Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The simplicity of excitement

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Graham Greene

Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn’t be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb, and an object, perhaps a rhythm—little else. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquilizes the nerve. I should have turned to Stevenson to learn my lesson: “It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr. Shuan in the doorway crossing blades with Alan.” No similes or metaphors there, not even an adjective. But I was too concerned with “the point of view” to be aware of simpler problems, to know that the sort of  novel I was trying to write, unlike a poem, was not made with words but with movement, action, character. Discrimination in one’s words is certainly required, but not love of one’s words—that is a form of self-love, a fatal love which leads a young writer to the excesses of Charles Morgan and Lawrence Durrell, and, looking back to this period of my life, I can see that I was in danger of taking their road. I was only saved by failure.

Graham Greene, A Sort of Life

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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John Cheever

In the last ten or twenty years, there has been a rush on the part of many writers to insinuate themselves into the middle class, to live like bank clerks and to eschew any outward sign of disorder; a splendid maneuver, it seems to me, as long as the writer realizes that this is an act of espionage, that this is intended to put him in a position to observe the mores of his natural enemies.

John Cheever, The Letters of John Cheever

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The Valley of Lost Things

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Patti Smith

Patti Smith once lost her favorite coat. As the singer-songwriter relates in her memoir M Train, it was an old black coat that had been given to her by a friend, off his own back, as a present on her fifty-seventh birthday. It was worn and riddled with holes, but whenever she put it on, she felt like herself. Then she began wearing another coat during a particularly cold winter, and the other one went missing forever:

I called out but heard nothing; crisscrossing wavelengths obscured any hope of feeling out its whereabouts. That’s the way it is sometimes with the hearing and the calling. Abraham heard the demanding call of the Lord. Jane Eyre heard the beseeching cries of Mr. Rochester. But I was deaf to my coat. Most likely it had been carelessly flung on a mound with wheels rolling far away toward the Valley of the Lost.

The Valley of the Lost, as Smith explains, is the “half-dimensional place where things just disappear,” where she imagines her coat “on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins.” Smith concludes: “The valley is softer, more silent than purgatory, a kind of benevolent holding center.” It’s an image that first appears in Dot and Tot of Merryland by L. Frank Baum, who describes the Valley of Lost Things as “covered with thousands and thousands of pins…A great pyramid of thimbles, of all sizes and made of many different materials. Further on were piles of buttons, of all shapes and colors imaginable, and there were also vast collections of hairpins, rings, and many sorts of jewelry…A mammoth heap of lead pencils, some short and stubby and worn, and others long and almost new.”

I encountered the story of the black coat in the recent wonderful essay “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, in which she, like Smith, uses the disappearance of physical objects as an entry point for exploring other kinds of loss. After a very funny opening in which she discusses a short period in which she lost her car keys, her wallet, and her friend’s pickup truck, she provides a roundup of the extant advice on finding lost items, including the “suspect” rule that states that most objects are less than two feet from where you think you left them. As it happens, I’m familiar with that rule, which appears in How to Find Lost Objects by Professor Solomon, which I’ve quoted here before. Personally, I like his idea of the Eureka Zone, the eighteen-inch radius that he recommends we measure with a ruler and then explore meticulously. It’s a codification of the practical insight that our mistakes rarely travel far from their point of origin. Joe Armstrong, the creator of the programming language Erlang, makes a similar point in the book Coders at Work:

Then there’s—I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I invented it myself—Joe’s Law of Debugging, which is that all errors will be plus/minus three statements of the place where you last changed the program…It’s the same everywhere. You fix your car and it goes wrong—it’s the last thing you did. You changed something—you just have to remember what it was. It’s true with everything.

By this logic, the Valley of Lost Things is all around us, and we’re wandering through it with various degrees of incomprehension. As Daniel Boone is supposed to have said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Charles Fort

I’ve been thinking of the loss and retrieval of objects a lot recently, in my unexpected role as biographer and amateur archivist. When I began my research for Astounding, I had to start by recovering countless scraps of information that must once have seemed obvious. Even something as basic as the number and names of John W. Campbell’s children turned out to be hard to verify, and there are equally immense facts, like how he met his first wife, that seem to have vanished into the Valley of Lost Things forever. (Not even his own daughter knows the answer to that last one.) I also have thousands of seemingly minor details that I hope to assemble into some kind of portrait, and they’re vulnerable to loss as well. I’ve spoken before about the challenge of keeping my notes straight, and how I’ve basically resorted to throwing everything into four huge text files and trusting in its searchability. Mostly, it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. During the editing process for my Longreads article on L. Ron Hubbard, a very diligent fact checker sent me questions about more than fifty individual statements, for which I had to dig up citations or revise the language for accuracy. I was able to find just about everything he mentioned, but one detail—about Hubbard’s hair, of all things—was frustratingly elusive, and it had to come out. Similarly, as I work on the book, I’ll occasionally come across a statement in my notes that I can’t find in my sources, and I have no idea where it came from. This has only happened once or twice, but whenever it does, it feels as if I’ve carelessly let something slip back into the Valley of the Lost, and I’ve let my subject down.

But as Proust knew, it’s in the search for lost things, however trivial, that we also find deeper meaning. As a biographer, I’m haunted by Borges’s devastating putdown: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Maelstrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.’” I’ve often found myself obsessed by exactly those “changes of residence,” but it’s only in the accumulation of such material that the big picture starts to emerge, and the search often means more than the goal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that a dead end almost always turns into a doorway. Whenever I’ve had to deal with a frustrating absence of of information, it invariably becomes a blessing, because it forces me to talk to real people and leave my comfort zone to find what I need, which never would have happened if it had been there for the taking. The most beautiful description I’ve found of the Valley of Lost Objects is in The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, who calls it the Super-Sargasso Sea:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from interplanetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era—all, however, tending to disintegrate into homogeneous-looking muds or dusts, red or black or yellow—treasure-troves for the paleontologists and for the archaeologists—accumulations of centuries—cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria—fishes dried and hard, there a short time: others there long enough to putrefy.

As Baum notes, however, it’s mostly pins. The paleontologists, archeologists, and biographers comb through it, like “desperate urchins,” and pins are usually all we find. But occasionally there’s a jewel. Or even a beloved coat.

Swallowing the turkey

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Benjamin Disraeli

Lord Rowton…says that he once asked Disraeli what was the most remarkable, the most self-sustained and powerful sentence he knew. Dizzy paused for a moment, and then said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

—Augustus J.C. Hare, The Story of My Life

Disraeli was a politician and a novelist, which is an unusual combination, and he knew his business. Politics and writing have less to do with each other than a lot of authors might like to believe, and the fact that you can create a compelling world on paper doesn’t mean that you can do the same thing in real life. (One of the hidden themes of Astounding is that the skills that many science fiction writers acquired in organizing ideas on the page turned out to be notably inadequate when it came to getting anything done during World War II.) Yet both disciplines can be equally daunting and infuriating to novices, in large part because they both involve enormously complicated projects—often requiring years of effort—that need to be approached one day at a time. A single day’s work is rarely very satisfying in itself, and you have to cling to the belief that countless invisible actions and compromises will somehow result in something real. It doesn’t always happen, and even if it does, you may never get credit or praise. The ability to deal with the everyday tedium of politics or writing is what separates professionals from amateurs. And in both cases, the greatest accomplishments are usually achieved by freaks who can combine an overarching vision with a finicky obsession with minute particulars. As Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, who was both a diplomat and literary critic, said of Tolstoy, it requires “a queer combination of the brain of an English chemist with the soul of an Indian Buddhist.”

And if you go into either field without the necessary degree of patience, the results can be unfortunate. If you’re a writer who can’t subordinate yourself to the routine of writing on a daily basis, the most probable outcome is that you’ll never finish your novel. In politics, you end up with something very much like what we’ve all observed over the last few weeks. Regardless of what you might think about the presidential refugee order, its rollout was clearly botched, thanks mostly to a president and staff that want to skip over all the boring parts of governing and get right to the good stuff. And it’s tempting to draw a contrast between the incumbent, who achieved his greatest success on reality television, and his predecessor, a detail-oriented introvert who once thought about becoming a novelist. (I’m also struck, yet again, by the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard. He spent most of his career fantasizing about a life of adventure, but when he finally got into the Navy, he made a series of stupid mistakes—including attacking two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon—that ultimately caused him to be stripped of his command. The pattern repeated itself so many times that it hints at a fundamental aspect of his personality. He was too impatient to deal with the tedious reality of life during wartime, which failed to live up to the version he had dreamed of himself. And while I don’t want to push this too far, it’s hard not to notice the difference between Hubbard, who cranked out his fiction without much regard for quality, and Heinlein, a far more disciplined writer who was able to consciously tame his own natural impatience into a productive role at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.)

R.H. Blyth

Which brings us back to the sentence that impressed Disraeli. It’s easy to interpret it as an admonition not to think about the future, which isn’t quite right. We can start by observing that it comes at the end of what The Five Gospels notes is possibly “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus.” It’s the one that asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, which, for a lot of us, prompts an immediate flashback to The Life of Brian. (“Consider the lilies?” “Uh, well, the birds, then.” “What birds?” “Any birds.” “Why?” “Well, have they got jobs?”) But whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth noticing that the advice to focus on the evils of each day comes only after an extended attempt at defining a larger set of values—what matters, what doesn’t, and what, if anything, you can change by worrying. You’re only in a position to figure out how best to spend your time after you’ve considered the big questions. As the physician William Osler put it:

[My ideal is] to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had—to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.

This has important implications for both writers and politicians, as well as for progressives who wonder how they’ll be able to get through the next twenty-four hours, much less the next four years. When you’re working on any important project, even the most ambitious agenda comes down to what you’re going to do right now. In On Directing Film, David Mamet expresses it rather differently:

Now, you don’t eat a whole turkey, right? You take off the drumstick and you take a bite of the drumstick. Okay. Eventually you get the whole turkey done. It’ll probably get dry before you do, unless you have an incredibly good refrigerator and a very small turkey, but that is outside the scope of this lecture.

A lot of frustration in art, politics, and life in general comes from attempting to swallow the turkey in one bite. Jesus, I think, was aware of the susceptibility of his followers to grandiose but meaningless gestures, which is why he offered up the advice, so easy to remember and so hard to follow, to simultaneously focus on the given day while keeping the kingdom of heaven in mind. Nearly every piece of practical wisdom in any field is about maintaining that double awareness. Fortunately, it goes in both directions: small acts of discipline aid us in grasping the whole, and awareness of the whole tells us what to do in the moment. As R.H. Blyth says of Zen: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.” And don’t try to eat the entire turkey at once.

All his little words

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Stephin Merritt

Yesterday, I listened to most of the album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, which I hadn’t played in its entirety in a couple of years. I happened to think of it because it struck me that Stephen Merritt is exactly the kind of voice we all need to hear right now: wry, ironic, detached, and endlessly capable. His career has been defined by its productivity and by an inhuman degree of versatility, as if Merritt were determined to prove in practice what he once stated in “The Formulist Manifesto,” which is that all pop music, even the kind that affects us the most profoundly, can be reduced to a handful of technical tricks. He’s probably right. Yet as I took in the album again, I was hit by the realization, which I seem fated to periodically rediscover forever, that this is the most moving music that anybody has made in my lifetime. And its power is inseparable from how mechanical it all seems. In an awestruck review, the critic Robert Christgau marveled at how its three discs—“one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical”—had upended all his preconceptions about how art was supposed to sound. What it really suggests, at least to me, is that our most deeply held feelings are artificial, too, or at least shaped to a frightening extent by pop music’s gorgeous lies. Which doesn’t make them any less meaningful. And it’s why I’m more excited about the upcoming album 50 Song Memoir, in which Merritt devotes one autobiographical track to every year of his life, than any new release in a long time.

