Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Quote of the Day

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If I were to cast now a literary horoscope for the poetry of the future, I would say that it would be a kind of responsible free association, as opposed to irresponsible free association. Now the joker in the deck is—what constitutes responsibility? What I would posit would be some guy who had a strong personal sense and a strong personal control—which amounts to a creative sense—over an extremely powerful and sensuous subconscious. Now, out of that the new poetry will come. I’m looking for it.

James Dickey, in an interview with Eclipse

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The castle on the keyboard

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In March, the graphic artist Susan Kare, who is best known for designing the fonts and icons for the original Apple Macintosh, was awarded a medal of recognition from the professional organization AIGA. It occurred to me to write a post about her work, but when I opened a gallery of her designs, I found myself sidetracked by an unexpected sensation. I felt happy. Looking at those familiar images—the Paintbrush, the Trash Can, even the Bomb—brought me as close as I’ve come in a long time to what Proust describes after taking a bite of the madeleine in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time:

Just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden…and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

In my case, it wasn’t a physical location that blossomed into existence, but a moment in my life that I’ve tried repeatedly to evoke here before. I was in my early teens, which isn’t a great period for anyone, and I can’t say that I was content. But for better or worse, I was becoming whatever I was supposed to be, and throughout much of that process, Kare’s icons provided the inescapable backdrop.

You could argue that nostalgia for computer hardware is a fairly recent phenomenon that will repeat itself in later generations, with children who are thirteen or younger today feeling equally sentimental toward devices that their parents regard with indifference—and you might be right. But I think that Kare’s work is genuinely special in at least two ways. One is that it’s a hallmark of perhaps the last time in history when a personal computer could feel like a beguiling toy, rather than an indispensable but utilitarian part of everyday life. The other is that her icons, with their handmade look and origins, bear the impression of another human being’s personality in ways that would all but disappear within a few years. As Alexandra Lange recounts in a recent profile of Kare:

In 1982, [Kare] was a sculptor and sometime curator when her high-school friend Andy Hertzfeld asked her to create graphics for a new computer that he was working on in California. Kare brought a Grid notebook to her job interview at Apple Computer. On its pages, she had sketched, in pink marker, a series of icons to represent the commands that Hertzfeld’s software would execute. Each square represented a pixel. A pointing finger meant “Paste.” A paintbrush symbolized “MacPaint.” Scissors said “Cut.” Kare told me about this origin moment: “As soon as I started work, Andy Hertzfeld wrote an icon editor and font editor so I could design images and letterforms using the Mac, not paper,” she said. “But I loved the puzzle-like nature of working in sixteen-by-sixteen and thirty-two-by-thirty-two pixel icon grids, and the marriage of craft and metaphor.”

That same icon editor, or one of its successors, was packaged with the Mac that I used, and I vividly remember clicking on that grid myself, shaping the building blocks of the interface in a way that seems hard to imagine now.

And Kare seems to have valued these aspects of her work even at the time. There’s a famous series of photos of her in a cubicle at Apple in 1984, leaning back in her chair with one New Balance sneaker propped against her desk, looking impossibly cool. In one of the pictures, if you zoom in on the shelf of books behind her, it’s possible to make out a few titles, including the first edition of Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss, with an introduction by none other than R. Buckminster Fuller. Kare has spoken highly of this book elsewhere, most notably in an interview with Alex Pang of Stanford, to whom she explained:

One of my favorite parts of the book is its list of hobo signals, that hobos used to contact each other when they were on the road. They look like they’re in chalk on stones…When you’re desperate for an idea—some icons, like the piece of paper, are no problem; but others defy the visual, like “undo”—you look at things like hobo signs. Like this: “Man with a gun lives here.” Now, I can’t say that anything in this book is exactly transported into the Macintosh interface, but I think I got a lot of help from this, just thinking. This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia. I don’t understand a lot of them—“These people are rich” is a top hat and a triangle—but I always had that at Apple. I still use it, and I’m grateful for it.

And it seems likely that this was the “symbol dictionary” in which Kare discovered the Bowen Knot, a symbol once used to indicate “interesting features” at Swedish campgrounds, which lives on as the Command icon on the Mac.

According to Kare, the Bowen Knot originally represented a castle with four turrets, and if you’re imaginative enough, you can imagine it springing into being from the keys to either side of the space bar, like the village from Proust’s teacup. Like the hobo signs, Kare’s icons are a system of signals left to those who might pass by in the future, and the fact that they’ve managed to survive at Apple in even a limited way is something of a miracle in itself. (As the tech journalist Mike Murphy recently wrote: “For whatever reason, Apple looks and acts far more like a luxury brand than a consumer-technology brand in 2018.” And there isn’t much room in that business for castles or hobo signs.) When you click through the emulated versions of the earliest models of the Macintosh on the Internet Archive, it can feel like a temporary return to those values, or like a visit to a Zen garden. Yet if we only try to recapture it, we miss the point. Toward the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust experiences a second moment of revelation, when he stumbles in a courtyard and catches himself “on a flagstone lower than the one next it,” which reminds him of a similar sensation that he had once felt at the Baptistry of St. Mark in Venice. And what he says of this flash of insight reminds me of how I feel when I look at the Happy Mac, and all the possibilities that it once seemed to express:

As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts, were dissipated. Those doubts which had assailed me just before, regarding the reality of my literary gifts and even regarding the reality of literature itself were dispersed as though by magic…Merely repeating the movement was useless; but if…I succeeded in recapturing the sensation which accompanied the movement, again the intoxicating and elusive vision softly pervaded me, as though it said, “Grasp me as I float by you, if you can, and try to solve the enigma of happiness I offer you.”

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2018 at 8:50 am

Tales from the pulp jungle

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In 1934, a young man named Frank Gruber moved from Illinois to New York City, where he took up residence at the Forty-Fourth Street Hotel in Times Square. In his memoir The Pulp Jungle, Gruber described the hotel’s usual clientele as consisting of “broken-down actors, starving actors, hungry vaudevillians, wrestlers, poor opera singers, touts, bookies, sharpies, hungry actors, no, I said that before, and all around no-goods and deadbeats. And one hungry, would be writer.” Like Robert A. Heinlein, his slightly younger contemporary, Gruber had grown up entranced by the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, although he later said that he had come away from those novels with the wrong message:

Virtually all of the Horatio Alger, Jr. books have the same theme—they tell how poor boys became rich. The theme inspired three generations of Americans. Alas! The reading of the Alger books did not instill in me the ambition to become a rich businessman. No, the books inspired me to become a writer, to write books like those of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Gruber, like Heinlein, had been impressed by the example of pulp legend Jack Woodford, and by the age of twenty-three, he had accumulated a stack of rejection slips from dozens of publications, ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to what Gruber considered “the lowest form of writing”—the Sunday School papers. Finally, after a period in which he had as many as forty submissions out for consideration at any one time, he sold a story, “The Two-Dollar Raise,” for three dollars and fifty cents. Gruber recalled his sense of elation: “I had made it.”

After a stint as an editor for a series of farm papers in the Midwest, Gruber moved to New York to try breaking into the pulps. He estimated that the trip would take two or three weeks, but it lasted for seven months. Soon after his arrival, he met the prolific Arthur J. Burks, who offered him some useful advice: “The life of a pulp writer is seven years. At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.” Gruber took his words to heart, and he soon learned the everyday survival skills that most aspiring writers are forced to master. As he wrote decades later:

I had “tomato soup” at the Automat on Broadway at least once a day. The Automat restaurants, which are peculiar to the East, are just what the name implies. You get a flock of nickels from the cashier, then go down the battery of little cubicles, inside of which repose the articles of food that appeal to you…So this is how the famous Automat tomato soup came into being. You got a bowl intended for soup, went over to the hot water nozzle and filled up your own. You sidled along to where you got the soup and picked up a couple of glassine bags of crackers (free), supposedly to go with the soup. You now went to one of the tables, sat down and crumbled the crackers into the hot water. Every table had a bottle of ketchup. You emptied about half of the ketchup into the hot water and cracker mixture. Presto—tomato soup!

Gruber continued: “Cost? Nothing. I sometimes had tomato soup four or five times a day.” And he admitted elsewhere that there were stretches when he ate nothing else for three days at a time.

At last, Gruber got his break, after writing five thousand words overnight to fill a gap in the pulp magazine Operator #5, and he became a reliable contributor to the detective and mystery titles, as well as a member of an association of pulp writers called the American Fiction Guild. He wrote a few stories for Weird Tales, along with a much later effort for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he was never particularly close to the science fiction crowd, with whom he claimed to have waged “a cold war…that exists, to a degree, to this very day.” Gruber was friends with Mort Weisinger, the editor who would later play a significant role in the development of Superman. One day, Gruber got into an argument with Weisinger and the agent Julius Schwartz about what was then known as “pseudoscience fiction,” which encompassed science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Gruber remembered:

In the heat of the discussion I made the statement that all pseudoscience writers were weirdies [sic]. I was roundly denounced by both Mort and Julius and in the ensuing melee I came out with the flat declaration that I could pick out a pseudoscience writer in a roomful of people. Mort promptly challenged me. J. Hamilton Edwards was in New York from his home upstate and would be at the American Fiction Guild. Mort had ten dollars that said I could not pick J. Hamilton Edwards out of the crowd on sight.

Gruber took him up on the bet, which he reduced from ten dollars to two, and they went to lunch. Looking around the room, Gruber saw a writer “with buck teeth as big as those of Clement Attlee’s son-in-law.” He confidently identified him as J. Hamilton Edwards—and he was right. (“Edwards” was really the writer Edmond Hamilton, and he eventually got his teeth fixed.) Gruber recalled: “The story got around and the science fiction writers still hate me.”

The anecdote hints at the divide, which may have been more apparent than real, between the different circles of pulp writers, of whom Gruber wrote elsewhere: “A writer spends so many hours inventing adventures for his fictional characters that he sometimes confuses fiction and fact. He begins to think that he has lived some of the adventures of which he has written.” (Much later, S.I. Hayakawa made a similar observation: “If the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.”) As an example, he mentions another aspiring author at the Fourth-Fourth Street Hotel, who often spent time in Gruber’s room with Weisinger and the writers Jack Reardon and Steve Fisher. One evening, this writer was bragging about his own exploits: “He had been in the United States Marines for seven years, he had been an explorer on the upper Amazon for four years, he’d been a white hunter in Africa for three years.” Gruber quietly took a few notes, and later in the conversation, he asked his friend: “You’re eighty-four years old, aren’t you?” When the writer protested that he was only twenty-six, Gruber showed his work:

I read from my notes. “Well, you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years…I’ve just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four years.”

Gruber concluded: “The writer blew his stack. I will say this, his extremely vivid imagination earned him a fortune, some years later. He wrote one book that directly and indirectly earned him around half a million dollars in a single year.” It was called Dianetics.

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

Quote of the Day

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I have not often formulated the lessons of my apprenticeship as a writer; but I did once write down in a notebook something like this: You cannot be an artist until you have contracted yourself within the limits of your art.

George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to Charles Charrington

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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The unity of a work of art, the basis of structural analysis, has not been produced solely by the unconditioned will of the artist, for the artist is only its efficient cause: it has form, and consequently a formal cause. The fact that revision is possible, that the poet makes changes not because he likes them better but because they are better, means that poems, like poets, are born and not made. The poet’s task is to deliver the poem in as uninjured a state as possible, and if the poem is alive, it is equally anxious to be rid of him, and screams to be cut loose from his private memories and associations, his desire for self-expression, and all the other navel-strings and feeding tubes of his ego. The critic takes over where the poet leaves off…Every poet has his private mythology, his own spectroscopic band or peculiar formation of symbols, of much of which he is quite unconscious.

Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity

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May 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

The space between the stanzas

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In a short multistanza poem, the poem generally tends toward a greater density the closer the number of stanzas accords with the number of divisions of action or intellection which the poem undertakes. That is, the number of stanzas into which the poem is divided should itself express something; the number should not give the impression of being accidental…Another way of saying the same thing is to suggest that the white space between stanzas means something. If nothing is conceived to be taking place within it, if no kind of silent pressure or advance or reconsideration or illumination or perception seems to be going on in that white space, the reader has a legitimate question to ask: Why is that white space there, and what am I supposed to do with it?

Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

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