Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Calvin Trillin

Apple and the cult of thinness

with 5 comments

The iPhone 6

Recently, I’ve been in the market for a new computer. After some thought, I’ve settled on an older model of the MacBook Pro, both because of its price and because it’s the last remaining Apple laptop with an optical drive, which I still occasionally use. The experience put me in mind of a cartoon posted yesterday on Reddit, which shows a conversation between an Apple user and a helpful technician: “So what’s this update you’re installing?” “I’m just removing your USB ports.” “Great!” Apple’s obsession with eliminating unsightly ports, as well as any other features that might interfere with a device’s slim profile, has long been derided, and the recent news that the headphone jack might disappear from the next iPhone has struck many users as a bridge too far. Over the last decade or so, Apple has seemed fixated on pursuing thinness and lightness above all else, even though consumers don’t appear to be clamoring for thinner laptops or phones, and devices that are pared down past a certain point suffer in terms of strength and usability. (Apple isn’t alone in this, of course. Last week, I purchased a Sony Blu-ray player to replace the aging hulk I’d been using for the last five years, and although I like the new one, the lack of a built-in display that provides information on what the player is actually doing is a minor but real inconvenience, and it’s so light that I often end up pushing it backward on the television stand when I press the power button. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason why any device that spends its entire life on the same shelf needs to be so small.)

Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, and in particular, the design gurus Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini wrote a long, devastating piece for Fast Company last month on Apple’s pursuit of beauty over functionality. But I’d like to venture an alternative explanation for why it has taken this approach. Apple is a huge corporation, and like all large businesses, it needs quantifiable benchmarks to drive innovation. Once any enterprise becomes big enough, qualitative metrics alone don’t cut it: you need something to which you can assign a number. And while you can’t quantify usability, or even beauty, you can quantify thinness and weight. Apple seems to be using the physical size of a device as a proxy for innovative thought about design, which isn’t so different from the strategy that many writers use during the revision process. I’ve written here before about how I sometimes set length limits for stories or individual chapters, and how this kind of writing by numbers forces me to be smarter and more rigorous about my choices. John McPhee says much the same thing in a recent piece in The New Yorker about the exercise of “greening,” as once practiced by Time, which involved cutting an arbitrary number of lines. As Calvin Trillin writes elsewhere: “I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself ‘Green fourteen’ or ‘Green eight.’ And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.”

The MacBook Air

Apple appears to have come to a similar conclusion about its devices, which is that by greening away weight and thickness, you end up with other desirable qualities. And it works—but only up to a point. As McPhee observes, greening is supposed to be invisible: “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” And once you pass beyond a certain limit, you risk omitting essential elements, as expressed in the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which describes the process of the legendary film editor Walter Murch:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

And Apple—which has had a long and productive relationship with Murch, a vocal champion of its Final Cut Pro software—should pay attention. In the past, the emphasis on miniaturization was undoubtedly a force for innovative solutions, but we’ve reached the point where the patient is being endangered by removing features of genuine utility. Murch’s thirty percent factor turns out to describe the situation at Apple eerily well: the earliest models of the MacBook Pro weighed about five and a half pounds, implying that once the weight was reduced below four pounds or so, vital organs would be threatened, which is exactly what happened. (Even more insidiously, the trend has spread into realms where the notion of thinness is entirely abstract, like the fonts that Apple uses for its mobile devices, which, as Norman and Tognazzini point out, are so slender that they’ve become difficult to read.) These changes aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by a corporate culture that has failed to recognize that its old ways of quantifying innovation no longer serve their intended purpose. The means have been confused with the end. Ultimately, I’m still a fan of Apple, and I’m still going to buy that MacBook. I don’t fault it for wanting to qualify its processes: it’s a necessary part of managing creativity on a large scale. But it has to focus on a number other than thickness or weight. What Apple needs is a new internal metric, similarly quantifiable, that reflects something that consumers actually want. There’s one obvious candidate: price. Instead of making everything smaller, Apple could focus on providing the same functionality, beauty, and reliability at lower cost. It would drive innovation just as well as size once did. But given Apple’s history, the chances of that happening seem very slim indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2015 at 8:56 am

The art of omission

with 2 comments

Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Over the last couple of years, it has slowly become clear that the series of articles on the writing life that John McPhee is unhurriedly publishing in The New Yorker is one of the modest but indisputable creative events of our time. McPhee has long been regarded as the dean of American nonfiction, and in one essay after another, he has lovingly, amusingly, and unsentimentally unpacked the tricks and secrets of six full decades as a writer and curious character. The fact that these pieces are written from the perspective of a journalist—albeit a preternaturally inventive and sensitive one—makes them even more useful for authors of fiction. Because the point of view has been shifted by ninety degrees, we’re more aware of the common elements shared by all forms of writing: choice of subject, structure, revision, selection, omission. There isn’t a point that McPhee makes here that couldn’t be applied with profit to any form of creative writing, or any kind of artistic effort in general. McPhee isn’t dogmatic, and he frames his advice less as a rulebook than as a string of gentle, sensible suggestions. But the result, when collected at last in the inevitable book, will amount to nothing less than one of the most useful works ever composed on the art of clear writing and thinking, worthy of being placed on the same shelf as The Elements of Style. Strunk and White will always come first, but McPhee has set himself up as their obvious successor.

Take his most recent article, which focuses on the crucial art of omission. McPhee makes many of the same points—although more vividly and memorably—that others have covered before. Writing is cutting; a story should be exactly the length that can be sustained by its material and no more; a rough draft almost always benefits from being trimmed by ten percent. Underlying it all, however, is a deeper philosophical sense of why we omit what we do. McPhee writes:

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early first. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative writer silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.

Omission, in short, is a strategy for enforcing objectivity, and it obliges the writer to keep an eye out for the nonessential. When you’re trying to cut a story or essay by some arbitrary amount, you often find that the first parts to go are the places where you’ve imposed yourself on the subject. And if you sacrifice a telling fact or detail to preserve one of your own opinions, you’ve probably got bigger problems as a writer.

A page from my rough draft

And the word “arbitrary” in the above paragraph is surprisingly important. Yesterday, I quoted Calvin Trillin on the process of greening at Time, in which makeup editors would return an article to its author with curt instructions to cut five or ten lines. McPhee, who did a lot of greening himself over the years, adds a crucial piece of information: “Time in those days, unlike its rival Newsweek, never assigned a given length but waited for the finished story before fitting it into the magazine.” In other words, the number of lines the writer was asked to cut wasn’t dictated by the content of the story, but by an arbitrary outside factor—in this case, the length and layout of the other articles that happened to be jostling for space in that particular issue. And while we might expect this to do violence to the integrity of the story itself, in practice, it turns out to be the opposite: it’s precisely because the quota of lines to remove is essentially random that the writer is forced to think creatively about how and where to condense. I’ve imposed arbitrary length limitations on just about everything meaningful I’ve ever written, and if anything, I wish I had been even more relentless. (One of the few real advantages of the structural conventions of the modern movie script is that it obliges writers to constantly engage in a kind of greening to hit a certain page count. Sometimes, it can feel like cheating, but it’s also a productive way to sweat down a story, and there isn’t a screenwriter alive who hasn’t experienced the truth of McPhee’s observation: “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.”)

Of course, none of this means that the seemingly nonessential doesn’t have its place. Few essays would be any fun to read if they didn’t include the occasional digression or footnote that covered tangentially related territory, and that applies to McPhee as much as to anyone else. (In fact, his piece on omission concludes with a huge shaggy dog story about General Eisenhower, ending on a delicious punchline that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if McPhee hadn’t built up to it with a full page of apparent trivia.) Every work of art, as McPhee notes elsewhere, arrives at its own rhythms and structure, and an essay that is all business, or a series of breathless news items, is unlikely to inspire much affection. If there’s a point to be made here, though, it’s that digression and looseness is best imposed on the level of the overall work, rather than in the individual sentence: McPhee’s finest essays often seem to wander from one subject to the next as connections occur to the author, but on the level of the individual line or image, they’re rigorously organized. Greening is such a valuable exercise because it targets the parts of a work that can always be boiled down further—transitional sections, places where the text repeats itself, redundancies, moments of indulgence. McPhee compares it to pruning, or to removing freight cars to shorten a train, so that no one, even the author, would know in the end that anything has been removed. And it’s only through greening that you discover the shape that the story wants for itself.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

The greening of a story

leave a comment »

Calvin Trillin

A common complaint then among Time writers who found themselves stuck on a story was “this story just won’t write”—as if the story had a will of its own and was using it to resist being shaped into a coherent narrative. I may have used the phrase from time to time myself. The problem was mostly space…Given the density of the seventy lines and the imperative to keep the story moving, there often seemed to be at least one highly relevant fact that simply didn’t fit. I pictured that left-out fact darting around to find an opening and being rebuffed by every paragraph it tried to squeeze into—like someone trying door after door in a desperate effort to board a thoroughly stuffed rush-hour subway. Sometimes, if I had until the next day to turn the story in, I’d head home, finding that the knot in the narrative came loose with the rhythmic clacking of the subway train.

