Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2016

A writer goes to marriage counseling

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Andre Dubus

Years ago, when I believed or at least hoped it would work, I spent some time in marriage counseling. The counseling did not work because it was one last try at keeping two people lovingly in the same home and, unlike baseball and other pursuits, like writing fiction, a last act of will to stay married usually comes too late. What we did in the counselor’s office was tell stories. A good counselor won’t let you get by with the lack of honesty and commitment we bring to abstractions. And when we told these stories we discovered the truths that were their essence, that were the very reasons we needed to tell the stories; and, like honest fiction writers, we did not know the truth of the stories until we told them. Or, more accurately, until the stories told themselves, took their form and direction from the tactile language of our memory, our pain, and our hope.

Short story writers simply do what human beings have always done. They write stories because they have to; because they cannot rest until they have tried as hard as they can to write the stories. They cannot rest because they are human, and all of us need to speak into the silence of mortality, to interrupt and ever so briefly stop that quiet flow, and with stories try to understand at least some of it.

Andre Dubus, Broken Vessels

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

The power of the page

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Laura Hillenbrand

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2014.

Over the weekend, I found myself contemplating two very different figures from the history of American letters. The first is the bestselling nonfiction author Laura Hillenbrand, whose lifelong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome compelled her to research and write Seabiscuit and Unbroken while remaining largely confined to her house for the last quarter of a century. (Wil S. Hylton’s piece on Hillebrand in The New York Times Magazine is absolutely worth a read—it’s the best author profile I’ve seen in a long time.) The other is the inventor and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose life was itinerant as Hillebrand’s is stationary. There’s a page in E.J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing, his genial look at his collaboration with Fuller on the magnum opus Synergetics, that simply reprints Fuller’s travel schedule for a representative two weeks in March: he flies from Philadelphia to Denver to Minneapolis to Miami to Washington to Harrisburg to Toronto, attending conferences and giving talks, to the point where it’s hard to see how he found time to get anything else done. Writing a coherent book, in particular, seemed like the least of his concerns; as Applewhite notes, Fuller’s natural element was the seminar, which allowed him to spin complicated webs of ideas in real time for appreciative listeners, and one of the greatest challenges of producing Synergetics lay in harnessing that energy in a form that could be contained within two covers.

At first glance, Hillenbrand and Fuller might seem to have nothing in common. One is a meticulous journalist, historian, and storyteller; the other a prodigy of worldly activity who was often reluctant to put his ideas down in any systematic way. But if they meet anywhere, it’s on the printed page—and I mean this literally. Hylton’s profile of Hillebrand is full of fascinating details, but my favorite passage describes how her constant vertigo has left her unable to study works on microfilm. Instead, she buys and reads original newspapers, which, in turn, has influenced the kinds of stories she tells:

Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period—the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

There are shades here of Nicholson Baker, who became so concerned over the destruction of library archives of vintage newspapers that he bought a literal ton of them with his life savings, and ended up writing an entire book, the controversial Human Smoke, based on his experience of reading press coverage of the events leading up to World War II day by day. And the serendipity that these old papers afforded was central to Hillebrand’s career: she first stumbled across the story of Louie Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, on the opposite side of a clipping she was reading about Seabiscuit.

Buckminster Fuller

Fuller was similarly energized by the act of encountering ideas in printed form, with the significant difference that the words, in this case, were his own. Applewhite devotes a full chapter to Fuller’s wholesale revision of Synergetics after the printed galleys—the nearly finished proofs of the typeset book itself—had been delivered by their publisher. Authors aren’t supposed to make extensive rewrites in the galley stage; it’s so expensive to reset the text that writers pay for any major changes out of their own pockets. But Fuller enthusiastically went to town, reworking entire sections of the book in the margins, at a personal cost of something like $3,500 in 1975 dollars. And Applewhite’s explanation for this impulse is what caught my eye:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key word here is “quite arbitrary.” A sequence of pages—whether in a newspaper or in a galley proof—is an arbitrary grid laid on a sequence of ideas. Where the page break falls, or what ends up on the opposite side, is largely a matter of chance. And for both Fuller and Hillenbrand, the physical page itself becomes a carrier of information. It’s serendipitous, random, but no less real.

And it makes me reflect on what we give up when pages, as tangible objects, pass out of our lives. We talk casually about “web pages,” but they aren’t quite the same thing: now that many websites, including this one, offer visitors an infinite scroll, the effect is less like reading a book than like navigating the spool of paper that Kerouac used to write On the Road. Occasionally, a web page’s endlessness can be turned into a message in itself, as in the Clickhole blog post “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World,” which turns out to contain the full text of Moby-Dick. More often, though, we end up with a wall of text that destroys any possibility of accidental juxtaposition or structure. I’m not advocating a return to the practice of arbitrarily dividing up long articles into multiple pages, which is usually just an excuse to generate additional clicks. But the primacy of the page—with its arbitrary slice or junction of content—reminds us of why it’s still sometimes best to browse through a physical newspaper or magazine, or to look at your own work in printed form. At a time when we all have access to the same world of information, something as trivial as a page break or an accidental pairing of ideas can be the source of insights that have occurred to no one else. And the first step might be as simple as looking at something on paper.

