Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nicholson Baker

The power of the page

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Laura Hillenbrand

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2014.

Over the weekend, I found myself contemplating two very different figures from the history of American letters. The first is the bestselling nonfiction author Laura Hillenbrand, whose lifelong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome compelled her to research and write Seabiscuit and Unbroken while remaining largely confined to her house for the last quarter of a century. (Wil S. Hylton’s piece on Hillebrand in The New York Times Magazine is absolutely worth a read—it’s the best author profile I’ve seen in a long time.) The other is the inventor and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose life was itinerant as Hillebrand’s is stationary. There’s a page in E.J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing, his genial look at his collaboration with Fuller on the magnum opus Synergetics, that simply reprints Fuller’s travel schedule for a representative two weeks in March: he flies from Philadelphia to Denver to Minneapolis to Miami to Washington to Harrisburg to Toronto, attending conferences and giving talks, to the point where it’s hard to see how he found time to get anything else done. Writing a coherent book, in particular, seemed like the least of his concerns; as Applewhite notes, Fuller’s natural element was the seminar, which allowed him to spin complicated webs of ideas in real time for appreciative listeners, and one of the greatest challenges of producing Synergetics lay in harnessing that energy in a form that could be contained within two covers.

At first glance, Hillenbrand and Fuller might seem to have nothing in common. One is a meticulous journalist, historian, and storyteller; the other a prodigy of worldly activity who was often reluctant to put his ideas down in any systematic way. But if they meet anywhere, it’s on the printed page—and I mean this literally. Hylton’s profile of Hillebrand is full of fascinating details, but my favorite passage describes how her constant vertigo has left her unable to study works on microfilm. Instead, she buys and reads original newspapers, which, in turn, has influenced the kinds of stories she tells:

Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period—the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

There are shades here of Nicholson Baker, who became so concerned over the destruction of library archives of vintage newspapers that he bought a literal ton of them with his life savings, and ended up writing an entire book, the controversial Human Smoke, based on his experience of reading press coverage of the events leading up to World War II day by day. And the serendipity that these old papers afforded was central to Hillebrand’s career: she first stumbled across the story of Louie Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, on the opposite side of a clipping she was reading about Seabiscuit.

Buckminster Fuller

Fuller was similarly energized by the act of encountering ideas in printed form, with the significant difference that the words, in this case, were his own. Applewhite devotes a full chapter to Fuller’s wholesale revision of Synergetics after the printed galleys—the nearly finished proofs of the typeset book itself—had been delivered by their publisher. Authors aren’t supposed to make extensive rewrites in the galley stage; it’s so expensive to reset the text that writers pay for any major changes out of their own pockets. But Fuller enthusiastically went to town, reworking entire sections of the book in the margins, at a personal cost of something like $3,500 in 1975 dollars. And Applewhite’s explanation for this impulse is what caught my eye:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key word here is “quite arbitrary.” A sequence of pages—whether in a newspaper or in a galley proof—is an arbitrary grid laid on a sequence of ideas. Where the page break falls, or what ends up on the opposite side, is largely a matter of chance. And for both Fuller and Hillenbrand, the physical page itself becomes a carrier of information. It’s serendipitous, random, but no less real.

And it makes me reflect on what we give up when pages, as tangible objects, pass out of our lives. We talk casually about “web pages,” but they aren’t quite the same thing: now that many websites, including this one, offer visitors an infinite scroll, the effect is less like reading a book than like navigating the spool of paper that Kerouac used to write On the Road. Occasionally, a web page’s endlessness can be turned into a message in itself, as in the Clickhole blog post “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World,” which turns out to contain the full text of Moby-Dick. More often, though, we end up with a wall of text that destroys any possibility of accidental juxtaposition or structure. I’m not advocating a return to the practice of arbitrarily dividing up long articles into multiple pages, which is usually just an excuse to generate additional clicks. But the primacy of the page—with its arbitrary slice or junction of content—reminds us of why it’s still sometimes best to browse through a physical newspaper or magazine, or to look at your own work in printed form. At a time when we all have access to the same world of information, something as trivial as a page break or an accidental pairing of ideas can be the source of insights that have occurred to no one else. And the first step might be as simple as looking at something on paper.

Trading places

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John Updike

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What famous person’s life would you want to assume?”

“Celebrity,” John Updike once wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” And Updike would have known, having been one of the most famous—and the most envied—literary novelists of his generation, with a career that seemed to consist of nothing but the serene annual production of poems, stories, essays, and hardcovers that, with their dust jackets removed, turned out to have been bound and designed as a uniform edition. From the very beginning, Updike was already thinking about how his complete works would look on library shelves. That remarkable equanimity made an impression on the writer Nicholson Baker, who wrote in his book U & I:

I compared my awkward self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

Plenty of writers, young or old, might have wanted to switch places with Updike, although the first rule of inhabiting someone else’s life is that you don’t want to be a writer. (The Updike we see in Adam Begley’s recent biography comes across as more unruffled than most, but all those extramarital affairs in Ipswich must have been exhausting.) Writing might seem like an attractive kind of celebrity: you can inspire fierce devotion in a small community of fans while remaining safely anonymous in a restaurant or airport. You don’t even need to go as far as Thomas Pynchon: how many of us could really pick Michael Chabon or Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy out of a crowd? Yet that kind of seclusion carries a psychological toll as well, and I suspect that the daily life of any author, no matter how rich or acclaimed, looks much the same as any other. If you want to know what it’s like to be old, Malcolm Cowley wrote: “Put cotton in your ears and pebbles in your shoes. Pull on rubber gloves. Smear Vaseline over your glasses, and there you have it: instant old age.” And if you want to know what it’s like to be a novelist, you can fill a room with books and papers, go inside, close the door, and stay there for as long as possible while doing absolutely nothing that an outside observer would find interesting. Ninety percent of a writer’s working life looks more or less like that.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

What kind of celebrity, then, do you really want to be? If celebrity is a mask, as Updike says, it might be best to make it explicit. Being a member of Daft Punk, say, would allow you to bask in the adulation of a stadium show, then remove your helmet and take the bus back to your hotel without any risk of being recognized. The mask doesn’t need to be literal, either: I have a feeling that Lady Gaga could dress down in a hoodie and ponytail and order a latte at any Starbucks in the country without being mobbed. The trouble, of course, with taking on the identity of a total unknown—Banksy, for instance—is that you’re buying the equivalent of a pig in a poke: you just don’t know what you’re getting. Ideally, you’d switch places with a celebrity whose life has been exhaustively chronicled, either by himself or others, so that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. It’s probably best to also go with someone slightly advanced in years: as Solon says in Herodotus, you don’t really know how happy someone’s life is until it’s over, and the next best thing would be a person whose legacy seems more or less fixed. (There are dangers there, too, as Bill Cosby knows.) And maybe you want someone with a rich trove of memories of a life spent courting risk and uncertainty, but who has since mellowed into something slightly more stable, with the aura of those past accomplishments still intact.

You also want someone with the kind of career that attracts devoted collaborators, which is the only kind of artistic wealth that really counts. But you don’t want too much fame or power, both of which can become traps in themselves. In many respects, then, what you’d want is something close to the life of half and half that Lin Yutang described so beautifully: “A man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity.” Take it too far, though, and you start to inch away from whatever we call celebrity these days. (Only in today’s world can an otherwise thoughtful profile of Brie Larson talk about her “relative anonymity.”) And there are times when a touch of recognition in public can be a welcome boost to your ego, like for Sally Field in Soapdish, as long as you’re accosted by people with the same basic mindset, rather than those who just recognize you from Istagram. You want, in short, to be someone who can do pretty much what he likes, but less because of material resources than because of a personality that makes the impossible happen. You want to be someone who can tell an interviewer: “Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me…So long as I have a roof over my head, something to read and something to eat, all is fine…What makes me so rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere.” You want to be Werner Herzog.

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

The power of the page

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Laura Hillenbrand

Over the weekend, I found myself contemplating two very different figures from the history of American letters. The first is the bestselling nonfiction author Laura Hillenbrand, whose lifelong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome compelled her to research and write Seabiscuit and Unbroken while remaining largely confined to her house for the last quarter of a century. (Wil S. Hylton’s piece on Hillebrand in The New York Times Magazine is absolutely worth a read—it’s the best author profile I’ve seen in a long time.) The other is the inventor and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose life was itinerant as Hillebrand’s is stationary. There’s a page in E.J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing, his genial look at his collaboration with Fuller on the magnum opus Synergetics, that simply reprints Fuller’s travel schedule for a representative two weeks in March: he flies from Philadelphia to Denver to Minneapolis to Miami to Washington to Harrisburg to Toronto, attending conferences and giving talks, to the point where it’s hard to see how he found time to get anything else done. Writing a coherent book, in particular, seemed like the least of his concerns; as Applewhite notes, Fuller’s natural element was the seminar, which allowed him to spin complicated webs of ideas in real time for appreciative listeners, and one of the greatest challenges of producing Synergetics lay in harnessing that energy in a form that could be contained within two covers.

At first glance, Hillenbrand and Fuller might seem to have nothing in common. One is a meticulous journalist, historian, and storyteller; the other a prodigy of worldly activity who was often reluctant to put his ideas down in any systematic way. But if they meet anywhere, it’s on the printed page—and I mean this literally. Hylton’s profile of Hillebrand is full of fascinating details, but my favorite passage describes how her constant vertigo has left her unable to study works on microfilm. Instead, she buys and reads original newspapers, which, in turn, has influenced the kinds of stories she tells:

Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period—the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

There are shades here of Nicholson Baker, who became so concerned over the destruction of library archives of vintage newspapers that he bought a literal ton of them with his life savings, and ended up writing an entire book, the controversial Human Smoke, based on his experience of reading press coverage of the events leading up to World War II day by day. And the serendipity that these old papers afforded was central to Hillebrand’s career: she first stumbled across the story of Louie Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, on the opposite side of a clipping she was reading about Seabiscuit.

Buckminster Fuller

Fuller was similarly energized by the act of encountering ideas in printed form, with the significant difference that the words, in this case, were his own. Applewhite devotes a full chapter to Fuller’s wholesale revision of Synergetics after the printed galleys—the nearly finished proofs of the typeset book itself—had been delivered by their publisher. Authors aren’t supposed to make extensive rewrites in the galley stage; it’s so expensive to reset the text that writers pay for any major changes out of their own pockets. But Fuller enthusiastically went to town, reworking entire sections of the book in the margins, at a personal cost of something like $3,500 in 1975 dollars. And Applewhite’s explanation for this impulse is what caught my eye:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key word here is “quite arbitrary.” A sequence of pages—whether in a newspaper or in a galley proof—is an arbitrary grid laid on a sequence of ideas. Where the page break falls, or what ends up on the opposite side, is largely a matter of chance. And for both Fuller and Hillenbrand, the physical page itself becomes a carrier of information. It’s serendipitous, random, but no less real.

And it makes me reflect on what we give up when pages, as tangible objects, pass out of our lives. We talk casually about “web pages,” but they aren’t quite the same thing: now that many websites, including this one, offer visitors an infinite scroll, the effect is less like reading a book than like navigating the spool of paper that Kerouac used to write On the Road. Occasionally, a web page’s endlessness can be turned into a message in itself, as in the Clickhole blog post “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World,” which turns out to contain the full text of Moby-Dick. More often, though, we end up with a wall of text that destroys any possibility of accidental juxtaposition or structure. I’m not advocating a return to the practice of arbitrarily dividing up long articles into multiple pages, which is usually just an excuse to generate additional clicks. But the primacy of the page—with its arbitrary slice or junction of content—reminds us of why it’s still sometimes best to browse through a physical newspaper or magazine, or to look at your own work in printed form. At a time when we all have access to the same world of information, something as trivial as a page break or an accidental pairing of ideas can be the source of insights that have occurred to no one else. And the first step might be as simple as looking at something on paper.

What is poetry like?

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.

W.S. Merwin

Your teacher says that poetry is like an exquisite and towering pagoda that appears at the snap of the fingers or like the twelve towers of the five cities of the immortals that ephemerally exist at the edge of heaven. I do not agree. To use a metaphor, poetry is like building a house out of tiles, glazed bricks, wood, and stone—he must put them all together, one by one, on solid ground.

Shih Jun-chang

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude, as, for example, in earliest morning.

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like a panther: it delights the eye; but against any attempt to enslave it, it may wreak revenge.

Walter Kaufmann

Many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in the mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation.

John Dryden

Nicholson Baker

Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.

Nicholson Baker

Writing a poem is like getting a short-term contract from God. You get this one done and if you do a good job, then maybe another contract will come along.

David Bottoms

Writing poetry is like writing history—talent, learning, and understanding in suitable proportion.

Yuan Mei

P.D. James

Poetry is like religion: sometimes the vision is immediate and almost frightening in its intensity; sometimes it is reached with difficulty, giving intimations only, and those confused and partial.

P.D. James

Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.

—Attributed to W.H. Auden by Robert Earl Hayden

Poetry is like being alive twice.

Robert Hass

The evolution of art

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Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you’ve been watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as faithfully as I have, you probably came away from last night’s episode with a newfound appreciation for the wonders of natural selection. Darwinian evolution, as Daniel Dennett likes to point out, is probably the single best idea anyone ever had, and it’s since been applied to fields far beyond those of biology. The notion that ideas and abstract concepts, for instance, are subject to selection pressure—both within the human mind and in the larger world beyond—is a familiar one, and every writer knows how it feels. Life is full of story ideas, and the means by which one or another wins out is a mysterious one, with selection often taking place below the level of conscious thought. Even once you’ve started a story, it can go in any number of directions, with the author selecting and discarding variations based on their perceived rightness, a process that happens all over again once the story is released into the wild. (The publishing industry is a battleground for survival of a particularly ruthless kind.) And if you want to harness the power of evolution in your own work, it’s not a bad idea to take a few cues from nature itself:

1. Move through a series of useful intermediate steps. My favorite part of last night’s Cosmos episode was its takedown of the argument, common among proponents of intelligent design, that an organ like the human eye is too complex to have evolved by chance. It may be true that half an eye isn’t very useful, but an approximation of an eye certainly is, and there’s a beautiful sequence illustrating how the eye evolved from a series of intermediate stages, each useful in itself: a cluster of a few photosensitive proteins develops gradually into a depression with an aperture and finally an eye with a lens. And this is a striking analogy to how the creative process works. Half a story isn’t any more useful than half an eye, but a finished rough draft—one that takes the entire narrative from beginning to end, however imperfectly—is both a sketch of the whole and a template that can be refined through successive revisions. And it isn’t until you’ve got something that holds together on its own provisional terms that you can start to make it better. (This is part of the reason why I always start with a detailed outline, which is the roughest version of the complete story that can possibly exist.)

Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

2. Introduce a little randomness. Natural selection proceeds as a succession of accidents, with random mutations in the genetic code that usually lead nowhere, but occasionally result in a useful adaptation. The process of writing a story can’t work in quite the same way: unlike nature, we’re writing with an end in mind, and most of us start with a plan. Even with such a teleological approach, however, it’s still possible to embrace a productive element of chance. I’ve described my own methods in detail, but every author will develop his or her own strategies for making raids on the random. Nicholson Baker, for instance, used a random number generator to reorder the chapters in his novel The Anthologist, and although he discarded most of the results, it led to a handful of promising juxtapositions that were preserved in the final draft. Even if you aren’t as systematic about it, you’ll soon find that every finished novel represents a compromise between the vision that the author had at the beginning and the unpredictable variations that the process introduced. And it’s essential to be able to depart from the plan enough to incorporate the unexpected—and to test it diligently against the alternatives.

3. Give it time. If the diversity and ingenuity of the adaptations that nature creates can sometimes seem unimaginable, it’s because natural selection operates over millions of years. Time, scale, and variation can do remarkable things. Artists, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury: we can only write one version of a story at a time, and we only have a few months or years to get it done. Even on that reduced level, though, time is crucial. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering in the creative process, and the fact that most novels need a year or so to percolate in the author’s mind, no matter how fast we can write. There’s a simple explanation: most of us only have so many good ideas at any one time, and if we can extend the period of writing, we’ll increase our chances of finding an idea that can be applied to the problem at hand. It’s possible to take this too far, of course, and there always comes a time when the draft needs to be sent out to meet its fate. But even a break of a few weeks can have positive effect, especially if we’ve turned our attention to other projects in the meantime. And when we do finally go back to the work we’ve set aside, we’ll often find that it has evolved in our absence, when we weren’t even aware of it. Now that’s some intelligent design.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2014 at 9:57 am

How to repeat yourself

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John Gardner

Writers are generally advised not to repeat themselves. After I’ve finished the rough draft of a story, one of my first orders of business is to go back through the manuscript and fix any passages where I’ve inadvertently repeated the same word in the same sentence, or within a short run of text. Knowing how often you can use a word is a matter of taste and intuition. Some words are so common as to be invisible to the reader, so you can, and should, use the word “said” exclusively throughout a story, even as dialogue can usually be varied in other ways. Other words or phrases are so striking that they can’t be used more than once or twice in the course of an entire novel, and I’ll sometimes catch myself maintaining a running count of how often I’ve used a word like “unaccountable.” Then there are the words that fall somewhere in the middle, where they’re useful enough to crop up on a regular basis but catch the reader’s eye to an extent that they shouldn’t be overused. Different writers fall back on different sets of words, and in my case, they tend to be verbs of cognition, like “realized,” or a handful of adverbs that I use entirely too often, like, well, “entirely.”

Whenever I’m sifting through the story like this, part of me wonders whether a reader would even notice. Some of these repetitions jar my ear to a greater extent than they would for someone reading the story more casually: I’ve often revisited these pages something like fifty times, and I’m acutely aware of the shape of each sentence. (Overfamiliarity can have its pitfalls as well, of course: I’m sometimes shocked to discover a glaring repetition in a sentence that I’ve read over and over until I can no longer really see it.) But I encounter this issue often enough in other authors’ books that I know it isn’t just me. Catching an inadvertent repetition in a novel, as when Cormac McCarthy speaks twice in Blood Meridian of something being “footed” to its reflection, has the same effect as an unintentional rhyme: it pulls you momentarily out of the story, wondering if the writer meant to repeat the same word or if he, or his editor, fell asleep at the switch. And a particularly sensitive eye can pick up on repetitions or tics that even an attentive reader might miss. In his otherwise fawning study U & I,  Nicholson Baker complains about John Updike’s overuse of the verb “seemed,” which even I, a massive Updike fan, hadn’t noticed until Baker pointed it out.

Nicholson Baker

But repetitions can also be a source of insight, especially when you’re coming to grips with an earlier draft. A writer can learn a lot from the words he habitually overuses. If you find yourself falling back on melodramatic adverbs like “suddenly,” you might want to rethink the tone you’re taking—it’s possible that you’re trying to drum up excitement in a story that lacks inherent dramatic interest. My own overuse of verbs like “realized” might indicate that I’m spending too much time showing characters thinking through a situation, rather than conveying character through action. You can learn even more from longer phrases that reappear by accident. As John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction, discussing a hypothetical story about Helen of Troy:

Reading…lines he has known by heart for weeks, [the writer] discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery: The brooch Helen threw at Menelaus the writer has described, he discovers, with the same phrase he used in describing, much later, the seal on the message for help being sent to the Trojans’ allies. Why? he wonders. 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.

And the comparison to dreaming is a shrewd one. “Repetitions are magic keys,” Umberto Eco writes in Foucault’s Pendulum, and although he’s talking about something rather different—a string of sentences randomly generated by a computer—there’s a common element here. When you write a first draft, you’re operating by instinct: you accept the first words that come to mind, rather than laboriously revising the text, because you’re working in a mode closer to the events of the story itself. At its best, it’s something like a dream, and the words we select have a lot in common with the unmediated nature of dream imagery or word association in psychoanalysis. Later, we’ll smooth and polish the surface of the prose, and most of these little infelicities will be ironed away, but it doesn’t hurt to look at them first with the eye of an analyst, or a critic, to see what they reveal. This doesn’t excuse us from falling back on the same hackneyed words or phrases, and it doesn’t help a writer who thinks entirely in clichés. But it’s in our slips or mistakes, as Freud knew, that we unconsciously reveal ourselves. Mistakes need to be fixed and repetitions minimized, but it’s still useful to take a moment to ask what they really mean.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

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