Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nick Paumgarten

The art of survival

with 2 comments

Cuisinart coffee maker

About a year ago, I switched from using a coffee press to a drip machine, mostly because I wanted to program it to brew a pot automatically when my daughter wakes me up at five in the morning. Six cups is just about enough to get me through the day, and I stage it the night before by measuring out five spoonfuls of a cheap supermarket brand—my current favorite is Folgers Black Silk—and one spoonful of coffee from the gourmet aisle. (I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter which one.) Why bother? Well, the drip machine uses more coffee than my old press did, so I started stretching the good beans with the grocery store stuff. I began by mixing them in equal proportions, but somewhat to my surprise, I found that a single scoop of Gevalia, for instance, noticeably improved the flavor of the whole: it’s just enough to lend it some of the oiliness and complexity that I miss in the Folgers, which tastes like it’s been sprayed with artificial coffee flavoring. The result is that I end up spending a little less for what, to my tastebuds, is the same experience. I don’t present this as a life hack, exactly: it’s possible that a more discriminating coffee drinker would object to the difference. But it’s a good example of the kind of persnickety frugality that I often notice in myself. When I strop my safety razor each morning so that the blade lasts for months, I know that I’m saving a matter of pennies, but I can’t seem to stop. And I do it because I’m a writer.

I got to thinking about this after reading Nick Paumgarten’s recent profile in The New Yorker of Peter Adeney, better known as Mr. Money Mustache, the blogger who famously saved enough pennies from his software engineering job to retire at the age of thirty. Adeney’s idea of retirement differs a little from the standard definition: he works a lot, mostly at repair jobs in his small town in Colorado, but only because he enjoys it. (It’s also worth mentioning that his blog generates revenues of about four hundred thousand dollars a year, although he claims to stick to an annual budget of twenty-four thousand.) As Paumgarten notes:

Retirement, in [Adeney’s] hands, is a slippery term. It doesn’t mean playing golf or sitting on the porch. It is merely the freedom to do what he wants when he wants. He likes some kinds of work, when they aren’t jobs—carpentry, home improvement, the blog—but he disdains the idea of spending another minute of his life in a cubicle, in order to afford a dryer, or a Tesla…The point, for him, is to live lean and free.

It’s hard to argue with this. But this sort of freedom demands an exhausting degree of attention to a myriad of thrifty details. Adeney describes himself as “kind of” a stoner, but he’s a meticulous, obsessive one who is unable to turn off his compulsion to squeeze every ounce of value out of everything—sometimes literally, as when he uses a woodworker’s vise to get the last drop of juice from a lime. “He is aware that he is a handful,” Paumgarten writes. “He imagines that his wife’s inner voice whispers, ‘Your relentless optimizations are a drain on my life energy.’”

Peter Adeney

But “relentless optimization” sounds about right, and I think everyone who tries to write for a living ends up in much the same situation. I’ve said here before that the idea of being a writer is so egregiously impractical on the macro level that it naturally enforces a relentless pragmatism and efficiency on the microscopic scale. This applies both to the act of writing itself, as I noted in my post yesterday on the imaginative poverty that every writer learns to work around, and to economic survival. The top line for most writers, even successful ones, is rarely very high, so it helps to focus on the bottom line: the simpler your life, the easier it is to weather the dry periods that all writers face. (Whenever I run the risk of forgetting this, I go back to read Emily Gould’s essay “How Much My Novel Cost Me,” a vivid reminder of the fine line between a six-figure book deal and going broke.) There’s nothing virtuous about this, and I’m aware that luck and timing plays a big part in the outcome—and in both directions. If nothing else, though, a relentless focus on paring away the inessential extends the window of opportunity in which good things can happen, or at least minimizes the factors that tend to close it. A meaningful break might only come along once every five or ten years, assuming that you’ve managed to stick it out, but even then, you can’t relax. So you keep stretching out your coffee with an eye to the day in which you’ll have to regroup yet again.

And the artistic and economic aspects go hand in hand. When I look back at my life, I’m struck by how I tried to become more conscientiously frugal at the exact same time that I was seriously puzzling out how to write a novel. This wasn’t a coincidence: each half sustained the other, and learning how to edit a manuscript became inseparable from the act of editing myself. I felt driven to develop, once and for all, a set of tools that would allow me to finish writing a book because my financial circumstances didn’t allow for inactivity: I could calculate exactly how much each wasted hour was costing me. And I drove myself to become more efficient and frugal in visible ways because the goal was right there before my eyes. It felt as if my life were at stake. Even when my situation is relatively stable, as it is now, I can’t quite give up those old habits, although their benefits are mostly psychological. I feel more comfortable with staking so much on my ability to provide a roof and an overcoat if I can point to all the tiny ways I’m being practical. And it’s a fair trade. You could say that the price of freedom—for individuals as well as nations—is eternal vigilance, but that understates how instinctive, and even liberating, such tactics can feel when directed toward spending each day however you think best, hour to hour, minute by minute. Adeney gets at part of it when he says: “I’ve become irrationally dedicated to rational living.” And the flip side, as every writer learns, is to become rationally dedicated to an irrational life.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2016 at 9:41 am

The downhill racer

leave a comment »

James Salter

Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain.

—James Salter, Light Years

Last week, the novelist James Salter died at the age of ninety. Many of us were introduced—or reintroduced—to Salter a couple of years ago, when a New Yorker profile by Nick Paumgarten coincided with the release of what turned out to be his final book. The piece had the effect of definitively canonizing Salter in an odd but accustomed position: the most famous unknown novelist in America. By then, the story had long since taken shape of Salter as a writer who was the equal, at his best, of Roth or Updike, with just as much critical support and acclaim over five decades, but a fraction of the sales and celebrity. As a result, he became not just a writer but a kind of mirror in which other frustrated novelists, published or otherwise, could see themselves, as well as an object lesson in the fickle relationship between fame and talent. And if Salter or his fans hoped that the profile would finally grant him the cultural prominence he deserved, they were doomed to be disappointed, in characteristic fashion, in as classy a way as possible: his last novel showed up for exactly one week on the New York Times bestseller list. It was an ending that Salter might have written for himself, although clearly not the one he wanted, and it confirmed him as our great master of doing so very much, but not nearly enough.

I was intrigued enough by the profile to pick up a copy of A Sport and a Pastime, generally considered to be Salter’s best work. And it’s a novel I wish I’d read much earlier. (About halfway through, I realized that I’d been familiar with parts of it for most of my life, through the excerpts that John Irving includes in A Son of the Circus, although I’d never made the connection before.) It covers some of the same thematic and cultural ground as Tropic of Cancer, a novel I’ve tried and failed to love, and I think it’s ultimately the better book—or at least the one that fits more snugly with my own tastes in fiction. It’s detached, precise, and a little chilly, but it also contains a higher percentage of genuine smut than any other good novel I can name. Much of it feels like a novel written for other writers. The prose isn’t showy, but it’s so obsessively polished that every paragraph comes off as a miniature textbook of craft, and although the author keeps himself at a deliberate remove, it’s constantly alive with his intelligence and skill. If I were going to recommend half a dozen novels for an aspiring writer to study closely, it would probably be among them: it’s the kind of book you keep at your elbow, as I’ve recently done, while working over your own material, both as a reference point and as a reminder of all that writing can be.

A Sport and a Pastime

But what complicates the narrative of Salter as a literary bridesmaid, never a bride, is that his life was almost indescribably rich. He went to high school at Horace Mann with Jack Kerouac, attended West Point, and flew planes in the Korean War. His first novel, The Hunters, was optioned for a considerable sum—close to half a million in today’s dollars—and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. A short documentary he made won a prize at the Venice Film Festival almost by accident. His next script was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Salter himself directed a movie featuring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. Later, he fell in with Robert Redford, for whom he wrote Downhill Racer. Along the way, he produced a handful of great novels, a lot of short fiction, and some poetry. He was close friends with Saul Bellow before tiring of being a “wingman.” He had five children with two different wives. By all accounts, he was handsome and athletic, an accomplished skier, climber, and tennis player. His novels never sold particularly well, but they attracted high praise from the readers who mattered most. Of A Sport and a Pastime, Reynolds Price said: “It’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.” But real fame, and the big literary prizes, remained out of reach, and Salter seems to have seen much of his life as a waste of time and potential.

We’re left, then, with the question of whether fame is truly the sole proof of greatness, and why a writer of such enormous accomplishments could only see the places where he fell short. (Even his admirers encouraged him in this. Speaking of Salter’s movie career, Paumgarten says without comment: “Of sixteen screenplays, only four were produced.” Any screenwriter will tell you that this is a fantastic percentage.) But he wasn’t alone. If you were going to plan out the perfect writing career from first principles—a big critical success right out of the gate, a huge bestseller at your peak, and a series of late masterpieces—you couldn’t do better than Philip Roth, and I’ve written at length elsewhere about Roth’s own disillusionment. Which only raises the larger issue of whether any ambitious writer can truly be happy. Part of it can be pinned on the neuroses that drive so many writers into the lives they’ve chosen, but not all of it is imaginary. Those of us on the outside only see the published work, but a writer is uniquely qualified to measure them against the books that were never written, and none of us ever lives up to his or her full potential. In Salter’s case, that infinitesimal gap feels especially stark: he came so close to being the best that his final, tiny shortfall feels like a failure. He can start to sound a little like LeBron James after the finals: “If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had.” Salter gave even more than that, and he didn’t think it was enough. But that doesn’t mean he was right.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

The Legend of Miyamoto

leave a comment »

For reasons known only to itself, The New Yorker has evidently decided that the best way to write about video games is to assign these stories to writers who emphatically have no gaming experience. This approach, which wouldn’t be tolerated for any other art form, high or low, has already resulted in this notorious article by Nicholson Baker—one of my favorite living writers, but clearly unequipped to say anything interesting about Red Dead Redemption. And now we have Nick Paumgarten’s disappointing profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, which is a huge missed opportunity, in more ways than one.

Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario and Zelda franchises and the greatest video game designer of all time, has often been compared to Walt Disney, an accolade he shares with his fellow genius Hayao Miyazaki. (Miyamoto and Miyazaki also share a deep nostalgia for the forests and villages of rural Japan, an abiding affection that shows up throughout their work.) Miyamoto is an artist, a storyteller, an engineer, and a visionary, and he’s exactly the sort of creative force that the readers of The New Yorker ought to know more about. The fact that Paumgarten scored only a brief interview with Miyamoto, which he pads out to feature length with pages of unenlightening digressions, is only the most disappointing thing about the profile. A single glimpse of one of Miyamoto’s sketches for Zelda would be more interesting than anything on display here.

Still, there are a few moments worth mentioning. Here’s Miyamoto on calibrating the difficulty of a game, and how important it is to incorporate quiet moments alongside every challenge:

A lot of the so-called action games are not made that way…All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?…[In Miyamoto’s own games] you are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that can be a joy.

This is especially good advice for writers in genres, such as suspense, that place a premium on intensity. A few strategically timed breaks in the action, which give the reader a moment of breathing room, can make the rest of the novel read much more quickly. The key, as Miyamoto knows, is putting yourself in the position of a person approaching a work of art for the first time:

I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I’m the perfect, skillful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.

Similarly, once a writer has internalized the plot of a novel, it can be hard to see it with fresh eyes. One solution is to set the book aside for a month and read it again once the memory of the story has faded. Another approach, which I’ve done a few times, is to read a sequence of chapters in reverse, or at random, which often reveals problems or repetitions that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Finally, here’s Paumgarten on one of my favorite topics, the importance of constraints as a creative tool:

Mario, [Miyamoto’s] most famous creation, owes his appearance to the technological limitations of the first Donkey Kong game. The primitive graphics—there were hardly enough pixels to approximate a human form—compelled Miyamoto to give Mario white gloves and red overalls (so that you could see his arms swing), a big bushy mustache and a red hat (to hide the fact that engineers couldn’t yet do mouths or hair that moved), and a big head (to exaggerate his collisions). Form has always followed functionality. The problem now, if you want to call it one, is the degree of functionality. [Italics mine.]

This is a nice, crucial point. And it applies to more than video games. The limitations that made Mario so distinctive are the same ones that led to the look of Mickey Mouse, among so many other stars of early animation. One problem with the recent availability of beautifully rendered computer graphics is that character design is becoming a lost art. Even the best recent Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks films have suffered from this: they can render every hair on a character’s head, but can’t make the character itself a memorable one. (Kung Fu Panda may be the last computer-animated movie with really distinctive character designs.)

So are video games art? Paumgarten glances at the subject only briefly, but with all due respect to Roger Ebert, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best video games are indeed art. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for something like Super Mario Galaxy, which is one of the few recent works, in any medium, that has filled me with something like my childhood envy for those who get to spend their lives telling stories. (The J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek is another.) Miyamoto’s great skill, as the article reminds us, is to bring us back to the best moments of our childhood. And while not all art needs to aspire to this, the world definitely needs art that does.

%d bloggers like this: