Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion

Quote of the Day

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When I was starting to write—in the late fifties, early sixties—there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids…I’m not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn’t much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved—I suppose—deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.

Joan Didion, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2018 at 8:01 am

American Stories #3: Vertigo

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

Vertigo, which may well be the most beautiful art object ever made in America, was based on a French novel, D’entre les morts, by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who wrote it in the express hope that Alfred Hitchcock would adapt it into a movie. I don’t know if Hitchcock ever explained why he transferred the setting to San Francisco, but I suspect that he was reasoning backward from its proximity to the Spanish missions, which would provide a bell tower tall enough for a woman to leap to her death, but not so high that a man couldn’t plausibly run up the stairs. Once the decision was made, Hitchcock indulged in his customary preference for utilizing his locations to their fullest. It gave us Madeline’s plunge into the bay near the Golden Gate Bridge and her haunting speech by the rings of the redwood tree: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Above all else, it allowed Hitchcock to give Judy a room at the Empire Hotel, lit from outside by its green neon sign, which enabled the single greatest shot in all of cinema. And the resulting film is inseparable from the state of which Joan Didion wrote:

Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Vertigo, like many of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, is about how the prize is won and then lost because of greed, jealousy, or nostalgia. As Scotty says despairingly to Judy at the end: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Like many great works of American art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film I’ve ever seen. It’s as mysterious as a movie can be, but it’s also grounded in its evocative but realistic San Francisco settings. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, which is a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in film, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps its crucial revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any cinematic adaptation has been more significant—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. The more we learn about Hitchcock’s treatment of women, the more confessional it all seems, and it implicates us as well: Scotty desires, attains, and finally destroys Judy in his efforts to turn her into Madeline, and it ends up feeling like the most honest story that Hollywood has ever told about itself.

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

Solzhenitsyn’s rosary

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 11, 2016.

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, along with so many other sufferings, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing poetry, but he was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as he recounts in The Gulag Archipelago:

I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.

The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:

I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.

Joan Didion

But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, and this trend has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. An oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.

And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion gets at this when she says: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Even if we’re diligent about keeping a pencil and paper—or a smartphone—nearby, there will be times when an idea catches us at a moment at which we can’t write it down. And when that happens, we need to be ready.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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I have a theatrical temperament. I’m not interested in the middle road—maybe because everyone’s on it. Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Joan Didion, in an interview with Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2017 at 7:30 am

The fair game

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

I have measured out my life with book sales. Not with bookstores, mind you, which have played an equally important but altogether different role in my dreams, but by the high school cafeterias or parish halls filled with books, donated by friends of the local library or church, that appear once a year and then vanish, like a treasure hoard conjured up in a fairy tale. Some of the most intense memories of my childhood revolve around the book sales once held at Faith Lutheran Church in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, where, on the last day, you could fill up a brown paper grocery bag for about five bucks. At the age of ten, amazingly, I actually had five dollars, which meant that I could get to the indispensable work of stocking my bedroom shelves with the tattered volumes that seem to fill everyone’s home library: the Stephen King and Michael Crichton paperbacks, the ten matching tombstones of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Mankind, the Reader’s Digest collections of household hints. Few of those books have survived the dozen times I’ve moved since then, but they served their purpose, like the seven tons of food and water that temporarily become a part of the body before passing on. But at least one find has remained with me for nearly two decades. One year, I found a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World, missing only the volumes for Darwin and Marx—which tells you a lot, I think, about the home in which they once resided. I literally sat on top of them until my parents could come to pick me up that day, and I still own them all, with the two forbidden authors restored. And I’m not kidding when I say that when I open one at random and inhale the scent of its pages, it transports me back at once to the happiest time in my life.

That book sale, obviously, wasn’t particularly exceptional, and similar ones are held each year in every town across America—which doesn’t make any of them any less precious. But ever since moving to the Chicago area, I’ve been lucky enough to live near the epicenter of three fantastic book events: the Printers Row Lit Fest, the Newberry Library Book Fair, and the Oak Park Book Fair. I missed the Lit Fest this year because I was out of town, but to make up for it, the Newberry and Oak Park book fairs took place on the very same weekend. As a result, I spent four consecutive days gorging on used books. It should have been wonderful, and it was, but it also forced me to confront a fact that still makes me a little uncomfortable: after three decades of buying, owning, and culling volumes for my own library, a book fair is bound to present diminishing returns, at least compared to the almost painful excitement that it afforded me when I was growing up. I’ve bought so many books over the years that most of the titles I see either leave me cold or generate a brief spark of nostalgia: I remember when I bought that one. When you’re twelve years old and don’t own many books, a copy of The Source or A Brief History of Time or a James Clavell doorstopper seems like a fantastic find, and maybe it is. Later, after you’ve been to a few more book fairs, you realize that they’re all glutted with copies of The Source and The Story of Mankind and, yes, even complete sets of the Great Books of the Western World. And in the meantime, your own shelves have become full to bursting, which means that for a new book to grab you, it has to squeeze through the eye of an increasingly tiny needle.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

These days, when I step into the Newberry Library Book Fair, I begin with a sense of limitless potential, as if I’ve arrived the book fair of my dreams. As I browse the tables over the next couple of hours, that feeling of uncut possibility dwindles into—well, not disillusionment, exactly, but a rational lowering of expectations. Before the book fair begins, it’s possible that it has all the weird, eccentric books that I need to fill out my collection, and that I’ll stumble across, say, a complete five-volume set of The Lisle Letters for less than fifty dollars. (This might seem absurdly optimistic, but remember, this is the same book fair where I found the sixteen volumes of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights last year for the same price. Miracles can and do happen.) It doesn’t take long for your fond wishes of what might be there to collide with the knowledge of what actually exists for the taking, much of which is great, but nearly all of which falls just a bit short of your hopes. It’s the equivalent of the kind of narrowing of possibility in writing fiction that Joan Didion describes to The Paris Review: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” In science, Thomas Henry Huxley called it “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” If you want to get really existential, you could say that it’s like the reduction of options in life, or politics, when the inconvenient truths insist on impinging themselves on the ideals you cherished when you weren’t limited by reality. When you’ve been a dedicated bibliophile for most of your life, every book fair turns into a picky exercise in the art of the possible.

This might seem like a lot of symbolic freight to place on such an innocent pleasure. But I’ve begun to realize that what I love about book fairs is their annual renewal of possibility, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. I’ve spoken frequently about the art of browsing, which is part luck, part skill, and all serendipity: it’s the one time in our adult lives when we’re most fully exposed to happy accidents. A book fair is browsing at its most intense: the collection of books before us is one that will never exist again, just as when we shuffle a deck of cards, we get an order that has never been seen before in all of human history. Playing the book fair game is a matter of sharp eyes, a relaxed but active brain, and an ability to spend hours on your feet, scanning a hodgepodge of titles. Not every book fair results in a moment of revelation, and although I’d love to wind up this post by saying that I was blindsided by a great find, that wasn’t the case this year. (The one that gave me the most happiness was a copy of Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder, which is one of those books that I always have at the back of my mind whenever I enter a bookstore, and which cost me all of three dollars at the Newberry.) But I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything. As John Gardner might have said, browsing is a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and at a time when I’m preoccupied with reading a narrow slice of books for my work, it’s good to have a reminder that the universe of ideas is so much greater than any one person can ever absorb. For thirty dollars, you can buy an entire liberal education, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And there’s always next year.

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2016 at 8:58 am

Solzhenitsyn’s rosary

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing, but was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as described in The Gulag Archipelago:

I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.

The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:

I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.

Joan Didion

But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, a trend that has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. Like the songlines of the Aboriginal Australians, an oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.

And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion must have had something like this in mind when she said: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss another method that I’ve been using with excellent results, and which relies on a priceless mnemonic tool that we all take for granted: the alphabet.

Written by nevalalee

July 11, 2016 at 9:06 am

The pianist and the astronaut

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Philippe Entremont

“I would try to discourage all but the very gifted from going to the conservatory today,” the pianist Philippe Entremont once said in an interview, “because the competition is very fierce.” He continued:

If young artists in the conservatory realized what they were up against, I am sure they would do something else, right away. Because the average piano student at the conservatory has about as much chance of becoming an internationally known pianist as being the President of the United States.

Entremont said this more than thirty years ago, in a conversation with the pianist and author David Dubal in Reflections from the Keyboard, and if anything, his warning seems even more relevant today. Elsewhere in the same book, which I recently picked up on a whim, another pianist estimates the chances of professional survival at something like one in ten thousand—which, while it isn’t quite as unlikely as becoming the next president, is remote enough that the comparison isn’t totally inappropriate. For obvious reasons, I’ve long been fascinated by the mentality that allows people to irrationally pursue careers in which they have almost no chance of succeeding, and the career of a concert pianist, even more than that of a novelist or ballerina, feels like the ultimate example of a profession that continues to exist only because so many music students refuse to accept the odds. (This applies to their parents as well: the typical pianist has been practicing since the age of six.)

Last weekend, I brought this up with a friend of mine whose perspective is particularly interesting. He’s an astrophysicist at Fermilab, a published science author, and a founding member of a popular Chicago soul band, which means that he knows something about the role of talent, intelligence, and luck in three very different fields. We talked about the difficulty of threading the needle when it comes to publishing a book or succeeding as a musician, and after mentioning the dilemma of the concert pianist, I said something like: “Every kid wants to be an astronaut, but how many make it that far?” My friend responded with what I thought was a remarkably insightful point: “The difference between a pianist and an astronaut is that if you don’t succeed at the latter, your consolation prize is a really good job.” He’s right, of course. We aren’t talking about the people who dream of going into space but lack the skills or ability to do so, but the ones who are smart, driven, and qualified, but who didn’t quite make it because of factors outside their control. After a certain point, the competition in any desirable field comes down to an arbitrary selection between candidates who are all but indistinguishable in terms of qualifications. Tiny external variables become disproportionately more important, and those who fail to make it to the astronaut level are still left with skills that will allow them to do pretty much whatever else they want.

The piano on the International Space Station

This isn’t true of a lot of other dream jobs, which can leave their aspirants looking like Frederik Pohl’s fiddler crabs, with nothing to show for all their efforts but one huge, overdeveloped claw. The skills acquired in the pursuit of a career as a pianist or ballerina aren’t readily transferrable, except perhaps to teaching, and they may even make it more difficult to move into another profession later on. You could argue, in fact, that a truly rational actor would choose his or her goals based on that principle of transferability: you want to aim as high as you can, but in a field in which falling just short at the final stage still leaves you with viable options. (It’s unclear to me, incidentally, how this applies to writers, and in particular to novelists. There’s no doubt that writing a publishable novel leaves you with skills that could, in theory, be applied elsewhere: you can write a clear sentence, structure complex ideas, take a project to completion over the period of many months, work productively in solitude, and keep both granular detail and the big picture in view. Yet the way in which these skills express themselves is often absurdly specialized: writing a novel is so different from any other human activity that it doesn’t lend a clear advantage to most other forms of work, especially at a time when nearly every category of media suffers from an oversupply of qualified writers. It also leaves a glaring hole in your résumé, and it can take you out of the workforce for years. And the fact that so many writers, like pianists or ballerinas, turn to teaching implies that their skills aren’t so transferable after all.)

That said, almost nobody thinks in those terms at the point in his or her life when these decisions really matter. We all lack perspective at precisely the moment when we could use it the most. (As Joan Didion said: “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”) On a cultural level, if not an individual one, there’s an advantage to encouraging a degree of irrational optimism at an early age. Otherwise, nobody would ever try for a career in the arts, few of which confer any appreciable advantage, in practical terms, to those who drop out of the game. It’s possible that the most “successful” group of people, on average, consists of those who start out with unrealistic ambitions, use those goals to build discipline and achievement in adolescence, and then transfer out of those fields before that kind of tunnel vision has a chance to do lasting harm. If I’d given up on the idea of being a writer at age twenty, I’d still have acquired a set of skills and habits that would have allowed me to do just fine at something else—as it did, more or less, in the years before I decided to make an effort to write for a living. I’m still confident that I made the right choice, but there were a few close calls along the way, and a writer’s life consists largely of postponing the moment of reckoning. If I’d been more practical, I’d have taken on just enough ambition to inoculate myself with it, and then moved on. But I never would have made it into orbit.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2016 at 9:16 am

“I know who you are…”

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"When Maddy turned around..."

Note: This post is the forty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 46. You can read the previous installments here.

Freedom in writing is a lot like its equivalent in everyday life. In theory, we’re all free actors of ourselves, as Harold Bloom describes the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, but in practice, we’re hemmed in by choices and decisions that we made years ago—or that other people or larger systems have made for us. Similarly, a novelist, who really does have access to limitless possibilities, inevitably ends up dealing with the kind of creative constriction that Joan Didion describes in an observation to The Paris Review that I never get tired of quoting:

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone…I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.

The difference between writing and life, of course, is that it’s easier for a writer to start over. No matter how much time or effort you’ve put into a project, you can always throw it away and begin again without anyone being the wiser, which is harder to pull off in the real world. Yet many writers stubbornly insist on sticking to what they’ve written, as if they didn’t have any alternative.

And the kicker is that they’re often perfectly right, at least where the first draft is concerned. Earlier this week, I talked about the finite amount of energy that a writer can allocate to the different stages of the creative process, and the strategies that he or she develops to conserve it. Discarding the material you’ve already written is a good way to sap the limited resources you have. More pragmatically, starting over usually amounts to never finishing the story at all: the most common reason that most attempts at a novel peter out halfway through is because the author was unable to live with what he or she had written the day before. A crucial part of becoming a writer lies in learning how to plow ahead despite the shortcomings of the work you’ve done, which often means treating your existing pages as fixed quantities. If nothing else, it’s a helpful strategy for concentrating exclusively on the work at hand: during the first draft, it makes sense to think of what you’ve written so far as inviolate, because otherwise, you’ll be tempted to go back and tinker, when you should be more concerned with the pages you don’t have. Revision requires another mental shift, in which everything is on the table, no matter how much work you’ve invested in it. And that transition—which flips your approach to the rough draft completely on its head—is one that every writer has to master.

"I know who you are..."

But there’s an even more interesting case to be made for preserving the elements you’ve already written, or at least for doing everything you can to work with them before giving up. In the past, I’ve spoken of writing as a collaboration between your past, present, and future selves: it’s too complicated for any one version of you to handle alone, so you set up ways of communicating across time with different incarnations of yourself, aided by good notes. Your existing pages are a message from the past to the present, and they deserve to be taken seriously, since there’s information there that might otherwise be lost. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says of a writer working on a story about Helen of Troy:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

Every writer, I think, will recognize this—but it only works if you trust that your past self knew what he or she was doing. And you’re more likely to come up with useful ideas if you treat that material as irrevocable. Like any constraint, it’s only fruitful if it can’t easily be eluded.

There’s a small but telling example in Eternal Empire of how this works. Way back in Chapter 5, when Maddy visits Tarkovsky’s house for the first time, she sees Nina, the oligarch’s daughter, riding a horse on a polo field, dressed in jodhpurs and a bomber jacket. Nina looks stonily at Maddy for a long second, and then disappears. It provided a nice visual button for the scene, but in order for it to make sense, I had to introduce Nina later on as a character. And I had no idea what role she might play. I had her pop up now and then in the pages that followed, always seen from a distance, just to remind the reader and myself that she still existed. Finally, when I reached Chapter 46—months after writing that first image—I knew that I couldn’t postpone it any longer: from a structural perspective, coming just before the huge set pieces that conclude the novel, it was the last area of calm in which any interaction between Maddy and Nina could take place. I thought more than once about cutting the earlier beat, which only amounted to a few lines, and taking the daughter out of the story entirely. But when I forced the two of them to meet at last, I ended up with what still feels like an essential moment: Nina drops a clue about her father’s plans, as well as to the overall plot, and they feel a brief connection that I knew would pay off in the final act. Without the image of that girl on a horse, which I introduced, as Gardner says, “by impulse, because it seemed right,” none of this would have occurred to me. It took a long time for it to justify itself, but it did. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t acted as if I didn’t have a choice…

Written by nevalalee

March 10, 2016 at 8:55 am

The way of entanglement

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A page from my rough draft

Every now and then, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’ll get the urge to radically downsize my life. I’m endlessly fascinated by the books and blogs that talk about paring your possessions down to only one hundred things, and sometimes I feel like going even further: I dream about living out of a backpack, with little more than a laptop, a phone, a ukulele, and a few books for a long journey, and taking off to explore the world. In terms of temperament, I’d like to think that I could do it—I’ve traveled for weeks in Europe and India without much more—but practically speaking, it’s no longer a possibility. Yes, I’m probably capable of living very simply on my own, but I’m no longer an island unto myself: I’m happily married with a baby daughter, I own a nice old house that happens to need a new washing machine, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve acquired countless other responsibilities and entanglements. A decade ago, I might have been able to drop everything and live out that fantasy of an unencumbered existence, but with every passing year, life seems to acquire more complications.

A similar process takes place when you’re writing a novel. When the idea for a story first occurs to you, it feels a little like browsing through the course catalog on your first day of college: in theory, you could write The Magic Mountain, just as in theory you could major in astrophysics or cognitive neuroscience—it’s just a matter of meeting all the requirements. That feeling persists for a long time, and even up to the minute you begin writing the first page, your novel could still potentially be the greatest thing ever. The second you start putting down words, however, you find that doors are closing with every sentence, as Joan Didion memorably said to The Paris Review:

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone…The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.

Joan Didion

Finally, when you’re done, you’re left with a rough draft that feels like a massive collection of compromises and missed opportunities. You’d like to go back and drastically simplify the entire thing—and you’ll probably spent much of the rewrite crossing out entire pages—but it’s impossible to turn your back completely on the material that you’ve bequeathed to yourself. Instead of a logical, limpid realization of a clean line of action, you’re putting out fires, gutting one chapter to make up for an unexpected issue in another, and the result is never as crystalline as you’d hoped. Sometimes it strays so far from your original intentions that you ask yourself why you wanted to write this story in the first place. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll start fantasizing about the story that might have been, even as you figure out ways to deal with the story you have. (If there’s one difference between fiction and real life, it’s that you can pick up and start from scratch with every new project, although you inevitably find that the history of your previous work is already making itself felt before you’ve written a word.)

But the moral here is that a constant engagement with reality, rather than an unattainable ideal, is as essential in fiction as it is anywhere else. A life lived out of a backpack makes for a nice daydream, but I’m pretty sure that I’d start missing my books and my settled routine once the novelty had worn off—I could do it happily for a few months, maybe, but not for twenty years. When I’m really honest with myself, I know that I wouldn’t give up the life I have now for any other. Similarly, in fiction, I’ve found that I’ve grown more as a writer by following through on the implications of each story, no matter how convoluted the process gets, rather than sticking to the perfect version in my head. In practice, refusing to settle for anything less than an ideal leads to countless false starts and discarded drafts: it’s like a life spent moving from one hostel to the next, when in fact there’s something to be said for finding a place to call your own, with all the frozen pipes and shoveling snow it entails. (Yes, we’ve had a very long winter here in Chicago.) Nothing in life or in fiction is ever as simple or straightforward as we’d like, but it’s only in finding meaning within all those entanglements that we really live, or write, at all.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2014 at 9:35 am

Posted in Writing

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Attacking the synopsis

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The outline for "Kawataro"

Over the next few days, I’ll be outlining a proposal for a new writing project, which is among both the most exhilarating and most daunting parts of the entire creative process. At this stage, the story could be almost anything, but this sense of possibility is constantly fighting it out with the physical constraints of what I’m trying to produce right now. In the end, I need to come up with a striking proposal of about five pages or so, focusing on the spine of the narrative, with just enough detail and color to grab a potential reader, which is easier said than done. I’ve spoken before about some of the challenges of the synopsis form, which all boil down to one big issue: no story, and I mean no story, sounds all that good when condensed to a short summary. Writing a synopsis represents an informal contract between the author and the reader, whether it’s a friend, an agent, or an editor, long before any legal contract has been signed. I agree to deliver a complete, coherent outline for a story, and the reader agrees to look past its dry summarization of events to see the book it could be.

Or so I’d like to think. In practice, of course, if a synopsis doesn’t grab a reader, it’s hard for it to stand out from a stack of similar proposals, which means that a lot of professional and artistic pressure is being placed on these five pages. Given the stakes, I approach the problem in much the same way as I do any other important writing assignment. A proposal is basically an outline cast into a more readable narrative form, so I deal with it by making another outline. And to create that online? I do an outline of an outline, looser and more ragged, and so on down the line until I end up with the shapeless pile of notes that marks the beginning of most of my story ideas. As usual, these outlines are mostly just a way of spreading out the pain: each individual step in the process is relatively easy in itself, and I gradually refine the result until I end up with something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show to someone else. The upshot is that a lot of thought goes into every line of the resulting proposal, which only includes a fraction of the material that I’ve worked out so far.

A page from the author's notebook

But there’s an obvious danger lurking here as well. A synopsis needs to cover the entire story, including the ending, and there’s always the risk that I’ll think through the plot so thoroughly that I get bored of it. This is the problem with any kind of outline, and it’s especially pronounced for a synopsis, which reduces an amorphous web of ideas into a few neatly typed paragraphs. Once the story is on the page in a clean narrative form, you start to feel obliged to stick with it, especially once other people have seen it and signed off. There’s no good solution to this dilemma, in which the practical needs of the publishing business collide with the equally pragmatic requirements of a writer who needs to sustain his interest in a project over many weeks and months. In my experience, though, the very brevity of the synopsis is an asset: it’s just too short to cover everything, and important elements of the plot will inevitably be left unexplored. (I wrote City of Exiles after delivering a detailed synopsis to my editor, for instance, and it still left me with enough freedom that hugely important plot points, including the biggest twist in the entire book, could evolve up until the last minute.)

In short, a synopsis can be a real pain in the ass, but it can also be strangely liberating. I’ve learned to think of a proposal as a review of a book that doesn’t exist, which is how Borges often structured his short stories, and it has one enormous advantage over preparing a synopsis for a novel I’ve already written: I can pretend that I’m reviewing the best book in the world. Later, there will be compromises, wrong turns, places where the words on the page seem to shrivel and die compared to the version in my imagination. (As Joan Didion says: “The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.”) But for now, I’m describing the novel of my dreams, and the real challenge of writing a synopsis is keeping that sense of promise alive throughout the potentially deadening process of reducing those dreams to their Cliffs Notes version. That’s really the crux of any kind of writing at all; here, it happens to be a little more stark than usual. At times, it can feel like a chore, but there are also moments when you see the full potential of your work for the first time. Because it’s no accident that “synopsis” means “to see everything at once.”

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2013 at 9:06 am

Posted in Writing

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My own opening lines

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For a writer, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page—especially when you know that this page is only the first of three hundred or so that need to be filled. This gives a novel’s first sentence, whatever form it takes, a particularly talismanic quality. As Joan Didion points out, once you write that opening line, doors are already closing. Where once the possibilities seemed limitless, now you’re locking yourself down. So that first sentence had better be damned good.

Or so you tell yourself. In reality, it’s unlikely that the first version of a novel’s opening lines will bear any resemblance to their appearance in the final draft. Like all sentences, they will be polished, edited, even cut altogether. With Kamera, which was far from my first novel—though it will be the first to be published—it took me months of fiddling before I came up with an opening that I liked, and even then, I had my doubts. Here’s what it looked like in the end:

Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves. By then, he had been on the road for three days. As a rule, he was a careful driver, but at some point in the past hour, his mind had wandered, and as he was coming over a low rise, he almost collided with two cars that were parked in the road ahead.

Now, this opening may never top the American Book Review list, but for what it is, I think it works. When I wrote it, as usual, James M. Cain was at the back of my mind: I wanted to get the reader into the story quickly, cleanly, and without a lot of fuss. And I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with information. Note, for instance, that I don’t say where the border is. In my first draft, I mentioned that Andrey was “ten kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, just outside Shebekino,” but I eventually decided that too many specifics would only slow the opening of the story down. I hoped that the name “Andrey” by itself would evoke a location, and that the word “thieves” would have resonances of its own. And above all, I hoped that the initial situation was interesting enough that the reader would go on to the next paragraph.

For a short story, the challenges are slightly different. Just as the opening moments of a television show need to grab the viewer’s attention in a way that those of a movie do not, a short story generally needs to begin with more of a narrative hook. Usually, this hook can take the form of implied—which is more interesting than overt—action or violence; an unusual detail; or a striking line of dialogue. And it’s best not to appear to try too hard. An author who plants his narrative hooks too blatantly can seem like a college freshman pawing artlessly at a gidle, when, as John Gardner says, he should be more like a magician effortlessly forcing cards into his victim’s hand. Here’s how I opened “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the September 2009 issue of Analog:

The shotgun was not aimed directly at Helki, but its barrel was pointed in her direction, which was more than enough for her to take it personally.

Reading this sentence again now, it strikes me that maybe I was, in fact, trying a little too hard. In any case, though, the story sold, which is more than I can say for many others, and readers seemed to like it well enough. Here, the narrative hook is the threat of implied violence, or at least aggression, and perhaps—or so I’d like to think—a hint of the main character’s personality. Given the choice, though, I prefer to open with something incrementally more subtle. Here’s what I wrote for “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to appear in Analog in June:

The kawataro stood at the side of the road. Hakaru saw it for the first time as he was trudging along the highway, suitcase rolling behind him in the rain. It had been half a mile by foot from the train station, and although he had been looking for the turnoff to the village, it was so narrow, less than six paces wide, that he was on the point of walking past it entirely when the statue caught his eye.

Here, the narrative hook rests solely on the word “kawataro,” which I assume is unfamiliar to most readers, who would hopefully read onward to discover what a kawataro was. (Note that it’s important not to be too coy about this. I explain what a kawataro is, sort of, in the following paragraph. A writer who refuses to explain important details for an extended run of pages, solely for the purpose of prolonging the suspense, is only going to annoy the reader.) Ideally, the hint of an unusual setting, which turns out to be a small fishing village in Japan, works as a hook as well.

As for the last kind of narrative hook, dialogue, it’s what I use at the opening of “The Boneless One,” which I expect will appear in Analog by the end of the year:

“Before we go on deck, I should make one thing clear,” Ray Wiley said. “We’re nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.”

A little cute, maybe, but I think it works. As with everything else in writing, such things are a matter of taste, and every writer ends up developing his or her own personal approach to the problem. In the end, with practice, there’s something a little mechanical about writing good first sentences—which is why even the best opening lines, if too carefully calibrated to arouse the reader’s interest, can seem like something of an exercise. Much less mechanical is the question of where to begin the story itself, which I’ll be discussing in more detail tomorrow.

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