Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Midrash

The special terror of writer’s block

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In less than a week, if all goes well, I’ll begin writing the first draft of Midrash, the sequel to Kamera, which I’m contracted to deliver to my publisher by the end of September. Finishing the manuscript on time will require a fairly ambitious schedule—basically a chapter a day when I’m writing, alternating with equally intense periods of research, outlining, and revision. I’ve tried to build some leeway into my schedule, in case I hit any unforeseen obstacles, but at this point, there isn’t a lot of wriggle room. If I reach a point where I can’t write for a month or more, this book isn’t going to get done on time. Which is why I’m going to tempt fate and spend the next few days talking about one of the most terrifying subjects in the world: writer’s block.

There are really two kinds of writer’s block. The more dramatic kind, and one I hope never to feel qualified to talk about, is the kind that lasts for years. As Joan Acocella points out in her very good New Yorker article on the subject, this sort of writer’s block—the kind that plagued Samuel Coleridge, Paul Valéry, and others—is less a professional problem than a metaphysical or linguistic predicament: the sense that inspiration or language itself is inadequate to express what the writer wants to say. I can’t dismiss this condition entirely, if only because the advancement of art depends on such struggles by a handful of exceptional authors. That said, for the vast majority of us, conventional language probably works just fine, and while daily drudgery is no substitute for inspiration, it’s often the next best thing.

The other kind of writer’s block, the kind that every author needs to confront at some point or another, comes from the collision of the two intractable facts of a writer’s life: one, that the heart of a novel, like or not, is built on moments of inspiration that can’t be predicted or willed into being; and two, that these moments require hours of tedious work to bring them to fruition. When inspiration and discipline go hand in hand, a writer can easily work for six or more hours a day; if they don’t fall into line, the writer produces nothing. While such dry spells can last for anything from a few hours to months on end, it’s probably impossible to avoid them altogether. And they hurt like hell.

So what’s a writer to do? Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about some of the methods I’ve used in the past to get past writer’s block, whether on account of fear, lack of ideas, or simple exhaustion. And by discussing it so openly, I’ll also ensure, by a kind of anticipatory magic, that it won’t actually happen to me. Right?

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2011 at 9:03 am

When bad titles happen to good books

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For any writer who has ever despaired over finding just the right title for a novel or story, take heart: even the very best authors can’t figure it out. Borges, for one, likes to point out that the titles of nearly all the world’s great books are pretty bad:

Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.

From among my own favorites, I need only mention In Search of Lost Time—the greatest novel ever written, as well as perhaps the most embarrassing title—and any of Updike’s Rabbit or Bech books. (Rabbit Redux may be the ugliest title I’ve ever seen, although there are plenty of competitors, including Bech: A Book.) There are, of course, exceptions: Gravity’s Rainbow is hard to beat for a title that is beautiful, relevant, and evocative. Other good ones: Pale Fire, House of Leaves, The Name of the Rose (which the author cheerfully admits was meant to be meaningless). But in general, it’s safe to say that most great books have terrible titles.

I’m not even that fond of my own titles, possibly because I’ve spent way too much time staring at them on the first pages of recalcitrant Word documents. Kamera was never called anything else, even before I had a plot, although it was initially spelled Camera, inspired in part by an R.E.M. song. (The alternative spelling is the result of a complicated triple pun that I can’t explain without spoiling a plot point.) By contrast, Midrash, the tentative title of my second novel, took me forever to come up with, and may still end up being changed. (If the title seems cryptic now, consider yourself lucky: I originally wanted to call the novel Merkabah, which almost gave my agent a heart attack.)

As you can see, I’m fond of cryptic one-word titles, although I’m aware that they don’t necessarily sell the novel. (In any case, I’m not sure if any title can really “sell” a novel at all—unless we’re talking about something like The Nanny Diaries.) The best titles, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t advertisements for the book so much as cryptograms, coded messages on which the reader is invited to project his or her own interpretations. The more opaque, or even meaningless, the better. Which may be why my own favorite title for any novel is The Information, by Martin Amis, which is about as cryptic as it gets. (Too bad the novel itself isn’t very good. But perhaps that was inevitable.)

London and the voodoo of location

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Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

Progess report: London, Brussels, and beyond

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Tomorrow night, I’m flying out to London for six days, as part of a whirlwind research tour for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. Big Ben and Buckingham Palace aren’t on the itinerary, I’m afraid—just a lot of interesting neighborhoods and locations, where violent or otherwise dramatic events will be playing out in my mind’s eye. The trip may also include a detour to Brussels, where I’m hoping to see Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat in person. (The painting plays an important role in the epilogue to Kamera, but I’ve never seen it in the flesh, so to speak.)

While I’m away, I don’t expect to be very active in the comments section, or on Twitter, but the blog will be updated with new posts throughout the week. There’s some good stuff coming up soon, so keep checking back for more!

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2011 at 9:47 am

Research as a way of dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pleasures and perils of research

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When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

—Jonathan Franzen, to The Guardian

Recently, I’ve had research on the brain. Over the past month, which I’ve designated as a kind of free sandbox time for Midrash, I’ve read all or part of something like twenty books, along with many articles and old notes. On Sunday, I’m going on a very short trip to London, which means cramming a month’s worth of location research into less than a week. For the next few days, then, I’m going to be talking a bit about research—how a novelist does it, where it fits into the different stages of the writing process, and how to balance it with the other elements of storytelling. Today, though, I’ll be addressing a more general issue, which is whether deep research has any place in a novelist’s life at all.

As I see it, there are two main objections to research in fiction, only one of which can be easily dismissed. The first objection is that research is somehow alien to the true novelist’s art, either because fiction based on research is inherently less valuable than fiction drawn primarily from the author’s own experience, or because information itself is becoming increasingly worthless. The former argument is very old, but the latter has gained new resonance in the information age, as Franzen implies above. Information is everywhere. It’s a mouse click away. So it isn’t hard to conclude that the novelist’s traditional role as an investigator of reality is no longer relevant, or useful.

Franzen is right about one thing: voluminous research, in itself, is no longer enough to make a novel. But was it ever? The role of the novelist has never been simply to acquire facts and details: it’s to arrange those details into a previously unsuspected artistic pattern. If anything, this role is even more valuable these days, when our diet of information tends to consist of specific units of disposable data. The art of the novelist is to uncover order in apparent chaos, even if the ultimate goal is to undermine it. With so many facts at our disposal, but so little knowledge, we need that ordering function more than ever—especially because a novelist is one of the few remaining artists with no choice but to haunt libraries and read the books that nobody else reads.

As for whether research has a place in serious fiction, it’s only necessary to point out that research has served as an indispensable foundation of many great novels—including Franzen’s. Flaubert, the quintessential novelist, deeply researched all of his books. So did Tolstoy. More recently, works as distinct as Atonement and Gravity’s Rainbow have been masterpieces of research and structured imagination. It’s still true that, as Willa Cather said, the basic emotional material of a novelist is acquired by the age of fifteen. But if the novelist is looking for meaning outside his or her own range of experience—to explain “how the world works,” as Zadie Smith puts it—research is the necessary first step. The ordering, the pattern-making, will come later, but not without the raw material that creative research provides.

Which brings us to the second, more relevant objection to research, which is that it can be an excuse to put off the real work of writing. Research is a seductive pastime in itself, and because there’s always another book to read or location to visit, it can be all too easy for a writer to never actually begin the novel. Unlike the previous objection, this danger is very real. Later this week, I’ll be talking more about how to keep research in line with the rest of the writing process. For now, though, I’ll say this: research is not primarily about factual accuracy. It’s about acquiring material for dreams. Ultimately, it’s about freeing your mind to play the most serious game in the world. It’s true, from a factual perspective, that you can never have enough information. But before long, perhaps before you realize it, you’ll have more than enough material to play the game.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2011 at 10:15 am

The joys of plot

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The joy is in the surprise. It can be as small as a felicitous coupling of noun and adjective. Or a whole new scene, or the sudden emergence of an unplanned character who simply grows out of a phrase. Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they gave the writer pleasure.

Ian McEwan, to The Paris Review

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about plot—what it is, how to construct it, and why it matters. I’ve spoken to other aspiring writers about this, and have been dealing with it constantly while assembling an outline for the sequel to Kamera (which, now that the proposal has been officially accepted, I can finally say will be called Midrash). Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at plot from various angles, both in fiction and in film. Today, however, I want to talk about something more fundamental: the joy of plot from the perspective of the writer, who gets to play the greatest game in the world.

First, though, I want to address a major misconception. There’s a common assumption, reinforced by many critics and writing instructors, that plot is somehow inferior to other aspects of fiction, notably character and theme. (I’m not going to talk about language here, if only because language should, ideally, arise organically from those other three aspects.) And it’s true that a novel driven solely by plot can feel thin or unsatisfying. But here’s the important point: in nine cases out of ten, a novel driven solely by character and theme will, in the end, prove unsatisfying as well, if it’s published at all. A good novel needs all three legs of the tripod. And a strong plot, more than anything else, is what draws the reader along to the final page.

So why do so many critics—James Wood, for instance—tend to dismiss plot? It’s rather mysterious, but my sense is that those who undervalue plot are often those with the least experience of writing a novel themselves. Personally, I don’t think that any major novelist can dismiss plot. Or would want to. Because the construction of plot is one of the great joys and compensations of the writer’s life. Part instinct, part luck, part planning and preparation, it’s the most challenging thing that an artist can do: a process of intellectual engagement, drawing on all sides of the brain and personality, that can span months or years. It’s a game, but also deadly serious. And when it works, it’s something that no writer would willingly relinquish. As McEwan says:

A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. This joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Writers crave these moments, these sessions….Nothing else—cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews—will come near it for satisfaction.

And why is plot so satisfying for the writer? My guess is that it’s the aspect of writing that comes closest to capturing the deepest pleasures of craft. The writer begins with a handful of isolated pieces—a character, a location, an incident—and gradually moves outward. He thinks, dreams, and does research, casting his net as wide as possible, hoping that a chance conversation or a stray sentence in another book will set him off in another promising direction. Once he has amassed enough material, he looks for patterns, connections, affinities. He orders the pieces one way, thinks it over, and reorders them again. This process continues, in various forms, long after the actual writing has begun. And any writer who has really experienced it, even once, would never give it up, much less disallow it to others.

Here’s the big secret: writers value plot because it’s one of the few things that make their lives bearable. Writing is hard work. The simple act of putting words on the page can be torture. And, indeed, if a plot isn’t working—if it refuses to harmonize with the characters or become logically coherent—it can be torture as well. But when the pieces do finally fit, it can feel like magic. At best, there’s something mysterious about the result, as if the universe and the writer were conspiring in secret. Such moments may occur only two or three times in the course of a given novel, and not until after the hard work of research and preparation has been done, but once they fall into place, the writer would rather die than leave them unrealized. Plot, in short, serves the same purpose for writers as for readers: it reassures them that something good is around the corner. And it’s what carries them along to the end.

But none of this would matter if the writer’s joy weren’t also contagious. Reading a novel with a perfect plot—the first half of McEwan’s Atonement, for instance, before the story deliberately blows itself up—gives me, as a reader, an intense kind of pleasure, one that exists on two levels. The first is a shared pleasure at the skill of the author, who has created a vivid, interesting, elegant structure, a narrative house that can stand on its own. The second is rather simpler: it’s the primal, almost childlike satisfaction at seeing the promises of a story kept. Such satisfaction, as I see it, deserves to be ranked at the very height of the reasons we read, or write, fiction in the first place. Without it, and without plot, I don’t think we’d have novels at all.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2011 at 10:21 am

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