Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Pattern Language

My ten creative books #4: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his diverse slate of coauthors—Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Schlomo Angel—didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. These days, the values that it endorses seem more remote than ever, but it’s still the one book, above all others that I’ve read, that offers the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

Raising the roof

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Whenever I return from a walk with my daughter and catch my first glimpse of our house at the corner, I feel happy. It was built over a hundred years ago, and although it isn’t any nicer than the houses to either side, it’s a little bit taller, and the high peak of its roof gives it a distinctive silhouette—as soon as I see it, I know that I’m home. Years ago, when my wife and I were looking for a place to start our family, I knew that I wanted a roof like this. I was partially inspired by the architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which may be the best book that I’ve ever read on any subject. Alexander writes:

We believe that [the] connection between the geometry of roofs, and their capacity to provide psychological shelter, can be put on empirical grounds: first, there is a kind of evidence which shows that both children and adults naturally incline toward the sheltering roofs, almost as if they had archetypal properties…Despite fifty years of the flat roofs of the “modern movement,” people still find the simple pitched roof the most powerful symbol of shelter.

In fact, my own roof doesn’t quite meet those standards. As Alexander notes: “This sheltering function cannot be created by a pitched roof, or a large roof, which is merely added to the top of an existing structure. The roof itself only shelters if it contains, embraces, covers, surrounds the process of living.” Instead of coming down to the rooms themselves, the roof of my house covers an attic that we never use. And sometimes this means that our living space feels slightly incomplete.

But maybe I should be grateful that I have a roof like this at all. In his essay “The Inevitable Box,” reprinted in his recent collection Four Walls and a Roof, Reinier de Graaf writes of the triumph of the architectural cube, which he calls “the natural outcome of all rational parameters combined”:

When did the pitched roof stop being a necessity? The dirty secret of modern architecture is that it never did. We stopped using it without any superior solution having presented itself. The omission of the pitched roof is an intentional technological regression, a deliberate forgoing of the best solution in favor of an aesthetic ideal, eschewing function for form—the symbol of a desire for progress instead of progress itself. We choose to endure the inconvenience. After all, architecture and the box have had an inconvenient relation for centuries. The pitched roof helped them avoid seeing eye to eye. It was what stood between architecture and the naked truth, what prevented the box from being a box. In our drift toward the box, the pitched roof was a necessary casualty—no progress without cruelty! With bigger things at stake, the pitched roof had to go.

Yet the psychological power of the pitched roof still persists. Alexander quotes the French psychiatrist Menie Gregoire, who wrote in the early seventies: “At Nancy the children from the apartments were asked to draw a house. These children had been born in these apartment slabs which stand up like a house of cards upon an isolated hill. Without exception they each drew a small cottage with two windows and smoke curling up from a chimney on the roof.”

Alexander concedes that this preference might be “culturally induced,” but he also makes a strong case for why the pitched roof is an inherently superior form. When properly conceived—so that the interior ceilings come right up to the roof itself—it seems to surround and shelter the living space, rather than sitting on top like a cap; it becomes a distinctive element that defines the house from a distance; and it even forms a connection with people on the ground, if the eaves come low enough around the entrance to be touched. There are also practical advantages. In On Directing Film, David Mamet contrasts the “unlivable” designs of countercultural architecture with the patterns of traditional design, which he uses to make a point about storytelling:

If you want to tell a story, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the nature of human perception. Just as, if you want to know how to build a roof, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the effects of gravity and the effects of precipitation. If you go up into Vermont and build a roof with a peak, the snow will fall off. You build a flat roof, the roof will fall down from the weight of the snow—which is what happened to a lot of the countercultural architecture of the 1960s. “There may be a reason people have wanted to hear stories for ten million years,” the performance artist says, “but I really don’t care, because I have something to say.”

But the opposite of a box isn’t necessarily a house with a pitched roof. It can also be what de Graaf calls “the antibox,” in which straight lines of any kind have been omitted. He argues that such buildings, exemplified by the work of Frank Gehry, have turned architecture “into a game of chance,” relying on computer models to determine what is possible: “Authorship has become relative: with creation now delegated to algorithms, the antibox’s main delight is the surprise it causes to the designers.” And he concludes:

The antibox celebrates the death of the ninety-degree angle—in fact, of every angle. Only curves remain. Floor, walls, and roof smoothly morph into a single continuous surface that only the most complex geometrical equations can capture. In its attempts to achieve a perfect ergonomic architecture—enveloping the body and its movement like a glove—the antibox falls into an age-old trap, only with more sophistication and virtuosity. The antibox is nothing more than form follows function 2.0, that is, a perfectly executed mistake.

I think that Gehry is a genius, even if some of his buildings do look like a big pile of trash, and that what he does is necessary and important. But it’s also revealing that the triumph of the box generated a reaction that didn’t consist of a return to the sensible pitched roof, but of the antibox that disregards all angles. Neither seems to have been conceived with an eye to those who will actually live or work there, any more than most performance art is concerned with the audience’s need for storytelling. Stories take on certain forms for a reason, and so should houses, embodied by the pitched roof—which is the point where two extremes meet. For all its shortcomings, when I look at my own house, I don’t just see a building. I see the story of my life.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2017 at 9:43 am

The creator and destroyer of light

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Drawing by Rembrandt

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 30, 2015. 

A while back, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:

It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.

It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.

But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”

Lisel Mueller

We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.

And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:

The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.

“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2017 at 9:00 am

My great books #8: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his coauthors didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to the next president to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the work, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

The creator and destroyer of light

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Drawing by Rembrandt

A few days ago, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:

It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.

It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.

But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”

Lisel Mueller

We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.

And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:

The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.

“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2015 at 10:11 am

An alternative library of creativity

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Adhocism

If you want to be a writer, there are plenty of guidebooks and manuals available, and some of them are very good. When you’re stuck on a particular narrative problem or trying to crack a story, though, you’ll often find that it’s helpful to approach it from an alternative angle, or to apply tactics and techniques from an unrelated creative field. I’ve always found inspiration from works intended for other disciplines, so here’s a sampling, in chronological order of original publication, of ten I’ve found consistently stimulating:

Magic and Showmanship (1969) by Henning Nelms. A magic trick is a work of theater in miniature, and writers can learn a lot from the insights that sleight of hand affords into the use of staging, emphasis, and misdirection, as tested under particularly unforgiving conditions. This book by the great Henning Nelms is the most useful work on the subject I’ve found from the perspective of storytelling and performance, and it’s particularly helpful on the subjects of clarity and dramatic structure.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation (1972) by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. An eccentric, highly opinionated meditation on bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever happens to be at hand, which is something writers do all the time. (The real trick is taking a story assembled out of odds and ends and making the result seem inevitable.) Out of print for many years, it was recently reissued in a handsome new edition that belongs on the shelf of any artist or designer.

A Pattern Language

The Little Lisper (1974) by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen. Coding is a surprisingly valuable field for writers to study, since it deals directly with problems of structure, debugging, and managing complex projects. I could have named any number of books here—Programmers at Work and its successor Coders at Work are also worth seeking out—but this classic work on the Lisp programming language, later updated as The Little Schemer, is particularly elegant, with a focus on teaching the reader how to think recursively.

A Pattern Language (1977) by Christopher Alexander. Alexander’s magnum opus—which is one of the two or three books I’d take with me if I couldn’t own any others—is ostensibly about architecture, but its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software design. This isn’t surprising, because it’s really a book about identifying patterns that live, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures, all from the perspective of those who use them every day. Which is what creativity, of any kind, is all about.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I’ve always been fascinated by animation, which scales up from the simplest possible tools and materials—a pencil, a pad of paper, a hand to flip the pages—to collaborative efforts of enormous complexity that can require years of effort. Not surprisingly, its traditions, tricks, and rules of thumb have plenty to teach storytellers of all kinds, and this work by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men comes as close as a book can to providing an education on the subject between covers.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) by Edward Tufte. Tufte’s rules for clarity and simplicity in the presentation of statistics apply as much to writing as to charts and graphs, and his ruthless approach to eliminating “chartjunk” is one that more authors and editors could stand to follow. (“Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”) His other books—Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence—are also essential, hugely pleasurable reads.

On Directing Film (1992) by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book endlessly before, but it’s still the single best introduction I’ve found to the basic principles of storytelling. (In the meantime, I’ve also learned how much Mamet owes to the works of Stanslavski, particularly the chapter “Units” from An Actor Prepares.) It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a set of immediately applicable tools that solve narrative problems under all circumstances, and although it can be read in less than an hour, it takes a lifetime to put it into practice.

Behind the Seen (2004) by Charles Koppelman. The problem that a film editor faces is a heightened version of what every artist confronts. Given a large body of raw material, how do you give it a logical shape and pare it down to its ideal length? The physical and logistical demands of the job—Walter Murch notes that an editor needs a strong back and arms—has resulted in a large body of practical knowledge, and this loving look at Murch’s editing of Cold Mountain using Final Cut Pro is the best guide in existence to what the work entails.

Field Notes on Science and Nature

Finishing the Hat (2010) by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s candid, often critical look at his own early lyrics shows the development of a major artist in real time, as he strives to address the basic challenge of conveying information to an audience through song. Cleverness, he finds, only takes you so far: the real art lies in finding a form to fit the content, doing less with more, and navigating the countless tiny decisions that add up to the ultimate effect. “All in the service of clarity,” Sondheim concludes, “without which nothing else matters.”

Field Notes on Science and Nature (2011) by Michael Canfield. Much of the creative process boils down to keeping good notes, which both serve to record one’s observations and to lock down insights that might seem irrelevant now but will become crucial later on. Scientists understand this as well as anyone, and there’s an unexpected degree of art in the process of recording data in the field. It’s impossible to read this beautiful book without coming away with new thoughts on how to live more fully through one’s notes, which is where a writer spends half of his or her time.

Looking at the books I’ve cited above, I find that they have two things in common: 1) An emphasis on clarity above all else. 2) A series of approaches to building complex structures out of smaller units. There’s more to writing than this, of course, and much of what authors do intuitively can’t be distilled down to a list of rules. But seeing these basic principles restated in so many different forms only serves as a reminder of how essential they are. Any one of these books can suggest new approaches to old problems, so you can start almost anywhere, and in the end, you find that each one leads into all the rest.

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

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