Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Housing Works

Research as a way of dreaming

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As I argued yesterday, researching a novel, at least at its earliest stages, isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about dreaming. While it’s certainly important for an author to get his or her facts straight—if only because there’s nothing like an obvious error to yank the reader out of the story—such fact-checking can usually wait until later in the process, sometimes even after the bulk of the novel is finished. The first round of research, by contrast, is less about verifying facts than about gathering material for the imagination, which runs best when kept fed and happy. Here, then, are some tips on approaching the research process when you have the germ of an idea for a novel, but not much else:

1. Cast your net wide. Later, as you dig more deeply into the meat of your story, specifics are essential, but at the earliest stages, they can be deadly. An unwritten novel can be about anything, and it’s a mistake to lock yourself into one particular conception before it’s absolutely necessary. It’s best, then, to begin your research with as general a view on the subject as possible—even to the point where the subject itself disappears. For Kamera, which is about the art world, I didn’t begin with books on art collecting, or even on the history of art, but with books on eyesight and visual perception. In particular, I began with James Elkins’s excellent Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—a book I found at random in the library, as I’ll be discussing further below. And if it weren’t for an aside in Elkins’s book, I never would have thought of learning more about Marcel Duchamp, a decision that has shaped the past three years of my life, and counting. Careers are made from such moments.

2. Stay off the Internet. While the Internet certainly has its place in the research process—especially for checking the thousands of small, specific details in a novel that would be impossible to verify otherwise—it isn’t very good for dreaming. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and how the right side, which is where ideas come from, operates at a slower pace than the left. Doing research online is a classic left-brained activity: it’s fast, efficient, superficial. To lure out the right brain, you need to park yourself in a comfortable chair with a couple of the largest books you can find, because it’s often not until after a few hundred pages that the right brain finally kicks in. Sometimes you’ll emerge with only one good idea from a book of three hundred pages—as I recently did with The New Cold War by Edward Lucas—but it’s an idea that never would have occurred to you online. Books, in this case, are just better.

3. Read the books that nobody else reads. Books and authors go through cycles of popularity, and in my experience, it’s the books that are out of print or out of fashion that are the most fruitful for a writer’s work. Remember, we aren’t looking for factual accuracy, but to coax the right brain to life, a sensation that is almost inseparable, at least to me, from the smell of old books and bookstores. (Which, my dad says, is really the smell of mildew. “And happiness,” I reply.) If you’re doing research on a particular subject, unless it’s something like search engine optimization, look for books that were published before you were born: they’re likely to be better written, more eccentric, and more conducive to imagination than books that came out yesterday. The more recent the book, the more likely it conforms to currently fashionable habits of thought, which is the last thing a writer needs. (Example: an original edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while useless as a reference book, is infinitely superior to more recent versions as a tool for dreaming.)

4. Let books find you. On this subject, I’ve already quoted Robert Graves, who said that the books he needed to write The White Goddess “were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.” Most writers, I imagine, know how this feels. Perhaps the most useful book that I’ve found in the research for Midrash is James Billington’s great The Icon and the Axe, which I discovered in the dollar bin of the Housing Works Bookstore in New York. And I’ve already mentioned how the heart of Kamera was inspired by a chance library discovery. But such books will only find you if you’re prepared to recognize them when they appear—and if you haunt used bookstores and libraries on a regular basis. If you don’t already spend at least an hour a week browsing the stacks somewhere, you probably should.

5. Allow for randomness. Sometimes the best ideas come from sources that have nothing to do with your novel at all. It’s hard to predict when such moments will come—it can be when you’re watching television, or at the movies, or reading a novel on a plane—but it’s also possible to encourage them to appear. There are certain books in our culture that are treasure hoards of randomness, mines of ideas waiting to attach themselves to your imagination, and it’s crucial to find time for these books as well. You’ll probably have your own favorites, but my own indispensable lucky bags of ideas include Brewer’s Dictionary (the older the edition, the better), The Whole Earth Catalog (ditto), The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe, and (a recent discovery) The Portable Dragon.

This, then, is the first stage of research, which involves endless browsing and daydreaming, and what seems like a lot of wasted time—as does much of a novelist’s life. But this stage is so essential that I recommend that you devote at least a month to it (though more than six weeks is verging on procrastination). Later, when you’re drawing on the well of ideas you’ve acquired, you’ll be very glad you did.

“Do you have a restless urge to write?”

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On Monday, I was browsing the dollar bin at the Housing Works Bookstore—possibly my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, aside, of course, from the Strand—when I found a paperback copy of Couples by John Updike. (It’s Updike’s trashiest novel, and probably his best, or at least the only one I feel the urge to read again every year.) Inside the book was tucked a copy of the following advertisement. Click on the image below for more detail:

And here’s the other side:

Bennett Cerf was one of the most famous publishers of his time—I still have fond memories of his Book of Laughs—but if the Famous Writers School looks like something of a scam, well, it was. Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death is one of the great classics of investigative journalism, wrote a savage takedown of the school in the Atlantic Monthly that is still worth reading today. Basically, and I’m simplifying only a little here, the school would employ salesmen to convince housewives to pay $900 for a correspondence course that they could have obtained at a local college for a fraction of the price. None of the writers pictured in the advertisement ever looked at students’ assignments, which were graded by an overworked staff of freelancers. And the school’s entire business model depended on the fact that few students would ever finish the course.

Yet thousands of people still signed up. And I can’t help but be reminded of this story in light of yesterday’s announcement that the Curtis Brown Agency is opening its own writing school, charging students $2,500 apiece for a three-month writing workshop. The big lure: “Stand-out students will be offered representation.” Of course, there’s no telling how many students will be signed by the agency, or to what extent this workshop is intended primarily to generate revenues at a difficult time for publishing. But even if the workshop is everything it promises, it still raises the question of how useful any kind of paid education is for writers. Is the Curtis Brown workshop, or the Famous Writers School, any better or worse than a standard MFA program?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never taken a formal writing class, despite having gone to a college populated by more than its share of established and aspiring novelists. And my gut instinct is to say that such classes, aside from the professional connections they might (or might not) provide, are probably unnecessary for the majority of writers. What a writer needs, above all else, is readers—a handful of intelligent people who will criticize and praise the writer’s work in appropriate measure. A writer needs to read—the great, good, and indifferent books of all eras, as well as a few of the best books on writing itself. And a writer needs to write—as often as possible, ideally every day. A formal class is primarily useful, it seems to me, in providing a structured setting for these three things, which any sufficiently motivated writer could probably find on his or her own. (Which is why a correspondence course like that of the Famous Writers School, which advertises itself as “a class of one,” is presumably not the best option.)

It might be argued that the same principle applies to any kind of formal education, at least in the humanities: with access to a library, interesting friends, and a lot of personal discipline, a student can receive more or less the same education that he or she would receive as a college undergraduate. (T.S. Eliot, among others, was openly contemptuous of the idea of studying English literature in college, which might be done equally well, or so he argued, in the student’s spare time.) Of course, without the social and professional benefits of an accredited program, it’s going to be hard to find work as, say, a professor of classics. But writing is one of the few professional fields that still welcomes autodidacts—which is one of the things that makes it so interesting, and terrifying.

In the end, every writer, even a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is essentially self-taught. Which is why I feel that the best way might still be to go it alone. (If you’re serious about being a writer, you’ll eventually find yourself going it alone anyway.)

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