Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘E.B. White

Quote of the Day

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A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer; he approaches lucid ground warily, like a mariner who is determined not to scrape his bottom on anything solid…There is also the obscurity which is the result of the poet’s wishing to appear mad, even if only a little mad. This is rather common and rather dreadful. I know of nothing more distasteful than the work of a poet who has taken leave of his reason deliberately, as a commuter might of his wife.

E.B. White, One Man’s Meat

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

The allure of unknowing

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Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

—E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Last night, while watching the new X-Files episode “Ghouli,” which I actually sort of liked, I found myself pondering the ageless question of why this series is so uneven. It isn’t as if I haven’t wondered about this before. Even during the show’s golden years, which I’d roughly describe as its first five seasons, it was hard not to be struck by how often a classic installment was followed a week later by one that was insultingly bad. (This might explain the otherwise inexplicable reference in last week’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” to “Teso dos Bichos,” a terrible episode memorable mostly for interrupting the strongest run that the series ever had. As Reggie says: “Guys, if this turns out to be killer cats, I’m going to be very disappointed.”) Part of this may be due to the fact that I’ve watched so many episodes of this show, which had me tuning in every week for years, but I don’t think that it’s just my imagination. Most series operate within a fairly narrow range of quality, with occasional outliers in both sides, but the worst episodes of The X-Files are bad in ways that don’t apply to your average procedural. They aren’t simply boring or routine, but confusing, filled with illogical behavior by the main characters, ugly, and incoherent. There are also wild swings within individual episodes, like “Ghouli” itself, which goes so quickly from decent to awful to inexplicable to weirdly satisfying that it made me tired to watch it. And while last season proved that there are worse things than mere unevenness—with one big exception, it consisted of nothing but low points—I think it’s still worth asking why this series in particular has always seemed intent on punishing its fans with its sheer inconsistency.

One possible explanation is that The X-Files, despite its two regular leads, was basically an anthology show, which meant that every episode had to start from scratch in establishing a setting, a supporting cast, and even a basic tone. This ability to change the rules from one week to the next was a big part of what made the show exciting, but it also deprived it of the standard safety net—a narrative home base, a few familiar faces in the background—on which most shows unthinkingly rely. It’s a testament to the clarity and flexibility of Chris Carter’s original premise that it ever worked at all, usually thanks to a line or two from Scully, leafing through a folder in the passenger seat of a rental car, to explain why they were driving to a small town in the middle of nowhere. (In fact, this stock opening became less common as the show went on, and it never really found a way to improve on it.) It was also a science fiction and fantasy series, which meant that even the rules of reality tended to change from one installment to another. As a result, much of the first act of every episode was spent in orienting the audience, which represented a loss of valuable screen time that otherwise could have been put to other narrative ends. Watching it reminds us of how much other shows can take for granted. In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet writes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?” That’s true of most dramas, but not necessarily of The X-Files, in which you could sit through an episode from the beginning and still be lost halfway through. You could make a case that this disorientation was part of its appeal, but it wasn’t a feature. It was a bug.

And the most damning criticism that you can advance against The X-Files is that its narrative sins were routinely overlooked or forgiven by its creators because it was supposedly “about” confusion and paranoia. Early on, the myth arose that this was a series that deliberately left its stories unresolved, in contrast to the tidy conclusions of most procedurals. As the critic Rob Tannenbaum wrote in Details back in the late nineties:

What defines The X-Files is the allure of unknowing: Instead of declaring a mystery and solving it by the end of the show, as Columbo and Father Dowling did, Carter has spent five year showing us everything except the truth. He is a high-concept tease who understands an essential psychological dynamic: The less you give, the more people want. Watching The X-Files is almost an interactive venture. It’s incomplete enough to compel viewers to complete the blank parts of the narrative.

This might be true enough of many of the conspiracy episodes, but in the best casefiles, and most of the mediocre ones, there’s really no doubt about what happened. Mulder and Scully might not end up with all of the information, but the viewers usually do, and an episode like “Pusher” or “Ice” is an elegant puzzle without any missing pieces. (Even “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which is explicitly about the failure of definitive explanations, offers a reading of itself that more or less makes sense.) Unfortunately, the blank spaces in the show’s mytharc were also used to excuse errors of clarity and resolution, which in turn encouraged the show to remain messy and unsatisfying for no good reason.

In other words, The X-Files began every episode at an inherent disadvantage, with all of the handicaps of a science fiction anthology show that had to start from nothing each week, as well as a premise that allowed it to explain away its narrative shortcomings as stylistic choices, which wasn’t true of shows like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. All too often, this was a deadly combination. In an academic study that was published when the show was still on the air, the scholar Jan Delasara writes:

When apprehended consciously, narrative gaps may seem random accidents or continuity errors. Who substitutes the dead dog for Private McAlpin’s corpse in the episode “Fresh Bones?” And why? What did the demon’s first wife remember but not tell her husband in “Terms of Endearment?” Who is conducting the experiment in subliminal suggestion along with chemical phobia enhancement in “Blood?” Is Mulder’s explanation really what’s going on?

Delasara argues that such flaws are the “disturbing gaps and unresolved questions” typical of supernatural horror, but it’s fair to say that in most of these cases, if the writers could have come up with something better, they would have. The X-Files had a brilliant aesthetic that also led to the filming of scripts that never would have been approved on a show that wasn’t expressly about dislocation and the unknown. The result often left me alienated, but probably not in the way that the creators intended. Mulder and Scully might never discover the full truth—but that doesn’t excuse their writers.

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

Writing with scissors

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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.

The elements of negation

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In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White provide the useful precept: “Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid timid, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” After offering a few illustrations for the sake of comparison, such as “He was not very often on time” as opposed to “He usually came late,” they conclude:

All [these] examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what it is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in a positive form.

Along with all the other benefits that come with preferring positives over negatives, there’s the subtle point, which Strunk and White don’t mention explicitly, that it forces the writer to think just a little harder at a time when he or she would probably prefer otherwise. The sentence “Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works” is both longer and less interesting than “Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca significant,” but it’s also easier to write. It’s in that one additional pass, as the writer has to figure out what something is, rather than what it isn’t, that insight tends to happen. All else being equal, the best writing rules are the ones that oblige us to move beyond the obvious answer.

The other problem with negation is that it carries its positive form along with it, like an unwanted ghost or a double exposure. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, with my emphasis: “The feeling is as if the negation of a proposition had to make it true in a certain sense, in order to negate it.” Wittgenstein continues, in an oddly beautiful passage:

“If I say I did not dream last night, still I must know where to look for a dream; that is, the proposition ‘I dreamt,’ applied to this actual situation, may be false, but mustn’t be senseless.”—Does that mean, then, that you did after all feel something, as it were the hint of a dream, which made you aware of the place which a dream would have occupied?

Again: if I say “I have no pain in my arm,” does that mean that I have a shadow of the sensation of pain, which as it were indicates where the pain might be? In what sense does my present painless state contain the possibility of pain?

Or as he puts it a few paragraphs earlier: “A red patch looks different from when it is there from when it isn’t there—but language abstracts from this difference, for it speaks of a red patch whether it is there or not.”

When it comes to conveying meaning, this fact has real practical consequences. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “Not only are negative statements (e.g., ‘Paris isn’t the capital of Spain’) generally less informative than affirmatives (‘Paris is the capital of France’), they are morphosyntactically more marked (all languages have negative markers while few have affirmative markers) and psychologically more complex and harder to process.” In a footnote, it adds:

One consequence of the formal markedness asymmetry is that a negative statement embeds its affirmative counterpart within it; when Nixon famously insisted “I am not a crook” or Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman,” the concealed affirmation was more significant than the surface denial. The same asymmetry is exploited in non-denial denials, such as Republican campaign operative Mary Matalin’s disingenuous protest “We’ve never said to the press that Clinton’s a philandering, pot-smoking draft-dodger.”

