Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2017

The tendency blanket

leave a comment »

This Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote, “Man is excellently made and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived.” I love the idea that there’s this thing we might call human tendency, and it’s like a big blanket that gets draped over whatever conditions a given time period has produced. So you know, the Spanish Inquisition comes along, and human tendency gets draped over that historical reality, and “being human” lays out in a certain way. Or it’s 1840, and you’re living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and—“being human” looks another way. Same blanket, different manifestation. The Internet shows up, and social media and so on, and the blanket of our human tendency gets draped over all of that, and “being human” looks yet another way.

Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybody’s eighty percent prosthetic, it’s still the same blanket. So the writer’s ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on what’s underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering—Faulkner’s good old “human heart in conflict with itself” idea. That’s what we’re really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.

George Saunders, in the New York Times

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

Writing with scissors

leave a comment »

Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

A writer should not undervalue any tool of her trade just because she finds it easier to use than the others. As you get older you learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Zadie Smith, in The Guardian

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The playboy and the playwright

with 2 comments

In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

Dancing in a box

leave a comment »

In her book The Creative Habit, the choreographer Twyla Tharp devotes an entire chapter to a cardboard box. Before I get to it, though, I wanted to highlight another anecdote that she shares. When she was developing the idea for what became the musical Movin’ Out, Tharp put together a twenty-minute videotape of dancers performing to the music of Billy Joel—at her own expense—as a proof of concept. Only then did she tell Joel himself what she had in mind. Tharp explains:

The tape was a critical piece of preparation and vital to selling the idea to the two people who could make or break the project. The first person was me: I had to see that Billy’s music could “dance.” The tape was visual evidence of something I felt. The second person, of course, was Billy. That’s why I called him the moment I was sure. I have learned over the years that you should never save for two meetings what you can accomplish in one. The usual routine for selling an idea is that you set up a first meeting to explain it and then a second meeting to show it. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Who knew if I would ever get a second meeting? When busy people are involved, a lot of things can happen to foul up even well intentioned plans, so I decided to go for it all in one shot and invested my time and money into producing and editing the twenty-minute tape.

Much of Tharp’s book alternates between inspiring bromides and useful advice, but this paragraph is the real deal. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of such meetings in The Black Swan: “I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees.” He’s right. When you pitch a project to someone in a position to make it happen, you give it everything you’ve got. Even if you’re Twyla Tharp.

As soon as Tharp and Joel had a handshake deal to make the musical, Tharp began to prepare the box that she uses for all her projects, which she describes as a cardboard carton of the kind that you can pick up in bulk at Office Depot. She writes:

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

In short, it’s a place to put ideas—which I’ve elsewhere identified as an essential creative tool—and Tharp prefers the humble banker’s box for its sheer practicality: “They’re easy to buy, and they’re cheap…They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff.” For Movin’ Out, the first thing that went into the box was the twenty-minute videotape, followed by two blue index cards on which Tharp wrote her objectives for the show, which in this case were “Tell a story” and “Make dance pay for the dancers.” (These statements of purpose remain there throughout the process, even if you can’t see them: “They sit there as I write this, covered by months of research, like an anchor keeping me connected to my original impulse.” I’ll return to this point later on.) Other items included notebooks, news clippings, movies like Full Metal Jacket and The Wild One, the green beret once worn by her military adviser, and photographs of location research. Ultimately, that one box grew to twelve. And in the end, it paid off—Movin’ Out broke out of the jukebox musical mold to run for three years on Broadway and win Tony Awards for both Tharp and Joel.

But that isn’t the box that I want to talk about today. Several years after the critical and commercial triumph of Movin’ Out, Tharp tried again, this time with the music of Bob Dylan—and the result, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was such a resounding flop that I don’t even remember it, even though I was living in New York at the time. And there’s no reason to think that Tharp’s process had changed. She began working with Dylan around two years after The Creative Habit was published, and the preparatory phrase, if anything, was even more intense, as Tharp relates: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ was the product of one year of research and preparation and another year and a half of casting, rehearsing, and workshops.” Tharp surely put together a wonderful box, just as she did with Joel, but the result seems to have underwhelmed nearly everyone who saw it. (The critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: “When a genius goes down in flames, everybody feels the burn.”) Like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when everything looks the same on paper, down to the dropped “g” in the title, but lightning fails to strike twice. In her subsequent book The Collaborative Habit, Tharp pins part of the blame on “Dylan’s possessive fan base,” who didn’t like the liberties that she took with the material: “I did not prepare them for the fact that my Dylan might not be theirs.” Another red flag was the fact that Dylan approached Tharp, not the other way around:   

Bob Dylan is charming, smart, funny—and, like Billy Joel, very busy. When he called to suggest that we collaborate on a dance musical, it was clear that I would be filling in most of the dotted lines. And that was a blinking yellow light, for Dylan’s catalog is massive. Before I started looking through it in search of a dramatic thread, I thought to prove to myself—and to reassure us both—that his songs were danceable.

At first, this seems like another reminder that success in art has as much to do with luck as with skill, and perhaps Tharp was simply due for a regression to the mean. But there’s another explanation, and it comes back down to that box. Tharp remembers:

When I first started working with Dylan’s music, I had an idea that really appealed to me—to use only Dylan’s love songs. Those songs aren’t what most of us think of when we list our favorite Dylan music, and Dylan’s greatest hits were very important to the producers. We’re used to hearing him angry and accusing, exhorting us to protest, scorning a friend who has betrayed him. But the fact is, he’s also written a sheaf of gorgeous love songs and it was the sentiment in these that made me want to dance. To have used them and dramatized the relationship they suggest might have produced a show I could feel more intensely. But I had walked away from my original instinct—thus violating another of my cardinal rules—and instead, created an evening rich in pageantry and metaphor, a kind of Fellini circus.

I can picture Tharp writing “Dylan love songs” on a blue index card, putting it in the box—only to have it covered up by clippings, photographs, and sketches of circuses. It was there, but it got buried. (After the show folded, Tharp worked through her grief by dancing in her apartment to Dylan’s music: “That is, to the music I would have used had I not veered off my original path—to the love songs.”) The box evidently has its risks, as well as its rewards. But it can also have a surprising afterlife. Tharp writes of the cardboard cartons for her old projects: “I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.” And just last week, ten years after her first attempt failed, she presented a new show for the current season of Twyla Tharp Dance. It’s called “Dylan Love Songs.” She held onto the box.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: