Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Constantin Stanislavski

Quote of the Day

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There is only one thing that can lure our creative will and draw it to us and that is an attractive aim, a creative objective…The objective is the lure for our emotions. This objective engenders outbursts of desires for the purpose of creative aspiration. It sends inner messages which naturally and logically are expressed in action. The objective gives a pulse to the living being of a role.

Constantin Stanislavski, Creating a Role

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

The ad lib diet

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Constantin Stanislavski

What’s the best way to lose weight? In some ways, it’s a meaningless question: every individual’s needs, goals, and situation are different, and the variables involved make it hard to come up with a recommendation that works for everyone. But there are a few tantalizing clues, many of which point to reducing carbohydrates. A recent meta-analysis of seventeen clinical trials—funded, it must be said, by Atkins Nutritionals, although its methodology seems sound—showed that low-carb diets were generally more effective than low-fat diets when it came to weight loss and cardiovascular health. This squares with a Stanford study of four diet plans that concluded that the Atkins diet, which had the lowest carbohydrate intake, also resulted in subjects losing the most weight. Low-carb diets remain controversial, but they do seem to work, even if there’s little consensus as to why. One paper lists multiple possible factors, including “limited food choices leading to decreased energy intake,” which I think is on the right track. But it’s worth noting that the lead researcher of the Stanford study explicitly credits the simplicity of the low-carb approach: “It’s a very simple message. Get rid of all refined carbohydrates to lose weight.” All else being equal, a simple plan is preferable to a complicated one, and this applies as much to diet as to anything else.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after cutting most of the carbohydrates out of my diet over the last couple of months, mostly out of curiosity. Instead of following a strict Atkins menu, I’ve cobbled together a routine that fits my own tastes and lifestyle. (I found that the hardest part, since I want my meals to be easy to prepare, was finding suitable convenience foods.) At the moment, I’m getting through most of the day on scrambled eggs, tuna, avocados, almonds, cheese, and dark chocolate, with more or less the same dinners that I’ve always eaten, but without the accompanying starches. The results so far have been gratifying: I’m slimmer around the waist than I’ve been in a long time, and I’d like to think that I’ll stick with it. But I’ve come to suspect that the most important factor is a psychological one. A low-carb diet enforces a kind of gentle editing of my eating habits: I’ve got to think just a little bit before I decide what to eat, and the mental pause that ensues when I look at a restaurant menu or scan the contents of my cupboard prevents me from acting entirely on impulse. It doesn’t hurt that most prepackaged snack foods are built around carbs anyway, which removes them from the equation completely. And it’s that crucial pause, combined with the clearly defined constraints that such a diet imposes, that seems to have made the difference, rather than any physiological cause.

Dr. Robert Atkins

What interests me about this, and the reason I’m discussing it here, is the general principle that one or two big rules, even if they’re imperfect, are more effective than a long list of prescriptions. Cutting out carbs is usually what they call an ad libitum diet, meaning that it doesn’t try to restrict caloric intake or otherwise limit what the dieter eats. Ad libitum, of course, is more commonly known by the abbreviation ad lib, and what all forms of ad-libbing have in common is their reliance on a few simple guidelines. Improvisation, as I’ve noted here before, is rooted in proven structures and formulas, like the rigorous logic of the chord progression, and the performer’s freedom is paradoxically enhanced by the presence of a rock-solid foundation on which he or she can always fall back. (As Lee Konitz once observed, the name of the game is “to use this very obvious structure, and make it less obvious in some way.”) Too many rules, and you’ll freeze up when you try to keep them all straight; too few, and you lack the thematic spine that you need to give the improvisation a shape and direction. Similarly, if an ad libitum low-carb diet turns out to be more effective than its calorie-counting competitors, my hunch is that it has less to do with ketosis or glucose levels than with its relative simplicity and ease. A rough rule of thumb like “get rid of all refined carbohydrates” might be lacking in nuance, but it allows you to improvise within the menu without having to memorize a lot of details.

I’m not out to change anyone’s eating habits here, and the long-term health effects of a low-carb diet are still a matter of debate. But if this approach continues to work for me, it’s for much the same reason that I try to follow a few simple rules in my writing. As Stanislavski said:

A certain pilot was asked how he could ever remember, over a long stretch, all the minute details of a coast with its turns, shallows, and reefs. He replied: “I am not concerned with them; I stick to the channel.” So an actor must proceed, not by a multitude of details, but by those important units which, like signals, mark his channel and keep him in the right creative line…

Figuring out which units are important is the work of a lifetime, and the answers inevitably differ from one person to another—which is why there are as many writing books as there are diets. But the idea that you should focus on getting a few big things right, rather than consciously trying to manage a myriad of tiny details from first principles, seems reasonable enough. Given enough time and attention, the small stuff will take care of itself, and specific problems are best addressed as they arise. As David Mamet put it:  “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.” That’s true both of dieting and writing. And when in doubt, it helps to have a strategy that allows you to ad lib your way through it. 

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2016 at 9:54 am

How is writing like parenting?

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The author's daughter

Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 20, 2014.

Writing a novel is like becoming a parent. Before you start, you’ve got high hopes, leavened only slightly by terror at the scale of the effort involved. Maybe you read a few books on the subject, and even if you don’t actively solicit advice, you’re still exposed to plenty of opinions—many of them forceful—about the right or wrong way to do things. And you end up with some big plans. In practice, however, you find that it’s an endless series of compromises, and you find yourself living in a constant state of barely controlled chaos. At times, just getting from one day to the next starts to feel like an achievement in itself, which it is. Because what parenthood and writing have in common is the education they offer on the gap between our ideals and the pragmatic decisions required to sustain them. Both require flexibility, patience, and more energy than any one human seems likely to possess. And like most worthwhile things in life, it isn’t until you’ve tried it for yourself that you have any idea of what it entails.

You also start to realize the range of valid approaches. In writing and parenting, you do whatever works, as long as the process is founded on love. With love in place, you can get away with just about anything; without it, all the craft and cleverness in the world won’t take you very far. Beyond that, it’s a matter of trying one thing, then another, until you end up with a repertoire of tricks that work, at least until they don’t. Every child, like every novel, is different—and they often change from minute to minute—so you wind up relying on a few general rules and a constantly shifting arsenal of tactics, whether they’re designed to carry you to the end of a chapter or to get your daughter to eat a few bites of breakfast. When I look at Beatrix, I sometimes feel that I’ve been thrust into an ongoing science experiment that I’ll only get to perform once. With a novel, at least, there’s always the possibility of revision, or even of throwing out the entire first draft and starting again, but raising a child is like publishing a serial, where you’re stuck with what you wrote in the earlier installments.

A page from my rough draft

In the end, you raise a child in the same way you write a novel—one day at a time. As Stanislavski says in An Actor Prepares, you don’t eat the entire turkey at once. In both cases, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how much work lies ahead: my daughter isn’t even two yet, but I’ll occasionally find myself brooding over the homework assignments, teacher conferences, school plays, band practices, and college visits that will occupy the next two decades of my life. A novel can seem like an equally huge undertaking. Really, though, each day’s work comes down to a small set of particular tasks, and the learning curve in both cases is surprisingly gentle. When you bring a baby home from the hospital, there are just a handful of things you need to know right away: her needs are well-defined and easily satisfied, and although it gets more involved from there, the complications tend to introduce themselves one at a time. (That’s the theory, anyway. When you’re dealing with a fussy baby at three in the morning, it doesn’t seem quite so simple.)

A novel gets written in a similar fashion. I’ve found that if you keep a few principles in mind—have an outline, write every day, and don’t go back to read it until you’re finished—you’ll end up with something, even if a lot of work still remains to be done. There are countless subtler aspects to writing a good story, of course, but as with raising kids, you’ll find that they’ll come up naturally on their own. Even if you don’t have any idea how to deal with them the first time around, if you can muddle through, you’ll get another chance tomorrow. And you’ll often need to bend your own rules to keep the whole enterprise on course. Maybe you don’t want your daughter to start watching television until she’s two, but if you find yourself showing her a video on your phone so she’ll sit still long enough to eat dinner, you tell yourself that it’s worth the tiny amount of sanity it purchases, just as you’re sometimes willing to let a bad sentence stand for the sake of moving on to the next. You don’t want to do it too often, of course, since you know that’s how bad habits begin. But you’ve made it to the next day. And you’ve won.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2016 at 9:00 am

The actor and the multiplication table

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Constantin Stanislavski

In order to eradicate a cliché a real activity should be substituted. A cliché used to indicate deep thought is wrinkling one’s forehead and looking at the ceiling. If the actor will stop and actually think—even if all he does is the multiplication tables—thought will be manifest in his face and body.

Of course the actor may find, in searching for external characterization, a cliché which will fit very closely into a situation or feeling. In that case it can be used, life must be put into it, and an inner relation to the content of the role must be found. Such cases are rare.

—M.A. Chekhov, in notes from the Theatre Studio under Constantin Stanislavski

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

On not knowing what you’re doing

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

A few days ago, I stumbled across the little item that The Onion ran shortly after the death of Steve Jobs: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” It’s especially amusing to read it now, at a time when the cult of adulation that surrounded Jobs seems to be in partial retreat. These days, it’s impossible to find an article about, say, the upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin without a commenter bringing up all the usual counterarguments: Jobs was fundamentally a repackager and popularizer of other people’s ideas, he was a bully and a bad boss, he hated to share credit, he benefited enormously from luck and good timing, and he pushed a vision of simplicity and elegance that only reduces the user’s freedom of choice. There’s a lot of truth to these points. Yet the fact remains that Jobs did know what he was doing, or at least that he carefully cultivated the illusion that he did, and he left a void in the public imagination that none of his successors have managed to fill. He was fundamentally right about a lot of things for a very long time, and the legacy he left continues to shape our lives, in ways both big and small, one minute after another.

And that Onion headline has been rattling around in my head for most of the week, because I often get the sense I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer, as a dad, or as a human being. I do my best to stick to the channel, as Stanislavski would say: I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it. I have what I think is a realistic sense of my own strengths and weaknesses; I’m a pretty good writer and a pretty good father. But there’s no denying that writing a novel and raising a child are tasks of irreducible complexity, particularly when you’re trying to do both at the same time. Writing, like parenting, imposes a state of constant creative uncertainty: just because you had one good idea or wrote a few decent pages yesterday is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same today. If I weren’t fundamentally okay with that, I wouldn’t be here. But there always comes a time when I find myself repeating that line from Calvin and Hobbes I never tire of quoting: “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”

John Fowles

My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Recently, I’ve been rereading The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that made a huge impression on me when I first encountered it over twenty years ago. In places, it feels uncomfortably like the first work of a young man writing for other young men, but it still comes off as spectacularly assured, which is why it’s all the more striking to read what Fowles has to say about it in his preface:

My strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted…The Magus remains essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those that condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.

Fowles is being consciously self-deprecating, but he hits on a crucial point, which is that most novels are designed to make a story that emerged from countless wrong turns and shots in the dark seem inevitable. In fact, it’s a little like being a parent, or a politician, or the CEO of a major corporation: you need to project an air of authority even if you don’t have the slightest idea if you’re doing the right thing. (And just as you can’t fully appreciate your own parents until you’ve had a kid of your own, you can’t understand the network of uncertainties underlying even the most accomplished novel until you’ve written a few for yourself.) I’d like to believe that the uncertainties, doubts, and fears that persist throughout are a necessary corrective, a way of keeping us humble in the face of challenges that can’t be reduced to a few clear rules. The real danger isn’t being unsure about what comes next; it’s turning into a hedgehog in a world of foxes, convinced that we know the one inarguable truth that applies to every situation. In fiction, that kind of dogmatic certainty leads to formula or propaganda, and we’ve all seen its effects in business, politics, and parenting. It’s better, perhaps, to admit that we’re all faking it until we make it, and that we should be satisfied if we’re right ever so slightly more often than we’re wrong.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

How is writing like parenting?

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The author's daughter

Writing a novel is like becoming a parent. Before you start, you’ve got high hopes, leavened only slightly by terror at the scale of the effort involved. Maybe you read a few books on the subject, and even if you don’t actively solicit advice, you’re still exposed to plenty of opinions—many of them forceful—about the right or wrong way to do things. And you end up with some big plans. In practice, however, you find that it’s an endless series of compromises, and you find yourself living in a constant state of barely controlled chaos. At times, just getting from one day to the next starts to feel like an achievement in itself, which it is. Because what parenthood and writing have in common is the education they offer on the gap between our ideals and the pragmatic decisions required to sustain them. Both require flexibility, patience, and more energy than any one human seems likely to possess. And like most worthwhile things in life, it isn’t until you’ve tried it for yourself that you have any idea of what it entails.

You also start to realize the range of valid approaches. In writing and parenting, you do whatever works, as long as the process is founded on love. With love in place, you can get away with just about anything; without it, all the craft and cleverness in the world won’t take you very far. Beyond that, it’s a matter of trying one thing, then another, until you end up with a repertoire of tricks that work, at least until they don’t. Every child, like every novel, is different—and they often change from minute to minute—so you wind up relying on a few general rules and a constantly shifting arsenal of tactics, whether they’re designed to carry you to the end of a chapter or to get your daughter to eat a few bites of breakfast. When I look at Beatrix, I sometimes feel that I’ve been thrust into an ongoing science experiment that I’ll only get to perform once. With a novel, at least, there’s always the possibility of revision, or even of throwing out the entire first draft and starting again, but raising a child is like publishing a serial, where you’re stuck with what you wrote in the earlier installments.

A page from my rough draft

In the end, you raise a child in the same way you write a novel—one day at a time. As Stanislavski says in An Actor Prepares, you don’t eat the entire turkey at once. In both cases, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how much work lies ahead: my daughter isn’t even two yet, but I’ll occasionally find myself brooding over the homework assignments, teacher conferences, school plays, band practices, and college visits that will occupy the next two decades of my life. A novel can seem like an equally huge undertaking. Really, though, each day’s work comes down to a small set of particular tasks, and the learning curve in both cases is surprisingly gentle. When you bring a baby home from the hospital, there are just a handful of things you need to know right away: her needs are well-defined and easily satisfied, and although it gets more involved from there, the complications tend to introduce themselves one at a time. (That’s the theory, anyway. When you’re dealing with a fussy baby at three in the morning, it doesn’t seem quite so simple.)

A novel gets written in a similar fashion. I’ve found that if you keep a few principles in mind—have an outline, write every day, and don’t go back to read it until you’re finished—you’ll end up with something, even if a lot of work still remains to be done. There are countless subtler aspects to writing a good story, of course, but as with raising kids, you’ll find that they’ll come up naturally on their own. Even if you don’t have any idea how to deal with them the first time around, if you can muddle through, you’ll get another chance tomorrow. And you’ll often need to bend your own rules to keep the whole enterprise on course. Maybe you don’t want your daughter to start watching television until she’s two, but if you find yourself showing her a video on your phone so she’ll sit still long enough to eat dinner, you tell yourself that it’s worth the tiny amount of sanity it purchases, just as you’re sometimes willing to let a bad sentence stand for the sake of moving on to the next. You don’t want to do it too often, of course, since you know that’s how bad habits begin. But you’ve made it to the next day. And you’ve won.

Written by nevalalee

August 20, 2014 at 9:49 am

Sticking to the channel

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Constantin Stanislavski

A certain pilot was asked how he could ever remember, over a long stretch, all the minute details of a coast with its turns, shallows, and reefs. He replied: “I am not concerned with them; I stick to the channel.”

So an actor must proceed, not by a multitude of details, but by those important units which, like signals, mark his channel and keep him in the right creative line…

Always remember…that the division is temporary. The part and the play must not remain in fragments. A broken statue, or a slashed canvas, is not a work of art, no matter how beautiful its parts may be. It is only in the preparation of a role that we use small units. During its actual creation they fuse into large units. The larger and fewer the divisions, the less you have to deal with, the easier it is for you to handle the whole role.

Actors conquer these larger divisions easily if they are thoroughly filled out. Strung along through a play, they take the place of buoys to mark the channel. This channel points the true course of creativeness and makes it possible to avoid the shallows and reefs.

Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2014 at 7:30 am

“Many prefer to see the wheels going round…”

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As with death, so with a thousand other commonplaces of life and of the theatre: an embrace; a hasty entrance; the light shock to which we react quickly; the deep shock which our feelings, in order to protect us, at first reject; the manner of starting a quarrel; the manner of saying a long farewell. When these things are well and truly acted they seem simplicity itself. “But,” says the reader, like the student in Stanislavsky’s book, “all this is obvious!” To which his master retorts: “Did I ever say it was anything else?’ Yet how often do we see these simple truths really convincingly performed? Do not a great many audiences prefer, or at least feel more comfortable when witnessing, the artifices and the clichés to which they are accustomed? Many prefer to see the wheels going round. They would often rather see an actor “acting” acting, which I suppose makes them feel they know where they are, than acting the part without concession to convention…But just as for an actor to give himself up to conventional acting will in time dry up whatever imaginative powers he may possess, so it is with audiences; they become lazy, bored and only the most violent stimuli will satisfy them. Hence, amongst other things, the appetite for “pace” for its own sake, to which must be sacrificed one of the essentials of any artistic performance, rhythm.

Michael Redgrave, quoted in Actors on Acting

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2012 at 7:30 am

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