Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘E.L. Doctorow

Quote of the Day

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[The work] appears impersonal to the producer himself, the revelation of such work coming to his mind always as a deliverance, at a moment in his thought when his personality, his psyche, is released from itself in the transcendent freedom of a revelation. The creative act doesn’t fulfill the ego but rather changes its nature. You are less than the person you usually are.

E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” [Henry] James speaks of the “immense sensibility…that takes to itself the faintest hints of life…and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” He celebrates the novelist’s intuitive faculty “to guess the unseen from the seen,” but the word guess may be inadequate, for it is a power, I think, generated by the very discipline to which the writer is committed. The discipline itself is empowering, so that a sentence spun from the imagination confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not.

E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

How is a writer like a surgeon?

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E.L. Doctorow

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 22, 2015. 

The late E.L. Doctorow belonged to a select group of writers, including Toni Morrison, who were editors before they were novelists. When asked how his former vocation had influenced his work, he said:

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

Doctorow—who had the word “doctor” right there in his name—wasn’t the first author to draw a comparison between writing and medicine, and in particular to surgery, which has a lot of metaphorical affinities with the art of fiction. It’s half trade school and half priesthood, with a vast body of written and unwritten knowledge, and as Atul Gawande has pointed out, even the most experienced practitioners can benefit from the use of checklists. What draws most artists to the analogy, though, is the surgeon’s perceived detachment and lack of sentimentality, and the idea that it’s a quality that can be acquired with sufficient training and experience. The director Peter Greenaway put it well:

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

And the primary difference, aside from the stakes involved, is that the novelist is constantly asked, like the surgeon in the famous brainteaser, to operate on his or her own child.

Atul Gawande

Closely allied to the concept of surgical detachment is that of a particular intuition, the kind that comes after craft has been internalized to the point where it no longer needs to be consciously remembered. As Wilfred Trotter wrote: “The second thing to be striven for [by a doctor] is intuition. This sounds an impossibility, for who can control that small quiet monitor? But intuition is only inference from experience stored and not actively recalled.” Intuition is really a way of reaching a conclusion after skipping over the intermediate steps that rational thought requires—or what Robert Graves calls proleptic thinking—and it evolved as a survival response to situations where time is at a premium. Both surgeons and artists are called upon to exercise uncanny precision at moments of the highest tension, and the greater the stress, the greater the exactitude required. As John Ruskin puts it:

There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw: Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a “free” line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as “free” as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.

Surgeons, of course, are as human as anybody else. In an opinion piece published last year in the New York Times, the writer and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argued that the widespread use of surgical report cards has had a negative impact on patient care: skilled surgeons who are aggressive about treating risky cases are penalized, or even stripped of their operating privileges, while surgeons who play it safe by avoiding very sick patients maintain high ratings. It isn’t hard to draw a comparison to fiction, where a writer who consistently takes big risks can end up with less of a career than one who sticks to proven material. (As an unnamed surgeon quoted by Jahuar says: “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases.”) And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a patient of flesh and blood to the fictional men and women on which a writer operates, the stakes are at least analogous. Every project represents a life, or a substantial part of one: it’s an investment of effort drawn from the finite, and nonrenewable, pool of time that we’ve all been granted. When a novelist is faced with saving a manuscript, it’s not just a stack of pages, but a year of one’s existence that might feel like a loss if the operation isn’t successful. Any story is a slice of mortality, distilled to a physical form that runs the risk of disappearing without a trace if we can’t preserve it. And our detachment here is precious, even essential, because the life we’ve been asked to save is our own.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2017 at 9:00 am

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

The book of numbers

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Neil Sloane

The recent Nautilus article by Siobhan Roberts about the mathematician Neil Sloane, titled “How to Build a Search Engine for Mathematics,” is the most interesting thing I’ve read online in months. I stumbled across it around six this morning, at a point when I was thinking about little more than my first cup of coffee, and when I was done, I felt energized, awake, and excited about the future. At first glance, its subject might not seem especially promising: Sloane’s baby, The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, sounds about as engaging as the classic bestseller A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. But the more you think about Sloane and his life’s work, the more it starts to seem like what the Internet was meant to do all along. It’s a machine for generating connections between disciplines, a shortcut that turns good hunches into something more, and a means of quickly surveying an otherwise unnavigable universe of information. In short, it does for numbers, or anything that can be expressed as a sequence of integers, what Google Books theoretically should do for words. The result is a research tool that led Rutgers University professor Doron Zeilberger to call Sloane “the world’s most influential mathematician,” although, if anything, this understates the possible scope of his accomplishments. And even if you’re already familiar with OEIS, the article is well worth reading anyway, if only for how beautifully Roberts lays out its implications.

The appeal of Sloane’s encyclopedia can best be understood by going back to its origins, when its creator was a graduate student at Cornell. While writing his doctoral dissertation on a problem in artificial intelligence, he calculated an integer sequence—0, 1, 8, 78, 944, and so on—that described the firing of neurons in a neural network. As Roberts writes:

The sequence looked promising, though Sloane couldn’t figure out the pattern or formula that would give him the next and all further terms, and by extension the sequence’s rate of growth. He searched out the sequence at the library to see if it was published in a math book on combinatorics or the like, and found nothing. Along the way, however, he came upon other sequences of interest, and stashed them away for further investigation. He eventually computed the formula using a tool from 1937, Pólya’s enumeration theorem.

But the roundabout process had been frustrating. The task should not have been so difficult. He should have been able to simply look up his sequence in a comprehensive reference guide for all extant integer sequences. Since no such thing existed, he decided to build it himself. “I started collecting sequences,” he said. “I went through all the books in the Cornell library…And articles and journals and any other source I could find.”

