Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

From isolation to solitude

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We could say…that “solitude” is the occasional seclusion each person needs, in which he or she makes up the creative contributions that can only come into existence through individual persons and their imaginations. “Isolation” is society’s refusal of these contributions, such that the person is left to himself: a sort of prison without walls. The internal exile of being disregarded, of being given no role. Isolation must be turned into solitude…Solitude is like the forest clearing where someone draws from the spring, ancient symbol of inspiration, gaining the creativity that can only originate from individuals, though its results must be tested and developed in community. We all have our ways of attempting to do this and achieving it to one degree or another. But here the key reality is poetry. When we turn isolation into solitude by being creative and seeking ways to make this the basis of social life, we are poets. And poetry in the specific sense, the art of verse, is the most complete, concentrated version of the universal inspiration, the human demand to exercise our own productive powers and to make them effective in the public realm.

This may seem a strong statement. But one implication of it needs to be made even stronger. Poetry is not at all what it’s often said to be, the indulgence, development, and expression of private inward life. This is one of those half-truths that is the worst error, even a lie. Poetry is inward self-development plus the insistence that this must have a principal place in the public forum plus a third thing, a conclusion that flows from the first two. Everyone must be allowed full personal development, and everyone must be allowed full participation, since only full participation leads to full personal development, and in turn a proper society can only be produced by full development of each member. Poetry is, above every other human endeavor, the place where person and society are not merely joined but revealed in their original unity. Poetry is the place where the strange, painful division we have created between person and society is suffered, despaired over, denounced, subjected to comparison with memories and dreams and myths of better times, and given the gift of a prophecy: that the proper unity still and always persists, and that it can become the world we actually live in, not just in verse, but on both sides of our front door.

A.F. Moritz, “What Man Has Made of Man”

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

The age of despair

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The whole age can be divided into those who write and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, and those who read disapprove of it and believe that they have a superior wisdom—and yet, if they were able to write, they would write the same thing. Basically, they are all equally despairing, but when one does not have the opportunity to become important with his despair, then it is hardly worth the trouble to despair and show it.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2017 at 7:09 am

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

Notes on campers

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A few days ago, in the course of one of my periodic daydreams about leaving it all behind, I stumbled across a site called Truck Camper Magazine, and I haven’t looked at much of anything else since. It’s more or less what you’d expect, with reviews of pickup campers alternating with testimonials from satisfied owners who gave up the rat race to become nomads, and it offers a wealth of material for my persistent fantasies of a life on the road. I’ve looked at slideshows, studied floor plans, and watched video tours of such campers as the Northern Lite 9-6 Special Edition—which is the one I’ve found myself coveting the most—and the controversial Cirrus 820. As usual, I suddenly have strong opinions on the relative desirability of the dry and wet bath designs, and I’m weirdly convinced that I’d only be happy with a hard side, non-slide, wet bath camper, when I couldn’t have told you what any of that meant just a week ago. So far as such reveries go, it’s harmless, and I doubt that I’d ever really go through with it: if nothing else, I don’t think I’d be willing to leave my books behind. But it taps into a persistent longing to pare down my life, embrace simplicity, and gain a commensurate degree of freedom. As Dave, one of the campers profiled by the magazine, recalls:

I spent many a night imagining our probable future; long hours of work, no company pension for years of labor, and just a house full of stuff in a declining neighborhood. This is not how I wanted to remember my life when I grew old…We were willing to sacrifice money, everyday luxuries, square footage, going out all the time, and buying things we didn’t need on a whim if it meant we could have our lives back. I think my exact words were, “I’ll eat beans and rice into my sixties if it means I can do what I want with my life!”

Purely by coincidence, I became entranced by the mystique of truck camping shortly before the publication of an article by Rachel Monroe of The New Yorker on the vanlife movement, which channels the same impulses into a very different direction. It profiles a pair of ridiculously photogenic thirtysomethings, Emily King and Corey Smith, who roam the country in a VW van and chronicle their travels on Instagram. (Their project is titled “Where’s My Office Now?”, and it feels like a real missed opportunity that they didn’t call it “Emily Van Camp.”) They’ve attracted a substantial following, and as Monroe points out, they’re selling a seductive image:

There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.

But the piece is mostly sympathetic, even as it shows the couple spending half an hour staging the perfect “casual” shot of Emily for a sponsored post, painstakingly adjusting the image in Photoshop, and posting it to such comments as: “Such a beautiful lifestyle.” “This looks like heaven.” As one acquaintance says: “It looks like they’re having fun. But they’re working a lot.”

And what intrigues me the most about vanlife—which my spellchecker insists on correcting to “vanilla”—and the community of truck campers is the contrast between their preferred solutions, which are responses to a shared sense of disaffiliation. Fairly or not, it’s easy to come away with the impression that the couple in the van and the family in the camper prefer different beers and political candidates. Both emerge from a backdrop of economic insecurity, as seen from distinct life stages. Monroe notes that vanlife seems rooted in “the recent recession” and its impact on millennials:

“We heard all these promises about what will happen after you go to college and get a degree,” Smith said. “We graduated at a time when all that turned out to be a bunch of bullshit.” The generation that’s fueling the trend has significantly more student debt and lower rates of homeownership than previous cohorts. The rise of contract and temporary labor has further eroded young people’s financial stability…Like staycations and minimalism, vanlife is an attempt to aestheticize and romanticize the precariousness of contemporary life.

Dave in Truck Camper Magazine uses much the same language: “We had been sold a lifestyle that’s no longer a reality for most people.” The primary difference is that Emily King worked on the road, until recently, as a web developer, while Dave, after being laid off from his job of fourteen years, could only find “shift work at a variety of manufacturing plants,” hauling boxes of salsa. Whether you’re drawn to a van or a camper seems based both on your socioeconomic profile and on when you began to question your assumptions. And the gap doesn’t need to be wide: Dave and Emily are less than a decade apart in age.

I fall roughly in the middle, so I find myself torn between both fantasies. If I’m ultimately more attracted to the truck camper aesthetic, it’s because I’ve always been more interested in the nuts and bolts of nomadism than in looking at wildlife calendars. (It’s no accident that one of my ten favorite books is The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, whom Scientific American once aptly described as “a new Thoreau faced with the evaluative responsibilities of Consumers Union.”) The cognitive divide between fixing up an old Volkswagen Vanagon and spending eighty thousand dollars on a Northern Lite rig and Dodge Ram pickup is very real, and I suspect that each side suffers from mutual incomprehension. When I first saw the inside of a truck camper, it seemed like a snug distillation of life to its essentials, but after a brief exposure to vanlife, it now strikes me as a little, well, campy in its determination to recreate what amounts to an efficiency apartment on wheels. To a truck camper, in turn, life in a van might seem ludicrously twee and unsustainable. But they have more in common than you might think. At one point in the profile, Emily says, fretting: “We really need to create content.” This doesn’t sound much like Thoreau—except, of course, that Thoreau was selling an image of his own. And while the shaky handheld video tours of truck camper interiors seem far removed from the luminous vanlife images on Instagram, they’re both constructed around the same archetypal photograph, obviously staged, of a tiny, self-contained vehicle parked in a beautiful landscape. Either way, most people who look at these pictures, like me, are unlikely to put it into practice, although it might inspire them to cultivate simplicity along other lines. In their own distinct ways, Emily and Dave are both living a movie. The rest of us just watch the trailers.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2017 at 10:02 am

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 12, 2016.

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it often seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties:

At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, “No. I won’t do that.” And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, “Well, okay then, don’t do it that way. “Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In a blog post from 2009 titled “To My Detractors,” he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the fury of analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it gets the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The technique of morality

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Poetry, if pursued either by the poet or the reader, in the manner which I have suggested, should offer a means of enriching one’s awareness of human experience and of so rendering greater the possibility of intelligence in the course of future action: and it should offer likewise a means of inducing certain more or less constant habits of feeling, which should render greater the possibility of one’s acting, in a future situation, in accordance with the findings of one’s improved intelligence…

If the poetic discipline is to have steadiness and direction, it requires an antecedent discipline of ethical thinking and at least some ethical feeling, which may be in whole or in part the gift of religion or of a social tradition, or which may be largely the result of individual acquisition by way of study. The poetic discipline includes the antecedent discipline and more: it is the richest and most perfect technique of contemplation…Poetic mortality and poetic feeling are inseparable; feeling and technique, and structure, are inseparable. Technique has laws which govern poetic (and perhaps more general) morality more widely than is commonly recognized.

Yvor Winters, Primitivism and Decadence

Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

The overripe grape

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I want to begin with some poems and try to see how their particular truths are operative within the poems themselves. I know perfectly well that there are some readers of poetry who object to this process. They say that it is a profanation, that they simply want to enjoy the poem. Now my experience with such people is that very frequently they do not want to enjoy the poem; they want to enjoy themselves. Such a person is like a big overripe grape, ready to ooze or spurt juice at any pressure or pinprick, and any pressure or pinprick or poem will do to start the delicious flow…

True, we all want to enjoy the poem. And we can be comforted by the fact that the poem, if it is a true poem, will, like the baby’s poor kitty-cat, survive all the pinching and prodding and squeezing which love will lavish upon it. It will have nine lives, too. Further, and more importantly, the perfect intuitive and immediate grasp of a poem in the totality of its meaning and structure—the thing we desire—may come late rather than early—on the fiftieth reading rather than on the first. Perhaps we must be able to look forward as well as back as we move through the poem—be able to sense the complex of relationships and implications—before we can truly have that immediate grasp.

But we know that the poets sometimes seem to give aid and comfort to the ripe-grape kind of reader. First, this is because the poet is in the end probably more afraid of the dogmatist who wants to extract the message from the poem and throw the poem away than he is of the sentimentalist who says, “Oh, just let me enjoy the poem—it gives me such beautiful feelings!” At least the sentimentalist does not want to throw the poem away. That is something, anyhow.

Robert Penn Warren, “The Themes of Robert Frost”

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

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