Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John McPhee

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

This post has no title

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In John McPhee’s excellent new book on writing, Draft No. 4, which I mentioned here the other day, he shares an anecdote about his famous profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley. McPhee was going over a draft with William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, “talking three-two zones, blind passes, reverse pivots, and the setting of picks,” when he realized that he had overlooked something important:

For some reason—nerves, what else?—I had forgotten to find a title before submitting the piece. Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A Sense of Where You Are.”

The dynamic that McPhee describes at other publications still exists today—I’ve occasionally bristled at the titles that have appeared over the articles that I’ve written, which is a small part of the reason that I’ve moved most of my nonfiction onto this blog. (The freelance market also isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) But a more insidious factor has invaded even the august halls of The New Yorker, and it has nothing to do with the preferences of any particular editor. Opening the most recent issue, for instance, I see that there’s an article by Jia Tolentino titled “Safer Spaces.” On the magazine’s website, it becomes “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?”, with a line at the bottom noting that it appears in the print edition under its alternate title. Joshua Rothman’s “Jambusters” becomes “Why Paper Jams Persist.” A huge piece by David Grann, “The White Darkness,” which seems destined to get optioned for the movies, earns slightly more privileged treatment, and it merely turns into “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica.” But that’s the exception. When I go back to the previous issue, I find that the same pattern holds true. Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is spared, but David Owen’s “The Happiness Button” is retitled “Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button,” Rachel Aviv’s “The Death Debate” becomes “What Does It Mean to Die?”, and Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” becomes “The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing.” Which suggests to me that if McPhee’s piece appeared online today, it would be titled something like “Basketball Player Bill Bradley’s Sense of Where He Is.” And that’s if he were lucky.

The reasoning here isn’t a mystery. Headlines are written these days to maximize clicks and shares, and The New Yorker isn’t immune, even if it sometimes raises an eyebrow. Back in 2014, Maria Konnikova wrote an article for the magazine’s website titled “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” in which she explained one aspect of the formula for online headlines: “The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember.” Viral headlines can’t be allusive, make a clever play on words, or depend on an evocative reference—they have to spell everything out. (To build on McPhee’s analogy, it’s less like a tourist’s face on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong than an oversized foam head of Mao himself.) A year later, The New Yorker ran an article by Andrew Marantz on the virality expert Emerson Spartz, and it amazed and maybe infuriated me. I’ve written about this profile elsewhere, but looking it over again now, my eye was caught by these lines:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry…Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me.

And it’s worth noting that while Marantz’s piece appeared in print as “The Virologist,” in an online search, it pops up as “King of Clickbait.” Even as the magazine gently mocked Spartz, it took his example to heart.

None of this is exactly scandalous, but when you think of a title as “an integral part of a piece of writing,” as McPhee does, it’s undeniably sad. There isn’t any one title for an article anymore, and most readers will probably only see its online incarnation. And this isn’t because of an editor’s tastes, but the result of an impersonal set of assumptions imposed on the entire industry. Emerson Spartz got his revenge on The New Yorker—he effectively ended up writing its headlines. And while I can’t blame any media company for doing whatever it can to stay viable, it’s also a real loss. McPhee is right when he says that selecting a title is an important part of the process, and in a perfect world, it would be left up to the writer. (It can even lead to valuable insights in itself. When I was working on my article on the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, I was casting about randomly for a title when I came up with “Xenu’s Paradox.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it led me to start thinking about the paradoxical aspects of Hubbard’s career, and the result was a line of argument that ended up being integral not just to the article, but to the ensuing book. And I was amazed when it survived intact on Longreads.) When you look at the grindingly literal, unpoetic headlines that currently populate the homepage of The New Yorker, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era in which an editor might nudge a title in the opposite direction. In 1966, when McPhee delivered a long piece on oranges in Florida, William Shawn read it over, focused on a quotation from the poet Andrew Marvell, and called it “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee protested, and the article was finally published under the title that he had originally wanted. It was called “Oranges.”

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

The fictional sentence

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Of all the writers of the golden age of science fiction, the one who can be hardest to get your head around is A.E. van Vogt. He isn’t to everyone’s taste—many readers, to quote Alexei and Cory Panshin’s not unadmiring description, find him “foggy, semi-literate, pulpish, and dumb”—but he’s undoubtedly a major figure, and he was second only to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov when it came to defining what science fiction became in the late thirties and early forties. (If he isn’t as well known as they are, it’s largely because he was taken out of writing by dianetics at the exact moment that the genre was breaking into the mainstream.) Part of his appeal is that his stories remain compelling and readable despite their borderline incoherence, and he was unusually open about his secret. In the essay “My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story,” which was originally published in the volume Fantastic Lives, van Vogt wrote:

I learned to write by a system propounded in a book titled The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John W. Gallishaw (meaning by flashback or in consecutive sequence). Gallishaw had made an in-depth study of successful stories by great authors. He observed that the best of them wrote in what he called “presentation units” of about eight hundred words. Each of these units contained five steps. And every sentence in it was a “fictional sentence.” Which means that it was written either with imagery, or emotion, or suspense, depending on the type of story.

So what did these units look like? Used copies of Gallishaw’s book currently go for well over a hundred dollars online, but van Vogt helpfully summarized the relevant information:

The five steps can be described as follows: 1) Where, and to whom, is it happening? 2) Make clear the scene purpose (What is the immediate problem which confronts the protagonist, and what does it require him to accomplish in this scene?) 3) The interaction with the opposition, as he tries to achieve the scene purpose. 4) Make the reader aware that he either did accomplish the scene purpose, or did not accomplish it. 5) In all the early scenes, whether protagonist did or did not succeed in the scene purpose, establish that things are going to get worse. Now, the next presentation unit-scene begins with: Where is all this taking place. Describe the surroundings, and to whom it is happening. And so forth.

Over the years, this formula was distorted and misunderstood, so that a critic could write something like “Van Vogt admits that he changes the direction of his plot every eight hundred words.” And even when accurately stated, it can come off as bizarre. Yet it’s really nothing more than the principle that every narrative should consist of a series of objectives, which I’ve elsewhere listed among the most useful pieces of writing advice that I know. Significantly, it’s one of the few elements of craft that can be taught and learned by example. Van Vogt learned it from Gallishaw, while I got it from David Mamet’s On Directing Film, and I’ve always seen it as a jewel of wisdom that can be passed in almost apostolic fashion from one writer to another.

When we read van Vogt’s stories, of course, we aren’t conscious of this structure, and if anything, we’re more aware of their apparent lack of form. (As John McPhee writes in his wonderful new book on writing: “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”) Yet we still keep reading. It’s that sequence of objectives that keeps us oriented through the centrifugal wildness that we associate with van Vogt’s work—and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he approached the irrational side as systematically as he did everything else. I’d heard at some point that van Vogt based many of his plots on his dreams, but it wasn’t until I read his essay that I understood what this meant:

When you’re writing, as I was, for one cent a word, and are a slow writer, and the story keeps stopping for hours or days, and your rent is due, you get anxious…I would wake up spontaneously at night, anxious. But I wasn’t aware of the anxiety. I thought about story problems—that was all I noticed then. And so back to sleep I went. In the morning, often there would be an unusual solution. All my best plot twists came in this way…It was not until July 1943 that I suddenly realized what I was doing. That night I got out our alarm clock and moved into the spare bedroom. I set the alarm to ring at one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist…So I had my system for getting to my subconscious mind.

This isn’t all that different from Salvador Dali’s advice on how to take a nap. But the final sentence is the kicker: “During the next seven years, I awakened myself about three hundred nights a year four times a night.” When I read this, I felt a greater sense of kinship with van Vogt than I have with just about any other writer. Much of my life has been spent searching for tools—from mind maps to tarot cards—that can be used to systematically incorporate elements of chance and intuition into what is otherwise a highly structured process. Van Vogt’s approach comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to the ideal of combining the two on a reliable basis, even if we differ on some of the details. (For instance, I don’t necessarily buy into Gallishaw’s notion that every action taken by the protagonist needs to be opposed, or that the situation needs to continually get worse. As Mamet writes in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” And that’s often enough.) But it’s oddly appropriate that we find such rules in the work of a writer who frequently came across as chronically disorganized. Van Vogt pushed the limits of form further than any other author of the golden age, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Bester or Philip K. Dick without him. But I’m sure that there were equally visionary writers who never made it into print because they lacked the discipline, or the technical tricks, to get their ideas under control. Van Vogt’s stories always seem on the verge of flying apart, but the real wonder is that they don’t. And his closing words on the subject are useful ones indeed: “It is well to point out again that these various systems were, at base, just automatic reactions to the writing of science fiction. The left side of the brain got an overdose of fantasizing flow from the right side, and literally had to do something real.”

How to be useful

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In his recent review in The New Yorker of a new collection of short stories by Susan Sontag, the critic Tobi Haslett quotes its author’s explanation of why she wrote her classic book Illness as Metaphor: “I wanted to be useful.” I was struck enough by this statement to look up the full version, in which Sontag explains how she approached the literary challenge of addressing her own experience with cancer:

I didn’t think it would be useful—and I wanted to be useful—to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage…though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea…And so I wrote my book, wrote it very quickly, spurred by evangelical zeal as well as anxiety about how much time I had left to do any living or writing in. My aim was to alleviate unnecessary suffering…My purpose was, above all, practical.

This is a remarkable way to look at any book, and it emerged both from Sontag’s own illness and from her awareness of her peculiar position in the culture of her time, as Haslett notes: “Slung between aesthetics and politics, beauty and justice, sensuous extravagance and leftist commitment, Sontag sometimes found herself contemplating the obliteration of her role as public advocate-cum-arbiter of taste. To be serious was to stake a belief in attention—but, in a world that demands action, could attention be enough?”

Sontag’s situation may seem remote from that of most authors, but it’s a problem that every author faces when he or she decides to tackle a book, which usually amounts to a call for attention over action. We write for all kinds of reasons, some more admirable than others, and selecting one idea or project over another comes down prioritizing such factors as our personal interests, commercial potential, and what we want to think about for a year or more of our lives. But as time goes by, I’ve found that Sontag’s test—that the work be useful—is about as sensible a criterion as any. I’ve had good and bad luck in both cases, but as a rule, whenever I’ve tried to be useful to others, I’ve done well, and whenever I haven’t, I’ve failed. Being useful doesn’t necessarily mean providing practical information or advice, although that’s a fine reason to write a book, but rather writing something that would have value even if you weren’t the one whose name was on the cover, simply because it deserves to exist. You often don’t know until long after you start if a project meets that standard, and it might even be a mistake to consciously pursue it. The best approach, in the end, might simply to develop a lot of ideas in hope that some small fraction will survive. I still frequently write just for my own pleasure, out of personal vanity, or for the desire to see something in print, but it only lasts if the result is also useful, so it’s worth at least keeping it in mind as a kind of sieve for deciding between alternatives. As Lin-Manuel Miranda once put it to Grantland, in words that have never ceased to resound in my head: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”

One of my favorite examples is the writer Euell Gibbons, who otherwise might seem less like Susan Sontag than any human being imaginable. As John McPhee writes in a short reminiscence, “The Forager,” in the New York Times:

Euell had begun learning about wild and edible vegetation when he was small boy in the Red River Valley. Later, in the dust‐bowl era, his family moved to central New Mexico. They lived in a semi‐dugout and almost starved there. His father left in a desperate search for work. The food supply diminished until all that was left were a few pinto beans and a single egg, which no one would eat. Euell, then teen‐aged and one of four children, took a knapsack one morning and left for the horizon mountains. He came hack with puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts, and fruits of the yellow prickly pear. For nearly a month, the family lived wholly on what he provided, and he saved their lives. “Wild food has meant different things to me at different times,” he said to me once. “Right then it was a means of salvation, a way to keep from dying.”

In years that followed, Euell worked as a cowboy. He pulled cotton. He was for a long time a hobo. He worked in a shipyard. He combed beaches. The longest period during which he lived almost exclusively on wild food was five years. All the while, across decades, he wished to be a writer. He produced long pieces of fiction and he had no luck…He passed the age of fifty with virtually nothing published. He saw himself as a total failure, and he had no difficulty discerning that others tended to agree.

What happened next defied all expectation. McPhee writes: “Finally, after listening to the advice of a literary agent, he sat down to try to combine his interests. He knew his subject first- and second-hand; he knew it backward to the botanies of the tribes. And now he told everybody else how to gather and prepare wild food.” The result was the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which became the first in a bestselling series. At times, Gibbons didn’t seem to know how to handle his own success, as McPhee recalls:

He would live to be widely misassessed. His books gave him all the money he would ever need. The deep poverty of his other years was not forgotten, though, and he took to going around with a minimum of $1,500 in his pocket, because with any less there, he said, he felt insecure. Whatever he felt, it was enough to cause him, in his last years, to appear on television munching Grape-Nuts—hard crumbs ground from tough bread—and, in doing so, he obscured his accomplishments behind a veil of commercial personality. He became a household figure of a cartoon sort. People laughed when they heard his name. All too suddenly, he stood for what he did not stand for.

But Gibbons also deserves to be remembered as a man who finally understood and embraced the admonition that a writer be useful. McPhee concludes: “He was a man who knew the wild in a way that no one else in this time has even marginally approached. Having brought his knowledge to print, he died the writer he wished to be.” Gibbons and Sontag might not have had much in common—it’s difficult to imagine them even having a conversation—but they both confronted the same question: “What book should I write?” And we all might have better luck with the answer if we ask ourselves instead: “What have I done to survive?”

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2017 at 8:14 am

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

The art of the index

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Index of Le Ton Beau de Marot

Earlier this week, as planned, I finished the bulk of the background reading for my book Astounding. I’m far from done with the research process: there are still unanswered questions, gaps that need to be filled, and mysteries that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to solve. But I have a sense of the territory. I knew going in that I had to cover an immense amount of raw material in a limited amount of time, and from the beginning, I was forced to prioritize and triage based on what I thought would actually end up in the book—which doesn’t mean that there wasn’t still a lot of it. It included all of John W. Campbell’s published novels and stories; something like fifteen thousand pages of unedited correspondence; forty years of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and numerous secondary sources, including interviews, memoirs, and critical studies. I had to do much the same thing with Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, too, but with an important difference: I’m not the first biographer to tackle their lives, so a lot of the structural work had already been done, and I could make educated guesses about what parts would be the most relevant. When it comes to Campbell, however, enormous swaths of his life have never been explored, so I had no choice but to read everything. In the words of editor Alan Hathaway, which I never tire of quoting, I’ve tried to turn every goddamn page. Whenever I see something that might be useful, I make a note of it, trusting that I’ll be able to find it again when I go back to review that section at greater length. Then I have no choice but to move on.

And it’s only recently that I realized that what I’ve been doing, in essence, is preparing an index. We tend to think of indexes as standard features of nonfiction books, and we get annoyed when they aren’t there. (I note with interest that a different John Campbell—a British politician of the nineteenth century, and apparently no relation to mine—proposed that authors who failed to provide an index would be fined and deprived of their copyrights.) In fact, indexes originated as working tools that scholars prepared for themselves, and they tailored them for their individual needs. What I find useful in a book may not interest anybody else, especially if I’m reading with a specific problem in mind, which is why it makes sense for readers to maintain indexes of their own. As Harold Nicholson, another British politician, once said in a commencement speech:

My advice is to go to France, direct from New York to Cherbourg, and to remain there for at least three months, if possible living in a French family. My second piece of advice is always to mark your books and write a personal index for yourself on the flyleaf.

He’s right, of course, and I’ve been doing this for years without thinking about it. Now I’ve started to do it more deliberately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of transcribing those notes into a searchable text file, as an index of indexes that I can use to consolidate my entries and keep the whole mess under control.

Index for The Arabian Nights

It’s hard to write about indexes without thinking of a famous chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” As a professional indexer says to the narrator, evaluating another writer’s index:

“Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader,” she said. “In a hyphenated word,” she observed, with the shrewd amiability of an expert, “‘self-indulgent.’ I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work…It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

I read this passage again recently with greater attention than usual, because the odds are pretty good that I’m going to end up indexing Astounding myself. (Here’s a tidbit that you might not know: if a publisher wants an index, the author has the right to prepare it, but if he declines—or does an unsatisfactory job—the publisher can hire someone else. The cost is deducted from the author’s advance, which means that there’s a decent financial incentive for writers to do the job themselves.) I’m also uncomfortably aware that Vonnegut is correct in saying that you can tell a lot about an author from his index. For an example that’s very close to home, I don’t need to look any further than William H. Patterson’s two-volume biography of Heinlein. Its index tells you a lot about Patterson himself, or at least about how he saw his subject, and I don’t have any doubt that my index will reflect on me.

But I also don’t think that anyone but the author has any business preparing the index. I’ve spent the last eight months compiling an index for a book that doesn’t exist: the unimaginable book that would include all the known details of Campbell’s life in their original form. (If you want to get really deep, you could say that a biography is the index of the man.) It bears the same relation to its sources that a graphical projection does to the original object: it translates it to a two-dimensional surface, losing some of its properties, but becoming considerably more manageable. The reason I’ve put it together, aside from reminding me of where various facts can be found, is to produce a rough sketch of the whole that I can review in its entirety. It condenses the available material into a form that I can reread over a relatively short period of time, which allows for the iterative review process that tells you what a book is really about. As John McPhee said of his notes to The Paris Review: “I read them until they’re coming out my ears.” And this is only possible if you’ve boiled them down to a set of labels. The author is the only one who can decipher it: it’s a coded message he writes to his future self. But when the time comes to prepare an index for the general reader, it invisibly reflects that ideal index that nobody else will ever see. Only the author, who knows both the words on the page and the unseen words that made them possible, can make it. You can sense this in the indexes for books as different as Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights or Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot. These indexes live. They tell you a lot—maybe too much—about the author. But that’s exactly as it should be. 