Neil Sloane's notebook

Reading this, I was inevitably reminded of the experience of writing my own senior thesis, in the days before universal book search was available, and the kind of random scavenging through the stacks that was required back then to track down references and make connections. Sloane’s impulse to collect such sequences initially took the form of a set of punchcards, followed years later by A Handbook of Integer Sequences, published by his employers at Bell Labs. Finally, about twenty years ago, he put it online. Before long, the database began to prove its value, as when it revealed that a sequence related to the problem of placing cell towers matched one from an unrelated subject in number theory. It’s the closest thing we have to a search engine for math, as long as you can express whatever you’re doing in terms of a sequence of numbers:

Ultimately, it all comes back to counting things, and counting is a universally handy tool. Which in turn makes the encyclopedia handy, too. “Suppose you are working on a problem in one domain, say, electronics, and while solving a problem you encounter a sequence of integers,” said Manish Gupta, a coding theorist by training who runs a lab at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology. “Now you can use the encyclopedia and search if this is well known. Many times it happens that this sequence may have appeared in a totally unrelated area with another problem. Since numbers are the computational output of nature, to me, these connections are quite natural.”

As Roberts concludes: “The encyclopedia’s impact on scientific research broadly speaking can be measured by its citations in journals, which currently Sloane has tallied to more than 4,500, ranging through biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, thermodynamics, optics, quantum physics, astrophysics, geology, cybernetics, engineering, epidemiology, and anthropology. It is a numerical database of the human canon.” And although the humanities go mostly unrepresented in that list, that’s probably because the translation of such concepts into numbers isn’t always intuitive. But researchers in other areas can at least appreciate its usefulness by analogy. When I think of how I use Google as a creative tool, it’s less to find specific information than to unearth connections—as when I spent a month looking up pairs of concepts like “Dadaism” and “Vehmgericht” to populate the conspiracy theory in The Icon Thief—or to verify a hunch I’ve already had. (As E.L. Doctorow once put it: “[Research] involved finding a responsible source for the lie I was about to create, and discovering that it was not a lie, which is to say someone else had thought of it first.”) Sloane’s encyclopedia essentially allows mathematicians and scientists to do the same, once they’ve converted their ideas into a searchable sequence, which can be a useful exercise in itself. And even if you aren’t in one of those fields, a few minutes browsing in OEIS is enough to remind you of how large the world is, how patterns can emerge in unexpected places, and how the first step to insight is making sure that those connections are accessible.

How is a writer like a surgeon?

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E.L. Doctorow

The late E.L. Doctorow belonged to a select group of writers, including Toni Morrison, who were editors before they were novelists. When asked how his former vocation had influenced his work, he said:

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

Doctorow—who had the word “doctor” right there in his name—wasn’t the first author to draw a comparison between writing and medicine, and in particular to surgery, which has a lot of metaphorical affinities with the art of fiction. It’s half trade school and half priesthood, with a vast body of written and unwritten knowledge, and as Atul Gawande has pointed out, even the most experienced practitioners can benefit from the use of checklists. What draws most artists to the analogy, though, is the surgeon’s perceived detachment and lack of sentimentality, and the idea that it’s a quality that can be acquired with sufficient training and experience. The director Peter Greenaway put it well:

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

And the primary difference, aside from the stakes involved, is that the novelist is constantly asked, like the surgeon in the famous brainteaser, to operate on his or her own child.

Atul Gawande

Closely allied to the concept of surgical detachment is that of a particular intuition, the kind that comes after craft has been internalized to the point where it no longer needs to be consciously remembered. As Wilfred Trotter wrote: “The second thing to be striven for [by a doctor] is intuition. This sounds an impossibility, for who can control that small quiet monitor? But intuition is only inference from experience stored and not actively recalled.” Intuition is really a way of reaching a conclusion after skipping over the intermediate steps that rational thought requires—or what Robert Graves calls proleptic thinking—and it evolved as a survival response to situations where time is at a premium. Both surgeons and artists are called upon to exercise uncanny precision at moments of the highest tension, and the greater the stress, the greater the exactitude required. As John Ruskin puts it:

There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw: Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a “free” line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as “free” as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.

Surgeons, of course, are as human as anybody else. In an opinion piece in today’s New York Times, the writer and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argues that the widespread use of surgical report cards has had a negative impact on patient care: skilled surgeons who are aggressive about treating risky cases are penalized, or even stripped of their operating privileges, while surgeons who play it safe by avoiding very sick patients maintain high ratings. It isn’t hard to draw a comparison to fiction, where a writer who consistently takes big risks can end up with less of a career than one who sticks to proven material. (As an unnamed surgeon quoted by Jahuar says: “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases.”) And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a patient of flesh and blood to the fictional men and women on which a writer operates, the stakes are at least analogous. Every project represents a life, or a substantial part of one: it’s an investment of effort drawn from the finite, and nonrenewable, pool of time that we’ve all been granted. When a novelist is faced with saving a manuscript, it’s not just a stack of pages, but a year of one’s existence that might feel like a loss if the operation isn’t successful. A story is a slice of mortality, distilled to a physical form that runs the risk of disappearing without a trace if we can’t preserve it. And our detachment here is precious, even essential, because the life we’ve been asked to save is our own.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2015 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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E.L. Doctorow

My research is idiosyncratic. Very often in Ragtime it involved finding a responsible source for the lie I was about to create, and discovering that it was not a lie, which is to say someone else had thought of it first.

E.L. Doctorow, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

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