Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Turning it upside down

with 4 comments

Mona Lisa inverted

There’s an old rule among artists that says that if you want to check the proportions of a drawing, it’s easier if you turn it upside down. The human brain is designed to find patterns wherever it looks, which can be a hindrance as well as a help: it tends to focus on points of similarity and silently fill in the rest, which means that a portrait can come off as more accurate than it actually is, at least through the eyes of the artist who made it. Inverting it removes that veneer of familiarity, allowing you to see it clearly. The same applies to copy editors, who will often read a text in reverse, starting with the last sentence and ending with the first. When you’re reading something normally, your mind has a way of filling in the gaps and overlooking small errors; read it backwards, and all the typos suddenly seem to pop. Part of this is simply because reading something the wrong way around forces you to slow down, instead of skimming along as you normally do, but there’s also something more profound at work: by looking at a familiar text or image from a different angle, we can restore it to its original strangeness.

This is particularly useful for writers, who have a habit of revising the same story until they can no longer see the words themselves. Every fluent reader of a language tends to process text in semantic chunks higher than the level of the individual word, much as a chess player sees the board in terms of larger groups of pieces, and a writer reading his own story takes this tendency to the extreme: I’ve often caught myself reading my manuscripts on the level of the paragraph, or even an entire page, glancing quickly at a group of lines to confirm that they’re the same as always before moving on—which isn’t anything like the way a reader will initially encounter it. This kind of behavior is what leads to typos persisting after the fiftieth revision, and, worse, to broader narrative miscalculations: a plot point or emotional thread may seem clear to me, but I have no way of knowing how it reads to someone experiencing it for the first time. The result is like a portrait sketch of a friend that looks good to the artist, but which nobody else can recognize: your own familiarity with the subject blinds you to the ways in which you’ve gone wrong.

The Delphic Sibyl inverted

And while it may not be practical or helpful to read an entire novel backwards, there are intermediate ways to temporarily pull yourself back from the text. When I’m doing a rewrite, for instance, I’ll often read the larger sections of a novel out of order: I’ll start with Part III, say, move on to Part II, and then end on Part I. This is especially useful when I’m doing a detailed polish followed by a quick overall read: the second time around, I can evaluate the rhythms of the novel with something like a fresh eye. Because my published novels all move between the perspectives of three or more primary characters, I’ll also do at least one rewrite where I read through each protagonist’s scenes as a whole, which allows me to test each thread for emotional and narrative soundness while exposing myself to unexpected juxtapositions. And if I were really interested in restoring a text’s original strangeness, I’d read it again after changing it to a radically different font, which does a nice job of alienating you from your own words—but I’ve never been able to follow through on this. Even I have my limits.

Still, it’s important to find ways of making our work strange again. Time alone can do wonders, which is why it’s best to wait a month or so after finishing a rough draft before starting a rewrite, but when you’re on deadline, more mechanical measures can be necessary—and they can sometimes take you by surprise. I never get tired of quoting these lines from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen about the great film editor Walter Murch:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas.

These days, we don’t need to manually rewind our film or flip backward through a pile of pages to find the place we need, which makes it all the more important to create those moments for ourselves. And sometimes it requires nothing more than looking at a familiar landscape the wrong way around.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2013 at 9:18 am

4 Responses

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  1. This post is full of great, helpful suggestions for a variety of disciplines…thanks for that! Kat


    December 11, 2013 at 9:26 am

  2. I love the idea of “strangeness”. Very lovely post with great practical suggestions. Thank you!


    December 11, 2013 at 9:43 am

  3. I use the old trick of reading everything out loud. Probably more apropos for my kind of writing than for a novel. I like the idea of reading backwards – I’ll probably try it sometime.


    December 11, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  4. I love that this post got comments from Kat, Kat, and Nat. Thanks, everyone!


    December 11, 2013 at 3:22 pm

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