on their own feelings, not for what it says about themselves, but about their patients. In psychoanalysis, everything, including the seemingly irrelevant thoughts and emotions that occur to the analyst during a session, is a clue, and Freud displays the same endless diligence in teasing out their underlying meaning as a good novelist does when dissecting his own feelings about the story he’s writing. Whether anyone is improved by either process is another question entirely, but psychoanalysis, like fiction, knows to be modest in its moral and personal claims. What Freud said of the patient may well be true of the author: “But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

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October 25, 2013 at 8:49 am

Quote of the Day

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André Maurois

Total retirement, natural to the saint, is injurious to most artists. They work marvelously so long as there are materials at hand. Goethe has further advice: “Solitude is a wonderful thing when one is at peace with oneself and when there is a definite task to be accomplished.”

André Maurois

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October 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

The real thing

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It's the real thing

I don’t think there’s anything better in this world than an icy bottle of Mexican Coke, made with real sugar, with a slice of lemon. My wife and I have recently taken to picking up a six-pack of it whenever we visit our local grocery store, and for the past few weeks, it’s been my afternoon treat—although you have to do it right. The lemon is essential, and the bottle needs to be as cold as possible, which means ten minutes or so in the freezer before I pop the cap. The other day, though, I put one in the freezer and promptly forgot about it for hours. When I finally retrieved it, anxious at the thought of losing something so precious, I found, to my surprise, that the Coke was still liquid, at least at first glance. As soon as I added the lemon, however, the entire bottle nucleated at once, transforming its contents before my eyes into something brown, slushy, and delicious. (I’m not the first person to observe this phenomenon, of course: apparently there are vending machines in Hong Kong that sell bottles of supercooled Coke, and you can read more about the science behind it here.)

And because this is how my mind works, and also because I wanted an excuse to talk about it on this blog, I was struck by how much this resembled the process in which an idea takes root in the brain. If you’re a writer, you’ve felt it before: the moment when the seed crystal of a single image or concept rockets through your imagination, altering everything it touches, and transforms a pool of unrelated thoughts into something crystalline and structured. I’ve spoken about this before in relation to my own work. When I was researching The Icon Thief, I started with the vague desire to write a novel about the art world, but it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés that the rest locked into place: at once, the story had its central image, the engine that would drive the narrative all the way to its ending. The same was true of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles and the Shambhala story in Eternal Empire. In each case, I immediately knew what I’d found, and within seconds, a shapeless and unformed web of impressions became a structure on which I could build something substantial.

Vending machine of supercooled Coke

But you need to be ready for it. Coke needs to be supercooled first before it can freeze in an instant, and a long period of preparation is equally necessary for an idea to take hold. I don’t think I would have been nearly as struck by Étant Donnés, at least not as the basis for a novel, if I hadn’t already saturated myself for weeks with books and articles on art. The ideas for the next two books had the ground prepared for them by their predecessor: a world of characters and potential relationships was there already, waiting to be catalyzed. Habit, as I’ve said before, is just a way of staying in practice—and of physically being at the keyboard—while you wait for inspiration to strike, and that’s as true of the search for ideas as for the writing process itself. Even if you don’t have a particular project in mind, it’s necessary to think as much as possible like a novelist as you go about your daily business: looking for connections, images, moments of behavior that might be incorporated into something more. This requires taking good notes, and also supercooling your mind into that state of receptivity without which even the best idea can settle briefly into place without triggering a larger reaction.

Of course, some ideas are like ice-nine; if you touch them even lightly, the reaction occurs instantaneously. It happened to Peter Benchley, walking along the beach, when an idea occurred to him that would change the course of popular entertainment forever: “What if a shark got territorial?” But Benchley had been thinking about sharks for a long time, and he was a professional writer—not to mention the son and grandson of writers who were famous in their own right. Similarly, Samuel Coleridge dreamed of Kubla Khan’s palace only after reading about it in Purchas his Pilgrimage,  and there’s a good reason that the melody for “Yesterday” happened to drift into the dreaming mind of Paul McCartney and not some other young Liverpudian. The more we look at any case of “sudden” inspiration, the more it seems like the result of a long incubation, arising in a mind that has been prepared to receive it. The process can be a quiet, private one, unperceived even by the artist himself, as superficially dormant as that bottle of Coke in the freezer. But once you feel it, when you’re ready, you’ll know it’s the real thing.