Writing the story at seventy lines didn’t mean the compressing was over. At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil—changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red—the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened—“Green seven” or “Green twelve.” I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.

Calvin Trillin, in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2015 at 6:30 am

He said: “She said…”

with 4 comments

Tracy Kidder

Recently, I’ve been reading the excellent book Good Prose by the legendary journalist Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever seen on writing creative nonfiction, and it’s packed with interesting stories, illustrations, and advice, to the point where I suspect that we’ll start talking about Kidder and Todd in the same breath as Strunk and White. For someone like me, though, the richest section is the one near the end, in which the authors discuss specific challenges and pitfalls of usage. These range from dangling modifiers to subjunctives to the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even experienced writers are likely to learn—or be reminded of—some useful distinctions. The discussion I read with greatest interest is the one on gendered pronouns, which presents a thicket of problems to even the most thoughtful writers. Kidder and Todd write:

In a few instances in this book we have followed the convention by which the masculine pronoun stands for both sexes. This practice is eroding fast, and with reason…In other cases requiring a singular pronoun, some writers change “he” to “she,” whether consistently or alternately or randomly. This may have come to seem natural to those who do it, but to many readers (to us) it seems self-congratulatory.

I’m inclined to agree, not so much because I think it sounds smug, but because it momentarily takes me out of whatever point the writer is trying to make: for better or worse, “he” is a more invisible prounoun than “she,” the latter of which unfortunately breaks the rule of going whenever possible for the least obtrusive way of expressing an idea. However honorable a writer’s intentions may be, I’m left with the uncomfortable fact that whenever a feminine prounoun is used to refer to a generic individual—”When a writer first looks over her work”—I’m no longer thinking about the content of the piece itself, but stray, however briefly, into a reflection about gendered language in general. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a stylistic mistake, but it’s a problem, and there’s really no good answer. Kidder and Todd continue:

Other solutions have been proposed. The conservative writer Charles Murray has an idea that is simplicity itself: use the pronoun appropriate to your own sex. (Jane says everyone/her; John says everyone/his.) Unfortunately no one seems to recognize this rule except Charles Murray, and it costs him nothing to follow it since he is a man.

Charles Murray

The authors conclude on a note of muted resignation: “The language has yet to come up with a universally acceptable solution.” Instead of dealing with the issue directly, they suggest that authors reword sentences to work around it, usually by using a plural subject. This isn’t a bad idea, and it’s the one that I’ve tended to use the most in practice. Until I started writing this blog, I’d never really had to confront the problem of gendered pronouns: I was either writing fiction or criticism, in which the gender of the person under discussion was usually clear. Soon after I wrote my first blog post, though, I found that I was writing about generic individuals almost on a daily basis, as I tried to talk about various aspects of the creative process. (“Every author develops his or her own strategies for corralling ideas…”) Early on, I used the “his or her” construction a lot, and it still crops up whenever I think the sentence can sustain it. Before long, however, I started to feel that it was clunky when overused, so I’d rewrite sentences to avoid it, and when I didn’t have a choice one way or the other, I glumly went back to the generic “he.”

Obviously, every writer will come up with his—or her—own solutions. But the larger point is that it’s often necessary to rework a sentence to avoid a construction that calls attention to itself, even if grammar is on a writer’s side. “Whom” is the great example here: even if you know how to use it correctly, it inevitably results, as Calvin Trillin notes, in making you sound like a butler. I’ll often rewrite sentences to avoid a glaring “whom,” and although it might seem undesirable to allow your grammar to be pushed around in this way, sometimes, there’s no better solution. It’s fortunate that the gendered pronoun problem admits of so many workarounds: I’ll often replace “he or she” with “you,” “we,” or best of all, “I,” since most of the unidentified writers whose lives I decribe with such confidence here are thinly disguised versions of myself. There’s no foolproof answer, but as with most things in writing, if you prefer the concrete to the abstract and the invisible to the distracting, you’ll generally come up with something that works. (Of course, I’m also keenly aware that I’ve only cited male writers, including myself, in proposing approaches to this problem, so I’d love to hear any additional thoughts.)

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

%d bloggers like this: