Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Colin Wilson

Magic and the art of will

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We know that the conscious will is connected to the narrow, conscious part of the personality. One of the paradoxes observed by [Pierre] Janet is that as the hysteric becomes increasingly obsessed with anxiety—and the need to exert his will—he also becomes increasingly ineffective. The narrower and more obsessive the consciousness, the weaker the will. Every one of us is familiar with the phenomenon. The more we become racked with anxiety to do something well, the more we are likely to botch it. It is [Viktor] Frankl’s “law of reversed effort.” If you want to do something really well, you have to get into the “right mood.” And the right mood involves a sense of relaxation, of feeling “wide open” instead of narrow and enclosed…

As William James remarked, we all have a lifelong habit of “inferiority to our full self.” We are all hysterics; it is the endemic disease of the human race, which clearly implies that, outside our “everyday personality,” there is a wider “self” that possesses greater powers than the everyday self. And this is not the Freudian subconscious. Like the “wider self” of Janet’s patients, it is as conscious as the “contracted self.” We are, in fact, partially aware of this “other self.” When a man “unwinds” by pouring himself a drink and kicking off his shoes, he is adopting an elementary method of relaxing into the other self. When an overworked housewife decides to buy herself a new hat, she is doing the same thing. But we seldom relax far enough; habit—and anxiety—are too strong…Magic is the art and science of using the will. Not the ordinary will of the contracted ego but the “true will” that seems to spring from some deeper area of the being.

Colin Wilson, Mysteries

Written by nevalalee

June 2, 2018 at 7:30 am

Are you sitting down?

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Colin Wilson

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 26, 2016.

In the past, I’ve often mentioned what I’ve come to see as the most valuable piece of writing advice that I know, which is what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

You don’t try to do everything at once, which is probably impossible anyway. Instead, there are days in which you do “careful” jobs that are the artistic equivalent of housekeeping—research, making outlines of physical actions, working out the logic of the plot—and others in which you perform “inventive” tasks that rely on intuition. This seems like common sense: it’s hard enough to be clever or imaginative, without factoring in the switching costs associated with moving from one frame of mind to another. The writer Colin Wilson believed that the best ideas emerge when your left and right hemispheres are moving at the same rate, which tends to occur in moments of either reverie or high excitement. This is based on an outdated model of how the human brain works, but the phenomenon it describes is familiar enough, and it’s just a small step from there to acknowledging that neither ecstatic nor dreamlike mental states are particularly suited for methodical work. When you’re laying the foundations for future creative activity, you usually end up somewhere in the middle, in a state of mind that is focused but not heightened, less responsive to connections than to discrete units, and concerned more with thoroughness than with inspiration. It’s an important stage, but it’s also the last place where you’d expect real insights to appear.

Clearly, a writer should strive to work with, rather than against, this natural division of labor. It’s also easy to agree with Mamet’s advice that it’s best to tackle one kind of thinking per day. (Mental switching costs of any kind are usually minimized when you’ve had a good night’s sleep in the meantime.) The real question is how to figure out what sort of work you should be doing at any given moment, and, crucially, whether it’s possible to predict this in advance. Any writer can tell you that there’s an enormous difference between getting up in the morning without any idea of what you’re doing that day, which is the mark of an amateur, and having a concrete plan—which is why professional authors use such tools as outlines and calendars. Ideally, it would be nice to know when you woke up whether it was going to be a “careful” day or an “inventive” day, which would allow you to prepare yourself accordingly. Sometimes the organic life cycle of a writing project supplies the answer: depending on where you are in the process, you engage in varying proportions of careful or inventive thought. But every stage requires some degree of both. As Mamet implies, you’ll often alternate between them, although not as neatly as in his hypothetical example. And while it might seem pointless to allocate time for inspiration, which appears according to no fixed schedule, you can certainly create the conditions in which it’s more likely to appear. But how do you know when?

David Mamet

I’ve come up with a simple test to answer this question: I ask myself how much time I expect to spend sitting down. Usually, before a day begins, I have a pretty good sense of how much sitting or standing I’ll be doing, and that’s really all I need to make informed decisions about how to use my time. There are some kinds of creative work that demand sustained concentration at a desk or in a seated position. This includes most of the “careful” tasks that Mamet describes, but also certain forms of intuitive, nonlinear thinking, like making a mind map. By contrast, there are other sorts of work that not only don’t require you to be at your desk, but are actively stifled by it: daydreaming, brooding over problems, trying to sketch out large blocks of the action. You often do a better job of it when you’re out taking a walk, or in the bus, bath, or bed. When scheduling creative work, then, you should start by figuring out what your body is likely to be doing that day, and then use this to plan what to do with your mind. Your brain has no choice but to tag along with your body when it’s running errands or standing in line at the bank, but if you structure your time appropriately, those moments won’t go to waste. And it’s often such external factors, rather than the internal logic of where you should be in the process, that determine what you should be doing.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem that much different from the stock advice that you should utilize whatever time you have available, whether you’re washing the dishes or taking a shower. But I think it’s a bit more nuanced than this, and that it’s more about matching the work to be done to the kind of time you have. If you try to think systematically and carefully while taking a walk in the park, you’ll feel frustrated when your mind wanders to other subjects. Conversely, if you try to daydream at your desk, not only are you likely to feel boxed in by your surroundings, but you’re also wasting valuable time that would be better spent on work that only requires the Napoleonic virtues of thoroughness and patience. Inspiration can’t be forced, and you don’t know in advance if you’re better off being careful or inventive on any given day—but the amount of time that you’ll be seated provides an important clue. (You can also reverse the process, and arrange to be seated as little as possible on days when you hope to get some inventive thinking done. For most of us, unfortunately, this isn’t entirely under our control, which makes it all the more sensible to take advantage of such moments when they present themselves.) And it doesn’t need to be planned beforehand. If you’re at work on a problem and you’re not sure what kind of thinking you should be doing, you can look at yourself and ask: Am I sitting down right now? And that’s all the information you need.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2018 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with , ,

Are you sitting down?

with 2 comments

Colin Wilson

Last week, I mentioned what I’ve come to see as the most valuable piece of writing wisdom I know, which is David Mamet’s advice in Some Freaks “to go one achievable step at a time.” You don’t try to do everything at once, which is probably impossible anyway. Instead, there are days in which you do “careful” jobs that are the artistic equivalent of housekeeping—research, making outlines of physical actions, working out the logic of the plot—and others in which you perform “inventive” tasks that rely on intuition. This seems like common sense: it’s hard enough to be clever or imaginative as it is, without factoring in the switching costs associated with moving from one frame of mind to another. The writer Colin Wilson believed that the best ideas emerge when your left and right hemispheres are moving at the same rate, which tends to occur in moments of either reverie or high excitement. This is based on an outdated model of how the brain works, but the phenomenon it describes is familiar enough, and it’s just a small step from there to acknowledging that neither ecstatic nor dreamlike mental states are particularly suited for methodical work. When you’re laying the foundations for future creative activity, you usually end up somewhere in the middle, in a state of mind that is focused but not heightened, less responsive to connections than to units, and concerned more with thoroughness than with inspiration. It’s an important stage, but it’s also the last place where you’d expect real insights to appear.

Clearly, a writer should strive to work with, rather than against, this natural division of labor. It’s also easy to agree with Mamet’s advice that it’s best to tackle one kind of thinking per day. (Mental switching costs of any kind are usually minimized when you’ve had a good night’s sleep in the meantime.) The real question is how to figure out what sort of work you should be doing at any given moment, and, crucially, whether it’s possible to predict this in advance. Any writer can tell you that there’s an enormous difference between getting up in the morning without any idea of what you’re doing that day, which is the mark of an amateur, and having a concrete plan—which is why professional authors use such tools as outlines and calendars. Ideally, it would be nice to know when you woke up whether it was going to be a “careful” day or an “inventive” day, which would allow you to prepare yourself accordingly. Sometimes the organic life cycle of a writing project supplies the answer: depending on where you are in the process, you engage in varying proportions of careful or inventive thought. But every stage requires some degree of both. As Mamet implies, you’ll often alternate between them, although not as neatly as in his hypothetical example. And while it might seem pointless to allocate time for inspiration, which appears according to no fixed schedule, you can certainly create the conditions in which it’s more likely to appear. But how do you know when?

David Mamet

I’ve come up with a simple test to answer this question: I ask myself how much time I expect to spend sitting down. Usually, before a day begins, I have a pretty good sense of how much sitting or standing I’ll be doing, and that’s really all I need to make informed decisions about how to use my time. There are some kinds of creative work that demand sustained concentration at a desk or in a seated position. This includes most of the “careful” tasks that Mamet describes, but also certain forms of intuitive, nonlinear thinking, like making a mind map. By contrast, there are other sorts of work that not only don’t require you to be at your desk, but are actively stifled by it: daydreaming, brooding over problems, trying to sketch out large blocks of the action. You often do a better job of it when you’re out taking a walk, or in the bus, bath, or bed. When scheduling creative work, then, you should start by figuring out what your body is likely to be doing that day, and then use this to plan what to do with your mind. Your brain has no choice but to tag along with your body when it’s running errands or standing in line at the bank, but if you structure your time appropriately, those moments won’t go to waste. And it’s often such external factors, rather than the internal logic of where you should be in the process, that determine what you should be doing.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem that much different from the stock advice that you should utilize whatever time you have available, whether you’re washing the dishes or taking a shower. But I think it’s a bit more nuanced than this, and that it’s more about matching the work to be done to the kind of time you have. If you try to think systematically and carefully while taking a walk in the park, you’ll feel frustrated when your mind wanders to other subjects. Conversely, if you try to daydream at your desk, not only are you likely to feel boxed in by your surroundings, but you’re also wasting valuable time that would be better spent on work that only requires the Napoleonic virtues of thoroughness and patience. Inspiration can’t be forced, and you don’t know in advance if you’re better off being careful or inventive on any given day—but the amount of time that you’ll be seated provides an important clue. (You can also reverse the process, and arrange to be seated as little as possible on days when you hope to get some inventive thinking done. For most of us, unfortunately, this isn’t entirely under our control, which makes it all the more sensible to take advantage of such moments when they present themselves.) And it doesn’t need to be planned beforehand. If you’re at work on a problem and you’re not sure what kind of thinking you should be doing, you can look at yourself and ask: Am I sitting down right now? And that’s all the information you need.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2016 at 9:47 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

“It’s a beautiful property…”

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"At the end of the drive stood the main house..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 7. You can read the previous installments here.

In writing, as in life, the best measure of whether or not you truly understand a rule is knowing when to ignore it. Take, for instance, the general principle that chapters should start as late and end as early as possible. The screenwriter William Goldman notes that you can safely omit the beginnings and endings of most scenes, jumping instead from middle to middle, and I first encountered this rule as it applied to fiction in a book on writing by David Morrell, most famous as the author of First Blood. This works both as an overall narrative strategy and as a tactic for managing information within scenes: it’s frequently best to open on action or dialogue, pulling back only later to describe the location, much as a television show will often return from a commercial break on a closeup, followed shortly thereafter by the establishing shot. It’s a nice rule because it builds momentum, generates tension and suspense, and naturally focuses on the sections of a first draft—when the writer is ramping into and out of the scene in his imagination—that can most profitably be cut. And it’s saved my neck on more than one occasion.

Yet a rule like this can also be dangerous if applied mechanically. It’s no accident that the examples above all come from film and television: a scene in a movie can start in the middle because we’re given a lot of incidental information—visual, auditory, or even emotional, in the form of an intonation or the look on an actor’s face—that grounds us in the situation at once. A short story or novel, by contrast, has to rely on words. Focusing relentlessly on the middle may keep the plot racing along, but sometimes at the cost of those passages of description or exposition that lure the reader into the fictional dream. The writer Colin Wilson likes to cite examples, like the opening of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a slow descriptive passage is used to immerse us in the scene, making the ensuing action all the more vivid. Cutting such material indiscriminately can leave the reader stranded or indifferent. Wilson frames it in terms of forcing the left hemisphere to slow down to the pace of the right, bringing the two halves of the brain to bear down together, but you don’t need to accept his explanation to grant his point. A novel made up of nothing but middles may fly by, but it can also start to seem monotonous and superficial.

"It's a beautiful property..."

Scenes of arrival and departure, in particular, are a mainstay of great fiction, for much the same reason that so many stories are built around initial encounters between two people. When the protagonist arrives in a new place or meets a person for the first time, he or she is really being put in the shoes of the reader: instead of catching up to events that have already happened, we’re experiencing them in real time, side by side with the characters, and it encourages a powerful sense of identification. This is especially true when we’re being introduced to something inherently interesting, which is exactly when the narrative can most afford to slow down. (To return to film for a second, one of my chief complaints with the new Star Trek movies is how little time they spend on the ship itself. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan both have gorgeous docking scenes that allow us to fully appreciate the scale and beauty of the Enterprise, but when J.J. Abrams tries for the same effect, he’s as impatient here as he is everywhere else, and it’s over in less than a minute. It keeps the story moving, but at the expense of the awe we need to take it seriously.)

In Eternal Empire, which generally clocks along at a fast pace, I tried to remain mindful of the need for such moments. My favorite example comes later, at our extended first approach to Tarkovsky’s megayacht—in which I was thinking of both the Enterprise and the Titanic—but there’s another nice instance in Chapter 7, when Maddy arrives at the oligarch’s estate for the first time. I could have started the scene with her emerging from the car at his front door, or even when she was already inside, but it seemed right to devote a couple of pages to the journey there and what she sees on the way. It’s as good a place as any for a sequence like this, which might otherwise seem too leisurely: Maddy is entering a new world, and I wanted to make it just as meaningful for the reader as it was for her. The entire chapter is structured as a sequence of transitions from large spaces to small, leaving her alone at last in her tiny office, and although the exact geography of the setting isn’t all that relevant to the plot, the emotional purpose it serves is a real one. If I did it in every chapter, the result would quickly become unbearable. But the fact that I cut beginnings and endings so obsessively elsewhere allowed me to break the rule here. Because this is where the story really begins…

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

Beethoven, Freud, and the mystery of genius

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Beethoven

“The joy of listening to Beethoven is comparable to the pleasure of reading Joyce,” writes Alex Ross in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “The most paranoid, overdetermined interpretation is probably the correct one.” Even as someone whose ear for classical music is underdeveloped compared to his interest in other forms of art, I have to agree. Great artists come in all shapes and sizes, but the rarest of all is the kind whose work can sustain the most meticulous level of scrutiny because we’re aware that every detail is a conscious choice. When we interpret an ordinary book or a poem, our readings are often more a reflection of our own needs than the author’s intentions; even with a writer like Shakespeare, it’s hard to separate the author’s deliberate decisions from the resonances that naturally emerge from so much rich language set into motion. With Beethoven, Joyce, and a handful of others—Dante, Bach, perhaps Nabokov—we have enough information about the creative process to know that little, if anything, has happened by accident. Joyce explicitly designed his work to “keep professors busy for centuries,” and Beethoven composed for a perfect, omniscient audience that he seemed to will into existence.

Or as Colin Wilson puts it: “The message of the symphonies of Beethoven could be summarized: ‘Man is not small; he is just bloody lazy.'” When you read Ross’s perceptive article, which reviews much of the recent scholarship on Beethoven and his life, you’re confronted by the same tension that underlies any great body of work made within historical memory. On the one hand, Beethoven has undergone a kind of artistic deification, and there’s a tradition, dating back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, that there are ideas and emotions being expressed in his music that can’t be matched by any other human production; on the other, there’s the fact that Beethoven was a man like any other, with a messy personal life and his own portion of pettiness, neediness, and doubt. As Ross points out, before Beethoven, critics were accustomed to talk of “genius” as a kind of impersonal quality, but afterward, the concept shifted to that of “a genius,” which changes the terms of the conversation without reducing its underlying mystery. Beethoven’s biography provides tantalizing clues about the origins of his singular greatness—particularly his deafness, which critics tend to associate with his retreat to an isolated, visionary plane—but it leaves us with as many questions as before.

Sigmund Freud

As it happens, I read Ross’s article in parallel with Howard Markel’s An Anatomy of Addiction, which focuses on the early career of another famous resident of Vienna. Freud seems to have been relatively indifferent to music: he mentions Beethoven along with Goethe and Leonardo Da Vinci as “great men” who have produced “splendid creations,” although this feels more like a rhetorical way of filling out a trio than an expression of true appreciation. Otherwise, his relative silence on the subject is revealing in itself: if he wanted to interpret an artist’s work in psychoanalytic terms, Beethoven’s life would have afforded plenty of material, and he didn’t shy from doing the same for Leonardo and Shakespeare. It’s possible that Freud avoided Beethoven because of the same godlike intentionality that makes him so fascinating to listeners and critics. If we’ve gotten into the habit of drawing a distinction between what a creative artist intends and his or her unconscious impulses, it’s largely thanks to Freud himself. Beethoven stands as a repudiation, or at least a strong counterexample, to this approach: however complicated Beethoven may have been as a man, it’s hard to make a case that there was ever a moment when he didn’t know what he was doing.

This may be why Freud’s genius—which was very real—seems less mysterious than Beethoven’s: we know more about Freud’s inner life than just about any other major intellectual, thanks primarily to his own accounts of his dreams and fantasies, and it’s easy to draw a line from his biography to his work. Markel, for instance, focuses on the period of Freud’s cocaine use, and although he stops short of suggesting that all of psychoanalysis can be understood as a product of addiction, as others have, he points out that Freud’s early publications on cocaine represent the first time he publicly mined his own experiences for insight. But of course, there were plenty of bright young Jewish doctors in Vienna in the late nineteenth century, and while many of the ideas behind analysis were already in the air, it was only in Freud that they found the necessary combination of obsessiveness, ambition, and literary brilliance required for their full expression. Freud may have done his best to complicate our ideas of genius by introducing unconscious factors into the equation, but paradoxically, he made his case in a series of peerlessly crafted books and essays, and their status as imaginative literature has only been enhanced by the decline of analysis as a science. Freud doesn’t explain Freud any more than he explains Beethoven. But this doesn’t stop him, or us, from trying.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

“Powell studied his father…”

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"Powell studied his father..."

Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 12. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Critics, as we all know, have a way of reading meaning into a literary work that the author didn’t realize was there. This tendency covers everything from the crackpots who find ciphers in the works of Shakespeare to serious scholarly analysis, and when a writer comes forward to say that none of the symbolism or themes his critics have uncovered were intentional, we’re likely to take him at his word. The author himself should know his own work best, after all, and it’s likely that many would echo the opinion of the philosopher Frank Cioffi, writing about Freudian dream analysis, who dismisses it an activity similar to “whatever Pyramidologists are doing when they discover allusions to mathematical and scientific truths in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid”—in other words, finding or imposing meaning where none exists. Yet the truth is a little more complicated. Theme, in particular, is a tricky beast, and it has a tendency to manifest itself in ways that even the author can’t anticipate. And when it comes to teasing out the inward meaning of a story, it often happens that the actual writer, who is personally tied up with the text to a greater extent than any reader, is less than capable of seeing the novel as it stands in its own right.

In fact, novels have a lot in common with dreams. When John Gardner talks about the “continuous fictional dream” of fiction, he’s primarily speaking about its effect on its readers, but it also applies to the author himself, who dreams his way into events and characters that never really happened. Colin Wilson takes the connection one step further, speculating that writers and mystics draw on a common intuitive, dreamlike mode of insight, which he called Faculty X. And you don’t need to push the analogy further than common sense would require to find it useful. Every writer knows how it feels to introduce an image or detail on impulse, just because it felt right, only to find later that it fits perfectly into a larger symbolic pattern of which he was only dimly aware. There’s nothing mystical about this: it only reflects how a novel evolves on the largest level in parallel to the smallest, with each piece in constant feedback with every other, and how it all ultimately emerges from the inner life of the author at the time. Much, probably most, is wholly conscious. But the inherent complexity of the writing process means that there will also be emergent properties in the text that the author couldn’t have anticipated when he began.

"A bronze sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky..."

And just because these aspects weren’t intentional doesn’t mean they aren’t important, or can’t be a source of meaning. In psychotherapy, dream analysis is less important for the symbolism it uncovers from any particular dream than for the ongoing role it plays in the dialogue between the therapist and the patient—it’s one of many available paths toward insight. The same is true of an author who goes back to reread his own work after a sufficient length of time has passed. Even if he didn’t mean to introduce certain themes or effects, if he notices them there after the fact, it can shed new light on a novel that he thought he knew by heart. When I go back to read City of Exiles, for instance, which is a novel I finished close to two years ago, I’m struck by how it returns repeatedly to themes of parents and their adult children. Part of this was intentional: as I’ve noted before, I wanted to expand the emotional scope of the story so that the characters weren’t as isolated as before. I gave Wolfe a few scenes on the phone with her mother, and here, in Chapter 12, I introduce the figure of Powell’s father, briefly mentioned in The Icon Thief, who suffers from dementia in old age. That much, at least, was deliberate.

When I read Chapter 12 again now, though, I find that this scene—which on the surface feels like a detour from the rest of the novel— encapsulates the rest of the story in miniature. Powell’s father, we learn, was an analyst at Thames House, which is my veiled way of referring to MI5, and his obsession with Russia went a long way toward shaping his son’s career. Now, however, his mind and personality are a shadow of what they once were, and Powell is reduced to looking through his father’s notes and files, which become increasingly disorganized near the end, to find clues to the mystery that he’s trying to solve. He does this in his father’s study, which was once a forbidden area, surrounded by images from the Soviet era: Russian encyclopedias, many of them censored or incomplete, and a miniature sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Chekist secret police. It’s a mirror, in other words, of the journey that Ilya takes later in the novel, faced with his own surrogate father, Vasylenko, now transformed into a much more sinister figure, but who knows that secrets that Ilya needs to discover. None these parallels were conscious at the time; now, they feel glaringly obvious, even a little schematic. I could say that I didn’t mean it, but that doesn’t make it any less real. The dream has a logic of its own…

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2014 at 9:34 am

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