Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Oblique Strategies

The Book of Changes

with 2 comments

The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

A new bag of tricks

with one comment

Genrich Altshuller

Back in the early sixties, a Soviet patent clerk named Genrich Altshuller embarked on an absurdly ambitious project. He wanted to formulate a set of rules for innovation, a kind of universal recipe book for inventors and engineers, based on the characteristics shared by the patent applications he had inspected. The result, which Altshuller claimed was based on an analysis of more than two hundred thousand patents, was a theory of inventive problem solving, best known as its Russian acronym TRIZ. It’s a complicated system based on the concept of a contradiction matrix, in which elements of a problem are paired off and assigned to solutions that have been useful when applied to such conflicts in the past. For our purposes here, the details don’t really matter, although you can find as much information about it online as you feel like absorbing. What’s particularly enticing is his set of solutions, which he classified under forty general principles of invention. They include such headings as “Segmentation,” “Taking Out,” “Asymmetry,” “Russian dolls,” “Mechanical vibration,” “Periodic action,” “Feedback,” and “Porous Materials.”  It’s a bit of a grab bag, but each entry represents an approach to solving a problem that has worked before, and the headings are both general and just specific enough to spark a promising train of thought.

In his invaluable book Cool Tools, Kevin Kelly says of the Altshuller method: “I like to think of it as Oblique Strategies for engineers.” That’s a shrewd comparison, especially because there’s an element of randomness involved. If you’re stuck on a problem, you can pick one of the forty principles out of a hat and see how it applies to your situation. Take, for instance, the principle of “Another Dimension.” As summarized by one popular presentation, it includes the following hints:

  1. If an object contains or moves in a straight line, consider use of dimensions or movement outside the line.
  2. If an object contains or moves in a plane, consider use of dimensions or movement outside the current plane.
  3. Use a multi-story arrangement of objects instead of a single-story arrangement.
  4. Tilt or reorient the object; lay it on its side.
  5. Use “another side” of a given area.

And although these rules are intended for inventors and engineers, it isn’t hard to see how they could apply to the problems of a writer, playwright, sculptor, director, choreographer, or anyone else who has to break away occasionally from an obvious line of action.

Contradiction matrix

What I find most intriguing about Altshuller’s approach is less the forty principles themselves—most of which have only a tenuous connection to what artists do, although they’re useful as analogies—than the underlying premise behind them. When you’re working in any field that requires a sustained engagement with complex projects, you inevitably end up with a wide range of tools, to the point where it’s hard to keep them all in mind at once. You carry a lot of craft unconsciously, of course, and you apply many of the rules intuitively, without being totally aware of why or how you’re doing it, which is fine as long as it works. But there also seems to be an upper bound on how many such tools you can comfortably internalize. There are always going to be rules or approaches that don’t occur to you, simply because the lore of your chosen field is too vast or specialized for any one person to hold in his or her head. As a result, one of the most productive things any creative professional can do is to maintain a list of the rules that seem to consistently work, so that you aren’t depending solely on memory or instinct to resolve issues as they arise. You might refer to that list only rarely, but when you’re stuck on a problem without any obvious solution, the best approach is often to test every tool against it one at a time, hoping that one of them has some kind of effect.

Ultimately, Altshuller’s forty principles are really just an unusually comprehensive attempt to catalog the tools available. Every artist ends up doing much the same, although probably less systematically, and using a more restricted sample set. You write a lot of drafts, make a mental note of the tricks that work, and if you’re particularly diligent, you’ll also record them more formally—hence the checklists that so many authors and artists are always writing up for themselves. And it’s important to strike the proper balance between the rules you discover on your own and the ones you get from somewhere else. A rule, like a philosophical precept, never seems real until you’ve rediscovered it though your own experience, and a writing trick that you’ve figured out through trial and error will always seem more vivid and applicable than one you’ve appropriated from a set of rules you read in a book. It’s also easy to fetishize approaches like Oblique Strategies or the Altshuller method, which are really nothing but someone else’s catalog of tools. Yet there’s a very real sense in which it can be helpful to apply the lessons of a stranger, or the principles of an unrelated field, to your own problems. Sometimes an answer can emerge only from tackling the same issue from a new angle, or with the benefit of somebody else’s experience, and when your own bag of tricks seems empty, it’s good to know which other ones exist.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2015 at 9:44 am

A meditation on the tarot

with 6 comments

A few weeks ago, I picked up a pack of tarot cards. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in using forms of randomness to inform the writing process, largely because I’m such a left-brained writer in other ways. Raids on the random of various kinds have served as a creative tool for millennia, of course, although they were seen less as randomness than as divination. And regardless of your thoughts on their validity, accuracy, or philosophical basis, there’s little question, at least to my mind, that they offer a set of valuable approaches to modes of thinking that often go unactivated in everyday life. Jung, for instance, used tarot and the I Ching with patients undergoing psychotherapy, noting—and this is a crucial point—that the results thus derived were worth close attention when they seemed to converge on a single interpretation. Tarot and the like aren’t ends in themselves, but a medium in which intuitive thought can take place, and as such, I think they deserve to be sampled by creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on accessing that kind of thinking on a regular basis.

That said, I resisted the tarot for a long time, mostly because it carries so much symbolic and cultural baggage: it’s easier for an otherwise rational writer to justify drawing one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, say, than to lay out a celtic cross spread. Still, tarot has received serious attention from writers as otherwise dissimilar as Robert Graves, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson, and when you strip away its distracting connotations, you’re left with a set of flexible, versatile symbols that have been subjected to a long process of historical refinement. Tarot, like most useful forms of creative thought, is primarily about combination and juxtaposition, both with the problem at hand and between the cards themselves. It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns, and while you could theoretically do this with any assortment of random words or ideas, like the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, it probably helps—both pragmatically and psychologically—to begin with a coherent collection of images that other creative thinkers have used in the past.

The Tarot of Marseilles

With this in mind, I bought an inexpensive pack of cards depicting the Tarot of Marseilles, which Jung, among others, regarded as the most stimulating of the many possible designs. (It’s also the pack at the heart of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the oddest, densest books in my home library, although it’s less a work on the tarot itself than one that uses the cards as a gateway into a more discursive look at esoteric theology.) I’ve been laying out cards now and then as I outline a new writing project, and the results have been promising enough that I expect to continue. Occasionally, the readings I get seem to have an uncanny relevance to the problem at hand, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to the mind’s ability to see connections when given a set of ambiguous symbols, this doesn’t make it any less useful. Any practice that encourages ten minutes of loosely structured thought about a creative dilemma is likely to come up with something valuable, and even if it’s the ten minutes that really count, it’s easier when the process is guided by a series of established steps.

And what makes the tarot potentially more useful than other alternatives is its visual nature, as well as the way in which it results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of notetaking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger. This can only lead to surprising insights, and even if it ultimately leads us to where we were already going, it allows us to pick up a little more along the way.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

Constructing a shrine to the random

with one comment

Gregory Bateson

“I am going to build a church some day,” Gregory Bateson once said. “It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” I’ve shared this quote here before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really dug into its underlying meaning. As Bateson knew, many creative processes originate in raids on the random, and the holy of holies he describes genuinely existed in a number of incarnations. The Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament were evidently oracle stones that were used to ask questions at important moments: their actual form is still a matter of debate, but it’s likely that they were a bag of small metal discs that were pulled one by one to spell out various permutations of the divine name, each with its own network of meanings. Lots, oracle bones, and divinatory texts have always been treated with ritual care. I’m as left-brained an author as they come, but I always incorporate randomness into the early stages of any writing project, and while these habits are useful in their own right, I’ve also come to see them as a gesture of respect for the unknowable. Whether or not they result in a useful idea is almost beside the point, although they invariably do; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that there are aspects of creativity that can’t be controlled in rational ways.

In fact, I’m starting to believe that every writer needs to maintain a personal shrine to the random. I’m thinking in particular of those portable shrines carried by bullfighters, explorers, and aviators, which can be folded, tucked into a suitcase or bag, and unfolded to be set up in any camp or hotel room. After much trial and error, I’ve found that the ideal vehicle of randomness is a collection of many short, compact units of information of uniform density that can easily be selected by chance. The quintessential example is the I Ching, although I’ve found that it’s a little too vague for my tastes. As I’ve said in other posts, my own favorite oracle is Ted Hughes’s A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, a collection of upward of two hundred quotations from the poems and plays, helpfully numbered for convenient consultation. I’ve often thought about doing the same thing with the numbered entries in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, each of which lays out a design problem and its solution, or Robert Bresson’s Notes for the Cinematographer. (Numbers are useful because they allow you to employ a random number generator to select the one you need, which strikes me as a better approach than simply opening to a random page.)

A Pattern Language

Conceiving of randomness as an end unto itself—especially in how it inspires the mind to come up with unexpected connections and associations—almost redeems such questionable practices as Tarot cards, tea leaves, and astrology, which are useful when they encourage the consulter to apply novel patterns to the situation at hand, rather than slavishly following the response. If this strikes you as too fuzzy, there are plenty of alternatives. I’ve long been a fan of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and I’ve recently become intrigued by the IDEO Method Cards, which represent a more detailed approach to the same problem. Again, the real value they add is portability, concision, and convenience, as well as material that has gone through a prior stage of refinement. In theory, you could use the Yellow Pages as a source of randomness, too, and while some might argue that this is the way to really whack yourself out of established modes of thinking, I prefer my ore to be slightly more filtered first. (The raw materials don’t need to be words, either: as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, combinations of pictures have been used to stimulate creative thinking, and it’s easy to imagine a similar approach with music, or even with objects in the room you happen to be in now, as Julian Jaynes has done.)

Ultimately, though, the shrine depends on the user. Chance only brings your attention to what is right before your eyes, or reminds you of something you already know, as expressed in an anonymous verse that has been rattling around in my head for years: 

Whenever you are called on to make up your mind
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the way to solve the dilemma you’ll find
is simply by flipping a penny.

Not so that chance will decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping
But the moment the penny is up in the air
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Randomness works in much the same way, so its source needs to be something you find personally meaningful—which is true of any shrine. So why not build yours today?

Less critical, but more often

leave a comment »

Brian Eno

If there’s one piece of advice I’ve given on this blog more than any other, it’s that you should never go back to revise a story until an entire rough draft is finished. I repeat this so often because in many ways it’s the most fundamental writing rule I know, and for me, it made the difference between years of starting and abandoning ambitious projects and being able to write extensive works of fiction on a regular basis. Yet I also haven’t been entirely honest. In fact, I go back to revise unfinished work all the time: a given day’s work will often consist half of writing an initial draft, with another half spent going back to rework what I already have, sometimes with three or four additional passes before I’m done. Granted, I don’t do this until a rough draft of the entire chapter is finished, and even if I’m still not satisfied with the result after the final rewrite, this doesn’t keep me from moving on to the next chapter the following day. But on the surface, it looks an awful lot like a violation of my own philosophy, which is that revision is best reserved for after you’ve managed to tackle some version of the story as a whole.

So why do I do it? Part of it lies in a distinction I’ve come to draw between two kinds of revision, one which might be called rendering, the other reworking. The quick rewrites I do for each day’s work are, in fact, a lot like the rendering process in animation: you start with a rough wireframe model of how the entire scene will look, then gradually refine the result until you end up with something that plays more or less like it will in the finished movie. As I’ve mentioned in my post in Blinn’s Law, rendering time generally expands to fill up the amount of time available for its completion, limited only by the number of hours the animator, or writer, is willing to spend at the metaphorical drawing board. The time I spend writing each day has remained constant over the last few years—it’s maybe four to six hours. As I’ve grown more experienced and comfortable with my own style, the number of minutes it takes me to write that first draft has gone down considerably, so I spent the rest of my allotted time on rendering. But I still think of the final result as the rough draft, despite the fact that it has passed through several more iterations after the version I rapidly typed up that morning.

Unrendered animation from Toy Story 3

And although every writer develops his or her own approach to cranking out that first draft, in my case, the routine I’ve developed—a really rough version followed by two or three equally fast passes—works so well that I don’t expect to ever give it up. It’s partially derived from David Mamet’s advice about splitting the work up into manageable tasks: when I write that ugly first draft, I’m not worried about elegance or even passable style, but just about getting those basic plot points and story beats down on paper. In the next pass, I try to turn the result into something resembling civilized prose; in the next, something that I’d theoretically want to read myself; and in the last draft, if I’m lucky, I’ll end up with something just a bit better than I hoped. In that sense, it really has more in common with one of my favorite tidbits of wisdom from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “Be less critical more often.” I’ve learned not to put a lot of pressure on any one pass; I don’t need to get everything right all at once. But each time I go through the text, it gets a little better, and by keeping my critical eye as forgiving as I can, I still have the energy to go through it a second and third time, with each revisit yielding small discoveries and improvements of its own.

The other type of revision is reworking, which involves radically rethinking the structure and content of the text itself, and that’s still something I prefer to save for later in the process, once I’ve started to get a sense of what the hell the story is really about. Even then, however, I’ve found that I’d rather do multiple modest revisions than one aggressive one. The cumulative result is the same: each sentence gets revised countless times, and I devote the same number of hours to the overall process. The difference, aside from the fact that it’s emotionally less taxing to spread the work out over several rewrites, is that it allows me to approach the story from a greater variety of moods and angles, and it keeps the text itself fresh. When you’re in the depths of a really severe rewrite, there often comes a time when you’ve been stuck on the same paragraph for so long that you no longer really see it, which often leads to hasty, poorly considered changes. If you’re less critical more often, it’s easier to take the work as a whole into account, and you retain your perspective on the weight of any individual sentence. The danger, of course, is that you give less than you should to any one rewrite, reasoning that there’s always one more around the corner, and that revision itself can turn into a way of life. But if you’re mindful of the risks, it’s the best way I’ve found of seeing a difficult project all the way through to the end.

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

How to think in the shower

with 4 comments

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Paul Graham

I know what he means. For as long as I can remember, my morning shower has been my best thinking time, the protected space in which I can most comfortably work through whatever problems I’m trying to solve. And while it’s easy to let your mind wander, which, as Graham points out, is a good way of discovering what really matters to you at the moment, I’ve decided that this time is too precious to be left entirely to chance. When I’m writing a novel, I try to look over my notes for the day just before I turn on the water, and I usually find that I’ve come up with a number of new ideas before it shuts off. If I’m stuck for a topic for a blog post, I’ll take whatever sliver of inspiration I can—often in the form of one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—and mull it over for five minutes as the shower runs. More often than not, I’ll emerge with something useful. It works so consistently, in fact, that I’ve come to see it as an essential part of my writing routine, an extension of my office or brain. And I’m far from alone in this. Woody Allen, for instance, takes his showers very seriously:

I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy…The shower is particularly good in cold weather. This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

Allen here is as insightful as always—if you haven’t checked out Eric Lax’s Conversations With Woody Allen, from which this quote is taken, you really should—but he’s particularly shrewd on identifying a shower as a moment of change. In the shower, we’re taken out of our usual environment; we become semiaquatic creatures, in a humid little cube, and it’s at such points of transition that our minds are likely to move in promising directions.

There are other ways of encouraging this kind of mental and physical shift, most of them linked to relaxing, unconscious activities: taking a walk, doing routine chores, shaving. But there’s also something about the shower itself that seems especially conductive to mental activity. Alone, unclothed, we’re in a particularly vulnerable state, which is what makes the shower’s most famous cinematic appearance so effective. All the same, we’re in a state of relaxation, but also standing, and although I know that a lot of writers have done good thinking in the bathtub, I don’t think it’s quite as conducive to the kind of focused mental trip that the shower provides. You can read in the bathtub, after all, as long as you’re careful with the pages, while the shower is an enforced citadel of quiet. Hanging a radio or, worse, an iPad on the tile robs us of one of our last remaining fortresses of solitude. It’s best just to stand there in the cone of white noise that the cascade of water creates, as removed from the world as we can be while still remaining awake, and it’s the best time I know for uninterrupted, right-brained, intuitive thought.

And keeping an eye on your thoughts in the shower isn’t just a way of working through problems, but of clarifying which problems really matter. To close on Paul Graham once again:

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

In the shower, we come as close as we can to who we really are when all the masks are gone, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by seeing where our minds wander. My own shower has a little window that looks out on my backyard, and I’ll often catch myself looking out at the square of lawn behind my house, thinking over my life, what I’ve accomplished, and what still remains to be done. It’s something like the state we enter as we’re drifting off to sleep, but with our eyes wide open. When we emerge, we’re refreshed and at peace, with a new perspective on the tasks ahead. If this were a new invention, it would seem like magic. And it is.

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

The magic feather of randomness

leave a comment »

Walt Disney's Dumbo

I’m very deliberate about my randomness. If there’s a single recurring thread that runs through this blog, it’s the search for ways to introduce chance into my creative process, which otherwise tends to be a little too rational and organized. Randomness plays a huge role in the early stages of any project: the choice of one subject over another is really just an educated guess as to what you’ll find engaging for the next few months or years of your life, and there have been times, looking back, when I realize that I clearly guessed wrong. Later on, though, it’s easy to go overboard with research and outlining, so I’m always looking for reliable tricks to shake up my thinking. For a while, I used the I Ching, before its vagueness started to get on my nerves, and my tattered copy of A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, combined with a random number generator, is still my favorite way of finding a random quote that might shed light on my current creative problems. And I’ve increasingly started to consult Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, to the point where I’ll often draw a card when faced with any dilemma at all, creative or otherwise.

But what happens when you don’t have your usual tools available? This came up during my recent trip to Spain, during which I hoped to keep thinking about the project I’m currently writing. I didn’t have room to pack the books I usually employ as a source of random thoughts, and I didn’t expect to have reliable access to the Internet. For a while, I thought about generating a few random tidbits in advance—by, say, drawing an Oblique Strategy card for each of the five scenes I was hoping to work on, then keeping them in reserve until I needed them—but I quickly realized that this was only avoiding the larger question. Randomness, like anything else in life, can be pursued too systematically, and I had fallen into the trap of relying on the same handful of tools, when randomness is really all around us. Julian Jaynes, writing on the subject in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicemeral Mind, talks about how he’ll deliberately trigger random chains of associations by looking out the window or around the room where he happens to be, and when it comes to inventing material for this blog, I’ll occasionally ask myself, while seated at my desk: “Is there an idea for a blog post that I can see right now without turning my head?”

Brian Eno

You can pull random inspiration from other works of culture, too, and not just the I Ching or Shakespeare. When I’m at the movies, I’m usually too immersed in, or at least distracted by, what’s happening on the screen to think usefully about anything else, but when I’m watching a television show or a play, my attention tends to wander from time to time. I’ve found it useful to have a plot problem or other issue in mind even before I sit down, so when I start to drift a little, my thoughts turn naturally to my work. And I’ve found that this is a really great time to daydream. I’m not talking about looking to works of art specifically for insights into storytelling, but merely as a source of words, images, and moments that can spark an unexpected train of thought. Last night, for example, I was watching television—all right, it was The Vampire Diaries—with a particular story problem still bothering me, and when one of the characters said “Close your eyes,” it gave me the answer I needed. You can get the same kind of mental jolt from a page of any random book or magazine. As Pliny says: “No book is so bad as to have nothing good in it.”

Which gets at an important point about randomness of the kind that I’ve long pursued. It isn’t an end in its own right, but a way of teaching yourself to find similar inspiration in the chance events that occur every day. To go back to the I Ching for a moment, it’s useful to remember that divination, at least in the Confucian sense, isn’t really about seeing the future: it’s about becoming aware of the influences that bind all of reality together at that moment, and which affect both the larger patterns of your own life and the way a few coins fall when tossed. Whether or not you believe in such synchronicity, it’s worth keeping in mind that the most valuable source of randomness is the whole world. Focused kinds of randomness have their place, but they’re really more like strength training for a deeper sense of awareness, one that helps us see a greater significance in the objects or people around us than they may initially seem to have on their own. That’s what writing, or any form of creative activity, is really about. External devices for finding randomness are a little like Dumbo’s magic feather: they’re comforting, and they allow us to take leaps that we otherwise might avoid, but the real magic is in the act of seeing.

The power of clichés

with 4 comments

Brian Eno

Over the last few weeks, I’ve become fascinated with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I’ve always been drawn to the creative possibilities of randomness, and this is a particularly interesting example: in its original form, it’s a deck of cards, designed to be drawn from at random, each of which contains a single short aphorism, paradox, or suggestion intended to help break creative blocks. The tone of the aphorisms ranges from practical to gnomic to cheeky—”Overtly resist change,” “Turn it upside down,” “Is the tuning appropriate?”—but their overall intention is to gently disrupt the approach you’ve been taking toward the problem at hand, which often involves inverting your assumptions. This morning, for instance, when I drew a random card from the excellent online version, the result was: “Use clichés.” At first glance, this seems like strange advice, since most of us try to follow William Safire’s advice to avoid clichés like the plague. In reality, though, it’s a useful reminder that clichés do have their place, at least for an artist who has the skill and experience to deploy them correctly.

A cliché, by definition, is a unit of language or narrative that is already familiar to the reader, often to the point of losing all meaning. At their worst, clichés shut down thought by substituting a stereotyped formula for actual engagement with the subject. Still, there are times when this kind of conceptual invisibility can be useful. Songwriters, in particular, know that they can be an invaluable way of managing complexity within a piece of music, which often incorporates lulls or repetition as a courtesy to the listener. Paul Simon says it best:

So when I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.

This kind of pause is one of the subtlest of all artistic tools: it provides a moment of consolidation, allowing the listener—or reader—to process the information presented so far. When we hear or read a cliché, we don’t need to pay attention to it, and that license to relax can be crucial in a work of art that is otherwise dense and challenging.

Paul Simon

This is a simply particular case of a larger point I’ve made elsewhere, which is that not every page of a story can be pitched at the same level of complexity or intensity. With few exceptions, even the most compressed narratives need to periodically rise and fall, both to give the reader a break and to provide a contrast or baseline for more dramatic moments. As the blogger Mike Meginnis has pointed out, this is one reason that we find flat, cartoonish characters in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: any attempt to create conventionally plausible personalities when the bounds of complexity are being pushed in every other direction would quickly become unmanageable. And I’ve pointed out before that the plot of a movie like Inception needs to be simpler than it seems at first glance: the characters are mostly defined by type, without any real surprises after they’ve been introduced, and once the premise has been established, the plot unfolds in a fairly straightforward way. Christopher Nolan is particularly shrewd at using the familiar tropes of the story he’s telling—the thriller, the comic book movie, the heist film—for grounding us on one level while challenging us on others, which is one reason why I embedded a conventional procedural story at the heart of The Icon Thief.

If there’s one place where clichés don’t work, however, it’s in the creation of character. Given the arguments above, it might seem fine to use stereotypes or stock characters in the supporting cast, which allows the reader to tune them out in favor of the more important players, but in practice, this approach can easily backfire. Simple characters have their place, but it’s best to convey this through clean, uncomplicated motivations: characters who fall too easily into familiar categories often reflect a failure of craft or diligence on the author’s part, and they tend to cloud the story—by substituting a list of stock behaviors for clear objectives—rather than to clarify it. And this applies just as much to attempts to avoid clichés by turning them on their heads. In an excellent list of rules for writing science fiction and fantasy, the author Terry Bisson notes: “Racial and sexual stereotypes are (still) default SF. Avoiding them takes more than reversals.” It isn’t enough, in other words, to make your lead female character really good at archery. Which only hints at the most important point of all: as Niels Bohr said, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth, and the opposite of a cliché is, well, another cliché.

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2013 at 8:37 am

%d bloggers like this: