Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Buckminster Fuller

The switch point

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“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you,” Anthony Burgess once said in an interview with Writers Digest in the late seventies. “It will certainly shock the readers of Writer’s Digest.” Here it is:

What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. This is the kind of puzzle that interests me, keeps me going, and it will even suggest how to describe a girl’s hair, at least some of it will come, but I must keep to that page.

Burgess went on to reveal that a description of a hotel vestibule in his novel M/F was based on a page in W.J. Wilkinson’s Malay English Dictionary, although nobody seemed to have noticed this. He concluded:

The thing you see, it suggests what pictures are on the wall, what color somebody’s wearing, and as most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re not doing anything naughty, you’re really normally doing what nature does, you’re just making an entity out of the elements. I do recommend it to young writers.

I love this little trick for two reasons. One is that it’s a convenient way to conduct a raid on the random using nothing but the materials on your desk, which is exactly where you’re most likely to need it. The other is that it only works with the dictionary, rather than with a novel or work of nonfiction. As soon as you’re looking at words that have been chosen by another writer, you inevitably get tangled up with an exterior consciousness. With the dictionary, the only meaning there is the one you extract from it, and it helps that we’re dealing with two levels of impersonal structure—alphabetical order and the slice created by the boundaries of the page. I’m reminded of my favorite description of Buckminster Fuller going over his page proofs:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key phrase here is “quite arbitrary.” As Burgess puts it: “I must keep to that page.” Total freedom can lead to total paralysis, and simply limiting your options is a form of liberation.

That’s true of nearly every creative strategy, of course, but there’s a deeper point to be made here about the movement from order to disorder to order again. The most useful sources of randomness tend to be works that are rigorously organized. A dictionary is an obvious example, but an even greater one is the I Ching, which is so conceptually perfect that it may actually have retarded the development of Chinese civilization. As the historian Joseph Needham wrote:

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…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

Yet if the I Ching was limiting when taken as a system of thought, that’s also why it made such a good oracle. You don’t get useful results by looking for randomness in chaos, but by taking an existing order, extracting an arbitrary piece of it, and then using it to create something orderly on the other side. It’s the series of switch points that matters. Going from structure to randomness to structure again is more productive than pursuing either extreme on its own, because it’s in those moments of transition that the mind awakens to itself.

Economists speak of the negative impact of “switching costs,” but in creative thinking, it’s usually the act of switching—along with the act of combination—that generates ideas. Not surprisingly, most artists find that they’ve built switch points into their process, even if it isn’t entirely conscious. If you switch too often, you never settle into a groove, but if you don’t switch at all, you end up in a rut. And that rhythm of alternation, as well as the state of mind that it creates, may matter more in the long run than any particular method you use. It has affinities with the concept of dialectic, in which thinking is structured as the movement from thesis to antithesis to a synthesis of the two, and it gets results because of the regular switch points that it demands. I don’t think it’s an accident that dialectic was embraced as a tool by the Surrealists and the Dadaists, who took a systematic approach to cultivating the irrational. In one of Antonin Artaud’s letters, we read the very exciting sentence: “Dialectics is the art of considering ideas from every conceivable point of view—it is a method of distributing ideas.” And Tristan Tzara may have gotten even closer to the truth: “The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us—in a banal kind of way—to the opinions we had in the first place.” He’s right to call it banal, but it can also be hard to figure out what we already believe, and the switch point has a way of clarifying this. It can result in a philosophy of life, or it can take the form of an ad hoc trick, like Burgess and his dictionary. But we all end up with our own strategies for producing it, and we may not even have a choice. As Trotsky is supposed to have said: “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

The power of the page

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Laura Hillenbrand

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2014.

Over the weekend, I found myself contemplating two very different figures from the history of American letters. The first is the bestselling nonfiction author Laura Hillenbrand, whose lifelong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome compelled her to research and write Seabiscuit and Unbroken while remaining largely confined to her house for the last quarter of a century. (Wil S. Hylton’s piece on Hillebrand in The New York Times Magazine is absolutely worth a read—it’s the best author profile I’ve seen in a long time.) The other is the inventor and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose life was itinerant as Hillebrand’s is stationary. There’s a page in E.J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing, his genial look at his collaboration with Fuller on the magnum opus Synergetics, that simply reprints Fuller’s travel schedule for a representative two weeks in March: he flies from Philadelphia to Denver to Minneapolis to Miami to Washington to Harrisburg to Toronto, attending conferences and giving talks, to the point where it’s hard to see how he found time to get anything else done. Writing a coherent book, in particular, seemed like the least of his concerns; as Applewhite notes, Fuller’s natural element was the seminar, which allowed him to spin complicated webs of ideas in real time for appreciative listeners, and one of the greatest challenges of producing Synergetics lay in harnessing that energy in a form that could be contained within two covers.

At first glance, Hillenbrand and Fuller might seem to have nothing in common. One is a meticulous journalist, historian, and storyteller; the other a prodigy of worldly activity who was often reluctant to put his ideas down in any systematic way. But if they meet anywhere, it’s on the printed page—and I mean this literally. Hylton’s profile of Hillebrand is full of fascinating details, but my favorite passage describes how her constant vertigo has left her unable to study works on microfilm. Instead, she buys and reads original newspapers, which, in turn, has influenced the kinds of stories she tells:

Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period—the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

There are shades here of Nicholson Baker, who became so concerned over the destruction of library archives of vintage newspapers that he bought a literal ton of them with his life savings, and ended up writing an entire book, the controversial Human Smoke, based on his experience of reading press coverage of the events leading up to World War II day by day. And the serendipity that these old papers afforded was central to Hillebrand’s career: she first stumbled across the story of Louie Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, on the opposite side of a clipping she was reading about Seabiscuit.

Buckminster Fuller

Fuller was similarly energized by the act of encountering ideas in printed form, with the significant difference that the words, in this case, were his own. Applewhite devotes a full chapter to Fuller’s wholesale revision of Synergetics after the printed galleys—the nearly finished proofs of the typeset book itself—had been delivered by their publisher. Authors aren’t supposed to make extensive rewrites in the galley stage; it’s so expensive to reset the text that writers pay for any major changes out of their own pockets. But Fuller enthusiastically went to town, reworking entire sections of the book in the margins, at a personal cost of something like $3,500 in 1975 dollars. And Applewhite’s explanation for this impulse is what caught my eye:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key word here is “quite arbitrary.” A sequence of pages—whether in a newspaper or in a galley proof—is an arbitrary grid laid on a sequence of ideas. Where the page break falls, or what ends up on the opposite side, is largely a matter of chance. And for both Fuller and Hillenbrand, the physical page itself becomes a carrier of information. It’s serendipitous, random, but no less real.

And it makes me reflect on what we give up when pages, as tangible objects, pass out of our lives. We talk casually about “web pages,” but they aren’t quite the same thing: now that many websites, including this one, offer visitors an infinite scroll, the effect is less like reading a book than like navigating the spool of paper that Kerouac used to write On the Road. Occasionally, a web page’s endlessness can be turned into a message in itself, as in the Clickhole blog post “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World,” which turns out to contain the full text of Moby-Dick. More often, though, we end up with a wall of text that destroys any possibility of accidental juxtaposition or structure. I’m not advocating a return to the practice of arbitrarily dividing up long articles into multiple pages, which is usually just an excuse to generate additional clicks. But the primacy of the page—with its arbitrary slice or junction of content—reminds us of why it’s still sometimes best to browse through a physical newspaper or magazine, or to look at your own work in printed form. At a time when we all have access to the same world of information, something as trivial as a page break or an accidental pairing of ideas can be the source of insights that have occurred to no one else. And the first step might be as simple as looking at something on paper.

Quote of the Day

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R. Buckminster Fuller

If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.

Buckminster Fuller

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Tying the knot

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Bowline

McKenzie Funk’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine on the wreck of the Kulluk, the doomed oil rig sent by Shell to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic Sea, is one of the most riveting stories I’ve read in a long time. The whole thing is full of twists and turns—I devoured it in a single sitting—but my favorite moment involves a simple knot. Faced with a rig with a broken emergency line, Craig Matthews, the chief engineer of the tugboat Alert, came up with a plan: they’d get close enough to grab the line with a grappling hook, reel it in, and tie it to their own tow cable with a bowline. After two tries, they managed to snag the line, “thicker than a man’s arm, a soggy dead weight.” Funk describes what happened next:

Now Matthews tried to orient himself. A knot he could normally tie with one hand without looking would have to be tackled by two people, chunk by chunk. The chief mate helped him lift the line again, and together they hurriedly bent it and forced the rabbit through the hole…Matthews had planned to do a second bend, just in case, but he was exhausted. “Is that it?” Matthews recalls the chief mate asking. His answer was to let the towline slide over the edge.

And although plenty of other things would go wrong later on, the knot held throughout all that followed.

The story caught my eye because it reminded me, as almost everything does these days, of the creative process. When you’re a writer, you generally hone your craft on smaller projects, short stories or essays that you can practically hold in one hand. Early on, it’s like learning to tie a bowline for the first time—as Brody does in Jaws—and it can be hard to even keep the ends straight, but sooner or later, you internalize the steps to the point where you can take them for granted. As soon as you tackle a larger project, though, you find that you suddenly need to stop and remember everything you thought you knew by heart. Most of us don’t think twice about how to tie our shoelaces, but if we were told to make the same knot in a rope the thickness of a fire hose, we’d have to think hard. A change in scale forces us to relearn the most basic tricks, and at first, we feel almost comically clumsy. That’s all the more true of a collaborative effort, like making a movie or staging a play, which can often feel like two people tying a knot together while being buffeted by wind and waves. (Technically, a novel or play is more like one big knot made up of many other knots, but maybe this analogy is strained enough as it is.)

Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by Fedele Fischetti

Knots have long fascinated novelists, like Annie Proulx, perhaps because they’re the purest example of an abstract design intended to perform a functional task. As Buckminster Fuller points out in Synergetics, you can tie a loose knot in a rope spliced together successively from distinct kinds of fiber, like manila and cotton, and slip it from one end to the other: the materials change, but the knot stays the same. Fuller concludes, in his marvelously explicit and tangled prose: “The knot is not the rope; it is a weightless, mathematical, geometrical, metaphysically conceptual, pattern integrity tied momentarily into the rope by the knot-conceiving, weightless mind of the human conceiver—knot-former.” That’s true of a novel, too. You can, and sometimes do, revise every sentence of a story into a different form while leaving the overall pattern the same. Knots themselves can be used to transmit information, as in the Incan quipu, which record numbers and even syllables in the form of knotted cords. And Robert Graves has suggested that the Gordian knot encoded the name of a Phrygian god, which could only be untied by reading the message one letter at a time. Alexander the Great simply cut it with his sword—a solution that has occurred to more than one novelist frustrated by the mess he’s created.

You could write an entire essay on the metaphors inherent in knots, the language of which itself is rich with analogies: the phrase “the bitter end,” for instance, originates in ropeworking, referring to the end of the rope that is tied off. Most memorable is Fuller’s own suggestion that the ropeworker himself is a kind of thinking knot:

The metabolic flow that passes through a man is not the man. He is an abstract pattern integrity that is sustained through all his physical changes and processing, a knot through which pass the swift strands of concurrent ecological cycles—recycling transformations of solar energy.

And if we’re all simply knots passing through time, the prospect of untying and redoing that pattern is far more daunting than doing the same for even the most complicated novel. We’re all a little like Matthews on the deck of the Alert: we’d like to do a second bend to be safe, but sometimes we have no choice but to let the line slip over the side. That’s true of the small things, like sending out a story when we might prefer to noodle over it forever, and the large, like choosing a shape for your life that you hope will get the job done. And all we can really do is tie the knot we know best, let it go, and hang on to the bitter end.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2015 at 9:58 am

The power of the page

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Laura Hillenbrand

Over the weekend, I found myself contemplating two very different figures from the history of American letters. The first is the bestselling nonfiction author Laura Hillenbrand, whose lifelong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome compelled her to research and write Seabiscuit and Unbroken while remaining largely confined to her house for the last quarter of a century. (Wil S. Hylton’s piece on Hillebrand in The New York Times Magazine is absolutely worth a read—it’s the best author profile I’ve seen in a long time.) The other is the inventor and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose life was itinerant as Hillebrand’s is stationary. There’s a page in E.J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing, his genial look at his collaboration with Fuller on the magnum opus Synergetics, that simply reprints Fuller’s travel schedule for a representative two weeks in March: he flies from Philadelphia to Denver to Minneapolis to Miami to Washington to Harrisburg to Toronto, attending conferences and giving talks, to the point where it’s hard to see how he found time to get anything else done. Writing a coherent book, in particular, seemed like the least of his concerns; as Applewhite notes, Fuller’s natural element was the seminar, which allowed him to spin complicated webs of ideas in real time for appreciative listeners, and one of the greatest challenges of producing Synergetics lay in harnessing that energy in a form that could be contained within two covers.

At first glance, Hillenbrand and Fuller might seem to have nothing in common. One is a meticulous journalist, historian, and storyteller; the other a prodigy of worldly activity who was often reluctant to put his ideas down in any systematic way. But if they meet anywhere, it’s on the printed page—and I mean this literally. Hylton’s profile of Hillebrand is full of fascinating details, but my favorite passage describes how her constant vertigo has left her unable to study works on microfilm. Instead, she buys and reads original newspapers, which, in turn, has influenced the kinds of stories she tells:

Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period—the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

There are shades here of Nicholson Baker, who became so concerned over the destruction of library archives of vintage newspapers that he bought a literal ton of them with his life savings, and ended up writing an entire book, the controversial Human Smoke, based on his experience of reading press coverage of the events leading up to World War II day by day. And the serendipity that these old papers afforded was central to Hillebrand’s career: she first stumbled across the story of Louie Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, on the opposite side of a clipping she was reading about Seabiscuit.

Buckminster Fuller

Fuller was similarly energized by the act of encountering ideas in printed form, with the significant difference that the words, in this case, were his own. Applewhite devotes a full chapter to Fuller’s wholesale revision of Synergetics after the printed galleys—the nearly finished proofs of the typeset book itself—had been delivered by their publisher. Authors aren’t supposed to make extensive rewrites in the galley stage; it’s so expensive to reset the text that writers pay for any major changes out of their own pockets. But Fuller enthusiastically went to town, reworking entire sections of the book in the margins, at a personal cost of something like $3,500 in 1975 dollars. And Applewhite’s explanation for this impulse is what caught my eye:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key word here is “quite arbitrary.” A sequence of pages—whether in a newspaper or in a galley proof—is an arbitrary grid laid on a sequence of ideas. Where the page break falls, or what ends up on the opposite side, is largely a matter of chance. And for both Fuller and Hillenbrand, the physical page itself becomes a carrier of information. It’s serendipitous, random, but no less real.

And it makes me reflect on what we give up when pages, as tangible objects, pass out of our lives. We talk casually about “web pages,” but they aren’t quite the same thing: now that many websites, including this one, offer visitors an infinite scroll, the effect is less like reading a book than like navigating the spool of paper that Kerouac used to write On the Road. Occasionally, a web page’s endlessness can be turned into a message in itself, as in the Clickhole blog post “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World,” which turns out to contain the full text of Moby-Dick. More often, though, we end up with a wall of text that destroys any possibility of accidental juxtaposition or structure. I’m not advocating a return to the practice of arbitrarily dividing up long articles into multiple pages, which is usually just an excuse to generate additional clicks. But the primacy of the page—with its arbitrary slice or junction of content—reminds us of why it’s still sometimes best to browse through a physical newspaper or magazine, or to look at your own work in printed form. At a time when we all have access to the same world of information, something as trivial as a page break or an accidental pairing of ideas can be the source of insights that have occurred to no one else. And the first step might be as simple as looking at something on paper.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

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Buckminster Fuller

Over the past year or so, I’ve scaled back on the number of books I buy each month, mostly for reasons of shelf space. Every now and then, though, my eye will be caught by a sale or special event I can’t resist, which is how I ended up receiving a big carton last week from Better World Books. (As I’ve noted before, this is the best site for used books around, and a fantastic resource for filling in the gaps in your library.) The box contained what looks, at first, like a random assortment of titles: Strong Opinions, the aptly named collection of interviews and essays by Vladimir Nabokov; Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which was named one of the hundred best nonfiction books of the century by Modern Library; Cosmic Fishing, a short memoir by E.J. Applewhite about his collaboration with Buckminster Fuller on the book Synergetics; and best of all, Ernest Schwiebert’s magisterial two-volume Trout, which I’ve coveted for years. If it seems like a grab bag, that’s no accident: I really had my eye on Trout, which I ended up getting for half the price it goes for elsewhere, and the others were mostly there to fill out the order. But my choices here also say a lot about me and the kind of books and authors I find most appealing.

The most obvious common thread between all these books is that they lie somewhere at the intersection of art and science. Nabokov, of course, was an accomplished lepidopterist, and Strong Opinions concludes with a sampling of his scientific papers on butterflies. Art and Illusion is a work on the psychology of perception written by an art historian, and the back cover makes its intentions clear: “This book is directed to all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities.” Fuller always occupied a peculiar position between that of engineer, crackpot, and mystic, and this comes through strongly through the eyes of his literary collaborator, who strikingly argues that Fuller’s primary vocation is that of a poet, and reveals that he briefly considered rewriting all of Synergetics in blank verse. And in Schwiebert’s hands, the humble trout becomes a lens through which he considers nearly all of human experience: in the first volume, he wears the hats of historian, literary critic, biologist, ecologist, and entomologist, and that’s before he even gets to the intricacies of rods, flies, and waders. As Schwiebert writes: “[Angling’s] skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge.”

Hilaire Belloc

In short, these are all books by or about generalists, original thinkers who understand that the divisions between categories of knowledge are porous, if not outright fictional, and who can draw freely on a wide range of disciplines. Yet these authors also share another, more subtle quality: a relentless focus on a single subject as a window onto all of the rest. Nabokov was as obsessed by his butterflies as Fuller was by the tetrahedron. Gombrich returns repeatedly to “the riddle of style,” or what it means when we say that we draw what we see, and Schwiebert, of course, loved trout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them became generalists by accident; it takes a certain inborn temperament, and an inhuman degree of patience and curiosity, to even attempt such a comprehensive vision. But it’s no accident that all four of these men—and most of the generalists we know and remember—arrived at their expansive vistas through the narrowest of gates. Occasionally, a thinker with global ambitions will begin by deliberately constraining his or her focus, in a kind of apprenticeship or training ground: Darwin spent long eight years studying the cirripedes, a kind of barnacle, in what Thomas Henry Huxley called “a piece of critical self-discipline.” He knew that you need to go deep before you can go really wide.

And that hasn’t changed. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson recently published a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, which would seem insufferably grandiose if he hadn’t already proven himself with decades of laborious work on the ants and other social insects. When we think of the intellectuals we respect, nearly all are men and women who made fundamental contributions to a single, clearly defined field before moving on to others. That’s the generalist’s dilemma: it’s hard to think in an original way about everything until you know one thing well. Otherwise, you end up seeming like a dilettante or worse. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings here: I’ve spent all my life trying to be a generalist, to the point of becoming a writer so I had an excuse to poke into whatever subjects I like, but I’ve rarely had the patience to drill down deeply. And while I’m content with my choice, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else. Hilaire Belloc once said that the best way for a writer to become famous was to concentrate on one subject, like the earthworm, for forty years: “When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.” Belloc pointedly failed to take his own advice, but he has a point. We need to become masters of the earthworm before we become masters of the earth.

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