Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A writer’s playlists

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Music continues to be the best way to keep me seated in the chair and writing. Even so, it still takes me years to write a book…I still use music to write scenes. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually have playlists titled “Joyful,” “Worried,” “Hopeful,” “Destruction,” “Disaster,” “Sorrow,” “Renewal,” and so forth. I choose one track and play it for however long it takes me to finish the scene. It could be hundreds of times. The music ensures that emotion is a constant, even when I am doing the mental work of crafting the story, revising sentences as I go along. It enables me to return to the emotional dream after my focus has been interrupted by barking dogs, doorbells, or my husband bringing me lunch…Even when no one else is home, I put on headphones. It has the psychological effect of cutting me off from the world. It dampens sensory distractions and emphasizes the aural sense, the one needed for listening to the voice of the story. I take off the headphones when dinner is ready. I put them back on after dinner or the next morning. The emotional mood is still there. The hypnotic effect takes hold; when I hear the violins, I’m back in a cramped, cold room in China. Auditory memory has become the story’s emotional memory.

Amy Tan, Where the Past Begins

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Ambition makes a writer reach beyond what he has already achieved. And this is when, out of his security, he can make misjudgments. This misjudgment might have to do with something small, such as a matter of style, a way of writing that has crept up on a writer. Sometimes it is more serious, the very conception of a book. The more the writer feels ill at ease, the harder he tries, using all the resources of his talent, to prove his point; and then, seeing him suffer to do so, one is more than half in sympathy with him.

V.S. Naipaul, A Writer’s People

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

The gray backdrop

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In the most recent issue of The Paris Review, the photographer Joel Meyerowitz contributes a visual essay on the studio of Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, the subject of his new book Cézanne’s Objects. Meyerowitz says that a visit there resulted in “a flash of insight” that has influenced his own work ever since:

Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

He continues with a rhapsody on the effects of gray: “As I walked around Cézanne’s studio, I noticed that light bouncing up from the warm wooden flooring tinted the gray nearest it with rose and that under the shelves the light caromed back and forth between wall and shelf, carrying the subtle tones of whatever was nearby.”

After reading this, I went looking for contemporary descriptions of the studio, and I found several in the collection Conversations with Cézanne. One visitor, Jules Borély, recalls: “At my request we went up to the studio. I saw a high, wide room with empty, inanimate walls and a bay window that opened onto an olive grove.” The poet and critic Joachim Gasquet leaves us a more detailed account: “Cézanne was finishing his portrait of my father. I had sat in on the sessions. The studio was almost empty. The easel, the little taboret, the chair where my father was sitting, and the stove were its only furnishings. Cézanne stood as he worked. Canvases were piled up against the wall, in a corner. The soft, even light gave a blue tinge to the walls.” And Alex Danchev writes in Cézanne: A Life:

Most of the upper floor was taken up by the studio itself, a large, airy room eight meters by seven…and over seven meters from floor to cornice. Its walls were painted pale gray; it had a plain pine floor. Two south-facing windows looked out over the lower garden, and beyond. The north-facing studio window was a great glass wall, three meters high and five meters wide…The terracing of the hillside brought the olive grove in the upper garden to the level of the windowsill; Cézanne complained of the green reflections. “You can no longer get anyone to do anything right. I had this built here at my expense and the architect would never do what I wanted. I’m a shy person, a bohemian. They mock me. I haven’t got the strength to resist. Isolation, that’s all I’m fit for. At least that way no one would get his hooks into me.”

Yet it isn’t quite correct to say that the walls were bare. The descriptions of Cézanne’s studio make it clear that there was always something casually tacked up on every surface, along with the canvases in progress. In Conversations with Cézanne, Emile Bernard remembers:

The next day I arrived in Aix by the earliest tram and went to surprise Cézanne in his studio outside of town…I was tremendously pleased to see, hanging on his studio wall, the landscape study I had made the previous year. It represented the beautiful view of Aix from the lower studio. The painting of the skulls was tacked to the wall, abandoned.

Francis Jourdain records that Cézanne “talked exuberantly about a Daumier lithograph pinned to the wall,” while in Émile Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, which is a thinly disguised portrait of his old friend, we read: “Just now the studio walls happened to be covered with a series of sketches Claude had made on a recent visit to the haunts of their boyhood.” Even today, in the version of the studio that has been turned into a museum, there are pictures hanging on the walls, but it has the air of a moment preserved in amber, and it’s very different from what it must have been in the artist’s lifetime—a working surface, in a constant state of transition, where he could impulsively hang anything that he wanted to keep handy. And when Cézanne “moved his gaze from object to background,” as Meyerowitz puts it, his eye would have been just as likely to have been caught by a sketch pinned up for future reference as by the flat, absorbent surface of the wall itself.

Meyerowitz’s insights are profound, but it would be all too easy to come away thinking that the gray walls were what counted. In fact, it’s the interaction between the flatness of the backdrop and the fertile confusion of the foreground that seems to be the matrix where truly creative work takes place. Conversations with Cézanne includes a description by the critics R.P. Rivière and Jacques Schnerb of the artist’s two studios in Aix—he had another workspace in an apartment in town—that captures a quality that I miss from Meyerowitz’s cool, hermetic reading:

His studios, the one on the rue Bourgeon and the one on the road to Aubasane in the country, were in great disorder, chaotic disorder. The walls were bare and the light harsh. Half-empty tubes, brushes with long-dried paint, and lunch leftovers that had served as subjects for still lifes littered the tables. In one corner [of the studio on the rue Bourgeon] lay a whole collection of parasols, whose rough frames must have come from a vendor in town, the iron lance made by the neighboring blacksmith. Near them lay game-bags used to carry food to the countryside.

It’s in those parasols, not to mention the “lunch leftovers,” that we seem to get a glimpse of the real Cézanne, who chose his gray walls as a corrective to the clutter that fills any creative life. Gray alone would have been stifling, while the chaos on its own would have been overwhelming, and Cézanne, instinctively or otherwise, knew that he needed both.

From Rolling Stone to Brighton Rock

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I haven’t had the chance recently to read much for my own pleasure, but as soon as I have enough time and distance from my current project, I’m hoping to check out Sticky Fingers, the new biography of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan. Part of my interest lies in professional curiosity—it’s hard to imagine two men less alike than Wenner and John W. Campbell, but both were powerful magazine editors who shaped the culture out of a combination of vision and good timing—and its backstory is unusually intriguing. As the New York Times reported shortly before the book’s release:

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages…In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase—Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million—before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

If nothing else, Hagan went into the book with both eyes open, and he evidently did everything that he could to thread a difficult needle, as the Times article notes: “When he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing ‘every instance in which [Wenner] had sex with anybody in the book’ and anything else ‘super personal.’” It didn’t work, and Wenner has refused to promote or endorse the result, of which he says: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, [Hagan] produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”

Wenner’s reaction doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the book’s critical or commercial reception, which has been very positive, but it inevitably sheds light on the fraught relationship between a biographer and a living subject. Perhaps the most fascinating case in recent memory is that of Norman Sherry and Graham Greene, which produced three massive biographical volumes that I confess I’ve only sampled in places. In his preface to the first book, Sherry describes his initial encounters with Greene with an air of intimacy that seems harmless enough:

[Greene said] with what I am sure was the instinctive decision of a novelist, “If I were to have my biography written, I would choose you,” and later, as we parted in Brook Street, he made up his mind. I was to be his biographer, and we shook hands on it…It was only very gradually that a mutual trust developed and I think it was expressed when we were crossing St. James’s Street in London and narrowly escaped being knocked down by a taxi. He said, “You almost lost your subject there,” and I replied, “That’s not half as bad as losing your biographer.” He laughed and I knew we had become friends.

Greene, like Wenner, was particularly guarded about his sex life, later writing to Sherry from the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton to ask him “not to interview certain women he had known.” (Wenner asked Hagan to omit “the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.”) And although Greene didn’t live to see the final volume, it led to a similar dispute with with the writer’s family, as well as a bizarre controversy over Sherry’s exclusive access to Greene’s papers that hinged, according to a great gossipy article in the New York Times, on a single comma.

Some of the criticisms voiced by Greene’s relatives are strikingly reminiscent of those leveled against Hagan. Both biographers have been accused of inordinate attention to their subjects’ sexual activity. “His obsession with brothels far surpasses that of his supposed subject,” Greene’s son said of Sherry, while Joe Landau of Rolling Stone feels that Hagan went too far in his treatment of sex: “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer. To me it’s a question of degree and tone.” (In this line, I can’t resist mentioning the passage from Sherry in which he quotes Mario Soldati, the Italian movie director, who says that he spent his last conversation with Greene “confessing the varieties of oral sex we’d performed,” which I frankly find hard to imagine.) Sherry was also accused of inserting himself gratuitously into his work:

Mr. Sherry has interjected himself into the narrative, dropped in bits of his own poetry, even included a picture of himself riding on a donkey in Mexico as he retraced Greene’s research for the novel The Power and the Glory…“This book is not about Graham Greene, but about Sherry,” Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, 67, said.

Many biographers have succumbed to this temptation, but Sherry didn’t do himself any favors, saying in response to the accusation that he minimized Greene’s relationship with his son: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.” Sherry claimed to have ruined his health and his personal life in his pursuit of his subject, and he summed it all up in words that would do equal credit to a biographer or a serial killer: “I often felt I must be him. I lived within him.”

On the other hand, I could list examples of the ambivalence of biographers toward their subjects for days. There’s Peter Manso, whom I’ve quoted here so often recently, who used the long afterword to the reissue of his oral biography of Norman Mailer primarily as a means of settling scores. And then there’s Roger Lewis, who seems to have realized about halfway through writing a biography of Anthony Burgess that he hated his subject. If familiarity breeds contempt, few people would have more reason to be contemptuous, as Lewis implies:

The sum of the parts [of an artist’s work] will not be greater than the totality—and nor is it, with Burgess. Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is always the same. To read one’s way through all of Burgess’s work (and how many have done that—except me?) is to make a startling discovery. It’s all the same.

I’ve never forgotten that aside: “And how many have done that—except me?” This is something that most biographers have probably caught themselves thinking, and if there’s a common denominator between the cases that I’ve mentioned, it’s that they all hinge on the fundamental weirdness of an enterprise that requires the writer to spend years “living within” someone else. If that person is alive, it can lead both to resistance from the subjects—who naturally see the work as an uncanny valley version of themselves—and to excessive identification by the writer. The victim, in both cases, is the work itself. Neither subject nor biographer, it seems, can be trusted to read the book objectively. And it may be as much a matter of luck as professionalism if the result ever ends up being close to the truth.

A choice of forms

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I find I need both forms [the theater and the novel] to satisfy me. Ideas which essentially comment on manners seem to belong in the play form—you need the physical contact with your audience, get them where they can’t miss the direct punch, then let them think about it afterward. Like all forms of satire, it is necessarily unfair, yet quite as fair as the Pollyanna treatment. The form which allows me second thoughts as well as first is the novel—here a character may receive more justice; what he intends to do, what he meant to be, what others think of him are as important as what he does and says; the line he would damn himself with on the stage may be explained by a quick trip through his mind, the novelist’s privilege.

The drama form—far easier and more agreeable to me—appeals to me as achieving its ends more quickly and powerfully. The writer has only to present his one side, the audience and critics do the novelist’s job of filling in, making excuses, seeing the other side, defending whatever characters they feel best equipped to understand. This public willingness to take active part in an artist’s creation seems to make the drama a better medium for social satire. God knows that by the time the various producers, readers, agents, actors, directors, critics, technicians, etc., have gotten a play before an audience the thing practically amounts to a mass movement.

Dawn Powell, in a letter to Barrett Clark

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The unstrung hero

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Despite the fact that writers have an obvious interest in talking about their lives, there are surprisingly few truly satisfying portraits of novelists in fiction. Until recently, I would have said, in all seriousness, that the best depiction of a writer that I’ve ever seen is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But my new favorite, which I discovered just a few weeks ago, is Edward Gorey’s early illustrated story The Unstrung Harp. This little book, which first appeared in 1953, was included two decades later in the collection Amphigorey, which I bought last month for my daughter. Its central figure is Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, “the well-known novelist,” whose books include A Moral Dustbin, More Chains than Clank, Was it Likely?, and “the Hipdeep trilogy.” (Even in the first two sentences, you can hear the voice, more Edwardian than any Englishman could manage, that makes it all the more startling to realize that Gorey was born in Chicago and spent most of his life on Cape Cod.) In November of every other year, we’re told, Mr. Earbrass starts a new novel, and we meet him as he’s about to commence work on The Unstrung Harp, a title that he chose “at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book.” This is all good stuff, but a passage on the fourth page is what really caught my eye:

Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.

This is so close to my own experience of writing that I began to read the book more closely. Two pages later, there’s a line that feels inexpressibly right: “[Mr. Earbrass] cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on a bottle-tree was one of his better ideas.” On the next page, however, we find the writer “engaged in making diagrams of possible routes and destinations, and wishing he had not dealt so summarily with Lirp, who would have been useful for taking retributive measures at the end of Part Three. At the moment there is no other character capable of them.” This is frighteningly accurate. Every page or so, there’s another exquisite detail, as when Mr. Earbrass thinks of the perfect epigraph, but can’t remember the source of the lines: “His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago.” And Gorey’s description of the revision process is one of the best that I’ve found:

Some weeks later, with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance, Mr. Earbrass beings to revise TUH. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse than merely writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.

It’s the combination of “a decanter of sherry” and “a vast reluctance” that gets at the heart of what every writer feels when approaching a new draft. I’m feeling it this morning.

What’s remarkable about The Unstrung Harp is that it seems to know so much about writing and publication, but it was actually Gorey’s first book—it came out when he was just twenty-seven, in the same year that he moved to New York to work for Doubleday. As for its origins, Gorey unhelpfully recalled in the interview collection Ascending Peculiarity: “I remember I started writing The Unstrung Harp to order, except I don’t know if anybody gave me the idea for it. They just said give us an idea for a book that you think we might find feasible. Why they found that feasible, I cannot imagine at this late date.” The result turned out to be the longest story that he would ever write, at least in terms of word count, and it was also an outlier, compared to the themes and tone that he would develop and refine so obsessively over the next few decades. After it was reprinted, Gorey’s good friend Peter F. Neumeyer wrote to him:

I’m just delighted with [The Unstrung Harp], not because it’s a masterpiece…but because it’s rich and warm and represents directions which are potential in your writing which you may sometime, when life has taken you there, draw on again, after perhaps a year or so more of the strange syntax in the minuets which you favor now frequently.

As it happened, Gorey never seems to have revisited this early mode, leaving it as something singular and strange in his body of work, which would find its greatest success in darker places.

But The Unstrung Harp reads now like the work of a young man with both an unusually strong voice and an uncanny sense of what he might become. Gorey spent the next seven years turning out book covers and illustrations for Doubleday, where he must have learned far more about the business of publishing, but it’s hard to imagine anything better than his description of “the worst part of all in the undertaking of a novel,” the preparation of the clean copy from the revised manuscript: “Not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratchings-out, and scribblings, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness.” Or the day when Mr. Earbass has to review his page proofs:

The galleys have arrived, and Mr. Earbrass goes over them with mingled excitement and disgust. It all looks so different set up in type that at first he thought they had sent him the wrong ones by mistake. He is quite giddy from trying to physically control the sheets and at the same time keep the amount of absolutely necessary changes within the allowed pecuniary limits.

But my favorite moment, and one of the most purely humane that Gorey ever allowed himself, is when Mr. Earbrass decides impulsively to spend a few weeks on the Continent, with the last page of the book capturing him in a state of mind that all writers must know well: “Now, at dawn, he stands, quite numb with cold and trepidation, looking at the churning surface of the Channel…Though he is a person to whom things do not happen, perhaps they may when he is on the other side.”

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2017 at 8:25 am

Quote of the Day

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Don’t use jargon to describe people. It’s both disrespectful and bad writing. I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink. Give information in the form you received it.

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2017 at 7:30 am

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