Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2015

The creator and destroyer of light

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Drawing by Rembrandt

A few days ago, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:

It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.

It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.

But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”

Lisel Mueller

We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.

And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:

The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.

“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.

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September 30, 2015 at 10:11 am

Quote of the Day

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Ted Kooser

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away.  So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

Ted Kooser

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September 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Quantico and the pilot problem

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Priyanka Chopra on Quantico

Note: Spoilers follow for Quantico.

Halfway through the series premiere of Quantico, the new drama being sold to viewers as Homeland meets Gray’s Anatomy, it occurred to me that they had filmed the pitch for the show without bothering to write an actual episode. A second later, I realized that this is exactly what a network pilot is supposed to be. If democracy, as Churchill is supposed to have said, is the worst form of government except for all the others, the process by which shows are picked up on the basis of standalone pilots is the worst possible way to get good television, except that nobody has managed to come up with anything better. A pilot is less the proper opening for an ongoing series than a commercial for what the show could become, and if the industry were smart about it, it would treat those two objectives as totally separate: the network could be sold on the premise with a highlight reel alone, or, maybe better, with an extended trailer followed by the real thing. Instead, we’ve somehow come to the conclusion that these two functions are really the same, which means that nearly every series starts off with an overstuffed, vaguely desperate advertisement for itself. And in a television environment in which the pilot may be all a show ever gets, it’s no wonder that so many series—especially dramas—burn themselves out within the first couple of installments.

It’s too early to write off Quantico entirely, but the omens aren’t particularly promising, as much as I enjoyed a lot of what aired on Sunday. The series certainly has a nice, juicy premise: it’s a soapy look at a class at the FBI Academy, intercut with a flashforward that reveals that one of the trainees—we don’t know which one—is a sleeper agent who will later be responsible for a devastating terrorist attack at Grand Central Station. We can set aside, for now, the issue of how blithely the show trades on images of terrorism in New York mostly as an engine to drive a show in which pretty people sleep with one another: viewers, including me, are ready to forgive almost anything if the result is slick and entertaining. But the show hits all of its beats with such robotic precision that it’s almost unsettling. It isn’t particularly curious about what it would actually be like to be an FBI trainee, or really about anything except how to keep its own plot in motion: within a few minutes, it’s clear that the vision it presents of the academy itself doesn’t have much to do with reality. This isn’t to say that the result can’t be watchable on its own terms, and there’s plenty to like here, particularly in the primary cast. In the leading role of Alex Parrish, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra more than lives up to the hype. I was pleased to see more of Johanna Braddy, who made such a strong impression on UnREAL. And it might be a lot of fun to see these characters collide.

Johanna Braddy on Quantico

What’s less fun is how impatient the show feels: it wants to do everything at once, rather than let the story unfold at its own pace. Every network drama these days starts out with a series bible, a document that outlines the premise and characters in enough detail that the writers can draw on a consistent body of material. One of the unwritten rules of these bibles is that every important character has a secret that will only be exposed later on. Quantico, hilariously, discloses all those secrets in the pilot in the most guileless way imaginable: the trainees are told to investigate one another to find out their secrets, which are then laid out for us in a series of mock interrogation scenes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t more surprises coming, or that the ones we see here won’t reveal additional wrinkles later on—at least one of the trainees, after all, is allegedly a terrorist. But having the characters essentially deliver their secrets to the camera is such a blatant narrative shortcut that it almost starts to feel inspired. I’m not even mad; I’m just impressed. Still, it gets old pretty quickly. At one point, there’s a conversation between two supporting players in which one all but says to the other: “Hey, remember how we used to date?” That kind of bald exposition is standard for any pilot, and we’ve learned to accept it. But nearly every scene serves the same kind of double duty. It’s like a briefing on the show that we could be watching, but aren’t.

That said, the pilot is full of punchy moments—a trainee who commits suicide out of fear that his past will be exposed, the reveal that one of the characters is actually a pair of identical twins—that have an undeniable impact. But they’d be much more interesting if we’d spent more than ten minutes with these characters beforehand. The showrunner, Joshua Safran, is clearly an intelligent guy, and he presumably knows that a character’s death is more powerful if we’ve gotten to know him over the course of a few episodes, or that it’s more fun to produce a set of twins if the series has managed to mislead us for most of the season. But he doesn’t have the time to do it properly, or he’s afraid that he won’t get it. Quantico is like a shaggy dog story that repeatedly tells us the punchline before the joke is even finished, out of fear that we’ll stop listening before it’s over. It shows us a twist as if describing the episode to somebody who hadn’t seen it, and then invites us to admire how great it would have been if it had been allowed to unfold for real. It’s possible that it has more up its sleeve, but precedents here aren’t encouraging: shows that make a point of burning through ideas rarely have enough to sustain a whole season, let alone an extended run. (Even The Vampire Diaries started to run out of steam after its third year.) But it’s exactly the kind of show the pilot system was designed to create. And until somebody comes up with a better way, it’s the best we can expect.

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September 29, 2015 at 8:52 am

Quote of the Day

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Charles Simić

I wish to be understood. I learned that as a young man trying to seduce women with my poems. How were they going to fall in love with me if they didn’t understand what the hell I’m talking about?

Charles Simić

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September 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Bradbury’s list and Aronofsky’s diary

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Ray Bradbury

When Ray Bradbury was in his early twenties, like many aspiring young writers, he had trouble finding his own voice. In an attempt to break out of that rut—in which he wrote a lot of derivative science fiction that even he characterizes as “abysmal”—he stumbled across a technique that he describes in Zen in the Art of Writing:

I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better self to surface. I was felling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trap door on the top of my skull. The lists ran something like this: The Lake. The Night. The Crickets. The Ravine. The Attic. The Basement. The Trap Door. The Baby. The Crowd. The Night Train. The Fog Horn. The Scythe. The Carnival. The Carousel. The Dwarf. The Mirror Maze. The Skeleton.

A few of these titles generated ideas for stories that Bradbury wrote up almost at once, while others didn’t go anywhere for decades. But he would periodically revisit the list to see if any of those words would spark a train of thought, and he was also systematic about it, picking a phrase from the list at random and then writing a kind of prose poem or essay on that subject. More often than not, halfway through, he would find that it had turned into a story. And he continued to consult that list for the rest of his life.

He wasn’t alone, either. Last year, in a New Yorker profile of the director Darren Aronofsky, the writer Tad Friend tossed off a detail that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:

In the mid-nineties, Aronofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years.

The italics are mine. Aronofsky has referred to this list before, most notably in an interview with Slashfilm that appeared a few years earlier:

The Wrestler was my idea. When I graduated film school…one day I wrote a list of ten ideas for films in my diary. And one of them was called The Wrestler. When The Fountain shut down the first time, I started to think about it.

A list of movie ideas that included the seeds of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah reflects a singular creative personality, and it also points to a hidden structure in the career of a director who has often seemed so thrillingly unpredictable. And as I wrote on a blog post on the subject last year, many writers have a similar bucket list.

Darren Aronofsky

What really strikes me about the list now, though, is that these six films aren’t the only ones that Aronofsky was once contracted to direct: they’re just the ones he happened to finish. When you look back at his career, you find that his name has been attached at various points to all kinds of unlikely material: an adaptation of the children’s book Sector 7, a Batman movie, the film that later became The Fighter, a RoboCop remake, The Wolverine, a pilot for a television series called Hobgoblin, and more. If none of them ever got off the ground, at least not with his involvement, this isn’t particularly surprising: the résumé of any director whose name isn’t Christopher Nolan will inevitably include a number of unrealized projects. But it’s revealing that of the six films that Aronofsky has actually seen to completion, every single one of them came from that initial list. This tells us something about the role of passion in bringing a story home—Aronofsky tends to finish the projects in which he has the greatest personal stake—and, perhaps, about the talismanic significance of making such a list in the first place. Aronofsky isn’t the only director, successful or otherwise, to put together a list like this; I suspect that most film school graduates have done much the same. Simply making the list doesn’t guarantee that these ideas will go anywhere. But not making the list all but guarantees that they won’t.

And the crucial point here is that the act of making these lists is also what allowed Bradbury and Aronofsky to find themselves. When Bradbury glanced over the words that he had generated, he was reminded of things about his own inner life that he’d forgotten: his fascination with carnivals, with freak shows, with old people. He writes: “If you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.” And I have a feeling that Aronofsky used his own list to identify the common threads that link his varied output as a director, notably an interest in obsessive outsiders struggling, and often failing, to find human connection. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to devote a notebook or diary page to this kind of list, even if you don’t think you’ll get to some of those ideas for years. (It’s particularly useful for those working in fields where it’s easy to get distracted by opportunities arising in the meantime, as has occasionally happened to Aronofsky.) And it helps to write them all down for real, even if you think you won’t forget them. A life in art, like any life, can change us in ways we can’t predict, and if you haven’t made your list, you may not remember who you used to be—or the stories that person once hoped to tell.

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September 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

Quote of the Day

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James Schuyler

I don’t do any “editing” as such. I used to show poems to Kenneth Koch and he would invariably say, “Jimmy, I like it very much, but have you thought about leaving off the last line?” It got to where this was the one thing he always said. So frequently I would chop off the last few lines to a poem and end it that way.

James Schuyler

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September 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

The rules of what will have been done

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Jean-François Lyotard

[Postmodernism] denies itself the solace of good forms…A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.

Jean-François Lyotard

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September 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

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