Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Chicago

A writer’s arms race

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The author's desk

My house is dark as I write this. It’s just before six in the morning, and I’ve been up for an hour. My daughter, who is just about to turn ten months old, is going through a fussy period, which usually means that she’s up and ready for the day long before the sun comes up. This means that I’m up with her, too—I try to give my wife, who has been on baby duty for most of the night, an extra hour of sleep—but I don’t mind that much. I’ll brew a pot of coffee, put Beatrix in her high chair with a few toys, and try to crank out as much of the day’s blog post as I can before breakfast. After my wife gets up and goes to work, I’ve got a few hours to write and play with the baby before her first nap, which can last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour or more. Then it’s more baby time, broken by intervals of writing, until dinner. That may sound like an exhausting routine, but it’s gone better than I could have expected: I’ve done a lot of work between diaper changes, including the editorial rewrite and copy edit of Eternal Empire, a novelette, and a few other writing projects, not to mention something like 100,000 words of blog posts. And I don’t know where it all came from.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been forced to rethink my schedule, of course. In the heady years after I quit my job to focus on writing, I was able to structure my day however I wanted, which usually meant writing all morning, taking a long break in the afternoon, and continuing well past midnight. After I got married, my schedule started to resemble that of a regular job, since I wanted my evenings free. And although my total hours of work per day has gone down slightly, my productivity hasn’t suffered. If anything, I’ve gotten a little faster, although I sometimes wonder whether my writing process—and even my style—has been subtly changed along the way. When you’re writing past dark, it affects your approach to the material: it’s intimate, intuitive, a little romantic. Confining your work to daylight hours forces you to see the story from a more rational angle, as well as encouraging you to plan the day’s work more carefully, and it’s possible that my writing has become slightly more refined and clinical. It wouldn’t surprise me if my new schedule, broken up by baby time, resulted in a similar change, although I’m still too close to my recent work to see any difference.

The author's daughter

What I have begun to notice is that I’m engaged in an artistic arms race with all the other elements of my life competing for my attention. The time it takes me to write a blog post has probably been cut in half, for example, and the first drafts of my fiction are also more efficient. I’ve noted before that the only real measure of progress in a writer’s life is that your first drafts start to look more like your final drafts from five years ago, and that’s as much a survival skill as a measure of advancing craft. When most of us compare our situations now with what we were struggling to handle half a decade ago, we find that our lives have grown increasingly complicated. In your twenties, you’re pretty much just looking out for yourself; in your thirties and beyond, you start to acquire more stuff—a marriage, a mortgage, children, career responsibilities and upheavals. The pie is the same size, but it’s divided among more things, and the amount of time you have for writing is correspondingly reduced. To maintain the same pace you once did, which is often a prerequisite for staying artistically viable, you need to get smarter and faster, or else postpone your other obligations for as long as possible.

This may be why so many New York writers end up in a state of arrested development in their personal lives. Part of it has to do with living in a city that makes it hard for you to escape your twenties—you’re always a renter, in an apartment that feels too small for kids—but it’s also an artistic judgment call. Very few writers in New York manage to have it both ways: you can’t buy a house or send your kids to a good kindergarten on a starving artist’s salary, so you end up either putting off your personal goals or sacrificing your artistic ones. In my case, if I hadn’t moved to Chicago, I don’t even think I’d need to worry about the dilemmas I’m discussing here: it just wouldn’t be in the cards. As it stands, I’m in a curious position in which I can sort of have it both ways, as long as my writing skills can manage to stay one step ahead of my encroaching responsibilities. Whether this is sustainable or not is still an open question, but I’m lucky to even have the option. That’s why I don’t necessarily mind these early mornings. Being here at all means that I’ve survived the arms race, at least for now. And the best reward is the chance to stay in the game.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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Return to the Newberry Library

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If you’re a certain kind of book lover in Chicago, the high point of any year, even more than the Printers Row Lit Fest, is the Newberry Library Book Fair. As I mentioned in my post last year, this book fair represents the apotheosis of the kind of library book sale I constantly dreamed about as a kid: more than 120,000 books, most only a few dollars, arranged in one of the most beautiful libraries imaginable. (For those who don’t know it firsthand, this is the library memorably featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I’ve been looking forward to this event all year, and even managed to rework my writing schedule this week so that I had a free day on Thursday, when the library doors opened. You’d think that with all this buildup, the fair couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—but if anything, it’s even better than I imagined.

Oddly enough, I’ve found myself becoming more restrained in the books I buy. Last year, I observed that I had to hold myself back because of my upcoming move, and wrote: “Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.” Yet I’ve been pickier than usual this year, picking up and putting back several books—including Architecture Without Architects, Everyman’s Talmud, and the charming paperback Star Trek Lives!, with its early discussion of fanfic—that I would have happily added to the pile in the past. What happened? Maybe it’s a newfound frugality; maybe it’s a sense that while I currently have ample shelf space in my home library, it won’t last forever; and in a couple of cases, the books themselves were just a little too tattered to justify the purchase. I’ve also found that my reaction to a used book has become weirdly intuitive: I’ll carry a book for a while, then leave it, because it doesn’t quite fit with the others I’ve found so far.

In the end, I emerged with what I can only call a well-rounded portfolio of books. As always, the first day’s haul included a mixture of books that I’ve wanted to check out for a while and the usual happy accidents. The first category included a five-volume slipcased paperback edition of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; a similar two-volume edition of Toynbee’s abridged Study of History; and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, which I nearly bought a few weeks ago, but found at Newberry for only a dollar. The serendipitous category includes Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain, whom I quoted here not long ago; The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorell, a study of artists who have excelled in more than one creative field; a lovely book of photographs on The Zen Life; and The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before.

My favorite discovery is probably a 1955 edition of The Week-End Book, first published in London by the Nonesuch Press. All Things Considered did an amusing segment a few years ago on this volume, which is essentially designed as an all-purpose manual to be brought along by Londoners on their weekends in the country. As a result, it’s delightfully miscellaneous. It contains an excellent poetry anthology of more than two hundred pages; information on the plants and animals of the English countryside; a discussion of village and pub architecture; manuals of stargazing and birdwatching, complete with birdcalls transcribed for piano; and helpful, often tongue-in-check advice on cooking, etiquette, the law, first aid, and games. (The section on games begins: “Everyone knows Up-Jenkyns, but here are a few finer points…) In short, it’s the kind of lucky discovery that can enrich an entire lifetime, and which you can only make at a book fair like this. Is it any wonder I’m going back again tonight?

A few thoughts on readings—and an invitation

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First, a bit of self-promotion: I’m going to be reading tonight at After-Words bookstore on 23 East Illinois Street in Chicago. If you’re in town, you should definitely drop by, if only because this is a truly beautiful bookshop, with a thoughtfully curated selection of new releases on the upper level and a large, brightly lit basement of gently used books. I’ll be there starting at 6:30 pm, talking a bit about Duchamp and the mystery of Étant Donnés before reading a selection from The Icon Thief, followed by questions and a wine reception. Beverly Dvorkin, the owner of After-Words, has been incredibly helpful since the book’s release, and I’m truly grateful for her support. Because among other things, this is my first reading as a novelist, and I’m genuinely curious to see how it goes.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that soon after completing a novel, a writer is suddenly compelled to develop a set of skills that are the exact opposite of those required to write a novel in the first place. Writing a novel requires long hours of daily, solitary work: it’s introspective, introverted, and rewards those who can shut out the rest of the world to focus on a highly personal project. Once a novel is published, however, an author is expected to become a completely different person overnight: extroverted, out in the world, and willing to promote himself and his work to anyone who cares to listen. Very occasionally, you find a writer in whom both aspects seem to comfortably coexist—Norman Mailer comes to mind, although the king of public performance was apparently Dickens—but it’s not surprising that many novelists regard the whole process with ambivalence, if not outright disdain.

I fall somewhere between those two extremes. I have no trouble talking to the press, but given the choice, I’d prefer to write all day without worrying about other responsibilities, promotional or otherwise. Yet I also crave spending time with other people, both in person and online. This is a solitary life, by definition, and I’ll often go an entire day without talking to anyone but my wife. It’s a necessary state of affairs, but also dangerous. Despite a few recent attempts to speak up for introversion, it seems clear that creativity arises largely from collaboration and interaction with those who care about the same things (or care with equal passion about something else). For an author, readings are an essential way of connecting with those who matter most, which is why they’ve always been part of a writer’s life for reasons that have nothing to do with current trends in book promotion.

When I head over to the bookstore tonight, then, I’ll think back to some of the best readings I’ve attended, when both author and audience just seemed to be having a good time: I have fond memories of readings by writers like Audrey Niffenegger, Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, and even Mailer himself, whom I saw speak in New York a few years before his death, to my everlasting gratitude. I can’t hope to match masters like this, but I expect it will still be fun. And hopefully I’ll come away with some of the satisfaction that Thomas Mann describes of his own readings: “What has been carefully forged in the course of long mornings is poured out over the listeners in a rapid hour of reading; the illusion of improvisation, of polished extemporization, intensifies the impression; and when others are stirred to marvel, we for our part believe that everything is fine.”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

A long-expected party

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So what do you do when you’re a debut novelist and your book has finally been published? If you’re me, you spent most of the release date wandering around Chicago, popping randomly into bookstores to make sure that your novel was really on shelves. I ended up visiting three stores altogether, and yes, it was actually there. After politely harassing the helpful staff at the customer service desk, I was even able to sign a few books. So if you’re in the Chicago area and at all interested, you should be able to pick up autographed copies of The Icon Thief at the Barnes & Noble stores at 1 East Jackson and 1130 North State Street; at Unabridged Books in Lakeview; and at the Book Table here in Oak Park. You can also buy copies at a discount from the Book Table online, and I strongly encourage you to support these independent bookstores—they’re some of my favorite places in the city.

In particular, you should drop by the lovely After-Words bookstore at 23 East Illinois St., where I’m going to be reading from The Icon Thief and signing a few copies starting at 6:30 pm on March 29. It’s my first reading for this novel, or any novel, so please stay tuned for more details. Beverly, the very cool owner of After-Words, was also kind enough to help sell a few copies at my launch party last night at Hubbard Inn, which was a blast: I had the chance to see a lot of old friends, meet some new ones, and thank everyone for their support. This has been a strange, amazing week without much occasion for savoring the moment—on Wednesday morning, I started writing the first draft of The Scythian—but last night, for a few hours, I was able to enjoy it. More than three years after I wrote the first chapter, the book is out in stores. It feels good. Now it’s time to get back to work.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2012 at 10:00 am

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