Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The instrument that we are

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Everyone asks, “What exactly do you do?” We call what we are doing “research.” We are trying to discover something, to discover it through what we can make, for other people to take part in. It demands a long, long preparation of the instrument that we are. The question always is: Are we good instruments? For that we have to know: What is the instrument for?

The purpose is to be instruments that can transmit truths which otherwise would remain out of sight. These truths can appear from sources deep inside ourselves or far outside ourselves. Any preparation we do is only part of the complete preparation. The body must be ready and sensitive, but that isn’t all. The voice has to be open and free. The emotions have to be open and free. The intelligence has to be quick. All of these have to be prepared. There are crude vibrations that can come through very easily and fine ones that come through only with difficulty. In each case the life we are looking for means breaking open a series of habits.

Peter Brook, The Shifting Point

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2016.

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t tend to see him as an author who meticulously revised his work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out raw poetry onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how Shakespeare seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the last stanza of “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through offhand references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is inherently revealing. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, while revising the first draft, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story that you know what it’s really about. And the little that we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm that he followed this approach.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but it may not have even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings through the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we think?”

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2017 at 8:03 am

The greatest trick

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In the essay collection Candor and Perversion, the late critic Roger Shattuck writes: “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.” He never explains what he means by “trick,” but toward the end of the book, in a chapter on Marcel Duchamp, he quotes a few lines from the poet Charles Baudelaire from the unpublished preface to Flowers of Evil:

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all the revision and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

Baudelaire is indulging here in an analogy from the theater—he speaks elsewhere of “the dresser’s and the decorator’s studio,” “the actor’s box,” and “the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains.” A trick, in this sense, is a device that the artist uses to convey an idea that also draws attention to itself, in the same way that we can simultaneously notice and accept certain conventions when we’re watching a play. In a theatrical performance, the action and its presentation are so intermingled that we can’t always say where one leaves off and the other begins, and we’re always aware, on some level, that we’re looking at actors on a stage behaving in a fashion that is necessarily stylized and artificial. In other art forms, we’re conscious of these tricks to a greater or lesser extent, and while artists are usually advised that such technical elements should be subordinated to the story, in practice, we often delight in them for their own sake.

For an illustration of the kind of trick that I mean, I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders. This sequence seems as inevitable now as any scene in the history of cinema, but it came about almost by accident. The director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to combine the christening with the killings after all of the constituent parts had already been shot, which left him with the problem of assembling footage that hadn’t been designed to fit together. As Michael Sragow recounts in The New Yorker:

[Editor Peter] Zinner, too, made a signal contribution. In a climactic sequence, Coppola had the stroke of genius (confirmed by Puzo) to intercut Michael’s serving as godfather at the christening of Connie’s baby with his minions’ savagely executing the Corleone family’s enemies. But, Zinner says, Coppola left him with thousands of feet of the baptism, shot from four or five angles as the priest delivered his litany, and relatively few shots of the assassins doing their dirty work. Zinner’s solution was to run the litany in its entirety on the soundtrack along with escalating organ music, allowing different angles of the service to dominate the first minutes, and then to build to an audiovisual crescendo with the wave of killings, the blaring organ, the priest asking Michael if he renounces Satan and all his works—and Michael’s response that he does renounce them. The effect sealed the movie’s inspired depiction of the Corleones’ simultaneous, duelling rituals—the sacraments of church and family, and the murders in the street.

Coppola has since described Zinner’s contribution as “the inspiration to add the organ music,” but as this account makes clear, the editor seems to have figured out the structure and rhythm of the entire sequence, building unforgettably on the director’s initial brainstorm.

The result speaks for itself. It’s hard to think of a more powerful instance in movies of the form of a scene, created by cuts and juxtaposition, merging with the power of its storytelling. As we watch it, consciously or otherwise, we respond both to its formal audacity and to the ideas and emotions that it expresses. It’s the ultimate trick, as Baudelaire defines it, and it also inspired one of my favorite passages of criticism, in David Thomson’s entry on Coppola in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

When The Godfather measured its grand finale of murder against the liturgy of baptism, Coppola seemed mesmerized by the trick, and its nihilism. A Buñuel, by contrast, might have made that sequence ironic and hilarious. But Coppola is not long on those qualities, and he could not extricate himself from the engineering of scenes. The identification with Michael was complete and stricken.

Before reading these lines, I had never considered the possibility that the baptism scene could be “ironic and hilarious,” or indeed anything other than how it so overwhelmingly presents itself, although it might easily have played that way without the music. And I’ve never forgotten Thomson’s assertion that Coppola was mesmerized by his own trick, as if it had arisen from somewhere outside of himself. (It might be even more accurate to say that coming up with the notion that the sequences ought to be cut together is something altogether different from actually witnessing the result, after Zinner assembled all the pieces and added Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor—which, notably, entwines three different themes.) Coppola was so taken by the effect that he reused it, years later, for a similar sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, admitting cheerfully on the commentary track that he was stealing from himself.

It was a turning point both for Coppola and for the industry as a whole. Before The Godfather, Coppola had been a novelistic director of small, quirky stories, and afterward, like Michael coming into his true inheritance, he became the engineer of vast projects, following up on the clues that he had planted here for himself. (It’s typical of the contradictions of his career that he placed his own baby daughter at the heart of this sequence, which means that he could hardly keep from viewing the most technically nihilistic scene in all his work as something like a home movie.) And while this wasn’t the earliest movie to invite the audience to revel in its structural devices—half of Citizen Kane consists of moments like this—it may have been the first since The Birth of a Nation to do so while also becoming the most commercially successful film of all time. Along the way, it subtly changed us. In our movies, as in our politics, we’ve become used to thinking as much about how our stories are presented as about what they say in themselves. We can even come to prefer trickery, as Shattuck warns us, to true ideas. This doesn’t meant that we should renounce genuine artistic facility of the kind that we see here, as opposed to its imitation or its absence, any more than Michael can renounce Satan. But the consequences of this confusion can be profound. Coppola, the orchestrator of scenes, came to identify with the mafioso who executed his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and the beauty of Michael’s moment of damnation went a long way toward turning him into an attractive, even heroic figure, an impression that Coppola spent most of The Godfather Parts II and III trying in vain to correct. Pacino’s career was shaped by this moment as well. And we have to learn to distinguish between tricks and the truth, especially when they take pains to conceal themselves. As Baudelaire says somewhere else: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The magic switch

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If you understand the good magic trick, and I mean really understand it right down to the mechanics at the core of its psychology, the magic trick gets better, not worse…I like stripping things down to the absolute simplicity, and it seems like a ball and a hoop and a person is about as simple as you can get….You can’t look at a half-finished piece of magic and know whether it’s good or not. It has to be perfect before you can evaluate whether it’s good. Magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.

Teller, to This American Life

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2017 at 6:51 am

From Venice to Yale

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt offers an insightful consideration of a Shakespearean comedy toward which he—like most of us—can hardly help having mixed feelings: “There is something very strange about experiencing The Merchant of Venice when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain.” After recalling his uncomfortable experience as a Jewish undergraduate at Yale in the sixties, Greenblatt provides a beautiful summation of the pragmatic solution at which he arrived:

I wouldn’t attempt to hide my otherness and pass for what I was not. I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright…I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

Greenblatt, of course, went on to become one of our most valuable literary critics, and his evaluation of The Merchant of Venice is among the best I’ve seen: “If Shylock had behaved himself and remained a mere comic foil…there would have been no disturbance. But Shakespeare conferred too much energy on his Jewish usurer for the boundaries of native and alien, us and them, to remain intact…He did so not by creating a lovable alien—his Jew is a villain who connives at legal murder—but by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality, quite simply more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has.”

I’ve spent more time thinking about The Merchant of Venice than all but a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, precisely because of the “excess of life” that Greenblatt sees in Shylock, which is at its most impressive in a context where it has no business existing at all. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s genius is most visible when you compare him to his sources, which he transforms so completely that it destroys the notion that he was an opportunist who simply borrowed most of his plots. The Merchant of Venice is unique because its models are somehow right there on stage, existing simultaneously with the text, since we can hardly watch it and be unaware of the contrast between the antisemitic caricature of the original and Shylock’s uncanny power. Harold Bloom captures this quality in an extraordinary passage from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed…If I were a director, I would instruct my Shylock to act like a hallucinatory bogeyman, a walking nightmare flamboyant with a big false nose and a bright red wig, that is to say, to look like Marlowe’s Barabas. We can imagine the surrealistic effect of such a figure when he begins to speak with the nervous intensity, the realistic energy of Shylock, who is so much of a personality as to at least rival his handful of lively precursors in Shakespeare: Faulconbridge the Bastard in King John, Mercurio and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But these characters all fit their roles, even if we can conceive of them as personalities outside of their plays. Shylock simply does not fit his role; he is the wrong Jew in the right play.

On some level, Shylock is a darker miracle of characterization than even Hamlet or Lear, because so much of his impact seems involuntary, even counterproductive. Shakespeare had no particular reason to make him into anything more than a stock villain, and in fact, his vividness actively detracts from the logic of the story itself, as Greenblatt notes: “Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.” Bloom, in turn, speaks of “the gap between the human that Shakespeare invents and the role that as playmaker he condemns Shylock to act,” a cognitive divide that tells us more about his art than the plays in which every part has been revised to fit like magic. I often learn more about craft from works of art that I resist than ones with which I agree completely, which only makes sense. When we want to believe in a story’s message, we’re less likely to scrutinize its methods, and we may even forgive lapses of taste or skill because we want to give it the benefit of the doubt. (This is the real reason why aspiring authors should avoid making overt political statements in a story, which encourages friendly critics to read the result more generously than it deserves. It’s gratifying in the moment, but it also can lead to faults going unaddressed until it’s too late to fix them.) Its opposite number is a work of art that we’d love to dismiss on moral or intellectual grounds, but which refuses to let us go. Since we have no imaginable reason to grant it a free pass, its craft stands out all the more clearly. The Merchant of Venice is the ultimate example. It’s the first play that I’d use to illustrate Shakespeare’s gift at creating characters who can seem more real to us than ourselves—which doesn’t make it any easier to read, teach, or perform.

This brings us back to the figure of Greenblatt at Yale, who saw the works that pained him as an essential part of his education. He writes:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueler strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents. They could not look out at a broad meadow from the windows of our car without sighing and talking about the number of European Jews who could have been saved from annihilation and settled in that very space. (For my parents, meadows should have come with what we now call “trigger warnings.”) I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch.

The question of how students should confront the problematic works of the past is one that I don’t expect to resolve here, except by noting that The Merchant of Venice represents a crucial data point. Without it, our picture of Shakespeare—and even of his greatness as a writer—is necessarily incomplete. When it comes to matters of education, it helps to keep a few simple tests in mind, and the humanities have an obligation to enable the possibility of this kind of confrontation, while also providing the framework within which it can be processed. Instead of working forward from a set of abstract principles, perhaps we should work backward from the desired result, which is to have the tools that we need when we reach the end of the labyrinth and find Shylock waiting for us. Even if we aren’t ready for him, we may not have a choice. As Bloom observes: “It would have been better for the Jews, if not for most of The Merchant of Venice’s audiences, had Shylock been a character less conspicuously alive.”

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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Writing the vegetables

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In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

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