Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Jencks

Quote of the Day

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We live in a surprising, creative, self-organizing universe which still gets locked into various solutions; hence the need for a cosmogenic architecture which celebrates criticism, process and humor.

Charles Jencks, “13 Propositions of Post-Modern Architecture”

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The baby in the drawer

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Over the last year or so, my wife and I have been gradually selling or giving away our old baby stuff, most of which has languished in the basement ever since our daughter outgrew it. One item was the bassinet that was secured to the side of our bed when Beatrix was a newborn, which we sold over the summer to a local family that was expecting a child in October. A few weeks ago, my wife received a frantic message from the mother, saying that their baby was home from the hospital and that they couldn’t unfold the bassinet. She asked if I could come over the next day to help them figure it out, and while I wasn’t sure how helpful I could be—I’ve probably set it up it a total of two times, the last of which was years ago—I agreed to do what I could. Before I left, I asked my wife to look up some online tutorials, one of which contained the useful advice that the top bars of the frame had to be locked in place in order for the ones at the bottom to stay rigid. We passed the tip along to the couple, who responded, reasonably enough, that they couldn’t think straight with a new baby in the house. The next morning, I drove over, took a look at the bassinet, and locked the bars in the right order. It took me a total of thirty seconds. The mom thanked me, and I left. It was the best possible outcome, since it allowed me to feel like I’d performed a good deed with minimal trouble on my part. And besides, as I had told my wife the night before, I had a backup plan if we couldn’t get it to work: “They can always put the baby in a drawer.”

I wasn’t kidding, either. Before Beatrix was born, I decided to read all of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, and I don’t mean the most recent version—I somehow settled on the 1957 edition, which I’d picked up somewhere or other. (My reasoning probably had something to do with the notion that it might contain useful advice that had dropped out of circulation.) In the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, I read it from cover to cover and promptly forgot most of it, which was no doubt for the best. But I still remember a passage in the section “A Place to Sleep,” in which Dr. Spock writes:

You may want to get a beautiful bassinet, lined with silk. But the baby doesn’t care. All he needs is sides to keep him from rolling out, and something soft but firm in the bottom for a mattress. A crib, a clothes or market basket, a box or bureau drawer, will do.

I’m pretty sure that this was where I first encountered these lines, although I later realized that they’re also quoted in one of my favorite books about creativity, Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s Adhocism, where they appear emphatically on the very last page. Adhocism is billed as the art of “tackling problems at once, using the materials at hand,” and Jencks and Silver seem to be implying that it can be inculcated literally from the cradle.

And I’ve often wondered whether Dr. Spock was just making a rhetorical point, and how many young parents actually put their babies in drawers. I found a reference to it in a lecture, “Only Connect,” that P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, gave in the early sixties at the Library of Congress. Travers recalled of her father:

Even his maxims came from Ireland. “Never put a baby in a drawer,” was one of them. But who would ever do such a thing? Even if he saw a doll in a drawer, he would pluck it out, saying “Remember Parnell!” We had never ever heard of Parnell, and I had to wait to make the connection till I read a life of him a few years ago. Soon after he was born his mother, called away on some pretext, put him down quickly and came back to discover that her baby had disappeared. She looked everywhere, servants searched the house, gardeners rummaged in the shrubberies—no sign of Charles Stewart Parnell. I hope I’m not inventing it, but I think the police, too, were sent for. And while they were once more searching the nursery a mewling little sound came from the bureau. And there was Charles Stewart, six weeks old and at his last gasp because his mother, absentmindedly dumping him into an open drawer had, also absentmindedly, shut it! I am sure my father knew this story. Where else could the maxim have come from?

But the fact that Parnell’s mother could “absentmindedly” stick him in a drawer implies that it was something that at least the Irish took for granted in the nineteenth century.

The advice persists, in slightly revised form, in the most recent edition of Dr. Spock’s book: “A cardboard box or a drawer with a firm, tight-fitting pad also works well for the first couple of months.” And I recently found a discussion thread from just two years ago on the official What to Expect website titled “Newborn sleeping in dresser drawer instead of bassinet.” The poster writes: “So my husband’s entire family…all think that it’s okay to have the baby sleep in the empty dresser drawer for the first month instead of using a bassinet. They all did that with their children. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?” Most of the respondents evidently agreed, although some pointed out that a drawer and a bassinet are essentially the same thing, and one wrote: “When I read this title it made me laugh and think of my grandma. She put all her kids in a drawer too. I think it was a generation thing. I also think it was cheaper than a bassinet.” The italics are mine—I’m delighted by the image of a mother putting “all her kids” in a drawer, whether she was inspired by Dr. Spock or not. Nowadays, we’re more likely to consider placing a baby in a cardboard box, like the sensible Finns, which neatly combines all the virtues of simplicity, frugality, good design, and an image that is ready for Instagram. A drawer still feels vaguely disreputable, perhaps because of our collective memory of Kearney’s son on The Simpsons. But that might be why I love it. A baby in a drawer is pragmatism at its unglamorous but beautiful best, and an early acknowledgement of how little we need to be happy and safe. I never put my daughter in one. But I sometimes wish that I had.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2017 at 9:02 am

Bricolage and the working writer

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Ad hoc chair

Yesterday, I posted an extended passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss on the concept of bricolage, or the art of using whatever happens to be at hand. I stumbled across it while browsing through a book that has fascinated me for a long time, Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, which is essentially an extended love letter to the art of creative improvisation. The more I think about that quote, the more it resonates with me, although the reasons might not seem obvious. As regular readers know, I’m an innately left-brained author: I love planning, research, and outlining, and I rarely sit down for a day’s work without a detailed idea of how the end result will look. On a deeper level, though, just about everything I’ve ever written has been an act of bricolage. I’m only really happy when I’m working on some kind of project, so in the early stages, I’ll often assemble a few promising scraps that look like they might lead to a story and see where they take me after a few days of noodling. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how random these building blocks can be—a few magazine articles, a book I want to read, an idea for a scene or character, a world I feel like exploring—and while I don’t always know how these components will eventually come together, that’s part of the fun.

And while I’ve previously emphasized the random nature of the pieces, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that randomness is less important in itself than a natural side effect of the way in which the parts are acquired. This isn’t to say that randomness isn’t inherently valuable: I still believe that creativity is primarily about connections, and I’ve gotten many of my best ideas by juxtaposing ideas that might as well have been drawn out of a hat. But this is only a more systematic, or more artificial, version of a process that would probably take place on its own even if I didn’t make a point of it. The assortment of ideas competing for our attention at any one time is likely to be inherently random; as writers, we’re exposed to countless stray influences and oddments of material, whether we seek them out deliberately or come across them by chance, so the result will naturally resemble a kind of lucky bag. And this is all the more true to the extent that the process is a continuous one. A writer, if he or she is lucky, will stumble onto a coherent network of previously unexplored material maybe once every few years, which isn’t often enough to make a living at it. In order to achieve the level of productivity required to sustain a career in art, a writer needs to become very good at making use of whatever happens to be at hand right now.

Sylvia Plath

Which gets at what I think is a surprisingly powerful concept. Becoming comfortable with randomness—or being able to see affinities between the pieces that the universe happens to give us at any given time—isn’t just a necessary part of the creative process, but a survival tactic that keeps the whole machine running. When an artist like Gerhard Richter tells us that we need actively to go out and find an idea, he’s really talking about seeing what’s right in front of our eyes, which rarely falls into an order that is evident at first glance. More often, it’s a hodgepodge that we’ve gathered unconsciously or according to intuitions that aren’t easily explained, and it’s the willingness to follow through on those instincts, even if we aren’t sure if they’re right, that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional. Someone who dithers between ideas, picks up and drops projects, or agonizes endlessly over where to begin isn’t likely to invest a lot of time into a set of components with no clear payoff—the opportunity cost is just too great. A working writer with sufficient confidence in his or her ability to see things through, by contrast, is more likely just to jump in and see where it goes. And while that sort of security in one’s own talents is only earned through practice, some version of it, however irrational, is probably required from the beginning.

This isn’t to say that every intuition a writer has is correct, or that everything we assemble through bricolage will result in a great, or even publishable, story. Every writer knows what it’s like to spend weeks or months on a project that turns out to be a dead end, and the garages and workshops of every bricoleur are filled with the remnants of unfinished conceptions. More often than not, though, if we push past our doubts and proceed under the assumption that the outcome will be worth it, we’ll end up with something that at least advances our understanding of the craft and teaches us a few tricks that we can put to use elsewhere. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as it keeps us in the game. As Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath, who rarely left a poem unfinished: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” A working artist is someone whose threshold level of engagement is set just low enough so that he or she is making toys all the time, even if they occasionally turn out to be the size of a house. And if I were giving advice to someone who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure where to start, I’d say that the best thing you can do is assemble a few pieces, trusting both to chance and to your own intuition about what parts will fit, and get to work.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

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