Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Brian Eno

Writing while sick

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Norman Mailer

Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 17, 2015.

Over the weekend, I got sick. Really sick. I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I don’t know exactly what happened—although the fact that I’m sharing a house with a toddler who recently got over her own stomach bug probably had something to do with it. It’s enough to say that around one in the morning, lying wrapped in blankets on the living room couch, with sleep only a remote possibility, I’d already given up on the idea of doing any work the following day. But somehow, when it come down to it, I muddled my way through, with the aid of white toast, chicken soup, and Gatorade. I’m not saying that the pages I managed to write yesterday were any good; I haven’t reviewed them yet, but given the way I cranked them out, I have a hunch that they were pretty terrible. Still, they exist. They’ll give me something to revise and tinker with today and tomorrow. And the fact that I was able to get a decent amount of writing done while being constantly distracted by my own digestive system speaks both to the power of routine and to something more useful about working on a project when you’re at less than your best.

A few weeks ago, I quoted an essay by the ecologist Stephen Heard on the matter of revision. He has a lot of good thoughts on the subject—including the tip that you should use the number of characters, not words, as a guideline when revising for length—and in particular, he recommends going over a draft at a time of day when you’re thinking less clearly than usual. If you’re a morning person and read your manuscript at night, your natural fuzziness of thought serves as a corrective to the tendency to take your own ideas at face value:

This isn’t about trying to simulate stupid readers; rather, you are looking to counterbalance your overfamiliarity with what you meant to say with a bit of useful mental fog. If your draft is clear to you even when you’re not thinking your best, great—and if it’s not, you’ve found something to fix.

Working while sick has much of the same effect. It’s the reason why producers like Bill Moriarty like to mix records on “crap speakers,” which more closely replicates the experience of most listeners. If the result works under the worst possible conditions, it’ll do fine on high-end gear. Or, as Brian Eno says: “It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.”

Brian Eno

A sick writer, then, becomes a kind of simulation of a distracted reader, and while I don’t exactly recommend seeking this out, it never hurts to take advantage of such circumstances when they present themselves. Yet there’s something even more profound at work here, and I can’t do any better than to quote Norman Mailer at length from his book Cannibals and Christians:

There’s a book came out a few years ago which was a sociological study of some Princeton men—I forget the name of it. One of them said something which I thought was extraordinary. He said he wanted to perform the sexual act under every variety of condition, emotion, and mood available to him. I was struck with this not because I ever wanted necessarily to have that kind of sexual life, but because it seemed to me that was what I was trying to do with my writing. I try to go over my work in every conceivable mood. I edit on a spectrum which runs from the high clear manic impressions of a drunk which has made one electrically alert all the way down to the soberest reaches of depression where I can hardly bear my own words. By the time I’m done with writing I care about I usually have worked on it through the full gamut of my consciousness. If you keep yourself in this peculiar kind of shape, the craft will take care of itself.

And there’s a very subtle point here that affects anyone who tries to write for a living. Occasionally, you’ll see a book that seems to have been written in a single white heat of inspiration, but more often, a novel or story is the product of extended labor over time, with all the highs and lows of capability this implies. This may seem like a liability, but really, it’s a strength: a work of art that reflects the full spectrum of its author’s experiences, good and bad, is likely to be richer and more full of life than one that the writer tackled only when he felt like it. (It’s worth noting, though, that even Mailer had his limits when it came to what kinds of mental states were acceptable for serious writing. Elsewhere, he says: “Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed, and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers his ribs are broken.”) A few great writers, like Proust, seem to have written only when they were sick. And although we don’t need to take it that far, it’s worth remembering that if a novel is like a marriage, we need to learn how to live with it for better and for worse, for richer or poorer—and in sickness and in health.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

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.

Quote of the Day

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Brian Eno

I’m struck by the insidious, computer-driven tendency to take things out of the domain of muscular activity and put them into the domain of mental activity. The transfer is not paying off. Sure, muscles are unreliable, but they represent several million years of accumulated finesse. Musicians enjoy drawing on that finesse, and audiences respond to its exercise, so when muscular activity is rendered useless, the creative process is frustrated.

Brian Eno

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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Writing while sick

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Norman Mailer

Over the weekend, I got sick. Really sick. I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I don’t know exactly what happened—although the fact that I’m sharing a house with a toddler who recently got over her own stomach bug probably had something to do with it. It’s enough to say that around one in the morning, lying wrapped in blankets on the living room couch, with sleep only a remote possibility, I’d already given up on the idea of doing any work the following day. But somehow, when it come down to it, I muddled my way through, with the aid of white toast, chicken soup, and Gatorade. I’m not saying that the pages I managed to write yesterday were any good; I haven’t reviewed them yet, but given the way I cranked them out, I have a hunch that they were pretty terrible. Still, they exist. They’ll give me something to revise and tinker with today and tomorrow. And the fact that I was able to get a decent amount of writing done while being constantly distracted by my own digestive system speaks both to the power of routine and to something more useful about working on a project when you’re at less than your best.

A few weeks ago, I quoted an essay by the ecologist Stephen Heard on the matter of revision. He has a lot of good thoughts on the subject—including the tip that you should use the number of characters, not words, as a guideline when revising for length—and in particular, he recommends going over a draft at a time of day when you’re thinking less clearly than usual. If you’re a morning person and read your manuscript at night, your natural fuzziness of thought serves as a corrective to the tendency to take your own ideas at face value:

This isn’t about trying to simulate stupid readers; rather, you are looking to counterbalance your overfamiliarity with what you meant to say with a bit of useful mental fog. If your draft is clear to you even when you’re not thinking your best, great—and if it’s not, you’ve found something to fix.

Working while sick has much of the same effect. It’s the reason why producers like Bill Moriarty like to mix records on “crap speakers,” which more closely replicates the experience of most listeners. If the result works under the worst possible conditions, it’ll do fine on high-end gear. Or, as Brian Eno says: “It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.”

Brian Eno

A sick writer, then, becomes a kind of simulation of a distracted reader, and while I don’t exactly recommend seeking this out, it never hurts to take advantage of such circumstances when they present themselves. Yet there’s something even more profound at work here, and I can’t do any better than to quote Norman Mailer at length from his book Cannibals and Christians:

There’s a book came out a few years ago which was a sociological study of some Princeton men—I forget the name of it. One of them said something which I thought was extraordinary. He said he wanted to perform the sexual act under every variety of condition, emotion, and mood available to him. I was struck with this not because I ever wanted necessarily to have that kind of sexual life, but because it seemed to me that was what I was trying to do with my writing. I try to go over my work in every conceivable mood. I edit on a spectrum which runs from the high clear manic impressions of a drunk which has made one electrically alert all the way down to the soberest reaches of depression where I can hardly bear my own words. By the time I’m done with writing I care about I usually have worked on it through the full gamut of my consciousness. If you keep yourself in this peculiar kind of shape, the craft will take care of itself.

And there’s a very subtle point here that affects anyone who tries to write for a living. Occasionally, you’ll see a book that seems to have been written in a single white heat of inspiration, but more often, a novel or story is the product of extended labor over time, with all the highs and lows of capability this implies. This may seem like a liability, but really, it’s a strength: a work of art that reflects the full spectrum of its author’s experiences, good and bad, is likely to be richer and more full of life than one that the writer tackled only when he felt like it. (It’s worth noting, though, that even Mailer had his limits when it came to what kinds of mental states were acceptable for serious writing. Elsewhere, he says: “Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed, and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers his ribs are broken.”) A few great writers, like Proust, seem to have written only when they were sick. And although we don’t need to take it that far, it’s worth remembering that if a novel is like a marriage, we need to learn how to live with it for better and for worse, for richer or poorer—and in sickness and in health.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2015 at 8:48 am

Hanging a lantern on it

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John Rhys-Davies in The Return of the King

For Christmas, I finally got my own copy of the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray. About a year ago, I’d laboriously worked my way through all the commentary tracks and special features on the discs I’d borrowed from my brother-in-law, and I realized that it was a real treasure trove of insights into filmmaking and storytelling—the closest thing I’ve found to a film school in a box set. Not surprisingly, I decided that I had to own it for myself. Playing it again now, I’ve started to see that part of the reason these supplementary materials are so fascinating is because they show us a director and creative team coping with a subject larger than they’d ever confronted before. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic, but not perfect, and much of the fun of the commentaries is hearing Peter Jackson and his collaborators discussing what they might have done differently, or analyzing problems that they were never quite able to crack. You’ll often get richer insights from a director talking about an unworkable project than about one in which the pieces just seemed to fall into place: I find The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo more interesting to think about than The Social Network, even though I vastly prefer the latter movie, and I have the feeling that I’d learn a hell of a lot from the commentaries to The Hobbit.

There’s one particular moment in The Return of the King that I’ve been thinking about recently. Aragorn has just succeeded in raising the army of the dead at the White Mountains, and with its help, he’s routed the orcs at the siege of Minas Tirith. Later, with an expedition looming against Mordor itself, the king of the dead asks Aragon to release them from their oath, leading to this aside from Gimli: “Bad idea. Very handy in a tight spot, these lads, despite the fact they’re dead.” Aragorn, of course, lets them go—and it’s a good thing he does, at least within the context of the movie we’re watching. As Jackson points out in his commentary, an invincible army of ghosts is a fatal narrative device: if they can’t be killed, there’s no suspense in any battle. He goes on to say that he hated the idea, but felt that he had to include it out of fidelity to the books, so he did what he could to delay their involvement and them out of the way as soon as possible. Even in its final form, their appearance still feels like something of a cheat, with all the prior action we’ve seen on the battlefield rendered more than a little irrelevant. But the movie buys back a lot of credibility with Gimli’s muttered observation, in which he basically speaks, as he often does, for the audience.

The Return of the King

In other words, the movie anticipates the viewer’s objection, and instead of ignoring it or rewriting the story to remove it, it calls attention to it. And while this may not be the best solution, it kind of works. In the past, I’ve talked about the anthropic principle of fiction, which briefly states that the most fundamental aspects of a story should be built around its least plausible elements. If the narrative hinges on a coincidence, a freak occurrence, or some odd fact of nature—as we often see in mystery and science fiction—it’s not too much to tailor the setting, the major beats of the plot, and even the primary characters to make a tenuous idea more credible when it comes. (My favorite example from my own work is my short story “Ernesto,” which ended up being set in the Spanish Civil War and featuring Ernest Hemingway as the lead simply so I could justify an undiagnosed outbreak of erysipelas.) This approach tends to work better in short fiction, in which every element can be introduced to ultimately serve a specific twist or pivotal moment. A longer work, like a novel or feature film, pushes back a little more: the story is so large that not every detail can be contingent on a single narrative problem. And in practice, you often end up with necessary but infuriatingly uncooperative moments that don’t quite track, but can’t be cut.

All you can do, in the end, is make it seem intentional, by spotlighting it to the point where the reader can’t accuse you of overlooking it through carelessness. In television, it’s called lampshading or hanging a lantern, while Brian Eno, in his Oblique Strategies, says: “Magnify the most difficult details.” Or, in the language of software development: “It isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.” You see it whenever a novelist points out that a plot point is exactly like the kind of thing you’d see in a bad novel, or when a writer claims that he’d hesitate to mention an improbable coincidence if he weren’t describing factual events, or when Bruce Willis simply says: “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” This isn’t anyone’s idea of a great solution, and it should only be used as a last resort. (If nothing else, it’s an example of authorial desperation masquerading as cleverness and then drawing attention to itself, none of which are enviable qualities in fiction.) Sometimes, though, the end justifies the means—even if it isn’t the kind of thing you want to do more than once per story, if at all. A novelist needs to be a good liar, and the greatest deceivers, as we all know, don’t press the point too much. When you’re called on it, there are times when you have to double down. But it’s better not to give yourself away in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2015 at 9:32 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2014 at 7:30 am

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A meditation on the tarot

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The Tarot of Marseilles

A few weeks ago, I picked up a pack of tarot cards. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in using forms of randomness to inform the writing process, largely because I’m such a left-brained writer in other ways. Raids on the random of various kinds have served as a creative tool for millennia, of course, although they were seen less as randomness than as divination. And regardless of your thoughts on their validity, accuracy, or philosophical basis, there’s little question, at least to my mind, that they offer a set of valuable approaches to modes of thinking that often go unactivated in everyday life. Jung, for instance, used tarot and the I Ching with patients undergoing psychotherapy, noting—and this is a crucial point—that the results thus derived were worth close attention when they seemed to converge on a single interpretation. Tarot and the like aren’t ends in themselves, but a medium in which intuitive thought can take place, and as such, I think they deserve to be sampled by creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on accessing that kind of thinking on a regular basis.

That said, I resisted the tarot for a long time, mostly because it carries so much symbolic and cultural baggage: it’s easier for an otherwise rational writer to justify drawing one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, say, than to lay out a celtic cross spread. Still, tarot has received serious attention from writers as otherwise dissimilar as Robert Graves, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson, and when you strip away its distracting connotations, you’re left with a set of flexible, versatile symbols that have been subjected to a long process of historical refinement. Tarot, like most useful forms of creative thought, is primarily about combination and juxtaposition, both with the problem at hand and between the cards themselves. It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns, and while you could theoretically do this with any assortment of random words or ideas, like the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, it probably helps—both pragmatically and psychologically—to begin with a coherent collection of images that other creative thinkers have used in the past.

The Tarot of Marseilles

With this in mind, I bought an inexpensive pack of cards depicting the Tarot of Marseilles, which Jung, among others, regarded as the most stimulating of the many possible designs. (It’s also the pack at the heart of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the oddest, densest books in my home library, although it’s less a work on the tarot itself than one that uses the cards as a gateway into a more discursive look at esoteric theology.) I’ve been laying out cards now and then as I outline a new writing project, and the results have been promising enough that I expect to continue. Occasionally, the readings I get seem to have an uncanny relevance to the problem at hand, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to the mind’s ability to see connections when given a set of ambiguous symbols, this doesn’t make it any less useful. Any practice that encourages ten minutes of loosely structured thought about a creative dilemma is likely to come up with something valuable, and even if it’s the ten minutes that really count, it’s easier when the process is guided by a series of established steps.

And what makes the tarot potentially more useful than other alternatives is its visual nature, as well as the way in which 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. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of notetaking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger. This can only lead to surprising insights, and even if it ultimately leads us to where we were already going, it allows us to pick up a little more along the way.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

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