Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Discovering

Poets, playwrights, and programmers

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Robert Pinsky

If you’re an attentive reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that there have been a lot of poets around here, usually in the Quotes of the Day. This isn’t an accident. I’ve been posting quotes on a daily basis for almost five years—I haven’t missed a day yet—and in the process, as I’ve noted before, you quickly run through most of the usual suspects. (There are also a few unwritten rules. I do my best not to run more than one quote from the same source within three months, and I try to avoid falling back on excerpts from the interviews in The Paris Review, which seems a little like cheating. Whenever you see one on this blog, it’s usually because I ran out of ideas.) Whenever I find a promising new source of quotes, I tend to mine it dry before moving on. Sometimes it takes the form of a reference work, like Gaither’s Scientific Quotations, or a book that copiously cites other interesting sources, like Robert Root-Bernstein’s Discovering. Most often, though, it’s because it suddenly occurs to me that a certain field or profession would be a good place to look for wisdom. This month, it happens to be poetry, and it isn’t the first time. A couple of years ago, I ran a long series of quotes from most of the living poet laureates, like Robert Pinsky, of which I said later: “Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless…but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience.”

Which brings us to the poets whose thoughts I’ve been posting here recently, all of whom have one thing in common: they’ve all won a Pulitzer Prize. And if their interviews are invariably interesting and packed with insights into craft, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most practicing poets—the ones who manage to make a career out of it, even if it involves teaching or selling insurance on the side—are repositories of lore and good tricks, and the only difference a Pulitzer makes is that they’re being widely interviewed for the first time. In many cases, as with a poet laureateship, it’s the first touch of mainstream fame that these poets have ever received, and you can feel their eagerness to pour out decades of accumulated wisdom for a larger audience. If much of the resulting advice is relentlessly pragmatic, this only reflects the reality of poetry itself, which doesn’t have much patience for dilettantes or dreamers. Threading the needle in any creative profession is a tricky proposition, and it’s all the more true in poetry, in which the needle, not to mention the thread, has a way of disappearing entirely. A poet smart and talented enough to pursue that calling successfully for years has to be preternaturally driven in the face of widespread indifference, a combination that tends to produce useful strategies for living and working.

Dennis Lehane

And what they have to say is often more valuable than what other writers might have to offer under similar circumstances. Looking at the quotes that I’ve posted on this blog over the years, I’m struck by the fact that many of the best come from three professions: poets, playwrights, and programmers. I’m just more likely to learn something interesting from an interview with someone in one of these categories than I am from yet another novelist. Part of this is because the best insights often come from outside your own field, and applying a trick from one discipline to another can be as useful in the arts as it is in science. Even more fundamentally, though, I’d like to think that there’s something about these three jobs in particular that enforces a certain quality of thinking, and it isn’t hard to guess what it might be. All three are defined by constraints. For a poet, those constraints are self-imposed, but any meaningful career in poetry has been shaped at some stage by a prolonged confrontation with form, meter, and rhyme. A playwright—at least one who has any interest in being performed—operates under considerable limitations of length, budget, cast size, sets, and practicable action onstage. And while the hardware and memory limits that coders once had to confront are becoming less of an issue, programming is still constrained by the problems it has to solve and the unforgiving logic of the language. Writers would take a vastly different approach to their work if a poorly written story refused to load altogether.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the answer to Job’s famous question—”Where shall wisdom be found?”—lies in the following equation:

Wisdom = Constraints + Time

If the novel has produced less in the way of useful advice than we might expect, it’s in part because it has been historically defined by its lack of constraints: originally, it was simply a long prose narrative that didn’t fit into any other category. A novel can be anything we want, and as a result, the tips that novelists provide have a hard time being useful to anyone in particular. In poetry, playwriting, and programming, by contrast, the constraints inherent to the form result in a lot of collective wisdom about how to survive. And the lesson for novelists isn’t that we ought to switch fields, or even that we have it easy: in some ways, the lack of constraints in the novel makes it the hardest of all to do well. The real takeaway is that we should impose constraints on ourselves whenever we can, even if it’s just an arbitrary word limit, and that we should pay close attention to fields in which such practical limitations aren’t merely voluntary. (Even better, spend an hour or two talking to a poet over the age of sixty.) And we should remember one of the few great pieces of advice from any novelist, in this case Dennis Lehane, while substituting one of the other two professions as necessary: “The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?”

Written by nevalalee

October 7, 2015 at 9:48 am

The availability factor

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Theobald Smith

Whenever I do a reading from The Icon Thief, I like to joke that I wrote a novel about the Rosicrucians mostly because they were available. Other conspiracy thrillers had already sucked most of the pulp out of the likes of the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the Priory of Sion, and although the Rosicrucian novel was a genre of its own as late as the nineteenth century, there hadn’t been any examples of it in a long time. There was also a huge amount of material—not all of it particularly interesting—on Rosicrucianism and its relationship to later occult and artistic movements, so I knew early on that I’d have my choice of sources. And I suspect that if I’d done some digging and discovered that there wasn’t much there, I would have chosen a different subject entirely. The shape of that novel, in short, was largely determined by the access I had to the resources I needed: I knew before I even began laying out the plot that I wouldn’t suffer for lack of background. The same is true of many of my short stories, the majority of which were inspired by an existing book or article that offered up an abundance of useful, concrete ideas. In many cases, the plot was explicitly tailored around the facts that I had at my disposal, and if I ended up focusing on one area rather than others, it was because of the tools I happened to have at hand.

The question of availability—or, more specifically, of whether or not you have a reasonable expectation of finding the materials you need—governs a surprising amount of creative work, both in the arts and in other fields. In The Art of Scientific Investigation, W.I.B. Beveridge tells us: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” It’s a strategy that has affinities with bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever is lying around, and it also reflects the sifting and filtering process required to distill any body of information into a readable form. (“The output an ounce, the labor a year,” as Mayakovsky says, and it only works if you have plenty of ore in the first place.) There seems to be a critical mass you need to reach before you can start serious work on any project, and although much of it has to be spun out of the creator’s own substance, like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, it doesn’t hurt to have a ready reservoir of ideas from the outside world. Making anything worthwhile is hard enough as it is, so it helps to know from the start that you have access to a decent body of material. And this can come from the details of your own life as much as from anything else: “Write what you know” is less an admonition from up on high than a practical guideline for ensuring that you have enough with which to proceed.

Robert Scott Root-Bernstein

Of course, there are risks to this approach, since it can lead to an excessive focus on the obvious. In his valuable book Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein writes:

Where does one find problems? Not where answers already exist. There is an old story about a drunk who loses his key in a dark alley. A policeman wandering by later finds the drunk on his hands and knees under the street lamp at the corner. “Hey! What are you doing there?” “Looking for my key.” “Where’d ya lose it?” “In the alley.” “Then why are you looking under the lamp?” “It’s too dark to see in the alley.” Like the drunk, too many scientists choose their research projects within the sphere of existing light. They are scared to be ignorant, scared to founder. They are what Peter Medawar calls “philagnoists”—lovers of their own ignorance. Not so the best scientists, who seek out the unknown. Peter Carruthers, head of theoretical physics at Los Alamos, speaks for many when he says: “There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge. You’re always out of equilibrium. When I was young, I was deeply troubled by this. Finally, I realized that if I understood too clearly what I was doing, where I was going, then I probably wasn’t working on anything very interesting.” Don’t be paranoid of the void.

Later on, Root-Bernstein adds: “There will be a crowd searching under the light. If you assume that keys to understanding nature are fairly randomly spread about, your chances of finding one are much better out in the dark because you’re likely to be the only one searching there.” The problem, then, is how to reconcile this with the availability factor, and as with most aspects of the creative process, the key lies in striking a balance: the excursions we make into the unknown are most likely to succeed if we’ve tethered ourself to a stable body of known facts, particularly if it happens to border an area of darkness. And such islands of material are more common than you might think. As a writer, I’ve learned to focus on information that is available but obscure: the world is full of ideas or subjects that have been explored up to a point and then abandoned, or relegated to a forgotten corner of intellectual history. It’s why I’ve made a point of seeking out the books that nobody reads anymore, or using a single idea as a wedge to pry my way into a body of knowledge that I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t been looking for it. Again and again, I’ve been amazed to find ideas that were neglected, or known only to specialists, that provided a foundation for fascinating stories. It’s a big world out there, and not every lamp has a crowd beneath it. If half of being a writer is knowing where the lamps are, and being able to recognize one when you see it, the other half lies in pushing past that circle of illumination into the shadows. And you’ll have better luck if you move from the light into the dark, or the other way around, than if you focus solely on one or the other.

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