What’s most notable about it, of course, is that it’s a musical memoir from an artist who, until now, has been steadfast in his refusal to reveal himself. For its first two albums, The Magnetic Fields hid behind the shiny, slightly opaque—but often heartbreakingly beautiful—voice of Susan Anway, and it wasn’t until she left that Merritt began to sing. (In retrospect, the abrupt transition from Anway to Merritt feels like a great gag in itself, like going from the angel at the top of the Christmas tree to a toy robot whose batteries were slowly running down. Unlike Bon Iver, Merritt didn’t need to process his voice to make it sound like a found object.) Later, he would often outsource the vocals to the likes of L.D. Beghtol, Shirley Simms, and, above all, his agent Claudia Gonson, who might have the loveliest voice of its kind since Neil Tennant. He also refused to be pinned down to any one sound, although the fact that his personality shines through every track, regardless of style, is as compelling an argument as I can imagine for the existence of artistic sensibilities that transcend genre. The very good documentary on his career, Strange Powers, reveals as little about its subject’s personal life as possible. His most emotional songs carry the implication that he might be pulling our legs, while his parodies and throwaways are where I suspect he might be the most heartfelt. And all of his albums, with one major exception, are a little “disappointing,” in the sense that any given day of one’s life is slightly disappointing. Whatever sense I have of Merritt comes less from any individual song than from all of them remembered simultaneously, like the character in Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a vinyl record on his wall so that he can gaze at it and enjoy the music all at once.

69 Love Songs

Yet it’s typical of Merritt’s slipperiness and infuriating cleverness that he transforms the whole notion of an autographical album into a stunt in itself. Judging from the five tracks that have already been released, this is a memoir written with the help of a rhyming dictionary, which might well be the only kind worth hearing. Merritt’s one real weakness as a songwriter—and I have to think hard to come up with one—is that the joke is often all there is: once you’ve heard the title of “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” or “My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre,” you basically know what the song is about, since Merritt can always be trusted to execute a precious conceit to perfection. But that’s how life is, too. When you stand back far enough, most lives are similar enough that at any given moment, when you describe the setup, any objective observer should be able to come up with the punchline. The only person who can’t see the humor is the one whose life is under consideration. In his review of one of the first albums by The Magnetic Fields, Christgau says of Susan Anway: “She’s proud to play the puppet.” But we’re all puppets of pop music. There are enormous swaths of experience that Merritt politely declines to cover, but for much of our lives, we talk to one another in song lyrics, our souls given temporary animation by the passage of a radio single from somewhere out in the ether. In practice, it usually has less in common with, say, “Layla” than with a plinky novelty track picked out on the ukulele. Merritt recognizes this and, in his odd way, honors it. And it does more to give dignity to human existence than the stark sincerity of a band like Arcade Fire, which I also love.

Which is just to say that Merritt’s memoir is also my own. I first discovered 69 Love Songs in my twenties, and it felt like I was among the last in my circle of friends to hear it, although it had only been out for two or three years. (So much time has passed that it feels now like I was listening to it almost from the beginning, which is scary in itself.) At the time, Merritt was about as old as I am today, and the album feels like a soundtrack to that chapter of my life, filtered through a weary wisdom that was telling me truths that I wasn’t ready to hear yet. Listening to it, I’m reminded of the poem by A.E. Housman—the poet and classical scholar who was once described by a colleague as “descended from a long line of maiden aunts,” and who feels weirdly like one of Merritt’s spiritual precursors—that begins:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…”

“No use to talk to me,” Housman says, and he was right. Poetry, like pop music or philosophy, is full of the sort of information that can’t be taught to us, but only recognized after we’ve learned it firsthand, and it can take a lifetime to tell the difference between its pretty fables and its most agonizing truths. Merritt’s music feels like two hundred ways of saying what Housman expresses in sixteen lines, and now that I’ve made it to the other side, I can only murmur: “And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.”

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2017 at 9:29 am

Quote of the Day

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Thomas Mann

One of [Thomas Mann’s] many reasons for hating the Third Reich was that it forced him to be a better man than he really was. Left undisturbed, he would have been a monster of conceit. But when thoughtfulness was forced on him, he rose to the occasion…The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big he took even history personally; but at least he knew it was history.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

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