Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2014

The monster in the mirror

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Psycho

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“What are you offering?”

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"What are you offering?"

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted before, writing a series of novels is a little like producing a television series: the published result, as Emily Nussbaum says, is the rough draft masquerading as the final product. You want a clear narrative arc that spans multiple installments, but you also don’t want to plan too far in advance, which can lead to boredom and inflexibility. With a television show, you’re juggling multiple factors that are outside any one showrunner’s control: budgets, the availability of cast members, the responses of the audience, the perpetual threat of cancellation. For the most part, a novelist is insulated from such concerns, but you’re also trying to manage your own engagement with the material. A writer who has lost the capacity to surprise himself is unlikely to surprise the reader, which means that any extended project has to strike a balance between the knowns and the unknowns. That’s challenging enough for a single book, but over the course of a series, it feels like a real high-wire act, as the story continues to evolve in unexpected ways while always maintaining that illusion of continuity.

One possible solution, which you see in works in every medium, is to incorporate elements at an early stage that could pay off in a number of ways, depending on the shape the larger narrative ends up taking. My favorite example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock to die, and his death—unlike its hollow pastiche in Star Trek Into Darkness—was meant to be a permanent one. Fortunately, writer and director Nicholas Meyer was shrewd enough to build in an escape hatch, especially once he noticed that Nimoy seemed to be having a pretty good time on the set. It consisted of a single insert shot of Spock laying his hand on the side of McCoy’s unconscious face, with the enigmatic word: “Remember.” As Meyer explains on his commentary track, at the time, he didn’t know what the moment meant, but he figured that it was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation they might need to give it later on. And whether or not you find the resolution satisfying in The Search for Spock, you’ve got to admit that it was a clever way out.

"It was a lock-picking kit..."

The more you’re aware of the serendipitous way in which extended narratives unfold, the more often you notice such touches. Breaking Bad, for instance, feels incredibly cohesive, but it was often written on the fly: big elements of foreshadowing—like the stuffed animal floating in the swimming pool, the tube of ricin concealed behind the electrical outlet, or the huge gun that Walter buys at the beginning of the last season—were introduced before the writers knew how they would pay off. Like Spock’s “Remember,” though, they’re all pieces that could fit a range of potential developments, and when their true meaning is finally revealed, it feels inevitable. (Looking at the list of discarded endings that Vince Gilligan shared with Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of how many different ways the story could have gone.) You see the same process at work even in the composition of a single novel: a writer will sometimes introduce a detail on a hunch that it will play a role later on. But the greater challenge of series fiction, or television, is that it’s impossible to go back and revise the draft to bring everything into line.

City of Exiles is a good case in point. In the epilogue, I wanted to set up the events of the next installment without locking myself down to any one storyline, in case my sense of the narrative evolved; at the time I was writing it, I didn’t really know what Eternal Empire would be about. (In fact, I wasn’t even sure there would be a third installment, although the fact that I left a few big storylines unresolved indicates that I at least had some hopes in that direction.) What I needed, then, were a few pieces of vague information that could function in some way in a sequel. Somewhat to my surprise, this included the return of a supporting character, the lawyer Owen Dancy, whom I’d originally intended to appear just once: it occurred to me later on that it might be useful to let him hang around. When he comes to visit Ilya in prison, I didn’t know what that might mean, but it seemed like a development worth exploring. The same is true of the lock-picking tools that Ilya examines on the very last page, which I knew would come in handy. As I said yesterday, a draft can feel like a message—or an inheritance—from the past to the future. And you try to leave as much useful material as possible for the next version of you who comes along…

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The divided self

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Julian Jaynes

Last night, I found myself browsing through one of the oddest and most interesting books in my library: Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t know how familiar Jaynes’s work remains among educated readers these days—although the book is still in print after almost forty years—but it deserves to be sought out by anyone interested in problems of psychology, ancient literature, history, or creativity. Jayne’s central hypothesis, which still startles me whenever I type it, is that consciousness as we know it is a relatively recent development that emerged sometime within the last three thousand years, or after the dawn of language and human society. Before this, an individual’s decisions were motivated less by internal deliberation than by verbal commands that wandered from one part of the brain into another, and which were experienced as the hallucinated voice of a god or dead ancestor. Free will, as we conceive of it now, didn’t exist; instead, we acted in automatic, almost robotic obedience to those voices, which seemed to come from an entity outside ourselves.

As Richard Dawkins writes: “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.” It’s so outrageous, in fact, that its novelty has probably prevented it from being more widely known, even though Jaynes’s hypothesis seems more plausible—if no less shattering—the more you consider his argument. He notes, for instance, that when we read works like the Iliad, we’re confronted by a model of human behavior strikingly different from our own: as beautifully as characters like Achilles can express themselves, moments of action or decision are attributed to elements of an impersonal psychic apparatus, the thumos or the phrenes or the noos, that are less like our conception of the soul than organs of the body that stand apart from the self. (As it happens, much of my senior thesis as an undergraduate in classics was devoted to teasing out the meanings of the word noos as it appears in the poems of Pindar, who wrote at a much later date, but whose language still reflects that earlier tradition. I hadn’t read Jaynes at the time, but our conclusions aren’t that far apart.)

Sigmund Freud

The idea of a divided soul is an old one: Jaynes explains the Egyptian ka, or double, as a personification of that internal voice, which was sometimes perceived as that of the dead pharaoh. And while we’ve mostly moved on to a coherent idea of the self, or of a single “I,” the concept breaks down on close examination, to the point where the old models may deserve a second look. (It’s no accident that Freud circled back around to these divisions with the id, the ego, and the superego, which have no counterparts in physical brain structure, but are rather his attempt to describe human behavior as he observed it.) Even if we don’t go as far as such philosophers as Sam Harris, who denies that free will doesn’t exist at all, there’s no denying that much of our behavior arises from parts of ourselves that are inaccessible, even alien, to that “I.” We see this clearly in patterns of compulsive behavior, in the split in the self that appears in substance abuse or other forms of addiction, and, more benignly, in the moments of intuition or insight that creative artists feel as inspirations from outside—an interpretation that can’t be separated from the etymology of the word “inspiration” itself.`

And I’ve become increasingly convinced that coming to terms with that divided self is central to all forms of creativity, however we try to explain it. I’ve spoken before of rough drafts as messages from my past self, and of notetaking as an essential means of communication between those successive, or alternating, versions of who I am. A project like a novel, which takes many months to complete, can hardly be anything but a collaboration between many different selves, and that’s as true from one minute to the next as it is over the course of a year or more. Most of what I do as a writer is a set of tactics for forcing those different parts of the brain to work together, since no one faculty—the intuitive one that comes up with ideas, the architectural or musical one that thinks in terms of structure, the visual one that stages scenes and action, the verbal one that writes dialogue and description, and the boringly systematic one that cuts and revises—could come up with anything readable on its own. I don’t hear voices, but I’m respectful of the parts of myself I can’t control, even as I do whatever I can to make them more reliable. All of us do the same thing, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the first step to working with, and within, the divided self is acknowledging that it exists.

Quote of the Day

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Cartoon by James Thurber

The hippopotamus was drawn to amuse my small daughter. Something about the creature’s expression convinced me that he had recently eaten a man. I added the hat and pipe and Mrs. Millmoss and the caption followed easily enough.

James Thurber

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Asimov’s ABCs

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Isaac Asimov

By now, many of you have probably already seen the previously unpublished essay on creativity by Isaac Asimov that appeared last week in Technology Review. We owe its appearance to Arthur Obermayer, who worked for Allied Research Associates in Boston and asked Asimov, a friend of his, to sit in on some of their brainstorming sessions. Asimov eventually declined to participate further, saying that receiving access to classified information would inhibit his work as a writer, but he left behind a short piece on creative thinking and the conditions that encourage it, both individually and in groups. It’s a charming, useful read, and it centers on a point that I’ve made here many times before:

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected…Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious.

Asimov mentions the famous example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently saw a connection between Malthus’s “Essay on Population” and the problem of evolution, inspiring Thomas Henry Huxley to exclaim: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” This kind of thinking by combinations, or what Arthur Koestler calls “bisociation” in The Act of Creation, lies at the heart of all creativity, and that’s as much the case today as when Asimov was writing. Earlier this year, for instance, the lab headed by Eric Betzig—who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month—announced an approach for improving the resolution and speed of microscopy images, using adaptive optics techniques that had originally been developed for astronomy and ophthalmology. Much of Betzig’s work over the last decade has consisted of taking cues from one field and joining them to another: “We combined the descan concept from the ophthalmologists with the laser guide stars of the astronomers, and came up with what amounts to a really good solution for aberrating but non-scattering transparent samples, like the zebrafish.”

Eric Betzig

These days, most scientific breakthroughs don’t arise in isolation, but through an intense collaborative process: the original paper cited above lists eight authors, headed by postdoctoral student Kai Wang and ending with Betzig himself. At times, as Asimov points out, stimulating connections can only emerge from an environment in which intelligent people have a chance to exchange ideas:

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield as answer.

The problem, of course, is that such ideas or connections don’t come on demand, and the pressure to show results, in academia and elsewhere, can inhibit the kind of relaxed, associative contemplation that inspiration requires. As Asimov notes: “To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time, either.” He goes on to suggest that the thinkers be officially paid for “sinecure” tasks—reports, summaries, and other busywork—so that brainstorming sessions can occur without the additional distraction that arises when one’s livelihood is directly on the line. In other words, he proposes a model that allows for extended rendering time, those amorphous, sometimes unproductive, but always essential stretches of apparent inactivity that allow ideas to coalesce. (It’s the opposite, in fact, of the kind of intense focus on short-term results that drives so much of startup culture.) There’s no surefire recipe for innovation; insights, especially those that make connections between unrelated fields, don’t arrive on schedule. But it’s only by creating an environment in which such connections can emerge, and having the patience to wait, that we can come up with any insights at all.

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