Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cannibals and Christians

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

Writing while sick

with 2 comments

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

“Thanks, Mom. I know…”

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"Activity is the genius of this church..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 6. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For the most part, I’m proud of my work as a writer, but I’m also aware of one flaw that my published novels all share: they’re about individuals, most of them psychologically isolated, and they have little to say about larger social units. None of the primary characters in these books are married. Most don’t seem to have interesting personal lives outside the bounds of the story. Ilya is an orphan—both his parents died while he was in Vladimir Prison—and we learn next to nothing about Maddy’s family or life history. When a more conventional relationship is introduced, it’s largely to advance the plot, as when Maddy and Ethan briefly drift together and fall apart in The Icon Thief. And the books are almost entirely lacking in sex. Needless to say, I’m far from the only suspense novelist to focus his energies on a narrow slice of human experience: even someone like Frederick Forsyth, who can otherwise write about anything, fumbles when it comes to talking about men and women. You could even argue that isolation is a necessary aspect of the conspiracy thriller, which tends to pit its individuals against the world. But in terms of my own growth as a writer, and of my ability to treat subjects and stories that don’t fit into the neat confines of the plots I’ve made, it’s a limitation, and a serious one.

I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself why my books are so emotionally constrained. Part of it, as I’ve just mentioned above, has do to with the way in which they’re structured: these are intricate plots that need to move quickly from one story point to the next, so there isn’t a lot of time to take in the emotional landscape outside the frame. Another factor might be my own life situation when I conceived the book that set the template for the series. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was in my late twenties, living alone in New York, and still several years away from marrying and becoming a father. You write what you know, consciously or not, and at the time, I knew a great deal about being single in a big city and not much firsthand about anything else. It’s also possible that my approach to fiction in itself made it difficult for me to construct convincing relationships. Writing about Saul Bellow in Cannibals and Christians, Norman Mailer observes:

Bellow’s one major weakness…is that he creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet…It is possible that the faculty of imagination is opposed to the gift of grasping relationships—in the act of coming to know somebody else well, the point of the imagination may be dulled by the roughness of the other’s concrete desires and the attrition of living not only in one’s own boredom but someone else’s.

"Thanks, Mom. I know..."

Now, I’m not about to compare myself to Bellow, and the passage above probably tells us more about Mailer in any case. But I can’t help finding a distant echo here to my own situation. I approach writing as an act of imagination, and particularly of invention: I take pride in my ability to come up with intricate plots and complications. This is an inherently solitary activity, and even as I treat fiction as an excuse to explore the world, the impulse remains one-sided, even mercenary. When I look at a location or an idea or another person, the writerly part of my brain is asking: “How can I use you?” Everything is turned into material to be worked out later, in private, which doesn’t lend itself well to unpacking human relationships. I tend to use fiction to create problems—to generate complexity—and not to untie the knots of ordinary interaction that I see around me. For the most part, I’m content with this: all writers evolve along certain lines, picking and choosing which battles to fight. The work informs the personality as much as the personality does the work, and I like constructing my little puzzles. But whenever I can, as much for the sake of my own growth as for the story itself, I try to inch a bit further toward those aspects of life that I’ve left underexplored.

You can see a few tentative stabs in this direction in City of Exiles, which is the first novel I wrote in full awareness of how emotionally constrained these stories had become. Later on, we’ll meet Powell’s father for the first time, in a chapter that comes as close as anything in these novels to providing a window on character for its own sake—and the result is one of my favorite scenes in the series. First, though, we’re introduced to Wolfe’s mother, as a voice on the other end of the phone in Chapter 6. At first glance, their interactions function as comic relief, and I like the juxtaposition between Wolfe’s conversation with her mom and the work she’s doing: she begins the chapter by tracing the weapons found at the murdered armorer’s apartment and ends it with the revelation that Ilya is back in the city, all while fending off her mother’s questions about how often she goes to church. But it also gets at something important about Wolfe’s character. Rachel Wolfe is in transition, caught between two stages, and her mother’s voice on the phone reminds her of how hard it is to let go of the past, even as she moves into something less defined. Like most of the other players in the story, she’s a lonely atom, an exile, but being alone isn’t her natural state, as it is with Ilya. It’s a path she’s chosen. And for once, we’re given a sense, at least as far as these books can manage, of what she’s left behind…

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

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