Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2018

The rough draft

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In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the folk craft movement in Japan, writes of an encounter that profoundly shaped his understanding of design:

I was favored with a rare chance of visiting the Korean village where beautiful lathed wood objects are made. When I got there after a long, hard trip, I noticed at once by their workshop many big blocks of pine wood ready for the hand lathe. But to my great astonishment, all of them were still sap green and were by no means ready for immediate use. To my surprise, a Korean craftsman took one of them, set it in a lathe, and began forthwith to turn it. The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin. This perplexed me very much because it is against common sense in lathe work. So I asked the artisan, “Why do you use such green material? Cracks will come out pretty soon!”

“What does it matter?” was the calm answer. I was amazed by this Zen monk-like response. I felt sweat on my forehead. Yet I dared to ask him, “How can you use something that leaks?” “Just mend it,” was his simple answer.

Yang concludes: “With amazement I discovered that they mend them so artistically and beautifully that the cracked piece seems better than the perfect one. So they do not mind whether it cracks or not.”

I first encountered this story in the book The Phenomenon of Life by the architect Christopher Alexander, who uses it to illustrate the principle of “roughness,” which is one of the fifteen fundamental properties that he associates with living works of art. After sharing his own version of Yanagi’s anecdote, Alexander comments:

It does not mean that the old man doesn’t care about the blows he makes. But he is deeply relaxed about it, not panicked. And in this state where nothing is quite so important, nothing is so terribly, heart-twistingly vital, he knows that he can let the greatest beauty show itself—and this is the only state of mind in which the property of roughness and the breath that lies in a thing which has the “it” in it can ever come to life.

This strikes me as a profound insight, and it has important implications for how we approach the first drafts of anything that we do. I’ve frequently written here about the importance of doing a rough first pass on any project, and that you shouldn’t go back to read or revise what you’ve done until the whole thing is complete. This is basically a pragmatic rule, born out of my observation that I was much more likely to finish something if I pushed through to the end without looking back. When you stop to fix every small problem along the way—or, even worse, wait until everything seems perfect before you start—you run the risk of never completing anything at all. And the notion of starting with green wood, which will inevitably lead to imperfections, is a memorable expression of the fact that sometimes it’s best to just get started and figure out the rest later.

But there’s also something about roughness that can be desirable in itself. We tend to think of a rough draft as something to be tolerated until it can be corrected—we just have to live with it for long enough to get to the point where we can fix it. (This is the insight that underlies one of my favorite pieces of creative advice, which William Goldman attributes to the theater producer George Abbott, who was speaking to one of his choreographers: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”) But roughness is more than a means to an end. Alexander notes that many works of art that we cherish have a certain rough quality to their surfaces, but he cautions us against misreading it: “We probably attribute this charm to the fact that the bowl is handmade and that we can see, in the roughness, the trace of a human hand, and know therefore that it is personal, full of human error. This interpretation is fallacious, and has entirely the wrong emphasis.” He argues that roughness is a creative strategy that comes into play when perfect regularity would fail on the level of the whole, as in a rug with a complicated pattern, which requires the weaver to maintain a high level of awareness at all times:

If the weaver wanted instead to calculate or plot out a so-called “perfect” solution to the corner [of the rug], she would then have to abandon her constant attention to the right size, right shape, and right positive-negative of the border elements, because they would all be determined mechanically by outside considerations, i.e. by the grid of the border. The corner solution would then dominate the design in a way which would destroy the weaver’s ability to do what is just right at each point.

And Alexander’s conclusion is worth remembering: “The seemingly rough solution—which seems superficially inaccurate—is in fact more precise, not less so, because it comes about as a result of paying attention to what matters most, and letting go of what matters less.” Which seems to me like the most important point of all. Roughness allows an artist to adapt to problems in real time, preserving that ideal state of attentiveness that arises when each unit is addressed on its own terms, rather than as a component in an artificial scheme. When combined with an overall feel for order, it allows for flexibility and improvisation in the moment, but only when approached with what Alexander calls an “egolessness, which allows each part to be made exactly as it needs to be.” And this also requires a paradoxical detachment from the ideal of roughness itself. As Yanagi writes of Korean lathe workers:

They have neither attachment to the perfect piece nor to the imperfect…Since they use green wood, the wares inevitably deform in drying. So this asymmetry is but a natural outcome of their state of mind, not the result of conscious choice. That is to say, their minds are free from any attachment to symmetry as well as asymmetry. The deformation of their work is the natural result of nonchalance, free from any restriction…They make their asymmetrical lathe work not because they regard asymmetrical form as beautiful or symmetrical as ugly, but because they make everything without such polarized conceptions. They are quite free from the conflict between the beautiful and the ugly. Here, deeply buried, is the mystery of the endless beauty of Korean wares. They just make what they make without any pretension.

This sounds like it should be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it’s really the hardest. And perhaps the only way to do it reliably is to make a point of working whenever we can with green wood.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2018 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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Seems to me most bad breaks happen inside a man’s pattern. He gets out of phase with it and every step he takes is between the steppin’stones. If he can’t phase in, and if he tries to maintain his pace, why there’s a whole row of stones ahead of him laid just exactly where each and every one of them will crack his shins. What he should do is head upstream. It might be unknown territory, and there might be dangers, but one thing for sure, there’s a whole row of absolutely certain, absolutely planned agonies he is just not going to have to suffer.

Theodore Sturgeon“If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

Going with the flow

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On July 13, 1963, New York University welcomed a hundred attendees to an event called the Conference on Education for Creativity in the Sciences. The gathering, which lasted for three days, was inspired by the work of Dr. Myron A. Coler, the director of the school’s Creative Science Program. There isn’t a lot of information available online about Coler, who was trained as an electrical engineer, and the best source I’ve found is an unsigned Talk of the Town piece that ran earlier that week in The New Yorker. It presents Coler as a scholar who was interested in the problem of scientific creativity long before it became fashionable: “What is it, how does it happen, how is it fostered—can it be isolated, measured, nurtured, predicted, directed, and so on…By enhancing it, you produce more from what you have of other resources. The ability to exploit a resource is in itself a resource.” He conducted monthly meetings for years with a select group of scientists, writing down everything that they had to say on the subject, including a lot of wild guesses about how to identify creative or productive people. Here’s my favorite:

One analyst claims that one of the best ways that he knows to test an individual is to take him out to dinner where lobster or crab is served. If the person uses his hands freely and seems to enjoy himself at the meal, he is probably well adjusted. If, on the other hand, he has trouble in eating the crab, he probably will have trouble in his relations with people also.

The conference was overseen by Jerome B. Wiesner, another former electrical engineer, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner’s interest lay in education, and particularly in identifying and training children who showed an early aptitude for science. In an article that was published a few years later in the journal Daedalus, Wiesner listed some of the attributes that were often seen in such individuals, based on the work of the pioneering clinical psychologist Anne Roe:

A childhood environment in which knowledge and intellectual effort were so highly valued for themselves than an addiction to reading and study was firmly established at an early age; an unusual degree of independence which, among other things, led them to discover early that they could satisfy their curiosity by personal efforts; an early dependence on personal resources, and on the necessity to think for oneself; an intense drive that generated concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts in their studies and work; a secondary-school training that tended to emphasize science rather than the humanities; and high, but not necessarily remarkably high, intelligence.

But Wiesner also closed on a note of caution: “We do not now have useful techniques for predicting with comfortable reliability which individuals will turn out to be creative in the sciences or in any other field, no matter how great an investment we make in their education. Nor does it appear likely that such techniques will be developed in the immediate future.”

As it happened, one of the attendees at the conference was Isaac Asimov, who took the bus down to New York from Boston. Years afterward, he said that he couldn’t remember much about the experience—he was more concerned by the fact that he lost the wad of two hundred dollars that he had brought as emergency cash—and that his contributions to the discussion weren’t taken seriously. When the question came up of how to identify potentially creative individuals at a young age, he said without hesitation: “Keep an eye peeled for science-fiction readers.” No one else paid much attention, but Asimov didn’t forget the idea, and he wrote it up later that year in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” which was published by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His views on the subject were undoubtedly shaped by his personal preferences, but he was also probably right. (He certainly met most of the criteria listed by Weisner, aside from “an unusual degree of independence,” since he was tied down for most of his adolescence to his father’s candy store.) And science fiction had more in common with Coler and Wiesner’s efforts than they might have appreciated. The editor John W. Campbell had always seen the genre as a kind of training program that taught its readers how to survive in the future, and Weisner described “tomorrow’s world” in terms that might have been pulled straight from Astounding: “That world will be more complex than it is today, will be changing more rapidly than now, and it will have jobs only for the well trained.” Weisner closed with a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed…Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.

These issues tend to come to the forefront during times of national anxiety, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence in them today. In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik rounded up a few recent titles on education and child prodigies, which reflect “the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.” The catch is that while the current wisdom says that we should maximize our children’s independence, most child prodigies were the result of intensive parental involvement, which implies that the real secret to creative achievement lies somewhere else. And the answer may be right in front of us. As Gopnik writes of the author Ann Hulbert’s account of of the piano prodigy Lang Lang:

Lang Lang admits to the brutal pressures placed on him by his father…He was saved because he had, as Hulbert writes, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” Following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hulbert maintains that it was being caught in “the flow,” the feeling of the sudden loss of oneself in an activity, that preserved Lang Lang’s sanity: “The prize always beckoned, but Lang was finding ways to get lost in the process.”

This is very close to the “concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts” that Weisner described fifty years ago, as well as his characterization of learning as “an addiction.” Gopnik concludes: “Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all.” And it seems to have been this sense of flow, above all else, that led Asimov to write more than four hundred books. He was addicted to it. As he once wrote to Robert A. Heinlein: “I like it in the attic room with the wallpaper. I’ve been all over the galaxy. What’s left to see?”

Quote of the Day

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The result of the mathematician’s creative work is demonstrative reasoning, a proof; but the proof is discovered by plausible reasoning, by guessing. If the learning of mathematics reflects to any degree the invention of mathematics, it must have a place for guessing, for plausible inference…In plausible reasoning the principal thing is to distinguish a guess from a guess, a more plausible guess from a less reasonable guess…A serious student of mathematics, intending to make it his life’s work, must learn demonstrative reasoning; it is his profession and the distinctive mark of his science. Yet for real success he must also learn plausible reasoning; this is the kind of reasoning on which his creative work will depend.

George Pólya, Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

Childhood’s end

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood. One of the inciting factors was the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which I enjoyed a great deal when I finally saw it. It’s a blue-chip horror film, with a likable cast and fantastic visuals, and its creators clearly care as much about the original novel as I do. In theory, the shift of its setting to the late eighties should make it even more resonant, since this is a period that I know and remember firsthand. Yet it isn’t quite as effective as it should be, since it only tells the half of the story that focuses on the main characters as children, and most of the book’s power comes from its treatment of memory, childhood, and forgetfulness—which director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators must know perfectly well. Under the circumstances, they’ve done just about the best job imaginable, but they inevitably miss a crucial side of a book that has been a part of my life for decades, even if I was too young to appreciate it on my first reading. I was about twelve years old at the time, which means that I wasn’t in a position to understand its warning that I was doomed to forget much of who I was and what I did. (King’s uncanny ability to evoke his own childhood so vividly speaks as much as anything else to his talents.) As time passes, this is the aspect of the book that impresses me the most, and it’s one that the movie in its current form isn’t able to address. A demonic clown is pretty scary, but not as much as the realization, which isn’t a fantasy at all, that we have to cut ourselves off from much of who we were as children in order to function as adults. And I’m saying this as someone who has remained almost bizarrely faithful to the values that I held when I was ten years old.

In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to read Pennywise the Dancing Clown as the terrifying embodiment of the act of forgetting itself. In his memoir Self-ConsciousnessJohn Updike—who is mentioned briefly in It and lends his last name to a supporting character in The Talisman—described this autobiographical amnesia in terms that could serve as an epigraph to King’s novel:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormenter, relentlessly pushing his cartoons ad posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot.

Updike sounds a lot here like King’s class clown Richie Tozier, and his contempt toward his teenage self is one to which most of us can relate. Yet Updike’s memories of that period seem slightly less vivid than the ones that he explored elsewhere in his fiction. He only rarely mined them for material, even as he squeezed most of his other experiences to the last drop, which implies that even Updike, our greatest noticer, preferred to draw a curtain of charity across himself as an adolescent. And you can hardly blame him.

I was reminded of this by the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which is about nothing less than the ways in which we misremember our childhoods, even if this theme is cunningly hidden behind its myriad other layers. At one point, Scully says to Reggie: “None of us remember our high school years with much accuracy.” In context, it seems like an irrelevant remark, but it was evidently important to Darin Morgan, who said to Entertainment Weekly:

When we think back on our memories from our youth, we have a tendency—or at least I do—to imagine my current mindset. Whenever I think about my youth, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” And then you drive by high school students and you go, “Oh, that’s why I didn’t do it. Because I was a kid.” You tend to think of your adult consciousness, and you take that with you when you’re thinking back on your memories and things you’ve done in the past. Our memories are sometimes not quite accurate.

In “Forehead Sweat,” Morgan expresses this through a weird flashback in which we see Mulder’s adult head superimposed on his preadolescent body, which is a broad visual gag that also gets at something real. We really do seem to recall the past through the lens of our current selves, so we’re naturally mortified by what we find there—which neatly overlooks the point that everything that embarrasses us about our younger years is what allowed us to become what we are now. I often think about this when I look at my daughter, who is so much like me at the age of five that it scares me. And although I want to give her the sort of advice that I wish I’d heard at the time, I know that it’s probably pointless.

Childhood and adolescence are obstacle courses—and occasional horror shows—that we all need to navigate for ourselves, and even if we sometimes feel humiliated when we look back, that’s part of the point. Marcel Proust, who thought more intensely about memory and forgetting than anybody else, put it best in Within a Budding Grove:

There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded…We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

I believe this, even if I don’t have much of a choice. My childhood is a blur, but it’s also part of me, and on some level, it never ended. King might be speaking of adolescence itself when he writes in the first sentence of It: “The terror…would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end.” And I can only echo what Updike wistfully says elsewhere: “I’ve remained all too true to my youthful self.”

Quote of the Day

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It seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

Songwriters and systems

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Everyone’s got systems. And even if your system is no system, that’s a system. My system is who fucking knows. But that’s still a system. So, other songwriters…have some literal ideas. Like, if the verse vocal starts on the one-beat, the pre-chorus can’t. A lot of people have the rule that do what the song says. If you shout “stop” in the song, the song should stop. If you say, “I’m alone in my room” in the song, it should go down to very few instruments. So a lot of people have math. And that’s fucking great, and a lot of great songs have come from that. I’m literally bad at math, quite literally. So I’ve never tried to engage in that…As long as you never wanna confuse people on purpose—which I never do, I don’t get off on that—it’s really exciting to find confusing things that are also satisfying. I like that. If that was my niche, then I’d put it on my tombstone.

Jack Antonoff, to GQ

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

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