Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2015

The ironmonger’s catalog

leave a comment »

Ford Madox Ford

Carefully examined a good—an interesting—style will be found to consist in a constant succession of tiny, unobservable surprises…

The catalog of an ironmonger’s store is uninteresting as literature because things in it are all classified and thus obvious: the catalog of a farm sale is more interesting because things in it are contrasted. No one would for long read: “Nails, drawn wire, 1/2 inch, per lb…; nails do., 3/4 inch, per lb…; nails, do., inch, per lb…” But it is often not disagreeable to read desultorily: “Lot 267, Pair rabbit gins. Lot 268, Antique powder flask. Lot 269, Malay Kris. Lot 270, Set of six sporting prints by Herring. Lot 271, Silver caudle cup…” For that, as far as it goes, has the quality of surprise.

Ford Madox Ford

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

To be young was very heaven

leave a comment »

David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death

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: “Assuming the afterlife exists, in what fictional world do you want to spend it?

Years ago, whenever I thought about the possibility of an afterlife, I’d find myself indulging in a very specific fantasy. After my death, I’d wake up lying on a beach, alone, dressed for some reason in a dark suit pretty much like the one Kyle MacLachlan wore on Twin Peaks. The world in which I’d find myself would be more or less like our own, except maybe a little emptier, and as I explored it, I’d gradually come into contact with other departed souls who had awoken into much the same situation. We’d be curious about who or what had brought us here, but the answers wouldn’t be obvious, and we’d suspect that we were all part of some kind of ongoing test or game, the rules of which were still obscure. And we’d spend the rest of eternity trying to figure out what, exactly, we were supposed to be doing there. (I’m not the first to imagine something like this: Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series is based on a similar premise. And much later, I was amazed to find the same image in the opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger, in which the airman played by David Niven—who isn’t really dead, although he doesn’t know this yet—wakes up to find himself on a beach in Devon. He thinks he’s in heaven, and he’s pleased to meet a dog there: “I’d always hoped there would be dogs.”)

What’s funny, of course, is that what I’ve described isn’t so far from the world in which we’ve actually found ourselves. We’re all born into an ongoing story, its meaning unknown, and we’re left to explore it and figure out the answers together. The difference is that we enter it as babies, and by the time we’re old enough to have any agency, we’ve already started to take it for granted. There’s a window of time in childhood when everything in the world is exciting and new—I’m seeing my daughter go through it now—but most of us slowly lose it, as our lives become increasingly governed by assumptions and routine. That’s a necessary part of growing older: as a practical matter, if we faced every day as another adventure, we’d quickly burn ourselves out, although not before rendering ourselves unbearable to everyone else we knew. Yet there’s also a tremendous loss here, and we spend much of our adult lives trying to recapture that magic in a provisional fashion. Part of the reason I became a novelist was to consciously reinvigorate that sense of possibility, by laboriously renewing it one story at a time. (If writers often seem unduly obsessed with death, it’s partially because the field attracts people of that temperament: we’re engaged either in constructing a kind of literary immorality for ourselves or in increasing the number of potential lives we can experience in the limited time we have.)

Map of Middle-earth

On a similar level, when we fantasize about spending our afterlives in Narnia or the Star Trek universe, we’re really talking about recapturing that sense of childlike discovery with our adult sensibilities and capacities intact. This planet is as wondrous as any product of fantasy world-building, but by the time we have the freedom and ability to explore it, we’ve been tied down by other responsibilities, or simply by a circumscribed sense of the possibilities at our disposal. So much speculative fiction—or really fiction of any kind—is devoted to rekindling the sense of wonder that we should, in theory, be able to feel just by looking all around us, if we hadn’t gotten so used to it. Video games of the open world variety are designed to reignite some of that old curiosity, and there’s even an entire subreddit devoted to talking about the real world as if it were a massively multiplayer online game, with billions of active players. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s also a reminder of how little we take advantage of the potential that life affords. If this were a game, we’d be constantly exploring, talking to strangers, and poking our heads into whatever byways caught our interest. Instead, we tend to treat it as if we were on rails, except in those rare times when the range of possibilities seems to expand for everyone, as it did to Wordsworth during the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

This inability to live outside our own limits explains why the problem of boredom is one that all creators of speculative afterlives, from Dante to Mark Twain, have been forced to confront, with mixed results. Even eternal bliss might start to feel like a burden if extended beyond the heat death of the universe, and to imagine that we’ll merely be content to surrender ourselves to that ecstasy also means giving up something precious about ourselves. Dante’s vision of purgatory is compelling because it turns the afterlife into a learning process of its own—a series of challenges we need to surmount to climb that mountain—and his conception of paradise is significantly less interesting, both poetically and theologically. But if we can start to see heaven as a place in which that sense of childlike discovery is restored, only with full maturity and understanding, it starts to feel a lot more plausible. And, more practically, it points a way forward right now. As Wordsworth says later in the same poem:

[They] were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some unsecreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

That revolution, like most utopian ideals, didn’t end as most of its proponents would have wished. But in this life, in incremental ways, it’s the closest thing we have to paradise. Or to put it even more vividly: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2015 at 9:34 am

Quote of the Day

with 2 comments

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

“She did not think that she had been seen…”

leave a comment »

"The binder she had selected..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 10. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, I’ll catch myself talking about writing as if it were nothing more than a collection of tricks. It’s much more than that, of course—there’s inspiration, intuition, and hard work involved, although there are tricks that apply to these aspects as well. And there’s always the danger that craft itself can turn into a crutch, or a way of avoiding a story’s deeper implications, once a writer has acquired enough dexterity to paper over lapses of logic or imagination. Yet if I’ve focused primarily on the tricks here, it’s for good reason. For one thing, it’s easier to find something relatively new to say each day about the technical aspects of writing: if I were more focused on inspiration and motivation, I’d end up writing the same post over and over again. And the world is already filled with books on writing that seem designed to do little more than urge aspiring authors to believe in themselves. There’s absolutely a place for this, and I’ve long benefited from words of encouragement from writers as different as John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Stephen King. In the long run, though, most writers figure out the why for themselves; it’s the how that keeps them from taking their work to completion.

And craft has pleasures and consolations of its own. Writing is about a lot of things, but it’s largely a matter of creating a certain kind of awareness, both toward the world itself and toward other works of fiction. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, you look at the people, places, and situations around you in a way that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else; an ongoing project turns the brain into a kind of magnet, drawing bits and pieces of material that would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been a place to put them. What sets the great noticers, like Nabokov and Updike, apart from the others is that they don’t seem able to turn it off, even if they aren’t working on a particular story. For the rest of us, that quality is heightened when we’re tackling something specific: it makes us just a little more conscious, a little more aware. But an understanding of writing’s technical side—which really only emerges after we’ve written a novel or two of our own—goes a long way toward maintaining that level of awareness in the meantime. In art, as in science, we’re more likely to notice something interesting if we have a general idea of what we’re trying to find, and a lot of craft boils down to recognizing something useful when we see it.

"She did not think that she had been seen..."

Once you’ve been writing for long enough, you naturally start to pick up on details of appearance, incident, or behavior that might come in handy one day, but craft also teaches you to pay attention to things that are a little more abstract: a way of describing something, a structure that creates suspense, a scene or character type that you can appropriate and apply to a more concrete problem. Often I’ll be watching a movie or reading a book, absorbed but not particularly excited, and find that my interest is suddenly much higher than it was before. At such times, it helps to step back and try to figure out what happened. I vividly remember watching the great Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, for instance, and feeling a spike in suspense during a scene when two characters illegally enter the house of a suspect in search of a piece of evidence. The entire sequence is charged with tension, and it isn’t hard to see why: even if they aren’t caught in the act, the real possibility remains that they will be, and everything that happens—even exposition—is more interesting as a result. I filed this away, and later, when it came time to write a new scene for The Icon Thief, I had Powell do much the same thing, knowing that it would probably hold the reader’s attention.

That’s the kind of trick I like, and once you start looking for them consciously, it adds a new layer of interest to every work of fiction you experience. When I saw the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt a similar surge in interest during the great scene—taken almost exactly from the original novel, which I hadn’t read at that point—in which Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, steals a file from the archives of his own intelligence agency. It’s a nifty sequence that involves good timing, quick improvisation, and the substitution of one folder for another, and it’s basically a set piece, in its original sense: a scene that could be lifted from one story and inserted into another without much in the way of modification. It doesn’t matter what the folder contains; the beats of the sequence would remain exactly the same. I liked it so much, in fact, that I felt no compunction in using it in Chapter 10 of Eternal Empire, in which Maddy has to steal a binder from the office in which she works. Shrewd readers will probably see the parallels, and might even see it as an homage, when it’s more a case of using a good trick at the right time. Any decent novel, of course, is more than the sum of its tricks. But they’re often necessary for us to obtain what we need, like Guilliam, without getting caught…

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Self portrait by Paul Cézanne

[A painter] must be more or less master of his model and, above all, of his means of expression. His goal is to penetrate what lies before him and to strive to express himself as logically as possible.

