Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2017

Who we are in the moment

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Jordan Horowitz and Barry Jenkins

By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about what happened at the Oscars. I’m getting a little tired of it, too, even though it was possibly the strangest and most riveting two minutes I’ve ever seen on live television. It left me feeling sorry for everyone involved, but there are at least three bright spots. The first is that it’s going to make a great case study for somebody like Malcolm Gladwell, who is always looking for a showy anecdote to serve as a grabber opening for a book or article. So many different things had to go wrong for it to happen—on the levels of design, human error, and simple dumb luck—that you can use it to illustrate just about any point you like. A second silver lining is that it highlights the basically arbitrary nature of all such awards. As time passes, the list of Best Picture winners starts to look inevitable, as if Cimarron and Gandhi and Chariots of Fire had all been canonized by a comprehensible historical process. If anything, the cycle of inevitability is accelerating, so that within seconds of any win, the narratives are already locking into place. As soon as La La Land was announced as the winner, a story was emerging about how Hollywood always goes for the safe, predictable choice. The first thing that Dave Itzkoff, a very smart reporter, posted on the New York Times live chat was: “Of course.” Within a couple of minutes, however, that plot line had been yanked away and replaced with one for Moonlight. And the fact that the two versions were all but superimposed onscreen should warn us against reading too much into outcomes that could have gone any number of ways.

But what I want to keep in mind above all else is the example of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, at a moment of unbelievable pressure, simply said: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” It was the best thing that anybody could have uttered under those circumstances, and it tells us a lot about Horowitz himself. If you were going to design a psychological experiment to test a subject’s reaction under the most extreme conditions imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better one—although it might strike a grant committee as possibly too expensive. It takes what is undoubtedly one of the high points of someone’s life and twists it instantly into what, if perhaps not the worst moment, at least amounts to a savage correction. Everything that the participants onstage did or said, down to the facial expressions of those standing in the background, has been subjected to a level of scrutiny worthy of the Zapruder film. At the end of an event in which very little occurs that hasn’t been scripted or premeditated, a lot of people were called upon to figure out how to act in real time in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. It’s proverbial that nobody tells the truth in Hollywood, an industry that inspires insider accounts with titles like Hello, He Lied and Which Lie Did I Tell? A mixup like the one at the Oscars might have been expressly conceived as a stress test to bring out everyone’s true colors. Yet Horowitz said what he did. And I suspect that it will do more for his career than even an outright win would have accomplished.

Kellyanne Conway

It also reminds me of other instances over the last year in which we’ve learned exactly what someone thinks. When we get in trouble for a remark picked up on a hot mike, we often say that it doesn’t reflect who we really are—which is just another way of stating that it doesn’t live up to the versions of ourselves that we create for public consumption. It’s far crueler, but also more convincing, to argue that it’s exactly in those unguarded, unscripted moments that our true selves emerge. (Freud, whose intuition on such matters was uncanny, was onto something when he focused on verbal mistakes and slips of the tongue.) The justifications that we use are equally revealing. Maybe we dismiss it as “locker room talk,” even if it didn’t take place anywhere near a locker room. Kellyanne Conway excused her reference to the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre by saying “I misspoke one word,” even though she misspoke it on three separate occasions. It doesn’t even need to be something said on the spur of the moment. At his confirmation hearing for the position of ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman apologized for an opinion piece he had written before the election: “These were hurtful words, and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.” Friedman also said that “the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over,” as if it were an impersonal force that briefly took possession of its users and then departed. We ask to be judged on our most composed selves, not the ones that we reveal at our worst.

To some extent, that’s a reasonable request. I’ve said things in public and in private that I’ve regretted, and I wouldn’t want to be judged solely on my worst moments as a writer or parent. At a time when a life can be ruined by a single tweet, it’s often best to err on the side of forgiveness, especially when there’s any chance of misinterpretation. But there’s also a place for common sense. You don’t refer to an event as a “massacre” unless you really think of it that way or want to encourage others to do so. And we judge our public figures by what they say when they think that nobody is listening, or when they let their guard down. It might seem like an impossibly high standard, but it’s also the one that’s effectively applied in practice. You can respond by becoming inhumanly disciplined, like Obama, who in a decade of public life has said maybe five things he has reason to regret. Or you can react like Trump, who says five regrettable things every day and trusts that its sheer volume will reduce it to a kind of background noise—which has awakened us, as Trump has in so many other ways, to a political option that we didn’t even knew existed. Both strategies are exhausting, and most of us don’t have the energy to pursue either path. Instead, we’re left with the practical solution of cultivating the inner voice that, as I wrote last week, allows us to act instinctively. Kant writes: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” Which is another way of saying that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s probably impossible. But it’s easier than wearing a mask.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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James Thurber

As brevity is the soul of wit, form, it seems to me, is the heart of humor and the salvation of comedy. “You are a putter in, and I am a taker out,” Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald was not a master of comedy, but in his dedication to taking out, he stated the case for form as against flow.

James Thurber, Lanterns & Lances

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February 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

The moon is a harsh fortress

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The May 1947 issue of Air Trails and Science Frontiers

In the May 1947 issue of the nonfiction magazine Air Trails and Science Frontiers, which was edited at the time by John W. Campbell, the cover story was an article titled “Fortress in the Sky.” Its author, credited as “Capt. B. A. Northrop,” argues that the existence of the atomic bomb has rendered the notion of a defensible land or naval base obsolete. The only truly impregnable military position, he writes, is the moon, which will soon be “conquered” by man: “It will probably be reached in five years and completed in ten. Its possessor will be supreme over all nations and peoples of Earth.” Northrop discusses the possible technologies that could be used for a moon landing, and he goes on to make a very peculiar claim:

Here and there throughout the world many men have been thinking about rockets for some time. I recall that in 1930, L. Ron Hubbard, a writer and engineer, developed and tested—but without fanfare—a rocket motor considerably superior to the V-2 instrument of propulsion and rather less complicated.

In fact, “Northrop” was none other than Hubbard himself, and his pseudonym, which is spelled “Northorp” elsewhere in the issue, was evidently inspired by Northrop Aircraft, a frequent presence in the magazine’s pages. (At the time that he was allegedly conducting rocket research in 1930, incidentally, Hubbard was just nineteen years old.) “Fortress in the Sky” was Hubbard’s first major publication after the war. He had been suffering from depression and, unusually, writer’s block, and before Campbell give him the assignment, he had contributed just a few poems and short articles to the Catalina Islander. As such, the piece was a turning point in his career, but as far as I know, it has never been reprinted in its entirety. Recently, however, I got my hands on a copy of the original issue of Air Trails in which it appeared, and I was able to read the whole thing. Aside from Hubbard’s gratuitous reference to himself, which Campbell either believed or was willing to let slide, it’s a surprisingly plausible piece of futuristic speculation. Campbell appears to have provided much of the science, and a lot of the material relating to a future moon colony seems to have been drawn directly from the editor’s unpublished novel The Moon is Hell.

If you’re a science fiction fan, however, the most fascinating section comes about a third of the way through. While listing the moon’s strategic advantages as an atomic missile base, Hubbard notes:

The first [factor] might be termed the “gravity gauge” comparable to the weather gauge so desirable in the days of sailing ships of the line…The gravity gauge is important in the ratio of six to one, in that a missile would have to travel with an initial velocity of six miles per second to leave Earth, but would only have to travel with a velocity of one mile per second to leave the Moon. Such a missile, leaving Earth, would have to go nine-tenths of the way to the Moon on power before the latter body would begin to pull it in by its own gravity, whereas it would only have to travel one-tenth of the distance to escape the Moon and begin to ride down on Earth gravity.

On the next page, a diagram is provided to illustrate this point, with a caption that was presumably written by Campbell:

Skippers of old-time men-o’-war early learned the advantage of the “weather gauge,” which meant being up-wind from the enemy. The Moon affords a similar “gravity gauge” over the Earth by reason of its weaker pull. A missile shot from Earth to Moon must work against the stronger Earth gravity to the point where the pulls balance, nine-tenths of the way out. Missiles fired from the Moon work against one-sixth the pull through one-tenth the total distance, and ride free the rest of the way. Also, the moon has no retarding blanket of atmosphere to slow the take-off.

If I had to guess, I’d say the concept itself probably came from Campbell, while the term “gravity gauge” sounds more like Hubbard, a nautical enthusiast who casually uses the term “weather gauge” in one of his later novels, Masters of Sleep. But this is pure speculation.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Yet if this all sounds a little familiar, it might be because you’ve read Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which was first published in 1966. The novel recounts the revolt of a lunar colony much like the one that Hubbard describes, and in a crucial plot point, its narrator quickly figures out the advantage that gravity provides, with the help of a computer named Mike: “Luna…has energy of position; she sits at top of gravity well eleven kilometers per second deep and kept from falling in by curb only two and a half km/s high. Mike knew that curb; daily he tossed grain freighters over it, let them slide downhill to Terra.” And they don’t need to use missiles at all. A hundred tons of anything, falling to earth from the moon, would generate six trillion joules of kinetic energy, or the equivalent of two-kiloton atomic bomb. All they have to do is throw rocks: “That terrible speed results from gravity well shaped by Terra’s mass, eighty times that of Luna, and made no real difference whether Mike pushed a missile gently over well curb or flipped it briskly. Was not muscle that counted but great depth of that well.” Heinlein had also mentioned this concept before—although, revealingly, not in Rocket Ship Galileo, which is actually about a Nazi military base on the moon, but was written before Hubbard’s piece was published. In late 1947, a few months after the article appeared, Heinlein began work on the juvenile novel Hayworth Hall, later retitled Space Cadet, in which we find the exchange:

“The spaceship is the perfect answer in a military sense to the atom bomb, and to germ warfare and weather warfare. It can deliver an attack that can’t be stopped—and it is utterly impossible to attack that spaceship from the surface of a planet.”

Matt nodded. “The gravity gauge.”

“Yes, the gravity gauge. Men on the surface of a planet are as helpless against men in spaceships as a man would be trying to conduct a rock-throwing fight from the bottom of a well. The man at the top of the well has gravity working for him.”

Heinlein first publicly made the connection to the moon at a meeting of the County Librarians’ Association in Los Angeles on May 5, 1948. (One of the other writers in attendance, incidentally, was Theodor Geisel, who would later become famous as Dr. Seuss.) A writeup in the Los Angeles Times quoted Heinlein as saying that the moon would make an ideal military base: “A power on the moon would have the gravity gauge. The moon has one-sixth the normal earth gravity. It would be like throwing rocks downhill.”

Decades later, in 1965, Heinlein expanded on this point in a comment on his earlier essay “Pandora’s Box,” which was published in the collection Expanded Universe:

The disadvantage in being at the bottom of a deep “gravity well” is very great; gravity gauge will be as crucial in the coming years as wind gauge was in the days when sailing ships controlled empires. The nation that controls the Moon will control the Earth—but no one seems willing these days to speak that nasty fact out loud.

The italics are mine. Given the timing of its appearance in Space Cadet, Heinlein’s remarks on the subject in 1948, and his use of the term “wind gauge” in 1965, it seems clear that he read Hubbard’s “Fortress in the Sky” and was influenced by it while writing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. We know for a fact that Heinlein read Air Trails. Campbell had approached him about writing an article for the magazine, and Heinlein wrote back to the editor on November 11, 1946: “Air Trails shows distinct improvement under your editing.” He was also friends with Hubbard, and there’s no question that he would have found this article intensely interesting. The fact that the three men had all spent time together over the previous couple of years means that we can’t rule out the possibility that Heinlein came up with the notion first and passed it along to one or both of the others. But I think that the simplest explanation—that Heinlein borrowed the concept from Hubbard’s article—is also the most likely one. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hubbard or Campbell that the gravity well could be used to deliver anything other than missiles, and utilizing it to “throw rocks” is, frankly, a much better idea. This implies that Heinlein read the article, mentioned it in passing in Space Cadet, thought up a distinct improvement, and then simply set it aside until he was ready to use it. (As far as I can tell, Hubbard was the first to use the term “gravity gauge.”) Hubbard’s official biographies refer to Heinlein as his “protégé,” which is a stretch even by their uncritical standards, but this is one case in which the direction of influence genuinely appears to have run the other way. As Heinlein wrote in Glory Road, using an image that he liked so much that he returned to it repeatedly: “That’s the way with writers; they’ll steal anything, file off the serial numbers, and claim it for their own.”

Quote of the Day

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Shunryū Suzuki

Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice…It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of mind without any effort. We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make…So it is necessary for us to encourage ourselves and to make an effort up to the last moment, when all effort disappears. You should keep your mind on your breathing until you are not aware of your breathing.

Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

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February 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

The superstructure

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James Ellroy

I take notes: ideas, historical perspective, characters, point of view. Very quickly, much of the narrative coheres. When I have sufficient information—the key action, the love stories, the intrigue, the conclusion—I write out a synopsis in shorthand as fast as I can, for comprehension’s sake. With the new novel, Blood’s a Rover, this took me six days. It’s then, after I’ve got the prospectus, that I write the outline.

The first part of the outline is a descriptive summary of each character. Next I describe the design of the book in some detail. I state my intent at the outset. Then I go through the entire novel, outlining every chapter. The outline of Blood’s a Rover is nearly four hundred pages long. It took me eight months to write. I write in the present tense, even if the novel isn’t written in the present tense. It reads like stage directions in a screenplay. Everything I need to know is right there in front of me. It allows me to keep the whole story in my mind. I use this method for every book…I think of the outline as a diagram, a superstructure. When you see dialogue in one of my outlines, it’s because inserting the dialogue is the most complete, expeditious way to describe a given scene…

I set a goal of outlined pages that I want to get through each day. It’s the ratio of text pages to outline pages that’s important. That proportion determines everything. Today I went through five pages of the outline. That equals about eight pages of the novel…I need to work just as rigorously on the outline as I do on the actual writing of the text, in order to keep track of the plot and the chronology. But once I’m writing text, I can be flexible, because the outline is there. Take today: I woke up early, at five-thirty. I worked for a couple of hours, took a break for some oatmeal, shut my eyes for a moment, and went back at it. I was overcaffeinated, jittery-assed, panic-attacky. Sometimes I go until I just can’t go anymore. I flatline and need some peace.

James Ellroy, to The Paris Review

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February 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

The front of the roller coaster

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Blackpool Funfair roller coaster

The front of the roller coaster is really less stressful than the back part of the roller coaster. The first time you’re worried about a roller coaster, you might be better off riding in the front, because you’re not at the tail end of the whip. The average fellow getting on a roller coaster [thinks], “Oh boy, the most dangerous place must be the front, because you’re right there, nobody in front of you to tell you how to act, and so on; it must be the worst place, so I’m going to get in the ‘safe’ part in the back.” Because that’s what we do: we get in the back of buses, we get in the back of planes, and so on. We figure that’s the safe part.

Well, there’s a certain irony here, because the guy who says, “I’m gonna prove how macho I am, I’m gonna to really conquer my fear, I’m gonna get in the toughest place,” and he gets in front. When he finishes the ride, he must feel like, “Gee, it wasn’t so bad, after all.” Whereas that poor milquetoast fellow who gets in the back, he’s probably never going to ride again. So one of the things you might predict is that people who ride in the front of roller coasters are more likely to ride again. People who ride in the back for the first time are less likely to bother to go on it again.

Marcello Truzzi, at the first annual National Roller Coaster Conference

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February 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The single overriding rule

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Christopher Alexander

In his book A New Theory of Urban Design, which was published thirty years ago, the architect Christopher Alexander opens with a consideration of the basic problem confronting all city planners. He draws an analogy between the process of urban design and that of creating a work of art or studying a biological organism, but he also points out their fundamental differences:

With a city, we don’t have the luxury of either of these cases. We don’t have the luxury of a single artist whose unconscious process will produce wholeness spontaneously, without having to understand it—there are simply too many people involved. And we don’t have the luxury of the patient biologist, who may still have to wait a few more decades to overcome his ignorance.

What happens in the city, happens to us. If the process fails to produce wholeness, we suffer right away. So, somehow, we must overcome our ignorance, and learn to understand the city as a product of a huge network of processes, and learn just what features might make the cooperation of these processes produce a whole.

And wherever he writes “city,” you can replace it with any complicated system—a nation, a government, an environmental crisis—that seems too daunting for any individual to affect on his or her own, and toward which it’s easy to despair over our own helplessness, especially, as Alexander notes, when it’s happening to us.

Alexander continues: “We must therefore learn to understand the laws which produce wholeness in the city. Since thousands of people must cooperate to produce even a small part of a city, wholeness in the city will only be created to the extent that we can make these laws explicit, and can then introduce them, openly, explicitly, into the normal process of urban development.” We can pause here to note that this is as good an explanation as any of why rules play a role in all forms of human activity. It’s easy to fetishize or dismiss the rules to the point where we overlook why they exist in the first place, but you could say that they emerge whenever we’re dealing with a process that is too complicated for us to wing it. Some degree of improvisation enters into much of what we do, and in many cases—when we’re performing a small task for the first time with minimal stakes—it’s fine to make it up as we go along. The larger, more important, or more complex the task, however, the more useful it becomes to have a few guidelines on which we can fall back whenever our intuition or conscience fails us. Rules are nice because they mean that we don’t constantly have to reason from first principles whenever we’re faced with a choice. They often need to be amended, supplemented, or repealed, and we should never stop interrogating them, but they’re unavoidable. Every time we discard a rule, we implicitly replace it with another. And it can be hard to strike the right balance between a reasonable skepticism of the existing rules and an understanding of why they’re pragmatically good to have around.

A New Theory of Urban Design

Before we can develop a set of rules for any endeavor, however, it helps to formulate what Alexander calls “a single, overriding rule” that governs the rest. It’s worth quoting him at length here, because the challenge of figuring out a rule for urban design is much the same as that for any meaningful project that involves a lot of stakeholders:

The growth of a town is made up of many processes—processes of construction of new buildings, architectural competitions, developers trying to make a living, people building additions to their houses, gardening, industrial production, the activities of the department of public works, street cleaning and maintenance…But these many activities are confusing and hard to integrate, because they are not only different in their concrete aspects—they are also guided by entirely different motives…One might say that this hodgepodge is highly democratic, and that it is precisely this hodgepodge which most beautifully reflects the richness and multiplicity of human aspirations.

But the trouble is that within this view, there is no sense of balance, no reasonable way of deciding how much weight to give the different aims within the hodgepodge…For this reason, we propose to begin entirely differently. We propose to imagine a single process…one which works at many levels, in many different ways…but still essentially a single process, in virtue of the fact that it has a single goal.

And Alexander arrives at a single, overriding rule that is so memorable that I seem to think about it all the time: “Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.”

But it isn’t hard to understand why this rule isn’t more widely known. It’s difficult to imagine invoking it at a city planning meeting, and it has a mystical ring to it that I suspect makes many people uncomfortable. Yet this is less a shortcoming in the rule itself than a reflection of the kind of language that we need to develop an intuition about what other rules to follow. Alexander argues that most of us have a “a rather good intuitive sense” of what this rule means, and he points out: “It is, therefore, a very useful kind of inner voice, which forces people to pay attention to the balance between different goals, and to put things together in a balanced fashion.” The italics are mine. Human beings have trouble keeping all of their own rules in their heads at once, much less those that apply to others, so our best bet is to develop an inner voice that will guide us when we don’t have ready access to the rules for a specific situation. (As David Mamet says of writing: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) Most belief systems amount to an attempt to cultivate that voice, and if Alexander’s advice has a religious overtone, it’s because we tend to associate such admonitions with the contexts in which they’ve historically arisen. “Love your enemies” is one example. “Desire is suffering” is another. Such precepts naturally give rise to other rules, which lead in turn to others, and one of the shared dangers in city planning and religion is the failure to remember the underlying purpose when faced with a mass of regulations. Ideally, they serve as a system of best practices, but they often have no greater goal than to perpetuate themselves. And as Alexander points out, it isn’t until you’ve taken the time to articulate the one rule that governs the rest that you can begin to tell the difference.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

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