Politics is the arena where literary style, like sociology, is tested in the real world, which makes it all the more striking to see how often politicians turn to the negative form when forced to issue denials. Like the phrase “Mistakes were made,” the “I am not a crook” statement has become such a cliché that you’d think that they would avoid it, but it still appears regularly—which implies that it fulfills some deep psychological need.

So what kind of need is it? The philosopher Henri Bergson gets close to the heart of the matter, I think, in a very evocative passage in Creative Evolution, which I’ve highlighted in a few places for emphasis:

Negation is not the work of pure mind, I should say of a mind placed before objects and concerned with them alone. When we deny, we give a lesson to others, or it may be to ourselves. We take to task an interlocutor, real or possible, whom we find mistaken and whom we put on his guard. He was affirming something: we tell him he ought to affirm something else (though without specifying the affirmation which must be substituted). There is no longer then, simply, a person and an object; there is, in face of the object, a person speaking to a person, opposing him and aiding him at the same time; there is a beginning of society. Negation aims at some one, and not only, like a purely intellectual operation, at some thing. It is of a pedagogical and social nature. It sets straight or rather warms—the person warned and set straight being, possibly by a kind of doubling, the very person who speaks.

Politicians are an unusual species because so many of their private utterances become public, and their verbal slips, as on the analyst’s couch, are where they reveal the most. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve overheard them talking to themselves. When Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he was introducing a word into the conversation that hadn’t been there before, because it had already been rattling around in his brain. And when a politician speaks in the negative, it offers us a peek into the secret conversation that he has been having in his head all along: “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “I did not collude.”

The gospel of nouns and verbs

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The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

“If she was going to run, it had to be now…”

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"Maddy only nodded..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 55. You can read the previous installments here.

In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:

The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.

And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.

"If she was going to run, it had to be now..."

Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:

So many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)

So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…

My great books #3: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

Like many young people of a certain disposition, I used to entertain a fantasy of giving away my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with nothing but what I could comfortably carry on my back. These days, that dream seems very remote: if nothing else, having children makes it much harder to justify. And even when I was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” as E.B. White tartly characterized the ideal reader of Thoreau, there was one big barrier in my way: I couldn’t bear to leave all my books behind. If nothing else, though, I’ve always known which book I’d take with me if I were limited to just one: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Most readers might not recognize the title, but this little book has a lot to recommend it. My tattered paperback copy is small enough to fit into even the tiniest backpack. Along with so much else, it’s the most interesting anthology of poetry and prose, both eastern and western, that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a mine of insights and ideas that never cease to reward contemplation, no matter how many times we’ve studied them before. And of all the books I’ve read, it comes closest to expressing my own philosophy of life, which has less to do with Zen itself than with the quirky, peculiar amalgam that Blyth offers us here. His version of Zen has sometimes been called “limited,” but it’s less interesting as an objective exposition of existing doctrines than as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices.

R.H. Blyth himself was a fascinating figure, an Englishman who went to Japan before the war and never left, and whose work was largely responsible for introducing haiku to the west. Zen in English Literature is his masterpiece, an eccentric, sometimes ornery series of meditations backed by the poems of Bashō and the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t always agree with his aesthetic pronouncements—he despises Coleridge, whom I adore, and I’ve never been able to work up his degree of enthusiasm for Wordsworth—but the conclusions that he draws from the evidence are constantly rattling around in my brain. (His discussion of voluntary poverty, for instance, is the best I’ve ever found: Blyth describes it as “a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.”) It was one of the few books I brought with me on a recent visit to see my dying grandfather, and Blyth’s words on death and loss, while not exactly consoling, are indispensable. In the very last lines of the book, he quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

On Walden Pond

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

The art of omission

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Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Over the last couple of years, it has slowly become clear that the series of articles on the writing life that John McPhee is unhurriedly publishing in The New Yorker is one of the modest but indisputable creative events of our time. McPhee has long been regarded as the dean of American nonfiction, and in one essay after another, he has lovingly, amusingly, and unsentimentally unpacked the tricks and secrets of six full decades as a writer and curious character. The fact that these pieces are written from the perspective of a journalist—albeit a preternaturally inventive and sensitive one—makes them even more useful for authors of fiction. Because the point of view has been shifted by ninety degrees, we’re more aware of the common elements shared by all forms of writing: choice of subject, structure, revision, selection, omission. There isn’t a point that McPhee makes here that couldn’t be applied with profit to any form of creative writing, or any kind of artistic effort in general. McPhee isn’t dogmatic, and he frames his advice less as a rulebook than as a string of gentle, sensible suggestions. But the result, when collected at last in the inevitable book, will amount to nothing less than one of the most useful works ever composed on the art of clear writing and thinking, worthy of being placed on the same shelf as The Elements of Style. Strunk and White will always come first, but McPhee has set himself up as their obvious successor.

Take his most recent article, which focuses on the crucial art of omission. McPhee makes many of the same points—although more vividly and memorably—that others have covered before. Writing is cutting; a story should be exactly the length that can be sustained by its material and no more; a rough draft almost always benefits from being trimmed by ten percent. Underlying it all, however, is a deeper philosophical sense of why we omit what we do. McPhee writes:

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early first. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative writer silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.

Omission, in short, is a strategy for enforcing objectivity, and it obliges the writer to keep an eye out for the nonessential. When you’re trying to cut a story or essay by some arbitrary amount, you often find that the first parts to go are the places where you’ve imposed yourself on the subject. And if you sacrifice a telling fact or detail to preserve one of your own opinions, you’ve probably got bigger problems as a writer.

A page from my rough draft

And the word “arbitrary” in the above paragraph is surprisingly important. Yesterday, I quoted Calvin Trillin on the process of greening at Time, in which makeup editors would return an article to its author with curt instructions to cut five or ten lines. McPhee, who did a lot of greening himself over the years, adds a crucial piece of information: “Time in those days, unlike its rival Newsweek, never assigned a given length but waited for the finished story before fitting it into the magazine.” In other words, the number of lines the writer was asked to cut wasn’t dictated by the content of the story, but by an arbitrary outside factor—in this case, the length and layout of the other articles that happened to be jostling for space in that particular issue. And while we might expect this to do violence to the integrity of the story itself, in practice, it turns out to be the opposite: it’s precisely because the quota of lines to remove is essentially random that the writer is forced to think creatively about how and where to condense. I’ve imposed arbitrary length limitations on just about everything meaningful I’ve ever written, and if anything, I wish I had been even more relentless. (One of the few real advantages of the structural conventions of the modern movie script is that it obliges writers to constantly engage in a kind of greening to hit a certain page count. Sometimes, it can feel like cheating, but it’s also a productive way to sweat down a story, and there isn’t a screenwriter alive who hasn’t experienced the truth of McPhee’s observation: “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.”)

Of course, none of this means that the seemingly nonessential doesn’t have its place. Few essays would be any fun to read if they didn’t include the occasional digression or footnote that covered tangentially related territory, and that applies to McPhee as much as to anyone else. (In fact, his piece on omission concludes with a huge shaggy dog story about General Eisenhower, ending on a delicious punchline that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if McPhee hadn’t built up to it with a full page of apparent trivia.) Every work of art, as McPhee notes elsewhere, arrives at its own rhythms and structure, and an essay that is all business, or a series of breathless news items, is unlikely to inspire much affection. If there’s a point to be made here, though, it’s that digression and looseness is best imposed on the level of the overall work, rather than in the individual sentence: McPhee’s finest essays often seem to wander from one subject to the next as connections occur to the author, but on the level of the individual line or image, they’re rigorously organized. Greening is such a valuable exercise because it targets the parts of a work that can always be boiled down further—transitional sections, places where the text repeats itself, redundancies, moments of indulgence. McPhee compares it to pruning, or to removing freight cars to shorten a train, so that no one, even the author, would know in the end that anything has been removed. And it’s only through greening that you discover the shape that the story wants for itself.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

How to be ambiguous

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 22, 2013.

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

Writing in hotel rooms

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Vladimir Nabokov

I got back yesterday from my brother’s wedding in Los Angeles, where I spent four nights with my wife and daughter at the excellent Omni Hotel. Along with a mountain of baby gear, I somewhat optimistically brought a few pages of notes for my novel, thinking that I’d have a chance to do a little work in my spare moments. Not surprisingly, that’s not how it worked out: staying in a hotel with a toddler presents enough of a challenge without trying to write at the same time. (We ended up stashing Beatrix’s travel crib in the bathroom, where she slept happily for most of the trip, much to the relief of her exhausted parents.) I felt a touch of regret at this, since I’ve always enjoyed working in hotels. Most recently, I vividly remember spending much of a trip to Las Vegas in my hotel room at Mandelay Bay, scribbling notes and trying frantically to think of a new title for my third novel, which my publisher had asked me to change. I wasn’t able to come up with much, and it was only while browsing at an airport bookstore on the way home that I finally hit upon the pleasing but relatively meaningless title Eternal Empire—although I still prefer The Scythian.

Writers, of course, have frequently used hotel rooms as places of work. Nabokov spent much of his itinerant life—and his summertime pursuit of butterflies—moving from one hotel to the next, spending his last fifteen years at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. One particular stay, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, evidently served as a catalyst for the plot of Lolita, in which a pivotal scene takes place at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. (Thomas Mann, a writer for whom Nabokov had little respect, derived similar inspiration from his own hotel visits.) Maya Angelou rented a hotel room by the month in her hometown, where she worked every morning, lying across the bed, the sheets of which she insisted remain unchanged for the duration of her stay. Describing her routine to The Paris Review, Angelou gets close to the heart of why hotels are so conducive to certain kinds of creative thought:

I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.

Maya Angelou

There’s a sense in which a hotel room occupies a unique place in the spectrum of the writer’s routine. Many authors can’t write away from a particular room or desk, to the point where some construct special writing shacks. Others prefer a particular lunch counter or restaurant, like The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, who had his favorite booth installed in his house after the coffee shop went out of business. And a select few take pride in being able to work anywhere. A hotel room represents a kind of compromise between these extremes. All hotel rooms are essentially the same, while remaining subtly different, so they provide a neutral setting for undistracted work while avoiding the boredom or monotony of the same unchanging space. Even now, when few of us write letters on hotel stationery, a writing desk and chair are still among the few standard furnishings of even the most modest of motel rooms. We may not get a chance to use the desk—I don’t think I even sat down at mine at the Omni for the four nights I spent there—but without it, the room would seem subliminally incomplete.

And there’s something fictive about a hotel room, which exists, like a short story, as a sort of simulacrum of real life. Nobody’s real house can or should look like this, although there are certainly people who spend much of their lives shaping their surroundings in imitation of what they’ve seen in hotels, from the towels to the robes to the sheets, just as many of us end up deriving our ideas about life from the books or movies we’ve experienced. Nabokov hints at this in a letter to Katharine and E.B. White, with a wonderful play on words that seems unintentional, although with Nabokov you never know: “I have no illusions about hotels in this hemisphere; they are for conventions, not for the individual.” By “conventions,” Nabokov means the gatherings of the “thousand tight salesmen” who descend on Lolita at the halfway point of the novel, but I’d prefer to focus on its alternate meaning. A hotel life is a conventional life, built up from a stranger’s idea of comfort or convenience, a vacant stage that we fill with our presences for a night or two. It’s a blank page. So it’s no surprise that those two areas of emptiness—and possibility—go together so well.

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2014 at 10:12 am

How to be ambiguous

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2013 at 9:23 am

“He entered the club, leaving the door open…”

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"A shadow detached itself from the rear of the shed..."

(Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here.)

“Although there is no substitute for merit in writing,” E.B. White notes in The Elements of Style, “clarity comes closest to being one.” This is true of all aspects of fiction, from character to dialogue, and it’s especially true of action scenes. An action sequence in a novel is a kind of musical number in which all the basic notes of storytelling are hit with extraordinary focus and concentration, and there’s little room for error. It’s a war between the two central aspects of reading: the impulse to linger and the need to keep going. Most good fiction is written on the premise that the reader will occasionally pause to reflect on a complex sentence, read a paragraph over again, or even turn back a few pages for clarification or context. An action scene, by contrast, is one that begs to unfold in real time, with the act of reading coinciding as much as possible with the rhythm of the action itself. Writing a scene that satisfies these requirements while remaining stylistically consistent with the rest of the novel is a real challenge, and the key, as White points out, is clarity—although I doubt he was thinking of chase scenes or gunfights when he wrote those words.

A novel isn’t a movie, of course, and it can be dangerous to look to film for examples of how to stage action: movies have tools at their disposal, like montage and intercutting, that don’t come easily to fiction. But film still provides some useful illustrations. I’ve noted before that my favorite action scenes of recent years—the Guggenheim shootout in The International, the Burj Khalifa climb in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, and the opening chase in Drive—were all worked out on the page, rather than in the editing room. They unfold in real time and proceed from one logical beat to the next, and there’s rarely any doubt about what the characters are thinking, although the full meaning of the scene in Drive isn’t revealed until the very end of the sequence. They’re cleanly photographed and cut together in a way that isn’t afraid to hold on a shot, and each depends intimately on spatial relationships, both in the physical geography of the set and within the frame itself. All these decisions have their common origin in a concern for clarity. The audience is grounded at every moment, and we’re never confused, as we often are by Michael Bay, about what is happening on the screen.

"He entered the club, leaving the door open..."

In short, a good action scene, either in fiction or in film, serves as an intense microcosm of the virtues of good storytelling itself. Like the story as a whole, it’s best when it’s built on a sequence of clear problems, which the protagonist succeeds or fails at solving in some logical order. Clarity is always important, but never more so than when the action needs to move at a fast pace, and the use of clean, vivid prose is the literary equivalent of the composed shot and spatially coherent editing. Each sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and end: it’s no accident that the three scenes I’ve mentioned above could be taken out of their surrounding movies and enjoyed in their own right, as many of us tend to do when we’re watching them at home. And just as finding the right rhythm for an action scene in a movie can come down to the addition or removal of a few frames, the action in a novel needs to be written and revised with particular care, long after the author’s own excitement has begun to fade, until the logic is crystal clear in the moment to a reader encountering it for the first time.

When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was still figuring most of this out, and although it took me a long time to formulate these rules, I managed to follow them intuitively, at least most of the time. Chapter 44, for instance, is as close to a conventional action scene as you’ll find in the book, and it’s only in retrospect that I can see how the objectives follow logically one after the other, as determined by the geography of the setting at the Club Marat. Ilya emerges from the darkness under the boardwalk behind the club, takes out the busboy, slips through the back door, makes his way up the corridor to the downstairs office, incapacitates the restaurant manager, arms himself, and places a call to Sharkovsky for a meeting, knowing that he’ll come to the office first. The only bloodshed comes a few pages later, when Ilya shoots Misha, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s only a coda to the real source of interest, as we follow Ilya’s thoughts and decisions from one point of cover to the next. There’s no question that I was inspired by the movies I loved, especially the final confrontation in Michael Mann’s Thief, and the action here unfolds in the novelistic equivalent of one continuous shot. And it isn’t over yet. As Ilya and Sharkovsky are about to discover, they aren’t alone…

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

My essential writing books

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The Elements of Style

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.

The Art of Fiction

3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)

4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Writing is cutting

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Movies are made in the editing room. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: you can shoot the best raw footage in the world, but if it doesn’t cut together, the movie isn’t going to work. Beyond their basic responsibilities of maintaining continuity and spacial coherence, the editor is largely responsible for shaping a film’s narrative momentum, streamlining and clarifying the story, and making sure it runs the proper length. And sometimes the editor’s role goes even further. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

[Walter] Murch says it’s common in editing, and normally easy, to steer scenes five or ten degrees in either direction from their intended course. Shading intensity, favoring a character, softening a moment—that’s “the bread and butter of film editing,” as he calls it. “It also seems that flipping the polarity of a scene—going completely the opposite way from where things were originally intended—is something relatively easy to do in film editing.”

And although there are countless famous cases of movies being radically rewritten in the editing room, like Ralph Rosenblum’s brilliant reshaping of Annie Hall, a casual comparison between the published screenplays and the finished versions of most great movies reveals that crucial changes are being made all the time. To pick just one example: the closing montage of words and images at the end of The Usual Suspects, which gives the entire movie much of its power, is totally absent in the script, and a lot of the credit here needs to be given to editor John Ottman. And smaller, less flashy examples are visible everywhere you look.

At first glance, it might seem as if a novelist is in a somewhat different position. A film editor is constrained by the material at hand, and although in certain cases he may have some input when it comes to expensive reshoots, for the most part, he has no choice but to make do with the footage that results from principal photography, which can be massaged and reconceived, but only to some extent, with the help of clever cutting, wild lines, and lucky discoveries in the slate piece. (The slate piece, as I’ve mentioned before, is the second or two of stray film left at the beginning of a take, before the actors have even begun to speak. Mamet likes to talk about finding important bits of footage in this “accidental, extra, hidden piece of information,” and he isn’t lying—the evocative, ominous shots of empty corridors in the hospital scene in The Godfather, for instance, were salvaged from just such a source.) A novelist, by contrast, can always write new material to fill in the gaps or save an otherwise unworkable scene, and it doesn’t cost anything except time and sanity. In reality, however, it isn’t quite that easy. The mental state required for writing a first draft is very different from that of revision, and while writers, in theory, benefit from an unlimited range of possibilities, in practice, they often find themselves spending most of their time trying to rework the material that they already have.

This is why I’ve become increasingly convinced that writing is revision, and in particular, it’s about cutting and restructuring, especially with regard to reducing length. Fortunately, this is one area, and possibly the only area, in which writers have it easier now than ever before. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

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.

There’s something appealing about the image of a writer literally cutting his work using scissors and tape, and it’s possible that there’s something tactile in the process that would lead to happy accidents—which makes me want to try it sometime. These days, however, it’s so easy to cut and restructure files in Word that it seems insane for a writer not to take full advantage of the opportunity. Like editing a movie in Final Cut Pro, it’s nondestructive: you can try anything out and reverse it with a keyboard shortcut. You can cut as much as you like and restore it with ease, as long as you’ve taken the precaution of saving a new version with every round of revision. And I’ve learned that if it occurs to you that something could be cut, it should be. Nine times out of ten, once that initial change has been made, you won’t even remember what was there before—and if, five or ten rereadings later, you find that you still miss it, it’s a simple matter to restore what used to be there.

And almost invariably, the shorter and more focused the story becomes, the better it gets. Not only is cutting a story as much as possible the best trick I know, in some ways, it’s the only trick I know. When I look back at my own published work, I naturally divide it into several categories, based on how happy I am with the finished result. At the top are the stories—The Icon Thief, “The Boneless One,” and a handful of others—that I don’t think I’d change much at all, followed by a bunch that I’d like to revise, and a couple that I wish hadn’t seen print in their current form. Without exception, my regrets are always the same: I wish I’d cut it further. The conception is sound, the writing is fine, but there are a few scenes that go on too long. And although it’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about one of your stories a year or two down the line, I almost always wish I’d made additional cuts. That’s why, as I begin the final push on Eternal Empire, I’m cutting even more savagely than my critical eye might prefer, trying to think in terms of how I’ll feel ten months from now, when the novel is published. (The divergence between my present and future selves reminds me a little of the gap between Nate Silver’s “now-cast” and his election day forecast, which will finally converge on November 6.) I don’t know what my future self will think of this novel. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll wish that I’d cut a little more.

Quote of the Day

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[A]lthough there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2012 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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One nice thing about either writing or drawing is that it is both a direct and an uncertain way of making a living. To write a piece and sell it to a magazine is as near a simple life as shining up a pushcart full of apples and vending them to passersby.

E.B. White, in a letter to Stanley Hart White

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2012 at 8:00 am

The starving author’s guide to money

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Money,” as Malcolm Cowley said, “is the central problem of a young writer’s life, or of his staying alive.” In particular, the lack of money is generally the central problem of most writers’ lives, at least in the years it takes to establish anything resembling a career. Even more frustrating is the fact, confirmed by my own experience, that it’s incredibly hard to produce a publishable novel if you aren’t writing full-time. This contradiction, between the reality of present financial constraints and the dream of being able to write six or more hours a day, is one that nearly every writer has faced. And it’s no exaggeration to say that every financial decision you make, from the moment you first decide to write for a living, needs to be directed toward establishing a life where that kind of freedom is possible. Because money is really just a proxy for more important things, like freedom, flexibility, and time.

The first, essential step, then, is to scale one’s life to the appropriate level, which is easier for some than for others. E.B. White pointed out that Thoreau’s great experiment was only possible for someone who was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” and this remains true today: if you’re single and in your early twenties, it’s going to be easier for you to simplify your life than if you’re married with a couple of kids. But any life can benefit from some degree of simplification, and voluntary simplicity—or even what used to be called, less fashionably, voluntary poverty—remains the best position from which to embark upon a writing career. These days, simplicity has been variously defined, sometimes in incongruously complicated ways, but for an artist, it merely involves giving up some comfort in exchange for freedom and time. And time, more than anything else, is what a writer needs.

Of course, the specifics of simplifying one’s life will vary radically from person to person. For me, in the years leading up to my decision to quit my job, it meant relocating from Manhattan to Brooklyn, scaling back on luxuries like new books, and, above all, in saving. This isn’t the place for a detailed lecture on frugality or investing—for that, I’d recommend Ernest Callenbach’s Living Cheaply With Style and the sage advice on Bogleheads.org—but it’s worth noting that budgets generally don’t work as well as an automatic savings plan: you increase the percentage that you put into savings, even if it’s a small amount at first, and learn to live with a reduced income each month. Make it unconscious, with a portion of each month’s paycheck deposited directly into a savings account before you can touch it, and structure your life around the remainder. Andrew Tobias put it best, in The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

The immediate objective, then, while working toward the larger goal of writing for a living, is to pay down debt and create a cushion of savings to weather the inherent uncertainty of a writer’s life. Dean Koontz has advised writers to have a cushion of at least six to nine months’ personal expenses before attempting to write full-time, but I personally think that the number is much higher—at least a year, maybe more. That may seem like an insurmountable amount at a time when the average savings rate in the United States is 4.5%, but it’s much easier when you’ve scaled back your expenses beforehand. Spiritual considerations aside, on a purely practical level, a simple external life is more likely to grant you the kind of internal life that you need. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Small moves over a period of years are more effective than a sudden plunge into the unknown. And when the time comes to take that final step, you’ll be ready.

Disclaimer: I’m not a financial professional. This advice is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as advice specific to your situation. (If Thoreau were alive today, his publisher would make him say the same thing.)

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

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