Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

Constructing a shrine to the random

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Gregory Bateson

“I am going to build a church some day,” Gregory Bateson once said. “It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” I’ve shared this quote here before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really dug into its underlying meaning. As Bateson knew, many creative processes originate in raids on the random, and the holy of holies he describes genuinely existed in a number of incarnations. The Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament were evidently oracle stones that were used to ask questions at important moments: their actual form is still a matter of debate, but it’s likely that they were a bag of small metal discs that were pulled one by one to spell out various permutations of the divine name, each with its own network of meanings. Lots, oracle bones, and divinatory texts have always been treated with ritual care. I’m as left-brained an author as they come, but I always incorporate randomness into the early stages of any writing project, and while these habits are useful in their own right, I’ve also come to see them as a gesture of respect for the unknowable. Whether or not they result in a useful idea is almost beside the point, although they invariably do; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that there are aspects of creativity that can’t be controlled in rational ways.

In fact, I’m starting to believe that every writer needs to maintain a personal shrine to the random. I’m thinking in particular of those portable shrines carried by bullfighters, explorers, and aviators, which can be folded, tucked into a suitcase or bag, and unfolded to be set up in any camp or hotel room. After much trial and error, I’ve found that the ideal vehicle of randomness is a collection of many short, compact units of information of uniform density that can easily be selected by chance. The quintessential example is the I Ching, although I’ve found that it’s a little too vague for my tastes. As I’ve said in other posts, my own favorite oracle is Ted Hughes’s A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, a collection of upward of two hundred quotations from the poems and plays, helpfully numbered for convenient consultation. I’ve often thought about doing the same thing with the numbered entries in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, each of which lays out a design problem and its solution, or Robert Bresson’s Notes for the Cinematographer. (Numbers are useful because they allow you to employ a random number generator to select the one you need, which strikes me as a better approach than simply opening to a random page.)

A Pattern Language

Conceiving of randomness as an end unto itself—especially in how it inspires the mind to come up with unexpected connections and associations—almost redeems such questionable practices as Tarot cards, tea leaves, and astrology, which are useful when they encourage the consulter to apply novel patterns to the situation at hand, rather than slavishly following the response. If this strikes you as too fuzzy, there are plenty of alternatives. I’ve long been a fan of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and I’ve recently become intrigued by the IDEO Method Cards, which represent a more detailed approach to the same problem. Again, the real value they add is portability, concision, and convenience, as well as material that has gone through a prior stage of refinement. In theory, you could use the Yellow Pages as a source of randomness, too, and while some might argue that this is the way to really whack yourself out of established modes of thinking, I prefer my ore to be slightly more filtered first. (The raw materials don’t need to be words, either: as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, combinations of pictures have been used to stimulate creative thinking, and it’s easy to imagine a similar approach with music, or even with objects in the room you happen to be in now, as Julian Jaynes has done.)

Ultimately, though, the shrine depends on the user. Chance only brings your attention to what is right before your eyes, or reminds you of something you already know, as expressed in an anonymous verse that has been rattling around in my head for years: 

Whenever you are called on to make up your mind
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the way to solve the dilemma you’ll find
is simply by flipping a penny.

Not so that chance will decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping
But the moment the penny is up in the air
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Randomness works in much the same way, so its source needs to be something you find personally meaningful—which is true of any shrine. So why not build yours today?

The magic feather of randomness

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Walt Disney's Dumbo

I’m very deliberate about my randomness. If there’s a single recurring thread that runs through this blog, it’s the search for ways to introduce chance into my creative process, which otherwise tends to be a little too rational and organized. Randomness plays a huge role in the early stages of any project: the choice of one subject over another is really just an educated guess as to what you’ll find engaging for the next few months or years of your life, and there have been times, looking back, when I realize that I clearly guessed wrong. Later on, though, it’s easy to go overboard with research and outlining, so I’m always looking for reliable tricks to shake up my thinking. For a while, I used the I Ching, before its vagueness started to get on my nerves, and my tattered copy of A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, combined with a random number generator, is still my favorite way of finding a random quote that might shed light on my current creative problems. And I’ve increasingly started to consult Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, to the point where I’ll often draw a card when faced with any dilemma at all, creative or otherwise.

But what happens when you don’t have your usual tools available? This came up during my recent trip to Spain, during which I hoped to keep thinking about the project I’m currently writing. I didn’t have room to pack the books I usually employ as a source of random thoughts, and I didn’t expect to have reliable access to the Internet. For a while, I thought about generating a few random tidbits in advance—by, say, drawing an Oblique Strategy card for each of the five scenes I was hoping to work on, then keeping them in reserve until I needed them—but I quickly realized that this was only avoiding the larger question. Randomness, like anything else in life, can be pursued too systematically, and I had fallen into the trap of relying on the same handful of tools, when randomness is really all around us. Julian Jaynes, writing on the subject in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicemeral Mind, talks about how he’ll deliberately trigger random chains of associations by looking out the window or around the room where he happens to be, and when it comes to inventing material for this blog, I’ll occasionally ask myself, while seated at my desk: “Is there an idea for a blog post that I can see right now without turning my head?”

Brian Eno

You can pull random inspiration from other works of culture, too, and not just the I Ching or Shakespeare. When I’m at the movies, I’m usually too immersed in, or at least distracted by, what’s happening on the screen to think usefully about anything else, but when I’m watching a television show or a play, my attention tends to wander from time to time. I’ve found it useful to have a plot problem or other issue in mind even before I sit down, so when I start to drift a little, my thoughts turn naturally to my work. And I’ve found that this is a really great time to daydream. I’m not talking about looking to works of art specifically for insights into storytelling, but merely as a source of words, images, and moments that can spark an unexpected train of thought. Last night, for example, I was watching television—all right, it was The Vampire Diaries—with a particular story problem still bothering me, and when one of the characters said “Close your eyes,” it gave me the answer I needed. You can get the same kind of mental jolt from a page of any random book or magazine. As Pliny says: “No book is so bad as to have nothing good in it.”

Which gets at an important point about randomness of the kind that I’ve long pursued. It isn’t an end in its own right, but a way of teaching yourself to find similar inspiration in the chance events that occur every day. To go back to the I Ching for a moment, it’s useful to remember that divination, at least in the Confucian sense, isn’t really about seeing the future: it’s about becoming aware of the influences that bind all of reality together at that moment, and which affect both the larger patterns of your own life and the way a few coins fall when tossed. Whether or not you believe in such synchronicity, it’s worth keeping in mind that the most valuable source of randomness is the whole world. Focused kinds of randomness have their place, but they’re really more like strength training for a deeper sense of awareness, one that helps us see a greater significance in the objects or people around us than they may initially seem to have on their own. That’s what writing, or any form of creative activity, is really about. External devices for finding randomness are a little like Dumbo’s magic feather: they’re comforting, and they allow us to take leaps that we otherwise might avoid, but the real magic is in the act of seeing.

The power of intentional randomness

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I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.

Gregory Bateson, quoted in The Whole Earth Catalog

Randomness has been used as a creative tool for a long time. (Leonardo Da Vinci recommended that painters generate ideas by splashing paint on a piece of paper and seeing what images were suggested by the random shapes.) It’s a way of forcing the brain to be ingenious: we’re all very good at seeing connections between unrelated objects, or patterns where there really are none. Intentional randomness is the easiest way to put this ability to useful work.

At the earliest stages of a project, randomness can be used to generate ideas for an entire story. The plots for the three novelettes I’ve sold to Analog, for example, all came about in the same way: I leafed through a pile of science magazines (usually Discover, but sometimes Scientific American), chose two or three articles essentially at random, and tried to figure out what the subjects might have in common. “The Last Resort,” for example, arose from the juxtaposition of two unrelated articles, one about the snakes of Narcisse, the other about the tragedy of Lake Nyos. “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to come out next year, originated in a similar way.

For a novel, which can take up a year or more of your time, the underlying idea will probably not be the result of such a mechanical process (although I’ve done this, too). Once you have a plot, though, you can use intentional randomness to enrich your outline. For a while, I would cast a hexagram of the I Ching for every scene I wrote, looking at the result and trying to figure out how it applied to the current chapter. (At least two editions of the I Ching have been published specifically for writers, although the Wilhelm translation is probably still the best.) I haven’t done this in a while, mostly because I found the I Ching to be a little too vague, but it’s certainly worth a try.

More recently, I’ve taken to doing something similar with A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which is admirably suited for this approach. It’s an anthology of 218 numbered quotations from Shakespeare, selected by Hughes, presented without context or comment. When I’m brainstorming a chapter, I’ll choose a quotation at random—ideally with a random number generator—and then try to see how the passage might apply to the scene at hand. And I’ll almost always come up with an unusual angle or insight into the story that I wouldn’t have stumbled across any other way.

This technique (which sometimes verges on bibliomancy) is especially useful when combined with a mind map. I’ll write a single guiding word on the page, generate a Shakespeare quotation, and write it down beneath the central word. I’ll then noodle for a while with that particular passage before moving on to less structured brainstorming.

If this sounds a little mechanical, well, it is. And I don’t claim that it works for everyone. But over the past few years, it has become an essential part of my writing process.

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