Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henry Miller

A specialist in the dream world

leave a comment »

The dream world is becoming my specialty. Henry [Miller] has gathered together all his dreams and is rewriting them, transforming them, expanding them. He wants to use them as the climax to Black Spring. He wants to recapitulate the themes of the book via the dreams. He came to me the first time with two pages which seemed off-tone to me. He wanted the animal realism of his dreams, and he introduced vulgar music-hall dialogue. It was not obscene, as some dreams are, but consciously and wordily vulgar. “The obscenity of the dream,” I said, “is different. It is one of erotic images, or sensations, but it has no vocabulary. There is no dialogue in the dream, and very few words. The words are condensed like the phrases of poems. The language must be a kind of non-language. It cannot be everyday language. The dream happens without language, beyond language.” Then Henry wrote the third part, or the third batch, and experimented with irrational language, getting better and better as he went along, while I watched for the times when he fell out of the dream.

Anaïs NinThe Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume One: 1931-1934

Written by nevalalee

September 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Henry Miller

In a few moments the fire died out—and remained dead for the rest of the evening. In about twenty minutes the floor became icy cold…We sat in our overcoats, collars turned up, hats pulled down over our ears, our hands stuffed deep in our pockets. Just the right atmosphere in which to produce masterpieces, I thought to myself…If captured with the brush during a siege of exaltation it could arouse ridicule or indignation on the part of an unseeing beholder; it could also make a sensitive individual bleed with anguish. But it would never bring pocket money, nor heat nor light, nor even apple fritters.

Henry Miller, The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The poetry of insurance

with one comment

Wallace Stevens

If you know only one fact about the poet Wallace Stevens, it’s that he spent most of his career working as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s arguably the most famous literary day job of the twentieth century, and the contrast between what the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently called “Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life” tends to stick in our minds more than, say, T.S. Eliot’s stint at Lloyd’s Bank or Henry Miller’s years as a personnel manager at Western Union. In part, this is because Stevens simply stayed at his job for longer and rose higher in its ranks even after he had become the most acclaimed poet of his generation. (The story goes that he was offered a faculty position at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, but he turned it down because it would have meant giving up his position at the firm.) It’s also a reflection of how we see the insurance business, which seems like an industry suited more for painstaking drudges than for the kind of visionary personalities that we associate with poetry—although every good poet also has to be a great bookkeeper. If we want to drill down even further, we could say that there’s something inherently unpoetic about the methods of insurance itself: it deals with human beings in the aggregate, as a statistical abstraction without a face, while poetry is naturally concerned with the individual, the unquantifiable, and the unexpected.

But we can also draw a clear line between Stevens’s life at the office and the development of his poetry. In his review in The New Yorker of Paul Mariani’s new biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Schjeldahl notes that the book “ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention.” Yet Schjeldahl does his best to invest them with meaning, in an eloquent paragraph that has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it:

Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.

I like this insight a lot, because there’s something to be said for a conception of poetry as an ongoing act of risk management. A rational artist wants to take on as much risk as he or she possibly can, because high risk goes with high return in art as much as it does in other kinds of investment—but only if you can live with it. If you’ve miscalculated your tolerance for volatility, as many aspiring artists do, you’re more likely to go out of business.

James M. Cain

The insurance industry also seems like a good place for a writer to learn something about the complex ways in which institutions and impersonal systems interact with human nature. Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institution, for instance, clearly played a crucial role in the development of his vision, and far more explicitly than it did with Stevens. But my favorite example comes from another singular voice in American letters: the novelist James M. Cain, who sold insurance for the General Accident Company in Washington D.C. He seems to have only worked there for a short time, but that’s interesting in itself—he repeatedly returned to the subject in his fiction, which implies that he regarded it as a great source of material. It provides a central part of the plot of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which are fables, in essence, about the collision of messy emotions with the clinical, depersonalized logic of the insurance business. In the former, it leads to a surprise twist that makes nonsense of the violence that came before it; in the latter, it’s a plan for the perfect crime, conceived by a crooked insurance agent, that is quickly undermined by such basic, uncontrollable emotions as greed and lust. And Cain correctly realized that the intersection between insurance and human desire was the perfect territory for noir, which is often about the contrast between what we think we can plan and what the unfair universe really has in store for us.

That’s true of poetry, too. It’s traditionally the most exacting and precise of literary forms, but it puts itself in service of emotions and ideas that resist understanding and explanation, which is another form of calculated risk. The works of a poet like Shakespeare, who was a shrewd businessman in his own right, are notable for the way in which they seem to combine total specificity of detail with oracular opacity, a combination that can only arise from an artist who knows how to surrender control while retaining enough of it to bring the work to a conclusion. A career in insurance provides one way of thinking about such problems, as long as the poet can keep the core of his spirit intact. As the poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote:

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away. So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

A poet, in short, succeeds by learning how to manage many small instances of failure, which is the definition of insurance. And Kooser would know—because he worked in insurance, too.

“The greatest and most terrible sight…”

leave a comment »

"Feeling the ground shake..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 45. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the dangers of writing any kind of fiction, literary or mainstream, is how quickly the story can start to exist within a closed circle of assumptions. The rules of a genre aren’t a bad thing: as I’ve noted elsewhere, they’re essentially a collection of best practices, tricks and techniques that have accumulated over time through the efforts of countless writers. A trick that survives is one that has repeatedly proven itself, and much of the pleasure of reading comes from watching as the author honors, subverts, or pushes against the constraints that the narrative imposes. The trouble is when a story moves so far from the real world that its characters cease to exhibit recognizable human behavior, as its internal rules become ever more strict and artificial. A show like The Vampire Diaries, for instance, takes a surprisingly casual approach to murder, with the average episode boasting a body count in the high single digits, and the reaction to each additional death amounts to a shrug and a search for a shovel. Within the confines of the show, it works, but the second we start to measure it against any kind of reality, it comes precariously close to collapsing.

That’s true of literary fiction as well. Even great authors operate within limits when it comes to the kinds of situations and characters they can comfortably depict. In Genius and Lust, Norman Mailer draws a memorable comparison between the tonal ranges of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller:

The cruelest criticism ever delivered of Henry James is that he had a style so hermetic his pen would have been paralyzed if one of his characters had ever entered a town house, removed his hat, and found crap on his head (a matter, parenthetically, of small moment to Tolstoy let us say, or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal). Hemingway would have been bothered more than he liked. Miller would have loved it.

The more closely we read certain writers or genres, the more we see how much they stick to their particular circles. Sometimes that circle is determined by what the author can talk about through firsthand experience; sometimes it’s the result of a genre enforcing an unstated decorum, a set of rules about what can and can’t be said.

"The greatest and most terrible sight..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, these rules can lead to a suspension of emotion, at least of certain kinds. A murder mystery never shows much regret over the fate of the departed; it’s too busy moving on to a trail of clues to waste any time in mourning. Suspense works along similar lines. Sometimes a pivotal death will serve to motivate an ensuing course of action, but along the way, the bodies tend to pile up without much in the way of consequence. I wouldn’t say that my own novels take this as far as The Vampire Diaries, but when I look back on The Icon Thief and its sequels, there are times when I get a little uneasy with the way in which the plot advances on moments of casual violence. (On a much higher level, you can hear some of the same ambivalence in Francis Coppola’s voice when he talks about The Godfather, and by the time he gets to The Godfather Part III, he seems outright weary at having to supply the hits and kills that the audience has come to expect.) There’s a mechanical pleasure to be had in seeing a story run fluently through those conventions, but when you step briefly outside, you start to see how limited a picture of the world it really presents.

That’s why I’m particularly proud of Chapter 45 of City of Exiles. It’s a short chapter, as short, in fact, as I could make it, and my agent even suggested that it be cut. I’m glad I kept it, though, because it represents one of the few points in the entire series when we pull away from the primary characters and depict an event from an outside perspective. In it, I introduce a character named Ivan, fishing on the ice with his dog, who happens to witness the crash of Chigorin’s private plane. In some ways, my decision to cut away here was a pragmatic one: none of the passengers is in any condition to directly experience what happens, and there’s a world of difference, in any case, between describing a plane crash from the inside and showing how it appears on the ground. On a more subtle level, I wanted to depart from the closed circle of the novel to reinforce the horror of the moment, even if it’s described as clinically as everything else. Objectively speaking, City of Exiles is a violent book, and there are times when the faces of the victims start to blur together. Here, for once, I wanted to suggest how it would feel to a man who didn’t know he was part of the story. Ivan won’t be coming back again, but it was important, if only for a moment, to see through his eyes…

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2013 at 8:34 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

The essential writing break

leave a comment »

Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write at all. When you’re working on a novel, especially in the latter stages, it threatens to take over your entire brain, often in very literal ways: there always comes a point in the process, usually after the third or fourth rewrite, when I’m convinced I could reconstruct the entire thing from memory. Fortunately, I’ve never had to try, but the fact that I could do it gets at an important point that every writer needs to remember. The relationship you have with your novel, at least at the moment, will be more intimate than any you’ll ever have with the greatest work of fiction written by someone else. You’ll find yourself thinking about its structure while shaving, and drifting off in the middle of a conversation, as my wife knows, to puzzle out a rough spot on page 73. In the end, you’ll see its shape more perfectly than anyone else ever will, which will allow you to make the deep structural changes necessary to make it work for a reader who is only aware of the story unfolding page by page.

Yet this can also be dangerous. When the novel sits in your head “with all the palpability of a huge elm lying uprooted in your backyard”—as Norman Mailer once said of Henry Miller’s fiction—it can be hard to see it through the eyes of a conventional reader. Most fiction, as I think Joan Didion says, is judged on the level of the paragraph. This is as true for literary fiction as for its commercial counterparts. And it means that the mindset of a novelist who knows every line forward and backward is fundamentally different from that of a reader encountering a story for the first time. It means, ultimately, that you need to read your novel on two levels at once: as the author, godlike, with perfect knowledge of what comes next and how it relates to the page before you, and as the reader, in search of a story, who only has access to the information in the pages in his or her left hand.

Getting into that headspace, without any preconceived notions about the novel’s shape, can be a tricky business. The best way is to take an extended break. Some novelists, like Dean Koontz, have argued against such breaks, saying that it’s only an excuse for a writer to begin to doubt the quality of the work, which is certainly true in some cases. Still, more writers tend to agree with Stephen King, who advises us to take some time off between drafts to regain the necessary level of detachment. King recommends six weeks, but for some of us, that isn’t possible—given my own writing schedule, I can’t justify taking off more than two weeks or so before diving back into Eternal Empire. The best solution, in that case, is to spend your break writing something else, which I intend to do now. A couple of weeks spent writing a short story does wonders when it comes to coming back to a longer project with fresh eyes.

My own plan, in this case, involves an extra level of rereading: after my two weeks are up, I’m going to sit down and read The Icon Thief and City of Exiles from cover to cover, hopefully in as close to a single sitting as possible, followed by the current draft of Eternal Empire, which is designed to conclude the story begun in the first two books. Ideally, I’ll be able to see details and moments of resonance that deserve to be fully developed in the final novel, and affinities between the books that I couldn’t have seen before, when I was knee-deep in the process of writing them in the first place. It may take years, but there always comes a moment when a novel you’ve written turns into an object with which you feel only incidentally connected, which is what The Icon Thief has finally become to me. (I certainly couldn’t reconstruct it from memory anymore.) And that’s the ultimate break, in the sense of severing or rupture: the point at which your novel, at long last, becomes just another book.

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2012 at 9:44 am

The practical bohemian, or the art of getting by

with 6 comments

You want to know the only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man? It’s that he’s a survivor.

Christopher McQuarrie, The Way of the Gun

The same is true for a writer who is still working after five or ten years. Writing for a living is an education, and not just in the obvious ways. After a few years of writing on your own, you’ve inevitably developed a bag of the usual narrative tricks—get into scenes as late as possible, cut all drafts by ten percent—but you’ve also learned some practical tools for survival. You know how to write a publishable short story in a couple of weeks, rather than the month or more it might have taken in the past. You know where to find cheap books. Like J.K. Rowling, you know the address of a café that will let you write for hours if you buy a cup of tea. Maybe you’ve gone through a period where you drank or smoked too much, and then hopefully managed to get beyond it. And you’ve met other artists who have figured out some of the same things.

Because the unseen, communal art of writing is that of surviving happily on very little. In his great Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, R.H. Blyth describes voluntary poverty as “safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house,”  which also explains why most writers, including myself, eventually decide to quit their day jobs. The optimal solution, obviously, is to have it both ways: to write and work a steady job, as many writers have indeed done. But for most of us, the time ultimately comes when you need to make a choice. And of the two extremes of being consumed by a non-writing career and renouncing it entirely, walking away seems the safer solution, even if it means giving up some material comfort. And if nothing else, a writer can take heart from the fact that the things he needs to survive—books, a little food, a source of caffeine—can be had for almost nothing.

Take all these tricks, add them up, and turn them into a culture and community, and you have the artist’s life. More specifically, you have Midnight in Paris. Most artists eventually come up with similar solutions to these problems, in a sort of convergent evolution, which is why bohemians in all times and places tend to resemble one another more than the societies around them. But the lifestyle is a means to an end, and one of the worst things we can do is romanticize this kind of existence for its own sake. Everything that we find romantic about the Lost Generation and other spiritual bohemians—the coffee shops, the cheap neighborhoods, even the drug and alcohol abuse—originated as a practical answer to a particular question. And the untidy life of a Fitzgerald or Henry Miller can only be understood as very specific solution to the problem of how to sit down and write for hours at a time.

A writer’s goal, as I see it, should be to combine the simplest possible external life with an inner life of great complexity. This may sound like a spiritual or mystical objective, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the result of cold, calculating pragmatism. Voluntary simplicity, enforced solitude, joining a community of artists, renunciation of other kinds of careerism—these may seem like ethical choices, but they’re as basic and value-neutral as any other set of tools. And if we tend to forget this, and get distracted by side issues, it’s only because getting by on one’s own terms inevitably leads, almost by accident, to a very interesting life. It took me years to realize that Tropic of Cancer wasn’t about sex, but a handbook of art and survival. And while we may be fascinated by the details, the artist’s ultimate goal should be to say, with Miller: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Some day jobs of famous writers

with 5 comments

Q. Do you consider a novelist’s life the best possible form of existence?
A. I should say yes if I did not know of a form of existence to be even better.
Q. And what is that?
A. Inheriting a fortune, putting your hands in your pockets, and for the rest of your life doing nothing.

Punch, December 1, 1894

As my quote of the day reminds us, nearly every writer needs a day job. Even if you aren’t a poet, where the chances of making a living solely through writing are pretty much zero, the number of novelists in the United States who can support themselves with prose fiction alone is very small—probably something like less than a thousand. The rest teach, apply for grants, write reviews, or, most often, do something else entirely. And there’s no shame in that. Abraham Cohen, author of Everyman’s Talmud, points out that even the great rabbis worked for a living:

The story of Hillel’s poverty has already been told. Of other Rabbis we learn that Akiba used to collect a bundle of wood daily and exist on the price he received for it; Joshua was a charcoal-burner and lived in a room the walls of which were begrimed by his manner of work; Meïr was a scribe; José b. Chalaptha was a worker in leather; Jochanan was a maker of sandals; Judah was a baker; and Abba Saul held a menial position as a kneader of dough, while he mentions that he had also been a grave-digger.

And you can make a similar list for contemporary writers very easily, even if you restrict it to jobs that were held after the authors in question were published and, in some cases, famous. T.S. Eliot, as I’ve noted before, was a banker. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Douglas Adams worked as a hotel security guard. Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership. Henry Miller was a personnel manager at a telegraph company. Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry. And if you extend the list to what writers did before their first big break—Stephen King folded sheets in an industrial laundry, Joshua Ferris worked for an ad agency, Harlson Ellison did just about everything—it becomes nearly endless.

As for me, among various other things, I’ve written movie reviews, corporate training manuals, and online encyclopedia entries, some of which are still floating around on the Web, and spent several years occupying a desk at a New York investment firm, the less said about which the better. It’s been almost five years since I decided to go it alone, a choice I made because I saw no other way. (I have enormous respect for anyone who can write a novel while working a full-time job, because I know exactly how hard it is.) Whether I can continue to write for a living—whether, in short, I can become one of those thousand—remains to be seen. There’s certainly no guarantee. But, for lack of a better word, it’s definitely going to be interesting.

(For more day jobs of famous writers, see here and here.)

%d bloggers like this: