Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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.

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