Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of thoroughness

with 5 comments

Napoleon Dictating by W.Q. Orchardson

The life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his book Representative Men, “showed us how much may be accomplished by the mere force of such virtues as all men possess in less degrees; namely, by punctuality, by personal attention, by courage and thoroughness.” I’ve never forgotten this sentence, in large part because the qualities that Emerson lists—apart from courage—are all so boring and mundane. Emerson, I think, is being deliberately provocative in explaining the career of Napoleon, the most overwhelming public figure who ever lived, in terms of qualities that we’d like to see in a certified public accountant. But he’s also right in noting that Napoleon’s fascination is rooted in his “very intelligible merits,” which give us the idea, which seems more plausible when we’re in our early twenties, that we might have done the same thing in his position. It’s an observation that must have seemed even more striking to Emerson’s audience than it does to us now. Napoleon rose from virtually nothing to become an emperor, and he emerged at a moment, just after the fall of a hereditary monarchy, in which such examples were still rare. A commoner could never hope to become a king, but every citizen could fantasize about being Napoleon. These days, when we tell our children that anyone can become president, we’re more likely to take such dreams for granted. (It’s noteworthy that Emerson delivered this lecture a decade before the election of Abraham Lincoln, who fills exactly that role in the American imagination.) As Emerson says: “If Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.”

This is true of other forms of achievement, too. I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot recently, because it also seems like a list of the qualities that characterize a certain kind of writer, particularly one who works in nonfiction. I can’t speak for the extent to which courage enters into it, aside from the ordinary kind that is required to write anything at all—although some writers, now more than ever, display far greater courage than others. But the more you write, the more you come to value the homely virtues that Emerson catalogs here, both in yourself and in the books you read. Even fiction, which might seem to draw more on creativity and inspiration, is an act of sustained organization, and the best novels tend to be the ones that are so superbly organized that the writer can take the time to see clearly into every part. To stretch the military analogy even further, there’s a fog of war that descends on any extended writing project: it’s hard to keep both the details and the big picture in your head at once, and you don’t have time to follow up on every line of investigation. All books inevitably leave certain things undone. For a writer, personal attention and thoroughness come down to the ability to keep everything straight for long enough to develop every element exactly as far as it needs to extend. One of the attractions of a book like The Power Broker by Robert Caro is the sense that every paragraph represents the fruits of maximal thoroughness. The really funny thing is that Caro thought it would take him just nine months to write. But maybe that’s what all writers need to tell themselves before they start.

Robert Caro

There’s a place, obviously, for inspiration, insight, and other factors that can’t be reduced to mere diligence. But organization is the essential backdrop from which ideas emerge, exactly as it was for Napoleon. It may not be sufficient, but it’s certainly necessary. Our university libraries are filled with monuments to thoroughness that went nowhere, but there’s also something weirdly logical about the notion of giving a doctoral candidate the chance to spend a few years thoroughly investigating a tiny slice of knowledge that hasn’t been explored before, on the off chance that something useful might come of it. Intuition is often described as a shortcut that allows the thinker to skip the intermediate steps of an argument, which suggests to me that the opposite should also be true: a year of patiently gathering data can yield a result that a genius would get in an instant. The tradeoff may not always be worth it for any one individual, but it’s certainly worth it for society as a whole. We suffer from a shortage of geniuses, but we’ve got plenty of man-hours in our graduate schools. Both are indispensable in their own way. To some extent, thoroughness can be converted into genius, just as one currency can be exchanged for another—it’s just that the exchange rate is sometimes unfavorable. And it’s even more accurate to say that insight is the paycheck you get for the hard daily work of thoroughness. (Which just reminds me of the fact that “earning a living” as an artist is both about putting a roof over your head and about keeping yourself in a position to utilize good ideas when they come.)

And it gives me hope for my current project. John W. Campbell, of all people, put it best. On July 5, 1967, he wrote to Larry Niven: “The readers lay their forty cents on the counter to employ me to think things through for them with more depth, more detail, and more ingenuity than they can, or want to bother achieving.” This is possibly my favorite thing that Campbell ever said—although it’s important to note that it dates from a period when his thinking was hideously wrong on countless matters. A writer is somebody you hire to be thorough about something when you don’t have the time or the inclination. (Journalism amounts to a kind of outsourcing of our own efforts to remain informed about the world, which makes it all the more important to choose our sources wisely.) I’m about halfway through this book, and it’s already clear that there are plenty of other people who would be more qualified than I am to write it. My only advantage is that I’m available. I can think about this subject every day for two to three years, and I can afford to spend my time chasing down details that even a diligent writer who only touches on the topic tangentially wouldn’t be able to investigate. All writing comes down to a process of triage, and as I work, I’m aware of potential avenues that I’ll need to leave unexplored or assertions that I’ll have to take on faith, trusting that someone else will look into them one day. The most I can do is flag them and move on. There are also days when even the humdrum qualities that Emerson lists seem impossibly out of reach, and I’m confronted by the physical limits to how thorough I can be, just as I’m aware of the limits to my insight. As a writer, you hope that these limitations will cancel each other out over a long enough period of time, but there’s no way of knowing until you’re finished. And maybe that’s where the courage comes in.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2017 at 9:38 am

5 Responses

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  1. It’s your book. I can think of no-one better than you to write it. And I am waiting with much anticipation! Hot jets!

    marieguthrie

    March 3, 2017 at 3:48 pm

  2. Your diligence and thoroughness in going back to primary texts and sources, and thinking through the details — rather than just rewriting segments stolen from other/previous SF critics and historians (in the same way as bad journalists crib from other bad journalists) — have pleasantly surprised me.

    Maybe I’ll hate the result and probably I’ll disagree with some of you what you conclude. (I’m not a big Heinlein fan, for instance, and find the Kuttners and even Van Vogt of more interest during this period of SF.) And all sorts of slips can occur between cup and lip. But it looks likely that you’ll do a superior job..

    Mark Pontin

    March 3, 2017 at 9:13 pm

  3. @marieguthrie: Thanks for the vote of confidence—I hope the book lives up to it!

    nevalalee

    March 3, 2017 at 9:43 pm

  4. @Mark Pontin: Thanks for the kind words—they mean a lot to me. The nice thing about Campbell, sort of, is that there aren’t any biographies that cover the whole of his life, and almost nothing at all for the last twenty years, which means that I’ve got no choice but to go back to the sources. But it’s also the only reason that it occurred to me to write this book in the first place.

    nevalalee

    March 3, 2017 at 9:49 pm

  5. I solely love your response. It vividly describes you as a humble, diligent and one who can candidly respond to questions in the most humane way, giving the best out of the crude thing.

    Ochanda Wasonga

    March 4, 2017 at 10:02 am


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