Quote of the Day

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Max Jacob

The goal of art is artistic emotion, brought about in a certain way. Everything not that way in all its ups and downs and its limitations only weighs down and weakens. The best effect is reached by exercising the freest choice of artistic ideas, not at all those of philosophers. To delight in useless beauty is to spoil a child by too much love. Weakness when faced with inspiration leads to weakness when faced with the reader. Art’s obligations are the ones imposed on the artist by himself, in his own logic.

Max Jacob, “Words in Freedom”

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The act of noticing

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Jonathan Franzen

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 24, 2014.

Yesterday, while playing with my daughter at the park, I found myself oddly fascinated by the sight of a landscaping crew that was taking down a tree across the street. It’s the kind of scene you encounter on a regular basis in suburbia, but I wound up watching with unusual attention, mostly because I didn’t have much else to do. (I wasn’t alone, either. Any kind of construction work amounts to the greatest show on earth for toddlers, and there ended up being a line of tiny spectators peering through the fence.) Maybe because I’ve been in a novelistic state of mind recently, I focused on details that I’d never noticed before. There’s the way a severed tree limb dangles from the end of the crane almost exactly like a hanged man, as Eco describes it in Foucault’s Pendulum, with its heavy base tracing a second, smaller circle in the air. I noted how a chainsaw in action sprays a fan of fine particles behind it, like a peacock’s tail. And when the woodchipper shoots chips into the back of the truck, a cloud of light golden dust forms above the container, like the soul of the tree ascending.

As I watched, I had the inevitable thought: I should put this into a story. Unfortunately, nothing I’m writing at the moment includes a landscaping scene, and the easiest way to incorporate it would be through some kind of elaborate metaphor, as we often see, at its finest, in Proust. (“As he listened to her words, he found himself reminded of a landscaping crew he had once seen…”) But it made me reflect both on the act of noticing and on the role it plays, or doesn’t, in my own fiction. Most of the time, when I’m writing a story, I’m following the dictates of a carefully constructed plot, and I’ll find myself dealing with a building or a city scene that has imposed itself by necessity on the action: my characters end up at a hospital or a police station, and I strain to find a way to evoke it in a few economical lines that haven’t been written a million times before. Occasionally, this strikes me as a backward way of working. It would be better, it seems, to build the story around locations and situations that I already know I can describe—or which caught my attention in the way that landscaping crew did—rather than scrambling to push out something original under pressure.

Joseph O'Neill

In fact, that’s the way a lot of novelists work, particularly on the literary end. One of the striking trends in contemporary fiction is how so much of it doubles as reportage, with miniature New Yorker pieces buried like bonbons within the larger story. This isn’t exactly new: writers from Nabokov to Updike have filled their novels with set pieces that serve, in James Wood’s memorable phrase, as “propaganda on behalf of good noticing.” What sets more recent novels apart is how undigested some of it seems. At times, you can feel the narrative pausing for a page or two as the writer—invariably a talented one, or else these sections wouldn’t survive the editorial process—serves up a chunk of journalistic observation. As Norman Mailer writes, rather unkindly, of Jonathan Franzen:

Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination—it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better—they stick to the surface.

This isn’t entirely fair to Franzen, a superb noticer who creates vivid characters even as he auditions for our admiration. But I thought of this again after finishing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s a novel I’d wanted to read for years, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, while remaining conscious of its constant shifts into what amounts to nonfiction: beautifully written and reported essays on New York, London, the Hague, India, cricket, and just about everything else. It’s a gorgeous book, but it ends up feeling more like a collection of lovingly burnished parts than a cohesive whole, and its acts of noticing occasionally interfere with its ability to invent real interactions for its characters. It was Updike himself, I think, who warned writers against mining their journals for material, and you can see why: it encourages a sort of novelistic bricolage rather than an organic discovery of the action, and the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. And there’s more than one way of telling a story. As I was studying the landscaping crew at the park, my daughter was engaged in a narrative of her own: she ran into her friend Elise, played on the seesaw, and then had to leave abruptly for a diaper change. Or, as Beatrix put it, when I asked about her day: “Park. Elyse. Say hi. Seesaw. Poop. Go home.” And I don’t think I can do better than that.

Quote of the Day

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Ezra Pound

Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths…Use either no ornament or good ornament.

Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”

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April 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Umberto Boccioni

To make new art it is not enough to believe in it fervently. You must be prepared to champion your cause and set up certain rules as a guideline towards progress.

Umberto Boccioni, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture”

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

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