Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Mamet

Life on the last mile

with 2 comments

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.”

In the cards

leave a comment »

Vladimir Nabokov

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 21, 2016.

It’s been said that all of the personal financial advice that most people need to know can fit on a single index card. In fact, that’s pretty much true—which didn’t stop the man who popularized the idea from writing a whole book about it. But the underlying principle is sound enough. When you’re dealing with a topic like your own finances, instead of trying to master a large body of complicated material, you’re better off focusing on a few simple, reliable rules until you aren’t likely to break them by mistake. Once you’ve internalized the basics, you can move on. The tricky part is identifying the rules that will get you the furthest per unit of effort. In practice, no matter what we’re doing, nearly all of us operate under only a handful of conscious principles at any given moment. We just can’t keep more than that in our heads at any one time. (Unconscious principles are another matter, and you could say that intuition is another word for all the rules that we’ve absorbed to the point where we don’t need to think about them explicitly.) If the three or four rules that you’ve chosen to follow are good ones, it puts you at an advantage over a rival who is working with an inferior set. And while this isn’t enough to overcome the impact of external factors, or dumb luck, it makes sense to maximize the usefulness of the few aspects that you can control. This implies, in turn, that you should think very carefully about a handful of big rules, and let experience and intuition take care of the rest.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I’d include on a similar index card for a writer. In my own writing life, a handful of principles have far outweighed the others. I’ve spent countless hours discussing the subject on this blog, but you could throw away almost all of it: a single index card’s worth of advice would have gotten me ninety percent of the way to where I am now. For instance, there’s the simple rule that you should never go back to read what you’ve written until you’ve finished a complete rough draft, whether it’s a short story, an essay, or a novel—which is more responsible than any other precept for the fact that I’m still writing at all. The principle that you should cut at least ten percent from a first draft, in turn, is what helped me sell my first stories, and in my experience, it’s more like twenty percent. Finally, there’s the idea that you should structure your plot as a series of objectives, and that you should probably make some kind of outline to organize your thoughts before you begin. This is arguably more controversial than the other two, and outlines aren’t for everybody. But they’ve allowed me to write more intricate and ambitious stories than I could have managed otherwise, and they make it a lot easier to finish what I’ve started. (The advice to write an outline is a little like the fifth postulate of Euclid: it’s uglier than the others, and you get interesting results when you get rid of it, but most of us are afraid to drop it completely.)

David Mamet

Then we get to words of wisdom that aren’t as familiar, but which I think every writer should keep in mind. If I had to pick one piece of advice to send back in time to my younger self, along with the above, it’s 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.

It isn’t as elegantly phased as I might like, but it gets at something so important about the writing process that I’ve all but memorized it. A real writer has to be good at everything, and it’s unclear why we should expect all those skills to manifest themselves in a single person. As I once wrote about Proust: “It seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape.” How can we reasonably expect our writers to create suspense, tell stories about believable characters, advance complicated ideas, and describe the bedroom curtains?

The answer—and while it’s obvious, it didn’t occur to me for years—is that the writer doesn’t need to do all of this at once. A work of art is experienced in a comparative rush, but it doesn’t need to be written that way. (As Homer Simpson was once told: “Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”) You do one thing at a time, as Mamet says, and divide up your writing schedule so that you don’t need to be clever and careful at the same time. This applies to nonfiction as well. When you think about the work that goes into writing, say, a biography, it can seem absurd that we expect a writer to be the drudge who tracks down the primary sources, the psychologist who interprets the evidence, and the stylist who writes it up in good prose. But these are all roles that a writer plays at different points, and it’s a mistake to conflate them, even as each phase informs all the rest. Once you’ve become a decent stylist and passable psychologist, you’re also a more efficient drudge, since you’re better at figuring out what is and isn’t useful. Which implies that a writer isn’t dealing with just one index card of rules, but with several, and you pick and choose between them based on where you are in the process. Mamet’s point, I think, is that this kind of switching is central to getting things done. You don’t try to do everything simultaneously, and you don’t overthink whatever you’re doing at the moment. As Mamet puts it elsewhere: “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.”

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2018 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

The fictional sentence

with one comment

Of all the writers of the golden age of science fiction, the one who can be hardest to get your head around is A.E. van Vogt. He isn’t to everyone’s taste—many readers, to quote Alexei and Cory Panshin’s not unadmiring description, find him “foggy, semi-literate, pulpish, and dumb”—but he’s undoubtedly a major figure, and he was second only to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov when it came to defining what science fiction became in the late thirties and early forties. (If he isn’t as well known as they are, it’s largely because he was taken out of writing by dianetics at the exact moment that the genre was breaking into the mainstream.) Part of his appeal is that his stories remain compelling and readable despite their borderline incoherence, and he was unusually open about his secret. In the essay “My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story,” which was originally published in the volume Fantastic Lives, van Vogt wrote:

I learned to write by a system propounded in a book titled The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John W. Gallishaw (meaning by flashback or in consecutive sequence). Gallishaw had made an in-depth study of successful stories by great authors. He observed that the best of them wrote in what he called “presentation units” of about eight hundred words. Each of these units contained five steps. And every sentence in it was a “fictional sentence.” Which means that it was written either with imagery, or emotion, or suspense, depending on the type of story.

So what did these units look like? Used copies of Gallishaw’s book currently go for well over a hundred dollars online, but van Vogt helpfully summarized the relevant information:

The five steps can be described as follows: 1) Where, and to whom, is it happening? 2) Make clear the scene purpose (What is the immediate problem which confronts the protagonist, and what does it require him to accomplish in this scene?) 3) The interaction with the opposition, as he tries to achieve the scene purpose. 4) Make the reader aware that he either did accomplish the scene purpose, or did not accomplish it. 5) In all the early scenes, whether protagonist did or did not succeed in the scene purpose, establish that things are going to get worse. Now, the next presentation unit-scene begins with: Where is all this taking place. Describe the surroundings, and to whom it is happening. And so forth.

Over the years, this formula was distorted and misunderstood, so that a critic could write something like “Van Vogt admits that he changes the direction of his plot every eight hundred words.” And even when accurately stated, it can come off as bizarre. Yet it’s really nothing more than the principle that every narrative should consist of a series of objectives, which I’ve elsewhere listed among the most useful pieces of writing advice that I know. Significantly, it’s one of the few elements of craft that can be taught and learned by example. Van Vogt learned it from Gallishaw, while I got it from David Mamet’s On Directing Film, and I’ve always seen it as a jewel of wisdom that can be passed in almost apostolic fashion from one writer to another.

When we read van Vogt’s stories, of course, we aren’t conscious of this structure, and if anything, we’re more aware of their apparent lack of form. (As John McPhee writes in his wonderful new book on writing: “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”) Yet we still keep reading. It’s that sequence of objectives that keeps us oriented through the centrifugal wildness that we associate with van Vogt’s work—and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he approached the irrational side as systematically as he did everything else. I’d heard at some point that van Vogt based many of his plots on his dreams, but it wasn’t until I read his essay that I understood what this meant:

When you’re writing, as I was, for one cent a word, and are a slow writer, and the story keeps stopping for hours or days, and your rent is due, you get anxious…I would wake up spontaneously at night, anxious. But I wasn’t aware of the anxiety. I thought about story problems—that was all I noticed then. And so back to sleep I went. In the morning, often there would be an unusual solution. All my best plot twists came in this way…It was not until July 1943 that I suddenly realized what I was doing. That night I got out our alarm clock and moved into the spare bedroom. I set the alarm to ring at one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist…So I had my system for getting to my subconscious mind.

This isn’t all that different from Salvador Dali’s advice on how to take a nap. But the final sentence is the kicker: “During the next seven years, I awakened myself about three hundred nights a year four times a night.” When I read this, I felt a greater sense of kinship with van Vogt than I have with just about any other writer. Much of my life has been spent searching for tools—from mind maps to tarot cards—that can be used to systematically incorporate elements of chance and intuition into what is otherwise a highly structured process. Van Vogt’s approach comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to the ideal of combining the two on a reliable basis, even if we differ on some of the details. (For instance, I don’t necessarily buy into Gallishaw’s notion that every action taken by the protagonist needs to be opposed, or that the situation needs to continually get worse. As Mamet writes in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” And that’s often enough.) But it’s oddly appropriate that we find such rules in the work of a writer who frequently came across as chronically disorganized. Van Vogt pushed the limits of form further than any other author of the golden age, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Bester or Philip K. Dick without him. But I’m sure that there were equally visionary writers who never made it into print because they lacked the discipline, or the technical tricks, to get their ideas under control. Van Vogt’s stories always seem on the verge of flying apart, but the real wonder is that they don’t. And his closing words on the subject are useful ones indeed: “It is well to point out again that these various systems were, at base, just automatic reactions to the writing of science fiction. The left side of the brain got an overdose of fantasizing flow from the right side, and literally had to do something real.”

Are you sitting down?

with one comment

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 , ,

Raising the roof

leave a comment »

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 art of preemptive ingenuity

leave a comment »

Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

Writing with scissors

leave a comment »

Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers 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.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

%d bloggers like this: