Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2nd, 2018

A clockwork urge

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I haven’t always been a fan of the novels of Martin Amis, but I’ve long admired his work as a critic, and the publication next week of his new collection The Rub of Time feels like a major event. For every insufferable turn of phrase—the sort that made his father Kingsley Amis lament his son’s “terrible compulsive vividness” and his “constant demonstrating of his command of English”—we get an insight like this, from an essay on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange:

The day-to-day business of writing a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions—decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? Ought I to use a different adjective and a different adverb in that sentence? Or no adverb and no adjective? Comma or semicolon? Colon or dash? And so on.

This gets to the heart of writing in a way that only a true novelist could manage, not just in its description of the daily grind, which can seem endless, but the implication that readers don’t fully appreciate the work involved. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. After reading a dismissive or critical note on something I’ve written, I often want to ask: “Don’t they appreciate all those choices I made?”

Of course, it isn’t the reader’s job to admire an author’s choices—although Amis’s own style occasionally seems designed to inspire nothing else. (In a book like Time’s Arrow, the act of continuous appreciation becomes exhausting after just a few pages.) For most authors, though, the process of making choices has to remain a source of private satisfaction, or, at best, a secret that we share with other writers. Revealingly, Amis’s soliloquy on “decisions, decisions, decisions” feels less like a commentary on A Clockwork Orange in particular than like something he just felt like getting off his chest. He continues:

These decisions are minor, clearly enough, and they are processed more or less rationally by the conscious mind. All the major decisions, by contrast, have been reached before you sit down at your desk; and they involve not a moment’s thought. The major decisions are inherent in the original frisson—in the enabling throb or whisper (a whisper that says, Here is a novel you may be able to write). Very mysteriously, it is the unconscious mind that does the heavy lifting. No one knows how it happens.

After evoking that mystery, Amis simply moves on, even though the question he poses is central to writing, or any creative activity. How do the intuitive choices that we make before the work begins inform the decisions that follow for months or years afterward?

In some ways, this is also a question about life itself, in which we spend much of our energy sorting through the unforeseen implications of choices that we made without much thought at the time. You might think that novelists have more control over the books that they write than over their own lives, but that isn’t necessarily true. In both cases, they’re doing the best with what they have, and the question of how much of it is free will and how much is out of their hands must necessarily remain unresolved. Much of the craft of writing lies in making such decisions more bearable. Some of it consists of self-imposed rules that guide your choices in the right direction. Occasionally, it lies in sensibly reducing the number of choices that you can make at any one time. A while back, I wrote a post on Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, in which he notes that shoppers are often happier when their options are constrained. It can be more satisfying to choose between two or three different pairs of jeans than fifty, even though the latter naturally increases your odds of finding one that you like. What matters isn’t the richness of options at your disposal, but your comfort with the process of making choices itself, and sometimes you actually benefit from reducing your range of possible action. That’s part of the reason why constraints are so important in art. Once you choose a form, a subject, or a set of arbitrary limits, you paradoxically free yourself from having to consider all of the possible paths. The subset that remains may not be any better than the alternative, but it will keep you from going insane.

And what Amis calls “the unconscious mind” can also be shaped by experience. Most writers have more ideas than they ever end up using, and it’s only through firsthand knowledge of your own strengths that you can discriminate between “the enabling throb or whisper” that will go somewhere and one that will lead you into a dead end. Afterward, it’s a matter of entrusting yourself to the logic of what the poet John Ciardi described so beautifully:

Nothing in a good poem happens by accident; every word, every comma, every variant spelling must enter as an act of the poet’s choice. A poem is a machine for making choices. The mark of a good poet is the refusal to make easy or cheap choices. The better the poet, the greater the demands he makes upon himself, and the higher he sets his level of choice. Thus, a good poem is not only an act of mind but an act of devotion to mind. The poet who chooses cheaply or lazily is guilty of aesthetic acedia, and he is lost thereby. The poet who spares nothing in his search for the most demanding choices is shaping a human attention that offers itself as a high—and joyful—example to all readers of mind and devotion.

Every work of art is a machine for making choices. Sometimes it operates fairly smoothly. Occasionally it breaks down. But it all justifies itself in those rare moments of flow in which it seems to go like clockwork.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2018 at 8:44 am

Quote of the Day

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The protagonist in science fiction analogizes not to the writer but to the reader, plunged into a world organized according to hidden operations, full of codes to crack, and of the affective feedback of people taking for granted what you’re puzzling to grasp…If there’s anything to this at all, you’d have to agree that the science-fiction people are not only canaries but that they sensed before anyone else that we’d entered a coal mine.

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2018 at 7:30 am

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