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October 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

Quote of the Day

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Barbara Hepworth

Before I start carving the idea must be almost complete. I say “almost” because the really important thing seems to be the sculptor’s ability to let his intuition guide him over the gap between conception and realization without compromising the integrity of the original idea; the point being that the material has vitality—it resists and makes demands.

Barbara Hepworth

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October 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

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This is my best?

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Paul Auster

In 1942, Whit Burnett, the legendary editor of Story magazine, asked a representative selection of America’s most famous writers—ranging from Richard Wright to H.L. Mencken—to select what they considered their single best work. The result was a fascinating anthology, This is My Best, which more recently inspired a pair of enterprising editors, Kathy Kiernan and Retha Powers, to put together a new collection of the same name, drawing on such varied contributors as David Sedaris, Arthur Miller, and Scott Adams. (The latter anthology, which was published only ten years ago, is already a period piece in another way: it refers to “a field trip to the New York City booklovers’ paradise Coliseum Books,” which, alas, is no more.) Both are wonderfully enticing books for browsing, both for the quality of the selections themselves and for the authors’ thoughts on their choices. Every writer thinks occasionally about what his or her best work might be, and the process resembles editing and revision on a higher level: instead of pruning a rough draft to pick out the strongest parts, you’re looking back over a career that may have lasted for decades, pulling out the pieces that stand out from the rest and for which you’d most like to be remembered.

Facing such a choice can be simultaneously enlightening and humbling. Paul Auster, writing in the more recent collection, expresses more than a little ambivalence about the entire enterprise:

I have nothing to say about my choice. Writers know nothing about their own work, and the less they talk about it, the better…Out of so many thousands of pages, why these ten? No reason that I can think of. Forgive me. I apologize for my ignorance.

And it isn’t hard to understand his mixed feelings. When you go back over your own published stories to see which ones were better than others, you’re implicitly raising the question of why your work isn’t always this good. The answer, as uncomfortable as it might be, involves a word I normally try to avoid: inspiration. If there’s one theme I’ve tried to emphasize on this blog, it’s that writing is craft, writing is a learned skill, writing is a job that has to be pursued as systematically as any other. For all that, though, there’s no denying that on some days, the words are better than on others, and when you try to figure out why, it can seem like magic, or a mystery. (Although it goes without saying that those moments of inspiration only come if you’ve developed the habit of writing day in and day out, regardless of how you feel.)

Daniel Keyes

When I think about the work of which I personally feel the proudest, I’m similarly conflicted. On a technical level, I don’t think there’s any denying that Eternal Empire is my strongest novel: it’s the book in which I finally deployed all the lessons I learned from the previous two, and to my eyes, it’s the most suspenseful and satisfying book in the series. Yet The Icon Thief benefits both from the energy of a first novel and the extensive polishing it received: I spent twice as long on it as on the second two books, and I think it shows in every sentence. And City of Exiles is the book during which I felt I was becoming a real novelist. On a more granular level, my best writing tends to appear during a book’s climactic sections, since they’re paying off what the rest of the novel has set up so laboriously, and also because I’m putting everything into them that I can. (For those keeping score, I think the best passages of writing I’ve published in book form are Chapter 47 and Chapter 58 of The Icon Thief, the climactic chase in Chapters 49-52 of City of Exiles, and the whole concluding section of Eternal Empire, especially the scenes on the yacht and Wolfe’s solitary raid on the dacha in Sochi.)

With short fiction, it’s a little easier. My clear favorite of my published stories is “The Boneless One”: some of my happiest memories as an author were spent in its research and writing, and after it finally appeared in print, after many wrong turns, it also received the warmest reception of anything I’ve written, regardless of length, although “The Whale God” may eventually challenge it. I’m also very fond of “Kawataro,” which is one of those rare stories in which everything—plot, atmosphere, the closing twist—all seemed to come together in an inevitable way. When I compare these stories to the ones that don’t read quite as well, like “The Voices,” I can’t really say what happened. Maybe one more revision would have brought my weaker works up to the same level; maybe not. All I know is that writing comes down to playing the odds, on the level of a single day’s work and of an entire lifetime, in hopes that one page out of ten will end up being something that lasts. I’m reminded of the time Daniel Keyes won the Hugo award for his novelette “Flowers for Algernon,” one of the finest stories ever written. As Keyes came up to the podium, Isaac Asimov, who was serving as master of ceremonies, asked the crowd: “How did he do it? How did he do it?” And when Keyes took his award, he said: “Listen, when you find out how I did it, let me know, will you? I want to do it again.”