Apple and the cult of thinness

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The iPhone 6

Recently, I’ve been in the market for a new computer. After some thought, I’ve settled on an older model of the MacBook Pro, both because of its price and because it’s the last remaining Apple laptop with an optical drive, which I still occasionally use. The experience put me in mind of a cartoon posted yesterday on Reddit, which shows a conversation between an Apple user and a helpful technician: “So what’s this update you’re installing?” “I’m just removing your USB ports.” “Great!” Apple’s obsession with eliminating unsightly ports, as well as any other features that might interfere with a device’s slim profile, has long been derided, and the recent news that the headphone jack might disappear from the next iPhone has struck many users as a bridge too far. Over the last decade or so, Apple has seemed fixated on pursuing thinness and lightness above all else, even though consumers don’t appear to be clamoring for thinner laptops or phones, and devices that are pared down past a certain point suffer in terms of strength and usability. (Apple isn’t alone in this, of course. Last week, I purchased a Sony Blu-ray player to replace the aging hulk I’d been using for the last five years, and although I like the new one, the lack of a built-in display that provides information on what the player is actually doing is a minor but real inconvenience, and it’s so light that I often end up pushing it backward on the television stand when I press the power button. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason why any device that spends its entire life on the same shelf needs to be so small.)

Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, and in particular, the design gurus Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini wrote a long, devastating piece for Fast Company last month on Apple’s pursuit of beauty over functionality. But I’d like to venture an alternative explanation for why it has taken this approach. Apple is a huge corporation, and like all large businesses, it needs quantifiable benchmarks to drive innovation. Once any enterprise becomes big enough, qualitative metrics alone don’t cut it: you need something to which you can assign a number. And while you can’t quantify usability, or even beauty, you can quantify thinness and weight. Apple seems to be using the physical size of a device as a proxy for innovative thought about design, which isn’t so different from the strategy that many writers use during the revision process. I’ve written here before about how I sometimes set length limits for stories or individual chapters, and how this kind of writing by numbers forces me to be smarter and more rigorous about my choices. John McPhee says much the same thing in a recent piece in The New Yorker about the exercise of “greening,” as once practiced by Time, which involved cutting an arbitrary number of lines. As Calvin Trillin writes elsewhere: “I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself ‘Green fourteen’ or ‘Green eight.’ And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.”

The MacBook Air

Apple appears to have come to a similar conclusion about its devices, which is that by greening away weight and thickness, you end up with other desirable qualities. And it works—but only up to a point. As McPhee observes, greening is supposed to be invisible: “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” And once you pass beyond a certain limit, you risk omitting essential elements, as expressed in the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which describes the process of the legendary film editor Walter Murch:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

And Apple—which has had a long and productive relationship with Murch, a vocal champion of its Final Cut Pro software—should pay attention. In the past, the emphasis on miniaturization was undoubtedly a force for innovative solutions, but we’ve reached the point where the patient is being endangered by removing features of genuine utility. Murch’s thirty percent factor turns out to describe the situation at Apple eerily well: the earliest models of the MacBook Pro weighed about five and a half pounds, implying that once the weight was reduced below four pounds or so, vital organs would be threatened, which is exactly what happened. (Even more insidiously, the trend has spread into realms where the notion of thinness is entirely abstract, like the fonts that Apple uses for its mobile devices, which, as Norman and Tognazzini point out, are so slender that they’ve become difficult to read.) These changes aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by a corporate culture that has failed to recognize that its old ways of quantifying innovation no longer serve their intended purpose. The means have been confused with the end. Ultimately, I’m still a fan of Apple, and I’m still going to buy that MacBook. I don’t fault it for wanting to qualify its processes: it’s a necessary part of managing creativity on a large scale. But it has to focus on a number other than thickness or weight. What Apple needs is a new internal metric, similarly quantifiable, that reflects something that consumers actually want. There’s one obvious candidate: price. Instead of making everything smaller, Apple could focus on providing the same functionality, beauty, and reliability at lower cost. It would drive innovation just as well as size once did. But given Apple’s history, the chances of that happening seem very slim indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2015 at 8:56 am

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