Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Alexander

My ten creative books #4: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his diverse slate of coauthors—Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Schlomo Angel—didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. These days, the values that it endorses seem more remote than ever, but it’s still the one book, above all others that I’ve read, that offers the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

The rough draft

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In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the folk craft movement in Japan, writes of an encounter that profoundly shaped his understanding of design:

I was favored with a rare chance of visiting the Korean village where beautiful lathed wood objects are made. When I got there after a long, hard trip, I noticed at once by their workshop many big blocks of pine wood ready for the hand lathe. But to my great astonishment, all of them were still sap green and were by no means ready for immediate use. To my surprise, a Korean craftsman took one of them, set it in a lathe, and began forthwith to turn it. The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin. This perplexed me very much because it is against common sense in lathe work. So I asked the artisan, “Why do you use such green material? Cracks will come out pretty soon!”

“What does it matter?” was the calm answer. I was amazed by this Zen monk-like response. I felt sweat on my forehead. Yet I dared to ask him, “How can you use something that leaks?” “Just mend it,” was his simple answer.

Yang concludes: “With amazement I discovered that they mend them so artistically and beautifully that the cracked piece seems better than the perfect one. So they do not mind whether it cracks or not.”

I first encountered this story in the book The Phenomenon of Life by the architect Christopher Alexander, who uses it to illustrate the principle of “roughness,” which is one of the fifteen fundamental properties that he associates with living works of art. After sharing his own version of Yanagi’s anecdote, Alexander comments:

It does not mean that the old man doesn’t care about the blows he makes. But he is deeply relaxed about it, not panicked. And in this state where nothing is quite so important, nothing is so terribly, heart-twistingly vital, he knows that he can let the greatest beauty show itself—and this is the only state of mind in which the property of roughness and the breath that lies in a thing which has the “it” in it can ever come to life.

This strikes me as a profound insight, and it has important implications for how we approach the first drafts of anything that we do. I’ve frequently written here about the importance of doing a rough first pass on any project, and that you shouldn’t go back to read or revise what you’ve done until the whole thing is complete. This is basically a pragmatic rule, born out of my observation that I was much more likely to finish something if I pushed through to the end without looking back. When you stop to fix every small problem along the way—or, even worse, wait until everything seems perfect before you start—you run the risk of never completing anything at all. And the notion of starting with green wood, which will inevitably lead to imperfections, is a memorable expression of the fact that sometimes it’s best to just get started and figure out the rest later.

But there’s also something about roughness that can be desirable in itself. We tend to think of a rough draft as something to be tolerated until it can be corrected—we just have to live with it for long enough to get to the point where we can fix it. (This is the insight that underlies one of my favorite pieces of creative advice, which William Goldman attributes to the theater producer George Abbott, who was speaking to one of his choreographers: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”) But roughness is more than a means to an end. Alexander notes that many works of art that we cherish have a certain rough quality to their surfaces, but he cautions us against misreading it: “We probably attribute this charm to the fact that the bowl is handmade and that we can see, in the roughness, the trace of a human hand, and know therefore that it is personal, full of human error. This interpretation is fallacious, and has entirely the wrong emphasis.” He argues that roughness is a creative strategy that comes into play when perfect regularity would fail on the level of the whole, as in a rug with a complicated pattern, which requires the weaver to maintain a high level of awareness at all times:

If the weaver wanted instead to calculate or plot out a so-called “perfect” solution to the corner [of the rug], she would then have to abandon her constant attention to the right size, right shape, and right positive-negative of the border elements, because they would all be determined mechanically by outside considerations, i.e. by the grid of the border. The corner solution would then dominate the design in a way which would destroy the weaver’s ability to do what is just right at each point.

And Alexander’s conclusion is worth remembering: “The seemingly rough solution—which seems superficially inaccurate—is in fact more precise, not less so, because it comes about as a result of paying attention to what matters most, and letting go of what matters less.” Which seems to me like the most important point of all. Roughness allows an artist to adapt to problems in real time, preserving that ideal state of attentiveness that arises when each unit is addressed on its own terms, rather than as a component in an artificial scheme. When combined with an overall feel for order, it allows for flexibility and improvisation in the moment, but only when approached with what Alexander calls an “egolessness, which allows each part to be made exactly as it needs to be.” And this also requires a paradoxical detachment from the ideal of roughness itself. As Yanagi writes of Korean lathe workers:

They have neither attachment to the perfect piece nor to the imperfect…Since they use green wood, the wares inevitably deform in drying. So this asymmetry is but a natural outcome of their state of mind, not the result of conscious choice. That is to say, their minds are free from any attachment to symmetry as well as asymmetry. The deformation of their work is the natural result of nonchalance, free from any restriction…They make their asymmetrical lathe work not because they regard asymmetrical form as beautiful or symmetrical as ugly, but because they make everything without such polarized conceptions. They are quite free from the conflict between the beautiful and the ugly. Here, deeply buried, is the mystery of the endless beauty of Korean wares. They just make what they make without any pretension.

This sounds like it should be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it’s really the hardest. And perhaps the only way to do it reliably is to make a point of working whenever we can with green wood.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2018 at 9:12 am

Raising the roof

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Whenever I return from a walk with my daughter and catch my first glimpse of our house at the corner, I feel happy. It was built over a hundred years ago, and although it isn’t any nicer than the houses to either side, it’s a little bit taller, and the high peak of its roof gives it a distinctive silhouette—as soon as I see it, I know that I’m home. Years ago, when my wife and I were looking for a place to start our family, I knew that I wanted a roof like this. I was partially inspired by the architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which may be the best book that I’ve ever read on any subject. Alexander writes:

We believe that [the] connection between the geometry of roofs, and their capacity to provide psychological shelter, can be put on empirical grounds: first, there is a kind of evidence which shows that both children and adults naturally incline toward the sheltering roofs, almost as if they had archetypal properties…Despite fifty years of the flat roofs of the “modern movement,” people still find the simple pitched roof the most powerful symbol of shelter.

In fact, my own roof doesn’t quite meet those standards. As Alexander notes: “This sheltering function cannot be created by a pitched roof, or a large roof, which is merely added to the top of an existing structure. The roof itself only shelters if it contains, embraces, covers, surrounds the process of living.” Instead of coming down to the rooms themselves, the roof of my house covers an attic that we never use. And sometimes this means that our living space feels slightly incomplete.

But maybe I should be grateful that I have a roof like this at all. In his essay “The Inevitable Box,” reprinted in his recent collection Four Walls and a Roof, Reinier de Graaf writes of the triumph of the architectural cube, which he calls “the natural outcome of all rational parameters combined”:

When did the pitched roof stop being a necessity? The dirty secret of modern architecture is that it never did. We stopped using it without any superior solution having presented itself. The omission of the pitched roof is an intentional technological regression, a deliberate forgoing of the best solution in favor of an aesthetic ideal, eschewing function for form—the symbol of a desire for progress instead of progress itself. We choose to endure the inconvenience. After all, architecture and the box have had an inconvenient relation for centuries. The pitched roof helped them avoid seeing eye to eye. It was what stood between architecture and the naked truth, what prevented the box from being a box. In our drift toward the box, the pitched roof was a necessary casualty—no progress without cruelty! With bigger things at stake, the pitched roof had to go.

Yet the psychological power of the pitched roof still persists. Alexander quotes the French psychiatrist Menie Gregoire, who wrote in the early seventies: “At Nancy the children from the apartments were asked to draw a house. These children had been born in these apartment slabs which stand up like a house of cards upon an isolated hill. Without exception they each drew a small cottage with two windows and smoke curling up from a chimney on the roof.”

Alexander concedes that this preference might be “culturally induced,” but he also makes a strong case for why the pitched roof is an inherently superior form. When properly conceived—so that the interior ceilings come right up to the roof itself—it seems to surround and shelter the living space, rather than sitting on top like a cap; it becomes a distinctive element that defines the house from a distance; and it even forms a connection with people on the ground, if the eaves come low enough around the entrance to be touched. There are also practical advantages. In On Directing Film, David Mamet contrasts the “unlivable” designs of countercultural architecture with the patterns of traditional design, which he uses to make a point about storytelling:

If you want to tell a story, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the nature of human perception. Just as, if you want to know how to build a roof, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the effects of gravity and the effects of precipitation. If you go up into Vermont and build a roof with a peak, the snow will fall off. You build a flat roof, the roof will fall down from the weight of the snow—which is what happened to a lot of the countercultural architecture of the 1960s. “There may be a reason people have wanted to hear stories for ten million years,” the performance artist says, “but I really don’t care, because I have something to say.”

But the opposite of a box isn’t necessarily a house with a pitched roof. It can also be what de Graaf calls “the antibox,” in which straight lines of any kind have been omitted. He argues that such buildings, exemplified by the work of Frank Gehry, have turned architecture “into a game of chance,” relying on computer models to determine what is possible: “Authorship has become relative: with creation now delegated to algorithms, the antibox’s main delight is the surprise it causes to the designers.” And he concludes:

The antibox celebrates the death of the ninety-degree angle—in fact, of every angle. Only curves remain. Floor, walls, and roof smoothly morph into a single continuous surface that only the most complex geometrical equations can capture. In its attempts to achieve a perfect ergonomic architecture—enveloping the body and its movement like a glove—the antibox falls into an age-old trap, only with more sophistication and virtuosity. The antibox is nothing more than form follows function 2.0, that is, a perfectly executed mistake.

I think that Gehry is a genius, even if some of his buildings do look like a big pile of trash, and that what he does is necessary and important. But it’s also revealing that the triumph of the box generated a reaction that didn’t consist of a return to the sensible pitched roof, but of the antibox that disregards all angles. Neither seems to have been conceived with an eye to those who will actually live or work there, any more than most performance art is concerned with the audience’s need for storytelling. Stories take on certain forms for a reason, and so should houses, embodied by the pitched roof—which is the point where two extremes meet. For all its shortcomings, when I look at my own house, I don’t just see a building. I see the story of my life.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2017 at 9:43 am

The closed circle

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In his wonderful book The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander lists fifteen properties that characterize places and buildings that feel alive. (“Life” itself is a difficult concept to define, but we can come close to understanding it by comparing any two objects and asking the one question that Alexander identifies as essential: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?”) These properties include such fundamentals of design as “Levels of Scale,” “Local Symmetries,” and “Positive Space,” and elements that are a bit trickier to pin down, including “Echoes,” “The Void,” and “Simplicity and Inner Calm.” But the final property, and the one that Alexander suggests is the most important, bears the slightly clunky name of “Not-Separateness.” He points to the Tower of the Wild Goose in China as an example of this quality at its best, and he says of its absence:

When a thing lacks life, is not whole, we experience it as being separate from the world and from itself…In my experiments with shapes and buildings, I have discovered that the other fourteen ways in which centers come to life will make a center which is compact, beautiful, determined, subtle—but which, without this fifteenth property, can still often somehow be strangely separate, cut off from what lies around it, lonely, awkward in its loneliness, too brittle, too sharp, perhaps too well delineated—above all, too egocentric, because it shouts, “Look at me, look at me, look how beautiful I am.”

The fact that he refers to this property as “Non-Separateness,” rather than the more obvious “Connectedness,” indicates that he sees it as a reaction against the marked tendency of architects and planners to strive for distinctiveness and separation. “Those unusual things which have the power to heal…are never like this,” Alexander explains. “With them, usually, you cannot really tell where one thing breaks off and the next begins, because the thing is smokily drawn into the world around it, and softly draws this world into itself.” It’s a characteristic that has little to do with the outsized personalities who tend to be drawn to huge architectural projects, and Alexander firmly skewers the motivations behind it:

This property comes about, above all, from an attitude. If you believe that the thing you are making is self-sufficient, if you are trying to show how clever you are, to make something that asserts its beauty, you will fall into the error of losing, failing, not-separateness. The correct connection to the world will only be made if you are conscious, willing, that the thing you make be indistinguishable from its surroundings; that, truly, you cannot tell where one ends and the next begins, and you do not even want to be able to do so.

This doesn’t happen by accident, particularly when millions of dollars and correspondingly inflated egos are involved. (The most blatant way of separating a building from its surroundings is to put your name on it.) And because it explicitly asks the designer to leave his or her cleverness behind, it amounts to the ultimate test of the subordination of the self to the whole. You can do great work and still falter at the end, precisely because of the strengths that allowed you to get that far in the first place.

It’s hard for me to read these words without thinking of Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, variously known as the Ring and the Mothership, which is scheduled to open later this year. A cover story in Wired by Steven Levy describes it in enraptured terms, in which you can practically hear Also Sprach Zarathustra:

As we emerge into the light, the Ring comes into view. As the Jeep orbits it, the sun glistens off the building’s curved glass surface. The “canopies”—white fins that protrude from the glass at every floor—give it an exotic, retro-­future feel, evoking illustrations from science fiction pulp magazines of the 1950s. Along the inner border of the Ring, there is a walkway where one can stroll the three-quarter-mile perimeter of the building unimpeded. It’s a statement of openness, of free movement, that one might not have associated with Apple. And that’s part of the point.

There’s a lot to unpack here, from the reference to pulp science fiction to the notion of “orbiting” the building to the claim that the result is “a statement of openness.” As for the contrary view, here’s what another article in Wired, this one by Adam Rogers, had to say about it a month later:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new [headquarters] is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to twenty-first-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.

Without delving into the economic and social context, which a recent article in the New York Times explores from another perspective, I think it’s fair to say that Apple Park is an utter failure from the point of view of “Not-Separateness.” But this isn’t surprising. Employees may just be moving in now, but its public debut dates back to June 7, 2011, when Steve Jobs himself pitched it to the Cupertino City Council. Jobs was obsessed by edges and boundaries, both physical and virtual, insisting that the NeXT computer be a perfect cube and introducing millions of consumers to the word “bezel.” Compare this to what Alexander writes of boundaries in architecture:

In things which have not-separateness, there is often a fragmented boundary, an incomplete edge, which destroys the hard line…Often, too, there is a gradient of the boundary, a soft edge caused by a gradient in which scale decreases…so that at the edge it seems to melt indiscernibly into the next thing…Finally, the actual boundary is sometimes rather careless, deliberately placed to avoid any simple complete sharp cutting off of the thing from its surroundings—a randomness in the actual boundary line which allows the thing to be connected to the world.

The italics are mine, because it’s hard to imagine anything less like Jobs or the company he created. Apple Park is being positioned as Jobs’s posthumous masterpiece, which reminds me of the alternate wording to Alexander’s one question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?” (If the building is a monument to Jobs, it’s also a memorial to the ways in which he shaded imperceptibly into Trump, who also has a fixation with borders.) It’s the architectural equivalent of the design philosophy that led Apple to glue in its batteries and made it impossible to upgrade the perfectly cylindrical Mac Pro. Apple has always loved the idea of a closed system, and now its employees get to work in one.

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2017 at 8:59 am

The single overriding rule

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Christopher Alexander

In his book A New Theory of Urban Design, which was published thirty years ago, the architect Christopher Alexander opens with a consideration of the basic problem confronting all city planners. He draws an analogy between the process of urban design and that of creating a work of art or studying a biological organism, but he also points out their fundamental differences:

With a city, we don’t have the luxury of either of these cases. We don’t have the luxury of a single artist whose unconscious process will produce wholeness spontaneously, without having to understand it—there are simply too many people involved. And we don’t have the luxury of the patient biologist, who may still have to wait a few more decades to overcome his ignorance.

What happens in the city, happens to us. If the process fails to produce wholeness, we suffer right away. So, somehow, we must overcome our ignorance, and learn to understand the city as a product of a huge network of processes, and learn just what features might make the cooperation of these processes produce a whole.

And wherever he writes “city,” you can replace it with any complicated system—a nation, a government, an environmental crisis—that seems too daunting for any individual to affect on his or her own, and toward which it’s easy to despair over our own helplessness, especially, as Alexander notes, when it’s happening to us.

Alexander continues: “We must therefore learn to understand the laws which produce wholeness in the city. Since thousands of people must cooperate to produce even a small part of a city, wholeness in the city will only be created to the extent that we can make these laws explicit, and can then introduce them, openly, explicitly, into the normal process of urban development.” We can pause here to note that this is as good an explanation as any of why rules play a role in all forms of human activity. It’s easy to fetishize or dismiss the rules to the point where we overlook why they exist in the first place, but you could say that they emerge whenever we’re dealing with a process that is too complicated for us to wing it. Some degree of improvisation enters into much of what we do, and in many cases—when we’re performing a small task for the first time with minimal stakes—it’s fine to make it up as we go along. The larger, more important, or more complex the task, however, the more useful it becomes to have a few guidelines on which we can fall back whenever our intuition or conscience fails us. Rules are nice because they mean that we don’t constantly have to reason from first principles whenever we’re faced with a choice. They often need to be amended, supplemented, or repealed, and we should never stop interrogating them, but they’re unavoidable. Every time we discard a rule, we implicitly replace it with another. And it can be hard to strike the right balance between a reasonable skepticism of the existing rules and an understanding of why they’re pragmatically good to have around.

A New Theory of Urban Design

Before we can develop a set of rules for any endeavor, however, it helps to formulate what Alexander calls “a single, overriding rule” that governs the rest. It’s worth quoting him at length here, because the challenge of figuring out a rule for urban design is much the same as that for any meaningful project that involves a lot of stakeholders:

The growth of a town is made up of many processes—processes of construction of new buildings, architectural competitions, developers trying to make a living, people building additions to their houses, gardening, industrial production, the activities of the department of public works, street cleaning and maintenance…But these many activities are confusing and hard to integrate, because they are not only different in their concrete aspects—they are also guided by entirely different motives…One might say that this hodgepodge is highly democratic, and that it is precisely this hodgepodge which most beautifully reflects the richness and multiplicity of human aspirations.

But the trouble is that within this view, there is no sense of balance, no reasonable way of deciding how much weight to give the different aims within the hodgepodge…For this reason, we propose to begin entirely differently. We propose to imagine a single process…one which works at many levels, in many different ways…but still essentially a single process, in virtue of the fact that it has a single goal.

And Alexander arrives at a single, overriding rule that is so memorable that I seem to think about it all the time: “Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.”

But it isn’t hard to understand why this rule isn’t more widely known. It’s difficult to imagine invoking it at a city planning meeting, and it has a mystical ring to it that I suspect makes many people uncomfortable. Yet this is less a shortcoming in the rule itself than a reflection of the kind of language that we need to develop an intuition about what other rules to follow. Alexander argues that most of us have a “a rather good intuitive sense” of what this rule means, and he points out: “It is, therefore, a very useful kind of inner voice, which forces people to pay attention to the balance between different goals, and to put things together in a balanced fashion.” The italics are mine. Human beings have trouble keeping all of their own rules in their heads at once, much less those that apply to others, so our best bet is to develop an inner voice that will guide us when we don’t have ready access to the rules for a specific situation. (As David Mamet says of writing: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) Most belief systems amount to an attempt to cultivate that voice, and if Alexander’s advice has a religious overtone, it’s because we tend to associate such admonitions with the contexts in which they’ve historically arisen. “Love your enemies” is one example. “Desire is suffering” is another. Such precepts naturally give rise to other rules, which lead in turn to others, and one of the shared dangers in city planning and religion is the failure to remember the underlying purpose when faced with a mass of regulations. Ideally, they serve as a system of best practices, but they often have no greater goal than to perpetuate themselves. And as Alexander points out, it isn’t until you’ve taken the time to articulate the one rule that governs the rest that you can begin to tell the difference.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

The creator and destroyer of light

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Drawing by Rembrandt

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 30, 2015. 

A while back, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:

It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.

It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.

But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”

Lisel Mueller

We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.

And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:

The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.

“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2017 at 9:00 am

Land of the giants

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Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War

Earlier this morning, I found myself thinking about two of my favorite movie scenes of the year. One is the sequence in Zootopia in which Judy Hopps chases a thief into the neighborhood of Little Rodentia, where she suddenly seems gigantic by comparison, tiptoeing gingerly past buildings the size of dollhouses. The other is the epic fight between the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War, in which Ant-Man reverses his usual shrinking power to transform himself into Giant Man. Both are standout moments in very good movies, and they have a lot in common. In each one, a normally meek and physically vulnerable character is abruptly blown up to gargantuan proportions, a situation that offers up more natural comedy than if it had involved a more conventional hero. (It’s a lot of fun to see Hank Pym treating the rest of the Avengers as his personal action figures, when it wouldn’t mean much of anything to see a giant Hulk.) Both are bright daytime scenes that allow us to scrutinize every detail of their huge central figure, which is logically satisfying in a way that a movie like the Godzilla remake isn’t: the latter is so weirdly loyal to the notion that you shouldn’t show the monster that it keeps cutting away nervously even when Godzilla ought to be the biggest thing in sight.

Most of all, of course, these scenes play with scale in ways that remind us of how satisfying that basic trick can be. A contrast in scale, properly handled, can be delightful, and it’s even more instructive to see it here, in a pair of mainstream studio movies, than it might be in more refined contexts. As the architect Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order:

The first thing I noticed, when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. In my new language, I would now say that the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them. In short, there are big centers, middle-sized centers, small centers, and very small centers…[Scale] provides a way in which one center can be helped in its intensity by other smaller centers.

It might seem like a leap from the harmonious gradation of scale that Alexander is describing here and the goofy appearance of Giant Man, but both draw on the same underlying fact, which is that contrasts of size provide a standard of measurement. When Giant Man shows up, it feels like we’re seeing him and the rest of the Avengers for the first time.

King Kong and Citizen Kane

The movies have always taken pleasure in toying with our sense of proportion: there’s a reason why a new version of King Kong seems to pop up every few decades. If film is naturally drawn to massive contrasts of scale, it’s in part because it’s so good at it. It’s hard to imagine another medium that could pull it off so well, aside from our own imaginations, and movies like The Thief of Baghdad have reveled in bringing the giants and ogres of folklore—who are like a small child’s impression of the adult world—to life. Every movie that we see in theaters becomes a confrontation with giants. When we watch Bogart and Bergman on the big screen in Casablanca, their faces are the size of billboards, and you could argue that we respond to giants in the movies because they force the other characters to experience what the rest of us feel in the auditorium. Hollywood has always seen itself as a land of giants, even if it’s populated by moral pygmies, as Gloria Swanson reminds us in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the classic posters for King Kong and Citizen Kane are so similar, with the title character looming over smaller figures who stand terrified at the level of his ankles. Kane and Kong, whose names go together so well, are both monsters who came out of RKO Pictures, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that Orson Welles, like Brando, grew so large toward the end of his life.

The idea that a giant might symbolize the gigantic qualities of the work of art in which it appears isn’t a new one. In his great essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” which I seem to think about all the time, the scholar Edward Mendelson lists what he calls “encyclopedic narratives”—The Divine Comedy, Gargantua and Patnagruel, Don Quixote, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow—and observes that they all have one thing in common:

All encyclopedias metastasize their monstrousness by including giants or gigantism: the giants who guard the pit of hell in Dante, the eponymous heroes of Rabelais, the windmills that Don Quixote takes for giants, the mighty men whom Faust sends into battle, Moby-Dick himself, the stylistic gigantism of Joyce’s “Cyclops,” and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the titans under the earth and the angel over Lübeck whose eyes go “towering for miles.”

Your average blockbuster is even more gargantuan, in its way, than even a great novel, since it involves the collaboration of hundreds of artisans and the backing of an enormous corporation that can start to seem vaguely monstrous itself. Like most adult moviegoers, I hope that Hollywood gives us more intimate human stories, too. But we can also allow it a few giants.

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December 15, 2016 at 9:01 am

My great books #8: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his coauthors didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to the next president to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the work, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

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November 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

The creator and destroyer of light

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Drawing by Rembrandt

A few days ago, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:

It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.

It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.

But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”

Lisel Mueller

We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.

And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:

The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.

“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.

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September 30, 2015 at 10:11 am

A local habitation and a name

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A page from the author's notebook

If there’s one piece of advice that every writer receives, it’s that he or she should keep a notebook. Yet like all useful admonitions, from “Write what you know” to “Less is more,” this one has a way of being fetishized to a point where we lose sight of its true rationale. Notebooks, of course, can be attractive objects in themselves: I love browsing through collections of people’s journals, whether they belong to scientists (Field Notes in Science in Nature) or visual artists (An Illustrated Life). But they’re primarily a tool. And their value goes far beyond the basic premise that we’re likely to forget our ideas if we don’t write them down. If we’re worried about not remembering something, there are all kinds of ways to jot down a moment of inspiration: we can send an email to ourselves, or make a voice recording, or use one of the many convenient apps for taking notes on our phones. These are all excellent solutions to the problem of retaining a single flash of insight. But they can’t replace a journal on paper, which is less about preserving a specific idea than about affording it a physical location over time where it can sit, grow, and evolve.

I got to thinking about journals as locations—or as places where ideas can take up residence for the long term—while reading the poet Stephen Spender’s reflections on the subject. In his essay “The Making of a Poem,” he writes:

My mind is not clear, my will is weak, I suffer from an excess of ideas and a weak sense of form. For every poem that I begin to write, I think of at least ten which I do not write down at all. For every poem which I do write down, there are seven or eight which I never complete.

The method which I adopt therefore is to write down as many ideas as possible, in however rough a form, in notebooks (I have at least twenty of these, on a shelf beside my desk, going back over fifteen years). I then make use of some of the sketches and discard others…Each idea, when it first occurs, is given a number. Sometimes the ideas do not get beyond one line.

Two things strike me about Spender’s approach: 1) He numbers each idea—that is, he’s deliberate about keeping them organized. 2) The journal gives each line the space and time it needs to develop. As he puts it: “The work on a line of poetry may take the form of putting a version aside for a few days, weeks, or years, and then taking it up again, when it may be found that the line has, in the interval of time, almost rewritten itself.”

Notebook page for "The Voices"

And if we acknowledge that this kind of growth over time is important, we see how essential it is to give it a specific place in the world to occupy, on the written page, as well as to develop some method for keeping those pages straight. (Even if you don’t number them, as Spender does, you should at least put the date at the top of each page before you start to write, as Francis Coppola advises.) That’s the real function of a journal: not just to lock down that initial brainstorm, which could be done in any number of ways, but to provide it with a permanent residence, a kind of forwarding address to which later insights can be sent. In addition to the countless index cards and scraps of paper that collect around any writing project, I’ve learned to devote one full page to each story idea in a hardbound notebook. That way, whenever I get a new idea that builds on the first, I have somewhere to put it. In theory, I could do this in some digital format, but pen and paper remain unsurpassed. If nothing else, they provide a lasting record of the steps along the way, which can be a source of information in itself: you can figure out where you’re going by going back to see where you’ve been. And a journal keeps everything in one place.

In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander notes that placing even a single dot on a piece of paper charges the surface with meaning:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

That’s true of words as much as dots, and as soon as you’ve written down a sentence, a journal page becomes a concrete process in time. We see a hint of this in the most famous evocation of the poetic act in literature, the speech of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Reading these lines over again, I’m struck in particular by how Shakespeare emphasizes the poet’s pen as an indispensable next step in giving shape to that “airy nothing.” Shakespeare was a seer and an artist, but he worked on paper. And whenever possible, so should we.

Character counts

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Novel spreadsheet with chapter lengths

A couple of years ago, I published a post called “Writing by Numbers,” in which I described the unconventional approach I took to editing my novel Eternal Empire. I’d already made several passes through the manuscript with an eye to cuts, but it was still nowhere close to 100,000 words, which was the maximum I’d contracted to deliver. What I did, in the end, was make a spreadsheet in which I recorded the length of each chapter and how much it fell short or exceeded the average. Chapters that ran long for no good reason became targets for pruning. (I was especially hard on transitional chapters, which included material that was necessary to advance the story, but which were relatively sedate compared to the central set pieces and action scenes.) And it all sort of worked. The manuscript shed several thousand words, a line or two at a time, and I still credit this quantitative approach with guiding my scalpel to the right places. In all likelihood, if I’d tackled the edit more intuitively, I would have cut most of it anyway, but the numbers gave me the push I needed.

In retrospect, though, I’ve concluded that the numbers weren’t the key factor here. The spreadsheet was less important in itself than as a kind of conceptual screen, a way of regarding a familiar manuscript from a new angle. Revision hinges on the ability to read your own work as it if had been written by a stranger, or, as Zadie Smith says, even an enemy, and nearly every relevant strategy has this end result in mind. The simplest way to get some distance is to take some time off—ideally four to six weeks, and it’s even better if you’ve been working on an unrelated project in the meantime. Changing the typeface, font size, or margins has a similarly alienating effect, although I’m rarely brave enough to go that far. The same is true of reading the work in a different setting, out loud, or on paper rather than on your laptop. And the quantitative approach has an analogous effect: it directs your attention to areas of the story you might never have noticed if you were merely reading through it with an author’s eye. Any target word count is inherently arbitrary, but that’s exactly why it works.

A page from my rough draft

I got to thinking about this again after a friend recommended that I read the thoughts of ecologist Stephen Heard on the subject of revision. Heard is speaking to an audience of academic writers, and his advice has more to do with submitting journal articles for review than with writing a novel, but many of his points are still valuable. He covers some of the same tips that I mention above—reviewing your work in a different font, in a different location, or even at a time of day when you’re tired—and he has a particularly interesting take on revising for length: “Manuscript lengths are most often expressed as word counts, but I suggest you work with character counts instead, because replacing long words with short ones is just as helpful to the reader as reducing the number of words.” This takes the quantitative approach to the extreme: the story is no longer a series of pages, or even individual words, but a string of characters, each of which has equal weight when it comes to reducing the length. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a feeling that it might turn out to be a useful tool, especially in nonfiction, even if its effects are close to subliminal. 

Obviously, an approach like this might be more practical in reworking a 2,000-word essay than a 100,000-word novel, for which it feels a little like digging a hole through a cliff with a needle, as the Humbug does in The Phantom Tollbooth. But while it might not be entirely feasible for longer works, it can’t help but make you more aware about the average length of your words, which can only be a good thing. It reminds me of an analogy given by the great Christopher Alexander, who describes how we can check whether a metal surface is smooth by inking a standard block and rubbing it against the face we’re testing:

If our metal face is not quite level, ink marks appear on it at those points which are higher than the rest. We grind these high spots, and try to fit it against the block again. The face is level when it fits the block perfectly, so that there are no high spots which stand out any more.

What’s nice about this approach is that the evidence is unambiguous—the marks show you exactly where the surface needs grinding. In fiction, the result doesn’t need to be a uniform face: all good novels have peaks and valleys, alternating rhythms, and variety of pacing. But the first step is to figure out what you have. And as in most things in life, the numbers can reveal patterns that the eye alone never could.

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January 28, 2015 at 9:21 am

The dot and the line

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Dots

Take a blank piece of paper and put a dot in the center. It’s the single most basic creative act imaginable—aside from deliberately presenting the viewer with an empty page, which is a different sort of statement—and it lies at the beginning of any work of art. Even the most complicated drawing or story is essentially an assemblage of dots or individual units, and in most media, the process can’t help but be sequential: you start with one unit, then add another, and even in works that unfold more rapidly in the author’s mind and hand, in theory, you could see each dot falling into place in sequence if you could slow the tape down far enough. And looking at that single dot reminds us of how much meaning and information can be packed into the simplest of artistic gestures. As Christopher Alexander notes in The Nature of Order, with the addition of a dot:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

When we add a second dot, another dimension is created. With it comes the possibility of direction and relationship: two dots imply a line, although the way in which it runs remains unclear. No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story. Two dots or words set side by side convey a meaning, as subtle as it might be, greater than the sum of the constituent parts, and much of the resultant power comes from that invisible line. In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

Halftone

And when we add a third dot, we get something even more powerful. Instead of a line, we have a triangle, with all the possible variation it implies. This last leap—assuming that we’re confining ourselves to the two-dimensional page—is arguably the most profound, and any advances we make with a fourth or fifth dot are only incremental, and may even detract from the composition as greater complexity is introduced. This is why the rule of three is so central to all forms of storytelling: it’s the minimum number of elements required to convey shape, whether spatial or temporal, and if we’re convinced that simplicity matters, it’s not surprising that a story with three acts can seem more organic and satisfying than one with four or five. (This isn’t necessarily true, of course, but it’s worth noting that units of narrative often fall into odd numbers, probably because it preserves the idea, initially present in the number three, of a center. As Milan Kundera says: “I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape. All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven.”)

It might seem like an empty exercise to reduce the creative process to such simple components, but it’s one that every artist should do from time to time, whether the unit in question is a dot, a word, or a musical note. As we grow more sophisticated in craft, we tend to think of our works in terms of their larger structures: many writers approach a story on the level of the paragraph, for instance, just as chess players see the board in chunks of pieces. Yet it’s important not to lose sight of the meaning implied in our most basic choices and juxtapositions. If there’s one characteristic that the greatest creative geniuses have in common, from Beethoven to James Joyce, it’s an uncanny ability to drill down into individual units while keeping the overall shape of the work in mind. That kind of intimate engagement with each piece is, necessarily, invisible: most artists would prefer that the dots and words fuse or blur together when the work is finally experienced, leaving an impression of a coherent whole. And emphasizing the parts over the whole can turn into another kind of indulgence, the kind that John Gardner called frigidity. But neglecting those pieces carries a risk of its own. And we often end up with a more beautiful work once we take a few dots away.

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June 30, 2014 at 9:38 am

Triumph of the vernacular

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Photo by Yoshio Komatsu in Built by Hand

At the top of my reading list this week is the wonderful book Built by Hand, which, like so many other worthy titles, I first discovered through Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools. It’s a survey of vernacular buildings from throughout the world, as presented in more than four hundred pages of gorgeous color pictures by the photographer Yoshio Komatsu, who seems to have traveled to every corner of the globe in search of striking regional architecture. We see stone and adobe houses in Ollantaytambo, Peru; earthen roofs in Burkina Faso; bamboo and palm cottages in Myanmar; thatched granaries in Indonesia; and that’s only a sampling I found by flipping to random sections. As Kelly notes, the result is the fulfillment of what classic works like Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects promised with tantalizing hints, and it’s a true privilege to read. (The book is sadly out of print, and used copies run about $75 online, but I was able to get a copy through interlibrary loan. There’s also a Kindle version available that seems to have all of the photographs, although browsing through them appears to be an issue for some readers.)

And leafing through this book is an emotional experience in ways that have little to do with architecture itself. Moving from the image of a lime-plastered cottage in Ireland to palm houses at the edge of a river in Papua New Guinea, I’m constantly reminded of Christopher Alexander’s one overriding question: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly every house or structure here stands as a compelling picture of the human self, bursting with beauty, intelligence, and resourcefulness. Superficially, it might seem that it romanticizes the past, but really, it’s a celebration of the present, and of the immense diversity of building styles and modes of existence that exist on this planet right now. Each building serves as a window onto a human life, and one of the most compelling aspects of Built by Hand is the quiet revelation it provides, on page after page, of the men, women, and children who reside in these homes. It’s really a series of snapshots of lives picked up on the fly, and the result is more fascinating than most photojournalism designed to convey a particular message.

Photo by Yoshio Komatsu in Built by Hand

As a writer, I’ve been interested in vernacular architecture for a long time, for the same reasons I’m drawn to such extraliterary fields as art, music, and film. Unlike so much housing in the developed world, which is imposed uniformly on its surroundings without much thought for context, each house in Built by Hand represents a solution to a particular set of problems. Constraints are imposed by location, resources, and the materials at hand, so each building becomes an expression of the world that produced it. In places like the southern region of Chile, for instance, where wood is abundant, houses are covered in shingles; elsewhere, where nothing but earth is available, local builders do remarkable things with packed mud or adobe. As in most great works of art, utility and beauty go hand in hand; the shape and layout of each home is determined by climate, setting, and cultural needs, and the result feels all of a piece to an extent we rarely find in the products of mass production. Rarely have I seen choices in any medium depicted so vividly: each detail is the result of a conscious decision, shaped by cultural experience, and it sets a high bar for those of us who make an effort to create anything at all.

What vernacular architecture expresses, more than anything else, is the pragmatism of collective activity over time. Each house is rooted in generations of trial and error, as builders experimented with new techniques and gradually established what worked and what didn’t, and it stands as a reminder of how limited individual effort, even by architectural “visionaries,” can seem by comparison. It’s the visual analog of the oral tradition, in which stories are imperceptibly reshaped in the telling by countless performers until each element glows with rightness. When you read Built by Hand, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with other fields of activity, in which our obsession with the new and different, while sometimes worthwhile in itself, can lead to the neglect of crucial information that has been accumulated over time. The builders honored here are as anonymous as oral poets, and their anonymity ultimately serves the work: the ego is lost to the benefit of the building, which, paradoxically, results in a structure that expresses the self more fully than one in which the architect seems to scream for our attention. Is this an impossibly high standard to impose on ourselves? Maybe. But it happens across the world every day.

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June 24, 2014 at 9:43 am

As tears go by

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Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

I’m not really a crier. I don’t think reading a book has ever caused me to shed tears, although many—from The High King to The Magus—have left me an emotional wreck. And the short list of movies at which I’ve cried is an eclectic one. I almost always tear up a little during The Last Temptation of Christ, although invariably at a different time; I welled up during the first minute of the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, as it cuts between archival images of ballet dancers in their prime and the same dancers fifty years later, all of them still beautiful; and the only time I’ve ever really lost it at the movies, I’ve got to admit, is during the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. As different as these films are, all these moments have one thing in common: they take place during or shortly after a scene when the face of a young man is juxtaposed with the same man in old age. If I’m moved, it’s both at the thought of the fleetingness of human life and at the ability of the movies to express it. Cinema can cross enormous expanses of time and space in a single cut, and the ones that we remember are often those that push this ability to its limit: the cut from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, or the bone and the spaceship in 2001. But it’s especially powerful when it’s applied to something as simple as a human face.

Of the three movies I mentioned earlier, Ballets Russes might be the most haunting of all, because its leaps over time are real. The Last Temptation of Christ uses makeup to effect its changes, much as the intensely moving fantasy scene at the end of 25th Hour did many years later, and Saving Private Ryan simply uses a different actor to convey the passage of five decades. But there’s nothing quite like seeing time itself do the work. You get a glimpse of it at the end of The Godfather Part III, when we cut from Michael’s final tragedy to images of him dancing with the women he has loved and lost—Apollonia, Faye, Mary—and remember, in passing, how young Al Pacino was when the series began. The Up series by Michael Apted is structured around such a miracle, as, in their own way, are the Harry Potter films. And now we have Boyhood by Richard Linklater, shot over the course of twelve years, allowing us to watch actor Ellar Coltrane age from first grade to a senior in high school, and to witness time work more subtly on his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I’ve watched its trailer several times, and I’m as excited about it as any movie I can remember: Richard Linklater has always been one of the most inventive and ambitious directors of his generation, while gaining only a fraction of the acclaim of his peers, and this is his most daring gamble yet.

Kiernan Shipka and January Jones on Mad Men

Television, of course, allows us to see the same process unfold, and though it’s usually so gradual that we barely even see it, it can still catch us by surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater stroke of casting luck than when Matthew Weiner selected Kiernan Shipka, then eight years old, to play Sally Draper on Mad Men. When we set the earliest episodes of the series, with Sally running around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, next to its current run, as she takes on aspects of both her mother and her father while negotiating her own adolescence, it reminds us of the creative coups that television can achieve almost by accident. Sally, in a way, has become one of the three or four most essential characters on the show, a visible marker that expresses the show’s themes of change more vividly than its writing ever could. (Comparing Sally to Bobby, who has barely registered as a character over seven seasons, only underlines how much chance is involved.) Television, by its very nature, is about the passage of time, and its presence in our lives lends it an almost unbearable intimacy. Seeing Sally grow up in real time, or going back to watch the earliest episodes of any series that runs for many seasons, informs us that we’re all aging, too.

This may be why I’ve grown more sentimental as I watch my own daughter grow up. It happens so slowly that I can’t see it from day to day, but when I look back at her baby photos from a few months ago, or hold my newborn niece in my arms, I’m amazed by the changes that have taken place right before my eyes. And it’s affected the way I think about the books I read, the movies and television I watch, and the music I play. If I choke up at unexpected moments these days—playing “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” on the ukulele, reading The Lorax aloud—it’s partially because I have another life apart from my own to think about, but also because my subliminal awareness of the passage of time charges everything with new meaning. In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander makes a surprising statement, and I’m just going to leave it here:

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling…What feeling, exactly? What am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it clearly, so that it stands as a beacon to guide me in what I do every day?

What I am for is, most concretely, sadness…I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears…

What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

The one question you need to ask

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Christopher Alexander

For the last few days, I’ve been leafing with increasing pleasure and delight through the pages of The Nature of Order, the four-volume magnum opus of the great architect and teacher Christopher Alexander. Alexander has long been one of my intellectual heroes—his most famous work, A Pattern Language, would be one of the first two or three books I’d take with me if I had to give up all the rest—but for some reason, I’d never managed to take a look at his most ambitious work, which was first published more than ten years ago. (I’m only reading it now because I stumbled across the set, lined up all in a row, on a shelf at the Oak Park Public Library.) If nothing else, these are stunningly beautiful books, gorgeously printed and designed with a rare integration between text and illustration. Simply browsing through the pictures is enough to send your imagination spiraling off into new directions. And although I can see why these books, which attempt to extend Alexander’s insights from architecture into physics and natural history, have been more controversial than his earlier works, there’s a lot to treasure here for anyone who thinks about design for a living, especially writers and artists of all kinds.

Alexander’s immense appeal as an author and thinker arises from his ability to marry the idealistic with the intensely practical. When we look at the world around us, it’s clear that the fields of architecture and urban planning have evolved in ways that have little to do with his ideas—he’s been much more influential in such tangential areas as software development—and he’s occasionally been dismissed as a sentimental figure who wants to turn back the clock to a simpler way of life. It’s true that Alexander is a tireless champion of the insights of vernacular architecture, of buildings and cities that emerge organically from the lives of the people who live there rather than being imposed from above by professional planners, and if his ideas were simply reactionary and negative, he’d be easier to ignore. Yet he grounds everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. You could build a house using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb he provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, he devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his logic is always clear and persuasive.

The Nature of Order

And his ideas have an applicability far beyond architecture. If there’s a central thesis to his work, it’s that life in buildings and other physical objects can only emerge from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many kinds of complex activity. His prescription, like most profound insights, is both simple and daunting:

We look for the latent centers in the whole. These are not those centers which are robust and exist strongly already; rather, they are centers which are dimly present in a weak form, but which seem to us to contribute to or cause the current absence of life in the whole.

We then choose one of these latent centers to work on. It may be a large center, or middle-sized, or small…

When complete, we go back to the beginning of the cycle and apply the same process again.

In architecture, there are countless institutional, political, and financial pressures that have made this kind of flexible, iterative thinking all but impossible. But for those of us who are writing novels, composing music, or designing software in solitude, we don’t have any excuse.

And even on such seemingly intangible questions as the presence or absence of life and beauty, Alexander gives us unforgettable guidelines. In A New Theory of Urban Design, for instance, he gives us one overriding rule, which haunts me as I try to build and revise my own work: Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city. In The Nature of Order, he gives us an even more vivid way of gauging the life inherent in all objects, a single question that allows us to make direct comparisons between alternatives, which is the heart of the creative process. Here it is:

Whenever we compare two objects, we can always ask: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” We can do it for pairs of buildings, paintings, parts of a neighborhood, doorknobs, spoons, roads, clothes, tables, groups of buildings, parks, gardens. We can do it for actions, for pieces of music, for a single musical chord, for choices of an ethical nature, for a complex choice, even for a single stone set in the earth…We can put the question in a more primitive sense, perhaps, by asking: which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?

In a sense, Alexander’s massive output, with its thousands of pages of illustrations and examples, is just a way of reminding us to ask before all choices: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” For most of us, it isn’t a question we’re used to asking. But why would we ask anything else?

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

Constructing a shrine to the random

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Gregory Bateson

“I am going to build a church some day,” Gregory Bateson once said. “It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” I’ve shared this quote here before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really dug into its underlying meaning. As Bateson knew, many creative processes originate in raids on the random, and the holy of holies he describes genuinely existed in a number of incarnations. The Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament were evidently oracle stones that were used to ask questions at important moments: their actual form is still a matter of debate, but it’s likely that they were a bag of small metal discs that were pulled one by one to spell out various permutations of the divine name, each with its own network of meanings. Lots, oracle bones, and divinatory texts have always been treated with ritual care. I’m as left-brained an author as they come, but I always incorporate randomness into the early stages of any writing project, and while these habits are useful in their own right, I’ve also come to see them as a gesture of respect for the unknowable. Whether or not they result in a useful idea is almost beside the point, although they invariably do; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that there are aspects of creativity that can’t be controlled in rational ways.

In fact, I’m starting to believe that every writer needs to maintain a personal shrine to the random. I’m thinking in particular of those portable shrines carried by bullfighters, explorers, and aviators, which can be folded, tucked into a suitcase or bag, and unfolded to be set up in any camp or hotel room. After much trial and error, I’ve found that the ideal vehicle of randomness is a collection of many short, compact units of information of uniform density that can easily be selected by chance. The quintessential example is the I Ching, although I’ve found that it’s a little too vague for my tastes. As I’ve said in other posts, my own favorite oracle is Ted Hughes’s A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, a collection of upward of two hundred quotations from the poems and plays, helpfully numbered for convenient consultation. I’ve often thought about doing the same thing with the numbered entries in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, each of which lays out a design problem and its solution, or Robert Bresson’s Notes for the Cinematographer. (Numbers are useful because they allow you to employ a random number generator to select the one you need, which strikes me as a better approach than simply opening to a random page.)

A Pattern Language

Conceiving of randomness as an end unto itself—especially in how it inspires the mind to come up with unexpected connections and associations—almost redeems such questionable practices as Tarot cards, tea leaves, and astrology, which are useful when they encourage the consulter to apply novel patterns to the situation at hand, rather than slavishly following the response. If this strikes you as too fuzzy, there are plenty of alternatives. I’ve long been a fan of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and I’ve recently become intrigued by the IDEO Method Cards, which represent a more detailed approach to the same problem. Again, the real value they add is portability, concision, and convenience, as well as material that has gone through a prior stage of refinement. In theory, you could use the Yellow Pages as a source of randomness, too, and while some might argue that this is the way to really whack yourself out of established modes of thinking, I prefer my ore to be slightly more filtered first. (The raw materials don’t need to be words, either: as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, combinations of pictures have been used to stimulate creative thinking, and it’s easy to imagine a similar approach with music, or even with objects in the room you happen to be in now, as Julian Jaynes has done.)

Ultimately, though, the shrine depends on the user. Chance only brings your attention to what is right before your eyes, or reminds you of something you already know, as expressed in an anonymous verse that has been rattling around in my head for years: 

Whenever you are called on to make up your mind
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the way to solve the dilemma you’ll find
is simply by flipping a penny.

Not so that chance will decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping
But the moment the penny is up in the air
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Randomness works in much the same way, so its source needs to be something you find personally meaningful—which is true of any shrine. So why not build yours today?

The Zen view

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Zen View from A Pattern Language

A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk’s house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court, and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house.

What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who, that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive.

This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and drink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will become part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible to the people who live there.

Therefore:

If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition—along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.

If the view window is correctly placed, people will see a glimpse of the distant view as they come up to the window or pass it; but the view is never visible from the places where people stay.

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2014 at 9:00 am

Keeping it short

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Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

The simple rule of rugs

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Turkish rug

All of the good [Turkish rugs] follow this rule: wherever there are two areas of color, side by side, there is a hairline of a different third color, between them. This rule is so simple to state. And yet the rugs which follow this rule have a brilliance, a dance of color. And the ones which do not follow it are somehow flat.

Of course this is not the only rule which makes a rug great—but this one rule, simple, banal, almost as it seems, will triple the brilliance and beauty of a rug. A person who knows this rule may be able to make a beautiful rug. A person who does not will almost certainly not be able to…

The depth, and spirituality, of the rug is not made less by the fact that this rule can be expressed, nor that it is so simple. What matters, simply, is that the rule is extremely deep, extremely powerful.

Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2013 at 9:50 am

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