Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2014

The fascination of the writer’s routine

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The author's desk

We seem to have an insatiable interest in the daily routines of writers and other artists. At least I certainly do. Whenever I read one of the great Paris Review interviews on the art of fiction, my favorite part—aside from seeing sample pages from the rough drafts from the likes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth—is the inevitable question about the little things: when writers get up, what they have for breakfast, how they arrange their desks. The same is true, if not more so, of more formal profiles, in which the journalist, which for other subjects gets to describe arenas of fans or entire battlefields, is obliged to focus his or her observational resources on the smallest of stages. We all love personal gossip about celebrities whose names we recognize, and because a writer’s artistic life is necessarily conducted within the confines of one room, the tidbits we’re going to get are modest ones. Yet they’re also charged with a magic of their own. This is the matrix in which Rabbit Angstrom and Atonement were born, so we can’t help scrutinizing those homely details for clues. (The recent book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey collects many of the best accounts we have of the humdrum routines of artists at work, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding it almost pornographically fascinating.)

Of course, we aren’t likely to get any useful tips from such accounts, aside from the obvious fact that a routine of some kind is necessary. If anything, the most valuable takeaway from books like Currey’s is how varied productive artistic lives can be. Some authors write in longhand, or on a typewriter, or on WordStar; some write in the morning, others at night, and most whenever their schedule allows; some have a particular room where the words seem to flow most fluently, while others are happiest making the rounds of libraries or coffee shops. The only common factors, which you could almost deduce from first principles, are solitude, uninterrupted time, and some way of managing distraction. (Jonathan Franzen keeps a separate laptop for writing in which he’s glued shut the Ethernet port, making it impossible for him to go online—and the fact that I remember this at all, years after reading it in his Time profile, only testifies to how deeply these little facts embed themselves in the brain.) Otherwise, writers seem content to stick with whatever has worked in the past, and if their routines can seem idiosyncratic, it’s out of a mixture of pragmatism and superstition. Once you’ve written a novel one way, it’s hard to imagine taking another approach, and if you do, it’s like Tiger Woods trying to recalibrate his swing: not something to be entertained lightly.

Scene cards on the author's desk

In my own writing life, I follow a lot of little rules, some of them productive in their own right, others totally arbitrary. I always do a mind map before writing a chapter, for instance, and although I’m not sure it leads to ideas I wouldn’t have had anyway, something about the ritual of sitting down with pen and paper—when I do most of my real writing on the computer—seems irreplaceable, and I’d feel as if I were omitting something crucial if I skipped it. I use different magnifications of the text in Word for each successive stage: 150% for the first draft, 200% for the next polish, and 250% for every revision thereafter, so that one line of text fills the entire screen. If I had to justify this, I’d say that it was a way to compel myself to engage with the text on increasingly granular levels, but really, I do it because it’s what I’ve always done, and I like contemplating the smooth lines of Times New Roman as I fiddle with the words. (When it comes time to cut, I’ll often reduce the magnification to 100%, which is tiny on the screen, since it forces me to see the story in terms of large blocks of material. And maybe I think that if I can’t see the words as clearly, I’ll feel less compunction about cutting them.) I have similar rules about when to print a draft, whether to use pen or pencil to mark up the page, and what kinds of books, movies, or music I allow myself during the writing process.

And the rules themselves are less important than the structure they provide. The act of writing fiction can seem terrifyingly unformed: every sentence represents a choice, and like most people, when presented with too many options at once, I tend to freeze. An outline, and the elaborate rules I use to generate it, provides one kind of scaffold to keep me on task, and the daily rituals I’ve developed are another. You could argue, in fact, that the two impulses come from the same place, or that one is a variation of the other, and I suspect that writers who allow themselves to explore tangents and byways more freely are even more regimented in the routines they impose. It’s a process that always seems on the verge of flying apart into chaos, so we take order wherever we can find it, which, in the end, may be why we’re so interested in what other writers have done. We’re all in the same boat, or on our separate life rafts, and we look to other examples of creative routines not for ways in which writing can be done but for reassurance that it can be done at all. Knowing what Oliver Sacks does every afternoon—”I take a brief lunch break, walk around the block, practice piano for a few minutes, and then have my favorite noon meal of herrings and black bread”—won’t teach us how to write Awakenings. But if we’re lucky, it might awaken something else.

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April 30, 2014 at 9:35 am

Quote of the Day

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DJ Spooky

Basically, you go to the root of memory, and it’s all about interaction with found documents—look at how you acquire language. You mirror the environment around you. That’s what sampling does—it’s a process of recall that changes memory as you recall it…The turntable is a permutation machine. 

DJ Spooky

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April 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

Quote of the Day

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April 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The one question you need to ask

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Christopher Alexander

For the last few days, I’ve been leafing with increasing pleasure and delight through the pages of The Nature of Order, the four-volume magnum opus of the great architect and teacher Christopher Alexander. Alexander has long been one of my intellectual heroes—his most famous work, A Pattern Language, would be one of the first two or three books I’d take with me if I had to give up all the rest—but for some reason, I’d never managed to take a look at his most ambitious work, which was first published more than ten years ago. (I’m only reading it now because I stumbled across the set, lined up all in a row, on a shelf at the Oak Park Public Library.) If nothing else, these are stunningly beautiful books, gorgeously printed and designed with a rare integration between text and illustration. Simply browsing through the pictures is enough to send your imagination spiraling off into new directions. And although I can see why these books, which attempt to extend Alexander’s insights from architecture into physics and natural history, have been more controversial than his earlier works, there’s a lot to treasure here for anyone who thinks about design for a living, especially writers and artists of all kinds.

Alexander’s immense appeal as an author and thinker arises from his ability to marry the idealistic with the intensely practical. When we look at the world around us, it’s clear that the fields of architecture and urban planning have evolved in ways that have little to do with his ideas—he’s been much more influential in such tangential areas as software development—and he’s occasionally been dismissed as a sentimental figure who wants to turn back the clock to a simpler way of life. It’s true that Alexander is a tireless champion of the insights of vernacular architecture, of buildings and cities that emerge organically from the lives of the people who live there rather than being imposed from above by professional planners, and if his ideas were simply reactionary and negative, he’d be easier to ignore. Yet he grounds everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. You could build a house using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb he provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, he devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his logic is always clear and persuasive.

The Nature of Order

And his ideas have an applicability far beyond architecture. If there’s a central thesis to his work, it’s that life in buildings and other physical objects can only emerge from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many kinds of complex activity. His prescription, like most profound insights, is both simple and daunting:

We look for the latent centers in the whole. These are not those centers which are robust and exist strongly already; rather, they are centers which are dimly present in a weak form, but which seem to us to contribute to or cause the current absence of life in the whole.

We then choose one of these latent centers to work on. It may be a large center, or middle-sized, or small…

When complete, we go back to the beginning of the cycle and apply the same process again.

In architecture, there are countless institutional, political, and financial pressures that have made this kind of flexible, iterative thinking all but impossible. But for those of us who are writing novels, composing music, or designing software in solitude, we don’t have any excuse.

And even on such seemingly intangible questions as the presence or absence of life and beauty, Alexander gives us unforgettable guidelines. In A New Theory of Urban Design, for instance, he gives us one overriding rule, which haunts me as I try to build and revise my own work: Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city. In The Nature of Order, he gives us an even more vivid way of gauging the life inherent in all objects, a single question that allows us to make direct comparisons between alternatives, which is the heart of the creative process. Here it is:

Whenever we compare two objects, we can always ask: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” We can do it for pairs of buildings, paintings, parts of a neighborhood, doorknobs, spoons, roads, clothes, tables, groups of buildings, parks, gardens. We can do it for actions, for pieces of music, for a single musical chord, for choices of an ethical nature, for a complex choice, even for a single stone set in the earth…We can put the question in a more primitive sense, perhaps, by asking: which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?

In a sense, Alexander’s massive output, with its thousands of pages of illustrations and examples, is just a way of reminding us to ask before all choices: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” For most of us, it isn’t a question we’re used to asking. But why would we ask anything else?

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

Quote of the Day

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Alistair MacLeod

When I type on the computer and see it on the screen, I think that fairies or leprechauns wrote it. When I put my stubby ballpoint pen on the paper, I take a lot of time thinking about what I’m writing. And so I say to myself, “Well, now this has to happen,” and I make little notes to myself, like “Don’t forget to make the parents older than the children.”

Alistair MacLeod

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April 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“Just mend it!”

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Soetsu Yanagi

In South Korea stands the village Ampo, a lonely hamlet, remote from towns. To visit this village was a hope I had long cherished, for I had seen many examples of beautiful turnery (wood turning) made by the villagers. Nearly all Korean woodwork, especially turnery, suffers some deformity in its shape. But this slight crookedness always gives us a certain peculiar asymmetrical beauty, an indescribable charm that entices us into a sense of beauty that is free and unrestricted…

When I arrived after a long, hard trip, I noticed at once beside their workshops many big blocks of pine ready to be lathed. To my great astonishment all of them were sap green and by no means ready for use. Imagine my surprise when a workman set one of these blocks in a lathe and began to turn it. The pine was so green that turning it produced a spray redolent of the scent of resin. The use of green wood perplexed me greatly, for it defies a basic rule of turnery. I asked the artisan, “Why do you use such green wood? Cracks will appear pretty soon.” “What does it matter?” was the calm answer. I was amazed by this Zen-monk-like response. Yet I dared to ask him, “How can we use something that leaks?” “Just mend it,” was his simple answer…

This explains why Japanese turnery looks hard and cold in comparison with Korean. We are attached to perfection; we want to make the perfect piece. But what is human perfection after all?

Soetsu Yanagi

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April 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

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