Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2017

Twenty-four hour potty people

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Toilet Training in Less Than a Day

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 5, 2016.

Toilet Training in Less Than a Day is a slim little book originally published in 1974 by the child psychologists Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx. I picked up a copy a year ago, after realizing that I was long overdue in potty training my daughter, who had just turned three. Until then, my wife and I had somehow hoped that the problem would solve itself: we bought a Baby Bjorn toilet trainer seat, and after Beatrix took an interest in it, we allowed ourselves to think that she might even teach herself on her own. That didn’t happen, of course—after an initial burst of activity, the seat just gathered dust for a year, and as the days continued to pass, I figured that I might as well do it for once and for all. Her winter break from playschool, which happened to coincide with a slow period in my writing, presented an obvious opportunity. And I was drawn to the book by Azrin and Foxx primarily because of the promise conveyed in its title: given enough advance preparation on the parent’s part, toilet training could be over in a day or two of focused work, rather than conducted at a lower level of intensity over a period of weeks. (I don’t intend to go into the method in detail, and you really do need to read the text in its entirety, but you can find a summary of the approach here.) But as I studied the book and gathered the necessary equipment, my wife cautioned me against having unrealistic expectations: “If it were really possible to toilet train in a day,” she said, “potty training wouldn’t be such a thing.”

At this point in the story, you’d expect some kind of a twist: I’d tell you that the training didn’t work at all, or that there were shortcomings in the method that weren’t evident from a cursory reading. But it worked just great, with a few caveats that I’ll discuss in a moment. The title is a bit misleading: the training itself took about a day and a half, but it was preceded by three nights in which I read the book twice from cover to cover, took notes, and did my best to memorize the instructions. What it proposes, in effect, is a kind of four-hour seminar on the subject of potty training: you sit your child down in the kitchen or some other room with an easily washable floor and minimal distractions, and you essentially conduct a motivational talk, a la Tony Robbins, about the benefits of the toilet, complete with rehearsals and demonstrations. It requires a doll that wets, which was surprisingly hard to find, and a potty that provides feedback when the child successfully does her business. (The one that I ended up purchasing plays a merry tune and says: “Yay!”) You use the doll to demonstrate the process a few times, including a dramatization of what happens when she wets her pants, and then proceed to a series of practice runs, with dryness checks conducted every five minutes and potty trials every quarter of an hour. A supply of snacks, drinks, and other rewards is kept on hand, along with a “friends who care” list to remind her that her grandparents, friends, and Santa Claus are all proud of her. And you’re supposed to talk about nothing else but the potty for however long it takes.

Toilet Training in Less Than a Day

The result, within twenty-four hours, was that my daughter was able to run to the potty by herself whenever she needed to go, lower her pants, relieve herself, wipe, put the tissue in the adjacent toilet, raise her pants, empty out the pot, flush, and even use the closed potty seat as a stool to wash her hands in the sink. Azrin and Foxx aim to have the entire process be totally autonomous, so that you aren’t even aware that your child is using the potty until you hear the flushing sound from the next room. We’ve had a few accidents, and keeping dry overnight is a challenge we’re still saving for another day, but a year later, I have no complaints. And reports from other parents mostly seem to verify this. When you look at reviews of the book online, which are overwhelmingly positive, you find that they fall into two categories. If it worked for your child, the book is great; if it didn’t, it needs to be taken out of print. And it’s easy to overlook the fact that a lot of luck seems to be involved in either case. (There’s also a touch of negative reinforcement that might make some parents, including me, a little uncomfortable: when your child has an accident, you’re supposed to say “No!” in a firm voice, and then conduct ten rapid practice runs before having her change her pants and clean up her mess. Beatrix sure didn’t like it, but it seemed to work.) I also have a feeling that it was the extended amount of time that we spent together, rather than any specific drills, that made the difference: the pants inspections and practices are useful in themselves, but they’re even more valuable as a way to structure the hours upon hours of attention that the approach requires.

And I ended up reflecting a lot about the tradeoffs involved. Yesterday, while talking about baking bread using the no-knead method, I pointed out the inverse relationship between time and intensity in everything we do: you can make up for one by ramping up the other, and the results are much the same whether you engage in intense effort for a short stretch of time or less focused work for a longer period. In my case, I decided that I preferred one day of concentrated training, rather than drawing the process out over weeks, but the amount of energy that I expended ended up being pretty much equivalent. There were also small, unpredictable externalities that arose with the accelerated approach: Beatrix became restless at night, apparently because she was worried about wetting her pull-ups, and I ended up spending a lot of extra time trying to figure out what she needed. There’s no free lunch, in other words: the universe of potty training is basically an efficient market, and what you gain in saved time with the Azrin and Foxx method you pay for in other ways, as a kind of karmic compensation. That’s true of anything in life, but it’s particularly true of parenting: anything that looks like a shortcut probably isn’t, when you take the larger picture into account. I’m proud of my daughter and myself for having gotten through the process so quickly, but it isn’t for everyone, and it probably isn’t an accident that most parents choose a less intensive approach. You think that you’re training your child to use the potty, but when you’re done, you find that you’ve also been quietly training yourself.

Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The rendering time

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No-knead bread

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 30, 2015.

Last year, I went through a period in which I was baking a lot of bread at home, initially as an activity to share with my daughter. Not surprisingly, I relied entirely on the no-knead recipe first developed by Jim Lahey and popularized by Mark Bittman over a decade ago in the New York Times. As many amateur bakers know, it’s simplicity itself: instead of kneading, you mix a very wet dough with a tiny amount of yeast, and then let it rise for about eighteen hours. Bittman quotes Harold McGee, author of the legendary tome On Food and Cooking, who says:

It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.

Bittman continues: “Mr. McGee said he had been kneading less and less as the years have gone by, relying on time to do the work for him.” And the results, I can confirm, are close to foolproof: even if you’re less than precise or make a few mistakes along the way, as I tend to do, you almost always get a delicious, light, crusty loaf.

And the idea that you can use the power of time to achieve results that would otherwise require intensive work is central to much of modernist cuisine, as the freelance food scientist Nathan Myhrvold notes in his massive book of the same name. Government food safety guidelines, he points out, are based on raising the core temperature of meat to a certain minimum, which is often set unreasonably high to account for different cooking styles and impatient chefs. In reality, most pathogens are killed by temperatures as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit—but only if the food has been allowed to cook for a sufficient length of time. The idea that a lower temperature can be counterbalanced by a longer time is the basic premise behind sous vide, in which food is cooked in a warm water bath for hours rather than more rapidly over high heat. This works because you’re trading one kind of precision for another: the temperature is carefully controlled over the course of the cooking process, but once you’re past a certain point, you can be less precise about the time. If you’ve ever prepared a meal in a crock pot, you already know this, and the marvel of sous vide lies in how it applies the same basic insight to a wider variety of recipes. (In fact, there’s a little gadget that you can buy for less than a hundred dollars that can convert any crock pot into a sous vide machine, and although I haven’t bought one for myself yet, I intend to try it one of these days.)

Sous vide

But the relationship between intensity and time has applications far beyond the kitchen. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the rendering time that all creative acts seem to require: it seems that you just have to live with a work of art for a certain period, and if your process has become more efficient, you still fill that time by rendering or revising the work. As Blinn’s Law states: “As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.” And rendering, of course, is also a term from the food industry, in which the inedible waste from the butcher shop is converted, using time and heat, into something useful or delicious. But one lesson that artists quickly learn is that time can be used in place of intensity, as well as the other way around. Many of the writing rules that I try to follow—trim ten percent from each draft, cut the beginning and ending of every scene, overlap the action, remove transitional moments—are tricks to circumvent a protracted revision process, with intense work and scrutiny over a focused window taking the place of a longer, less structured engagement. If I just sat and fiddled with the story for months or years, I’d probably end up making most of the same changes, but I use these rules of thumb to hurry up the revisions that I would have made anyway. They aren’t always right, and they can’t entirely take the place of an extended period of living with a story, but I can rely on them to get maybe ninety percent of the way there, and the time I save more than compensates for that initial expenditure of energy.

And art, like cooking, often consists of finding the right balance between time and intensity. I’ve found that I write best in bursts of focused activity, which is why I try to keep my total working time for a short story to a couple of weeks or so. But I’ve also learned to set the resulting draft aside for a while before the final revision and submission, which allows me to subconsciously work through the remaining problems and find any plot holes. (On a few occasions that I haven’t done this, I’ve submitted a story only to realize within a day or two that I’d overlooked something important.) The amount of real work I do remains the same, but like dough rising quietly on the countertop, the story has time to align itself in my brain while I’m occupied with other matters. And while time can do wonders for any work of art, the few good tricks I use to speed up the process are still necessary: you aren’t likely to give up on your dough just because it takes an extra day to rise, but the difference between a novel that takes twelve months to write and one that takes three years often amounts to one you finish and one you abandon. The proper balance depends on many outside factors, and you may find that greater intensity and less time, or vice versa, is the approach you need to make it fit with everything else in your life. But baking no-knead bread reminded me that we have a surprising amount of control over the relationship between the two. And even though I’m no longer baking much these days, I’m always thinking about what I can set to rise, or render, right now.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

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Vladimir Nabokov

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2015.

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that even ordinary authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s yet another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

Quote of the Day

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Why should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?

Virginia Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf: 1925-1928

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

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