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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William Golding

The man who tells the tale if he has a tale worth telling will know exactly what he is about, and this business of the artist as a sort of starry-eyed inspired creature, dancing along, with his feet two or three feet above the surface of the earth, not really knowing what sort of prints he’s leaving behind him, is nothing like the truth.

William Golding

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October 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

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How will you be remembered?

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

All artists are shaped by the times in which they live, but we don’t always appreciate how deeply their times can be shaped by them—especially once they’re no longer around. To take an obvious example, I don’t think even an educated nonspecialist reader would be able to name such playwrights as Fletcher, Beaumont, John Ford, or even Ben Jonson if they hadn’t lived at the same time as Shakespeare, who stands as the kind of overwhelming figure who brings an entire generation of fellow writers to our attention. (Marlowe, I suspect, is the only one who might be able to hold his own.) I’m not even sure if we’d be as interested in the earlier history of England, or even the Elizabethan age that the poet prudently avoided engaging in his own work, if Shakespeare had never existed. The presence of one major writer may be the only thing that keeps a century alive in our imaginations, and that writer’s identity can often come as a surprise. It’s probably true that we only remember such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Colley Cibber because of their association with Samuel Johnson, but for a lot of readers, we only know Johnson himself through Boswell.

This is all the more striking in the case of a poet like Dante, thanks to whom countless historical figures—Farinata, Cavalcanti, Bertran de Born—still exist for us solely because they appear in a few lines of the Inferno. Dante, unlike Shakespeare, was aiming for this deliberately: he was keenly aware of how a passage in an epic poem can preserve a name forever, and I’d like to believe, along with Borges, that he wrote the entire Divine Comedy as a way of enshrining a few images of Beatrice Portinari. The earliest function of poetry, at least in its epic form, was to serve as a kind of cultural memory, and it worked; it’s no accident that the oldest historical figure whose name is reasonably known to us is Gilgamesh. The poem remains, even after the civilization and the petty territorial disputes that fueled its indignation have fallen away. To the extent that international readers care at all about the Gulephs and the Ghibellines, it’s because Dante was there at the time. And nothing could have come as a greater surprise to his contemporaries than the fact that they would continue to exist only in the work of a solitary exile.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Even stranger is the case of the diarist, who, unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, writes in secret, but whose works can be just as lasting. Countless figures persist only as an offhand mention in the journals of Samuel Pepys, and most of them would be shocked by which details have been passed down to posterity. As W.H. Auden writes in A Certain World:

The historical reputation of a public figure is based upon a large number of known data, some favorable, some unfavorable. Consequently, a single derogatory remark in a contemporary memoir affects his reputation, for better or worse, very little. In the case of an obscure private individual, however, the single derogatory remark may damn him forever, because it is all we shall ever hear about him.

January 3, 1854. In the evening went to a party at Mr. Anfrere’s. Very slow—small rooms, piano out of tune, bad wine, and stupid people.—Benjamin John Armstrong

Poor Mr. Anfrere! No doubt he had many virtues, but to posterity he is simply an incompetent host.

And it’s interesting to see the same process at work in the artists around us. Some authors are deservedly known as chroniclers of their time: in the New Yorker piece I discussed yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont regrets that we won’t have a chance to hear Updike or Roth on the age of Obama, thanks respectively to death and retirement. Updike, in particular, was one of our great chroniclers of the everyday, and there are countless scraps of ephemera from the latter half of the twentieth century—advertisements, jingles, products, packages—that live on because they briefly passed through Rabbit’s consciousness. It’s another reason to regret the death of the daily comic strip, which, at its best, preserves this sort of material forever: if I’m aware of such disparate figures as Caspar Weinberger and Jessica Hahn, it’s because of my dogeared Bloom County collections. (The wonderful thing about movies is that they pick up all this incidental detail in the fly, so that time turns the movies of, say, Robert Altman into priceless works of reportage.) We all fight so hard to be remembered, and we think we have a good sense of our achievements, but really, if any memory of us persists at all, it’s likely to be in a form we can’t expect, in the work of someone whose name we’ve never heard.

Quote of the Day

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October 22, 2013 at 7:30 am

Honor among writers

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Philip Roth

Writers, by nature, are highly competitive. In principle, writing isn’t a contest, but it certainly feels like one, and in practical terms, you find yourself competing with other contemporary writers for all sorts of things that seem available only in finite amounts: attention from editors, book sales, awards, an intangible sense of where you rank in the literary pecking order. Near the top, among the handful of great novelists in any generation, the sense of being a member of a tiny club—in which the old guard is periodically pushed out to make room for the new—can turn into a weird kind of office politics. And don’t think that the authors themselves aren’t acutely conscious of where they stand. Shortly before his death, John Updike, speaking of Philip Roth, said this to the Telegraph:

Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry, as far as I can tell…I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow.

It’s an illuminating glimpse of what Updike thought of Roth, but I also like that offhand reference to a “list of admirable novelists,” to which Updike seems to have devoted a fair amount of thought.

I found this quote in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent piece in The New Yorker about the friendships between Roth and his contemporaries, including Bellow, Updike, and others, with material drawn from her acclaimed new Roth biography. (At this point, Pierpont might as well legally change her name to “Claudia Roth Pierpoint, no relation.”) The picture we get from the profile is that of a circle of astoundingly talented writers who were pleased to have rivals worthy of their time, but who weren’t always entirely comfortable in one another’s company. You get a sense what it must have been like for two ambitious writers of the same age—Updike was “a year and a day” older than Roth—to rub elbows from Roth’s description of Updike’s “leaping, kangaroo-like energy” as a younger man, followed at once by the wry observation: “I was not un-kangaroo-like myself.” It’s hard for two kangaroos to share a room, especially at a New York dinner party, and for all their mutual admiration, there was also an underlying wariness. Roth referred to the two of them as “friends at a distance,” and when asked by the Telegraph if he and Roth were friends, Updike responded: “Guardedly.”

John Updike

Much the same went for Roth and Saul Bellow, at least in the early days. Ultimately, their acquaintance blossomed into a lasting friendship, but Bellow seems to have initially held the younger writer—eighteen years his junior—at arm’s length. Harold Bloom has famously written of the anxiety of influence, that almost Oedipal ambivalence with which artists regard the predecessors whom they admire and long to imitate, and when two authors are alive at the same time, it runs both ways: a literary mentorship often has less in common with Finding Forrester than with All About Eve. In time, Bellow warmed up to Roth, thanks in part to the influence of his wife, Janis Freedman Bellow, whom Roth imagines saying: “What’s the matter, this guy really likes you, he really admires you, he wants to be your friend.” Freedman Bellow demurs: “I had that conciliatory gene. But it’s not like I was kicking him under the table.” (Bellow’s guardedness toward Roth reminds me a little of how Maxim Gorky described Tolstoy and another rival: “Two bears in one den.” In Tolstoy’s case, the rival was God.)

Yet this kind of rivalry is essential for the cause of art, since it forces the writers themselves to operate at a higher level. Pierpont compares Roth and Updike, fruitfully, to Picasso and Matisse, “wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game,” and it’s a feeling to which many authors can relate. In his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” Norman Mailer memorably recalls his feelings about James Jones, one of the few novelists he seemed willing to consider as a peer, and the failure of Jones’s novel Some Came Running:

I was in the doldrums, I needed a charge of dynamite. If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war, I would have had to get to work. It would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, and I would have had to try to win her back.

Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves—Updike and Roth eventually had a disagreement that led them to break off contact for the last ten years of Updike’s life—but it’s undeniably good for readers, even if the immediate result is what Bellow himself once observed: “Writers seldom wish other writers well.”

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October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

Quote of the Day

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October 21, 2013 at 7:30 am

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