Paul Cézanne

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

The sandbox in the Park

leave a comment »

Parks and Recreation

If there’s an overarching critical narrative about Parks and Recreation, which aired its final episode last night, it’s that the show gradually evolved into something great after starting off as a mediocre clone of The Office. That’s true in itself: the jump in quality between the first and second seasons—as Leslie Knope transformed from a clueless bureaucrat to a hypercompetent idealist constantly done in by her own enthusiasm—is one of the most striking in television history. (Its later evolution, from a show about constant frustration into one in which all its characters’ dreams came true, is interesting as well, and probably has something to do with the nature of cringe comedy, which becomes unbearable over time without a larger positive arc to sustain it.) Yet it didn’t happen by accident. If luck, as Branch Rickey said, is the residue of design, it’s important to note how consciously the show’s creators built the possibility of change into the show’s premise. Reading the excellent oral history of the series recently published on Uproxx, I was most taken by the following tidbit, in which Greg Daniels explains how they decided to set the show in Indiana:

We had gone through every state and weighed its stereotype. We ended up with Indiana being it’s a Midwestern state that people don’t hear about much. Didn’t have a lot of stereotypes attached to it, we thought, nationally.

Which, when you think about it, is an extraordinary choice, since it’s the reverse of the approach that most sitcoms would take. When you’re trying to distill a concept into a single sentence for the benefit of viewers or marketing executives, it’s natural to want to choose a location that carries its own train of associations. The second you hear a title like NCIS: New Orleans, you know more or less everything about it. Parks and Rec did the opposite, picking a locale that it could treat as a blank slate or sandbox, to be populated by characters from its own imagination. Pawnee, Indiana is as persuasive a fictional town as anywhere short of Springfield, and this wouldn’t have been possible if they’d set the show in a place we already thought we knew. That kind of deliberate vagueness extended to the premise itself: it began its life as a proposal from the network for an Office spinoff starring Rashida Jones, evolved into a pitch for a mockumentary version of The West Wing, and even briefly considered taking the same approach to a family show, as Modern Family did later. And once they hit on the idea of making a series about local government, it still left them with a wide range of possible tones and stories. As John Ford—who might well be the only filmmaker Ron Swanson would like—said: “A situation must never limit a director. It must never be more than a point of departure.”

Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

I’ve spoken a lot here before about the mystery of television, in which its basic assumptions are constantly being worked out in plain sight, and how little even a show’s creators can understand when they shoot the pilot. There’s a huge temptation to pitch a series with a big, obvious hook, but really, the best shows are initially a little vague about what they’re going to be about. This may be why shows named for locations or environments (The Office, CommunityCheers) often hold more potential than ones named after characters (Two and a Half Men). It’s an approach that only works if the creators assume, correctly or not, that they’ll be given a run of sufficient length to permit them to tease out each element’s potential. Given the merciless realities of television, this may be a form of irrational optimism, but it’s also essential: you’ve got to believe that you’ll run for six seasons and a movie, even if the odds are you won’t. A show that relentlessly focuses on its short game, like Glee, can find itself stranded when it’s given more than a couple of seasons. And while most shows that hope for a long run end up frustrated, when all the pieces come together, as they did here, it can be enormously satisfying. There’s a reason why last night’s finale ranks among the best I’ve ever seen: it’s the culmination of six years of material that the show was allowed to figure out over time.

And if Parks and Recreation stands apart in the amount of affection it managed to generate toward all its characters, it’s because we got to know them as the writers did, rather than being told who they were in a bullet point or two. Jerry and Donna started as background players who were left deliberately undefined, on the assumption that something good would come out of it if everyone waited for long enough. (As Mike Shur says: “Let’s pick these two people and we’ll put them in this office. They seem funny and we’ll get to it later.”) And such developments often arose from solitary moments of inspiration, out of the dozens of throwaway gags in every episode, that happened to ignite something in the writer’s room. Jerry’s role as the hapless office foil emerged from a single joke in the second season, when Mark accidentally informs him that he was adopted; Andy and April’s romance came out of a random pairing in the episode “Hunting Trip.” Like all great ensembles, it was able to experiment with different combinations of characters, and if one of them clicked, it survived, even as the failed drafts—like the attempt to match up Tom and Ann—live on in the reruns. The finale was an extended exercise in wish fulfillment, even for a show that often seemed determined to make its characters as happy as possible. But it was a worthy conclusion to a great sitcom that was made, like a life, one moment at a time.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2015 at 9:40 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Eudora Welty

I never found out the moon didn’t come up in the west until I was a writer and Herschel Brickell, the literary critic, told me after I misplaced it in a story. He said valuable words to me about my new profession: “Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.”

Eudora Welty

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2015 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: