Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Mamet

Ghosts and diversions

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Over the weekend, after I heard that the magician Ricky Jay had died, I went back to revisit the great profile, “Secrets of the Magus,” that Mark Singer wrote over a quarter of a century ago for The New Yorker. Along with Daniel Zalewski’s classic piece on Werner Herzog, it’s one of the articles in that magazine that I’ve thought about and reread the most, but what caught my attention this time around was a tribute from David Mamet:

I’ll call Ricky on the phone. I’ll ask him—say, for something I’m writing—“A guy’s wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and there’s some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?” And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing. Or I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, “That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts, and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire. But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.” He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.

Coming from Mamet, this is high praise indeed, and it gets at most of the reasons why Ricky Jay was one of my heroes, too. Elsewhere in the article, Mamet says admiringly: “I regard Ricky as an example of the ‘superior man,’ according to the I Ching definition. He’s the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone who’s devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field.”

And what struck me on reading these lines again was how deeply Jay’s life and work were tied up in books. A bookseller quoted in Singer’s article estimates that Jay spent more of his disposable income on rare books than anyone else he knew, and his professional legacy might turn out to be even greater as a writer, archivist, and historian as it was for sleight of hand. (“Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth,” Singer writes. And I imagine that a lot of his fellow collectors are very curious about what will happen to his library now.) His most famous book as an author, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, includes a chapter on Arthur Lloyd, “The Human Card Index,” a vaudevillian renowned for his ability to produce anything printed on paper—a marriage license, ringside seats to a boxing match, menus, photos of royalty, membership cards for every club imaginable—from his pockets on demand. This feels now like a metaphor for the mystique of Jay himself, who fascinated me for many of the same reasons. Like most great magicians, he exuded an aura of arcane wisdom, but in his case, this impression appears to have been nothing less than the truth. Singer quotes the magician Michael Weber:

Magic is not about someone else sharing the newest secret. Magic is about working hard to discover a secret and making something out of it. You start with some small principle and you build a theatrical presentation out of it. You do something that’s technically artistic that creates a small drama. There are two ways you can expand your knowledge—through books and by gaining the confidence of fellow magicians who will explain these things. Ricky to a large degree gets his information from books—old books—and then when he performs for magicians they want to know, “Where did that come from?” And he’s appalled that they haven’t read this stuff.

As a result, Jay had the paradoxical image of a man who was immersed in the lore of magic while also keeping much of that world at arm’s length. “Clearly, Jay has been more interested in the craft of magic than in the practical exigencies of promoting himself as a performer,” Singer writes, and Jay was perfectly fine with that reputation. In Learned Pigs, Jay writes admiringly of the conjurer Max Malini:

Yet far more than Malini’s contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be—not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.

This was obviously how Jay liked to see himself, as he says with equal affection of the magician Dai Vernon: “Making money was only a means of allowing him to sit in a hotel room and think about his art, about cups and balls and coins and cards.” Yet the reality must have been more complicated. You don’t become as famous or beloved as Ricky Jay without an inhuman degree of ambition, however carefully hidden, and he cultivated attention in ways that allowed him to maintain his air of remove. Apart from Vernon, his other essential mentor was Charlie Miller, who seems to have played the same role in the lives of other magicians that Joe Ancis, “the funniest man in New York City,” did for Lenny Bruce. Both were geniuses who hated to perform, so they practiced their art for a small handful of confidants and fellow obsessives. And the fact that Jay, by contrast, lived the kind of life that would lead him to be widely mourned by the public indicates that there was rather more to him than the reticent persona that he projected.

Jay did perform for paying audiences, of course, and Singer’s article closes with his preparations for a show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, that promises to relieve him from the “tenuous circumstances” that result from his devotion to art. (A decade later, my brother and I went to see his second Broadway production, On the Stem, which is still one of my favorite memories from a lifetime of theatergoing.) But he evidently had mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, which left him even more detached from the performers with whom he was frequently surrounded. As Weber notes: “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in things. They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own. They’ll be inspired to do that trick that belongs to Ricky…There’s this large body of magic lumpen who really don’t understand Ricky’s legacy—his contribution to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity. They think he’s an élitist and a snob.” Or as the writer and mentalist T.A. Walters tells Singer:

Some magicians, once they learn how to do a trick without dropping the prop on their foot, go ahead and perform in public. Ricky will work on a routine a couple of years before even showing anyone. One of the things that I love about Ricky is his continued amazement at how little magicians seem to care about the art. Intellectually, Ricky seems to understand this, but emotionally he can’t accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty years ago.

If the remarkable life that he lived is any indication, Jay never did get over it. According to Singer, Jay once asked Dai Vernon how he dealt with the intellectual indifference of other magicians to their craft. Vernon responded: “I forced myself not to care.” And after his friend’s death, Jay said wryly: “Maybe that’s how he lived to be ninety-eight years old.”

The confidence tricksters

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When I look back at my life, I find that I’ve always been fascinated by a certain type of personality, at least when observed from a safe distance. I may as well start with Orson Welles, who has been on my mind a lot recently. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud: “Yes, he was a trickster, a rather nasty operator, a credit thief, a bully, a manipulator, a shallow genius…a less than wholesome great man…oh, very well, a habitual liar, a liar of genius.” But in his discussion of the late masterwork F for Fake, Thomson also hints at the essence of Welles’s appeal:

The happiness in F for Fake, the exhilaration, comes from the discovery and the jubilation that knows there is no higher calling than being a magician, a storyteller, a fake who passes the time. This is the work in which Welles finally reconciled the lofty, European, intellectual aspect of himself and the tent show demon who sawed cute dames and wild dreams in half. For it can be very hard to live with the belief that nothing matters in life, that nothing is solid or real, that everything is a show in the egotist’s head. It loses friends, trust, children, home, money, security, and maybe reason. So it is comforting indeed, late in life, to come upon a proof that the emptiness and the trickery are valid and sufficient.

Welles claimed afterward that he had been “faking” his confession of being a charlatan, as if it were somehow incompatible with being an artist—although the great lesson of his life is that it can be possible and necessary to be both at the same time.

This is the kind of figure to whom I’m helplessly drawn—the genius who is also a con artist. You could even make much the same case, with strong reservations, for L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t like him or most of his work, and he caused more pain to other people than anyone else in Astounding. Yet the best clue I’ve ever found to figuring out his character is a passage by Lawrence Wright, who writes shrewdly in Going Clear:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man…The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis…But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling.

I’ve spent more time thinking about this than I ever wanted, and I’ve grudgingly concluded that Wright has a point. Hubbard was frankly more interesting than most of his detractors, and he couldn’t have accomplished half of what he did if it weren’t for his enormous, slippery gifts for storytelling, in person if not on the page. (On some level, he also seems to have believed in his own work, which complicates our picture of him as a con artist—although he certainly wasn’t averse to squeezing as much money out of his followers as possible.) I’ve often compared Welles to Campbell, but he has equally profound affinities with Hubbard, whose favorite film was Citizen Kane, and who perpetuated a science fiction hoax that dwarfed The War of the Worlds.

But I’m also attracted by such examples because they get at something crucial about the life of any artist, in which genius and trickery are often entwined. I don’t think of myself as a particularly devious person, but I’ve had to develop certain survival skills just to keep working, and a lot of writers come to think of themselves in the fond terms that W.H. Auden uses in The Dyer’s Hand:

All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

The similarities between the artist and the confidence man tend to appeal to authors with a high degree of technical facility, like David Mamet, who returns to the subject obsessively. In the lovely essay “Pool Halls,” Mamet writes: “The point of the pool hall was the intersection of two American Loves: the Game of Skill and the Short Con…Well, I guess that America is gone. We no longer revere skill, and the short con of the pool hustle and the Murphy Man and the Fuller Brush Man. The short con, which flourished in a life lived on the street and among strangers, has been supplanted by the Big Con of a life with no excitement in it at all.”

As Mamet implies, there’s something undeniably American about these figures. The confidence man has been part of this country’s mythology from the beginning, undoubtedly because it was a society that was inventing itself as it went along. There’s even an element of nostalgia at work. But I also don’t want to romanticize it. Most of our trickster heroes are white and male, which tells us something about the privilege that underlies successful fakery. A con man, like a startup founder, has to evade questions for just long enough to get away with it. That’s true of most artists, too, and the quintessentially American advice to fake it till you make it applies mostly to those who have the cultural security to pull it off. (If we’re so fascinated by confidence tricksters who were women, it might be because they weren’t held back by impostor syndrome.) Of course, the dark side of this tradition, which is where laughter dies in the throat, can be seen in the White House, which is currently occupied by the greatest con artist in American history. I don’t even mean this as an insult, but as a fundamental observation. If we’re going to venerate the con man as an American archetype, we have to acknowledge that Trump has consistently outplayed us all, even when the trick, or troll, was unfolding in plain sight. This also says something about our national character, and if Trump reminds me of Hubbard, he’s also forced me to rethink Citizen Kane. But there’s another side to the coin. During times of oppression and reaction, a different kind of deviousness can emerge, one that channels these old impulses toward ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, humor, and trickery, which are usually used to further the confidence man’s private interests, toward very different goals. If we’re going to make it through the next two years, we need to draw deeply on this tradition of genius. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2018 at 8:32 am

Quote of the Day

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One must look honestly at what one has done, and to compare it to what one was trying to do. To learn useful mechanical lessons from the comparison is difficult; many workers in the theater never learn to do it.

David Mamet, Writing in Restaurants

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

The writer’s defense

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“This book will be the death of me,” the writer Jose Chung broods to himself halfway through my favorite episode of Millennium. “I just can’t write anymore. What possessed me to be a writer anyway? What kind of a life is this? What else can I do now, with no other skills or ability? My life has fizzled away. Only two options left: suicide, or become a television weatherman.” I’ve loved this internal monologue—written by Darin Morgan and delivered by the great Charles Nelson Reilly—ever since I first heard it more than two decades ago. (As an aside, it’s startling for me to realize that just four short years separated the series premiere of The X-Files from “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense,” which was enough time for an entire fictional universe to be born, splinter apart, and reassemble itself into a better, more knowing incarnation.) And I find that I remember Chung’s words every time I sit down to write something new. I’ve been writing for a long time now, and I’m better at it than I am at pretty much anything else, but I still have to endure something like a moment of existential dread whenever I face the blank page for the first time. For the duration of the first draft, I regret all of my decisions, and I wonder whether there’s still a chance to try something else instead. Eventually, it passes. But it always happens. And after spending over a decade doing nothing else but writing, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s always going to be this way.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways of dealing with it. In fact, I’ve come to realize that most of my life choices are designed to minimize the amount of time that I spend writing first drafts. This means nothing else but the physical act of putting down words for the first time, which is when I tend to hit my psychological bottom. Everything else is fine by comparison. As a result, I’ve shunted aspects of my creative process to one side or the other of the rough draft, which persists as a thin slice of effort between two huge continents of preparation and consolidation. I prefer to do as much research in advance as I can, and I spend an ungodly amount of time on outlines, which I’ve elsewhere described as a stealth first draft that I can trick myself into thinking doesn’t matter. My weird, ritualistic use of mind maps and other forms of random brainstorming is another way to generate as many ideas as possible before I need to really start writing. When I finally start the first draft, I make a point of never going back to read it until I’ve physically typed out the entire thing, with my outline at my elbow, as if I’m just transcribing something that already exists. Ideally, I can crank out that part of the day’s work in an hour or less. Once it’s there on the screen, I can begin revising, taking as many passes as possible without worrying too much about any given version. In the end, I somehow end up with a draft that I can stand to read. It isn’t entirely painless, but it involves less pain than any other method that I can imagine.

And these strategies are all just specific instances of my favorite piece of writing advice, which I owe to the playwright David Mamet. I haven’t quoted it here for a while, so here it is again:

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.

As I’ve noted before, I badly wish that I could somehow send this paragraph back in time to my younger self, because it would have saved me years of wasted effort. But what Mamet doesn’t mention, perhaps because he thought that it was obvious, is that buried in that list of “achievable steps” is a monster of a task that can’t be eliminated, only reduced. There’s no getting around the time that you spend in front of the blank page, and even the best outline in the world can only take away so much of the pain. (An overly detailed outline may even cause problems later, if it leads to a work that seems lifeless and overdetermined—which leaves us with the uncomfortable fact that a certain amount of pain at the writing stage is necessary to avoid even greater trouble in the future.)

Of course, if you’re just looking to minimize the agony of writing that first draft, there are easier ways to anesthetize yourself. Jose Chung pours himself a glass of whiskey, and I’ve elsewhere characterized the widespread use of mind-altering chemicals by writers—particularly caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol—as a pragmatic survival tactic, like the other clichés that we associate with the bohemian life. And I haven’t been immune. For years, I’d often have a drink while working at night, and it certainly didn’t hurt my productivity. (A ring of discolored wood eventually appeared on the surface of my desk from the condensation on the glass, which said more about my habits than I realized at the time.) After I got married, and especially after I became a father, I had to drastically rethink my writing schedule. I was no longer writing long into the evening, but trying to cram as much work as I could into a few daylight hours, leaving me and my wife with a little time to ourselves after our daughter went to bed. As a result, the drinking stopped, and the more obsessive habits that I’ve developed in the meantime are meant to reduce the pain of writing with a clear head. This approach isn’t for everyone, and it may not work for anyone else at all. But it’s worth remembering that when you look at a reasonably productive writer, you’re really seeing a collection of behaviors that have accrued around the need to survive that daily engagement with the empty page. And if they tend to exhibit such an inexplicable range of strategies, vices, and rituals, ultimately, they’re all just forms of defense.

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2018 at 8:21 am

My ten creative books #10: A Guide for the Perplexed

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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.

As regular readers know, I’m a Werner Herzog fan, but not a completist—I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored territory, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. Yet Herzog himself is endlessly fascinating. Daniel Zalewski’s account of the making of Rescue Dawn is one of my five favorite articles ever to appear in The New Yorker, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his mystique, there’s no better place to start. For a deeper dive, you can turn to A Guide for the Perplexed, an expanded version of a collection of the director’s interviews with Paul Cronin, which was originally published more than a decade ago. As I’ve said here before, I regret the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance, and I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all. It’s huge, but every paragraph explodes with insight, and you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately transfixed. Here’s one passage picked at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Or take Herzog’s description of his relationship with his cinematographer: “Peter Zeitlinger is always trying to sneak ‘beautiful’ shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.”

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s stories, which are inexhaustible. He provides his own point of view on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by a catalog in his jacket pocket, and he asked to keep going—or how he discouraged Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) We see Herzog impersonating a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys that he needed for Aguirre; forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo; stealing his first camera; and shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example is enough to sustain and nourish the rest of us. In On Directing Film, David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he recommends Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as examples of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

My ten creative books #7: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

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.

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “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.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

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August 7, 2018 at 9:00 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

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