Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2017

Live from Silicon Valley

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Last week, on an impulse, I picked up a used copy of Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that came out more than fifteen years ago. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get to it—it’s a fantastic read, particularly if you allow yourself to browse at random, and it seems to have singlehandedly kicked off the oral history boom that has become pervasive enough to be the object of satire itself. There are countless anecdotes that I’d love to turn into the subject of a post, but I’ll start with this one, from legendary comedy writer James Downey:

Lorne [Michaels] at the time was anxious to get into movies in a big way, and he had a deal with Paramount. And different writers and teams of writers—like Tom Schiller wrote a movie—each had movie ideas. Lorne was pushing [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and myself the most to do a movie. But we didn’t really have an idea. We had the deal before we had the idea, which is not a good way to do anything. So from like the summer of 1980 on and off for the next two years, we just in a desultory way wrote the screenplay, which once we finished it Paramount was then able to officially reject.

The italics are mine. And while it’s tempting to agree that you should start with the idea, that’s often not how it works in Hollywood. Instead, like Michaels, you get a development deal, which amounts to a bet by a studio that you’re talented enough to eventually come up with something interesting.

And you don’t just see this in the entertainment industry. Yesterday, my wife brought my attention to a post on Hacker News with the title “We have a great team and capital but can’t find a good idea.” The poster noted that he had a group consisting of himself and two friends, one with a lot of money from a stint in private equity, the other with a doctorate in computer science. They had “investors that are willing to write blank checks” and “cash in the bank to continue experimenting,” but they were missing one crucial element. The poster elaborated:

We have read everything on how to come up with startup ideas (ranging from Paul Graham essays to The Mom Test). We have ran interviews with friends in corporate and startups, asked old colleagues, attended conferences, organized meetups in our city, a ton of time spent networking, etc. The few product ideas we came up with following the above process we dropped, often because we discovered that that space is ultra crowded or commoditized. We will not give up but are getting unsure on how to break the stalemate. Any tips or advice?

The suggestions, not surprisingly, ranged from “stop looking for ideas and…start looking for problems” to hiring an “idea generator” to getting out of the game entirely. (My favorite: “Find an unsexy domain that you have more access to than the average person. Start to build domain expertise in that area as quickly as you can…Loop back with the people in the unsexy industry to get feedback.” I like this because it’s basically how I wrote my book.)

It’s easy to smile at this sort of thing, but it reflects an assumption that still permeates much of Silicon Valley, which is that what matters isn’t the idea, but the team. Hacker News is an affiliate of the startup incubator Y Combinator, which essentially provides development deals for promising entrepreneurs, with a business philosophy to match. In his book The Launch Pad, Randall Stross says of its cofounder Paul Graham: “Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.” Elsewhere, Graham himself has written:

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea…Since a startup ought to have multiple founders who were already friends before they decided to start a company, the rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.

And the notion that the team itself is what truly counts has led to a lot of talk, legitimate or otherwise, about the concept of the pivot, in which a startup that began by doing one thing abruptly decides to do something else.

In fact, the underlying point here seems sound enough. Ideas are cheap, and incubators are probably right in investing in founders rather than in concepts. If I had the money to be a venture capitalist, I’d do the same thing. But in the end, the real test of the team is its ability to generate and execute a good idea. (Most people who get development deals of any kind have already managed to do it at least once.) And you only get the tools that you need to do anything well by coming up with ideas on your own and taking them as far as you can. Just as you can learn vastly more from writing a novel from scratch than from fanfic or ghostwriting somebody else’s book, shepherding an idea to start to finish is the most reliable way of developing certain indispensable skills. As Chris Rock says in Live from New York:

The best thing about the show is that when you did write a piece, you were responsible for it. You were in charge of the casting. You were in charge of the costumes. You produced the piece. I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live. It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.

You could say much the same thing about any project, as long as you see it to the end. Its lifespan may not be any longer than that of your average comedy sketch, but its lessons remain—which is just another way of saying that ideas and experience emerge from the same cycle. And the apprenticeship is necessarily brutal, in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. As Martin Short puts it elsewhere in the same book: “You’re a star on Saturday night, but if forty-eight hours later you haven’t come up with an idea, you’re a failure.”

Quote of the Day

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In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves—to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together.

Saul Bellow, in the introduction to The Closing of the American Mind

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

Quote of the Day

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There should be a law establishing twenty thousand words as the target length for a book—if you write more, you get taxed so much per word. We’d all get through life a lot quicker.

Michael Frayn, to The Telegraph

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

The essential solidarity of poets

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We now give more serious weight to the words of a country’s poets than to the words of its politicians—though we know the latter may interfere more drastically with our lives. Religions, ideologies, mercantile competition divide us. The essential solidarity of the very diverse poets of the world…is one we can be thankful for, since its terms are exclusively those of love, understanding and patience. It is one of the few spontaneous guarantees of possible unity that mankind can show, and the revival of an appetite for poetry is like a revival of an appetite for all man’s saner possibilities, and a revulsion from the materialist cataclysms of recent years and the worse ones which the difference of nations threatens for the years ahead. The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun, and we shall have to adapt or disappear.

Ted Hughes, Selected Translations

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Renoir at work

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Renoir could not deal with two ideas simultaneously, but he could go from one motif to another and forget the proceeding one. All the problems in a picture on which he was working were perfectly clear to him, and the rest of the world disappeared as completely as if it had never existed. When he did not feel for a picture he never forced it. Those around him knew at once. He would cease humming to himself and rub the left side of his nose violently with the index finger of the left hand. And he would finally say to the society woman whose portrait he was doing, or to the model who had stopped his tune: “We’re marking time. I think it would be better if we put it off till tomorrow.” The lady or the model would look crestfallen. He would smoke a cigarette, play a little with his game of bilboquet, and then make up his mind. “Gabrielle, go and get Jean and his foulard scarf.” Sometimes he would go out for five or ten minutes and walk as far as Manière’s to get a packet of Maryland cigarettes. “You have to stop work and take a stroll once in a while.”

Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

Luther on the couch

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Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther introduced the world to the Ninety-Five Theses. As far as anniversaries go, this is about as big as it gets, but if you find it hard to work up much excitement about it, it might be because Luther himself isn’t read much these days, at least not in English. (He’s notably absent from my beloved set of Great Books of the Western World, which finds room for two gigantic volumes of Thomas Aquinas but nothing from the Protestant Reformation.) As a result, Luther can seem remote to us, when in fact he’s one of the most scandalously vivid of all historical figures. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella refers in passing to his Anfechtungen, or trials, which she lists as “cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists.” Constipation appears here as just one affliction among many, but there are readings of Luther that place his time in the bathroom—a part of all of our lives that goes largely uncovered by biographers—at the center of his career. In Life Against Death, the classicist Norman O. Brown quotes Luther’s own account of a key moment in his religious awakening:

Once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, “the just lives by faith,” “justice of God,” I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.

This is one of the most extraordinary paragraphs ever written, and you can glimpse much of twentieth century literature in its transition to that last, unforgettable sentence. If it isn’t as familiar as it should be, it’s mostly because Luther’s defenders tried to minimize it, his detractors read too much into it, and psychoanalysts seized eagerly on it in ways that have started to seem embarrassing. In the years when the psychoanalytic interpretation of history—not to be confused with other forms of psychohistory—was briefly in vogue, Luther became the case study of choice, in part because he afforded so much material to Freudians. Luther was unusually candid about the bathroom, and excremental images fill his work and conversation. As Brown puts it: “Such historical facts are hard to come by…and historical science should make the most of them.” You could make a strong case that Luther’s openness on the subject encouraged critics to give it an excessive amount of emphasis, just because it’s easier to do this sort of reading on him than on pretty much anybody else. But it’s also hard to claim that these images weren’t somehow central to Luther’s vision. As Brown writes:

Luther records that in one encounter, when Lutheran doctrines had not sufficed to rout the Devil, he had routed him “mit einem Furz”…Other anal weapons employed by Luther in his fight with the Devil—my language here is more refined than Luther’s—are injunctions to “lick (or kiss) my posteriors” or to “defecate in his pants and hang them round his neck,” and threats to “defecate in his face” or to “throw him into my anus, where he belongs.”

And Acocella approvingly quotes Luther’s famous metaphor as he felt death approaching: “I am like a ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to find something comical in Freudian readings of Luther: “Today, psychoanalytic interpretations tend to be tittered at by Luther biographers,” Acocella writes. But perhaps we shouldn’t discourage Freudians from going after the one historical figure whom they might understand better than anybody else. In Life Against Death, after linking Luther’s fascination with excrement with his feelings toward money, usury, and the devil, Brown claims him as one of his own: “Lutheranism can be explicated not only as theology but also as psychoanalysis. Luther, like a psychoanalyst, penetrates beneath the surface of life and finds a hidden reality; religion, like psychoanalysis, must say that things are not what they seem to be.” You could even argue that a psychoanalyst in the first half of the last century would have been uniquely equipped to understand the Reformation from the inside. As Janet Malcolm writes so memorably in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers).

This dual dynamic, which had been enacted within living memory, recalled the Reformation itself, which took Luther’s secret struggle and turned it into a movement that could overthrow kings and empires, with the two tracks running in parallel. And their affinities go even deeper. Luther, like Freud, marked a divide in mankind’s understanding of itself, and their fans and followers don’t shy away from grandiose statements. Acocella quotes a recent biography by Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World: “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.” You could make the same claim—with a different list of values—for Freud. And even their enemies speak of them in analogous terms. In Freud for Historians, Peter Gay writes:

Inevitably, those most hostile to psychoanalysis have been those most alarmed at psychohistory. To them, it is nothing less than a disfiguring, perhaps incurable epidemic that has invaded their craft. The “reckless psychologizing of the “woolly-minded men and women who call themselves psychohistorians,” Kenneth S. Lynn wrote in 1978, has grown into “a cancer that is metastasizing through the whole body of the historical profession.”

The language here is startlingly similar to what Acocella says of Luther’s legacy: “The Reformation wasn’t led, exactly; it just spread, metastasized.” Freud’s revolution may be over, while Luther’s, in some strange way, is just beginning. And if we want to understand one, we can still learn a lot from the other.

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