Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Root-Bernstein

Poets, playwrights, and programmers

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Robert Pinsky

If you’re an attentive reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that there have been a lot of poets around here, usually in the Quotes of the Day. This isn’t an accident. I’ve been posting quotes on a daily basis for almost five years—I haven’t missed a day yet—and in the process, as I’ve noted before, you quickly run through most of the usual suspects. (There are also a few unwritten rules. I do my best not to run more than one quote from the same source within three months, and I try to avoid falling back on excerpts from the interviews in The Paris Review, which seems a little like cheating. Whenever you see one on this blog, it’s usually because I ran out of ideas.) Whenever I find a promising new source of quotes, I tend to mine it dry before moving on. Sometimes it takes the form of a reference work, like Gaither’s Scientific Quotations, or a book that copiously cites other interesting sources, like Robert Root-Bernstein’s Discovering. Most often, though, it’s because it suddenly occurs to me that a certain field or profession would be a good place to look for wisdom. This month, it happens to be poetry, and it isn’t the first time. A couple of years ago, I ran a long series of quotes from most of the living poet laureates, like Robert Pinsky, of which I said later: “Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless…but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience.”

Which brings us to the poets whose thoughts I’ve been posting here recently, all of whom have one thing in common: they’ve all won a Pulitzer Prize. And if their interviews are invariably interesting and packed with insights into craft, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most practicing poets—the ones who manage to make a career out of it, even if it involves teaching or selling insurance on the side—are repositories of lore and good tricks, and the only difference a Pulitzer makes is that they’re being widely interviewed for the first time. In many cases, as with a poet laureateship, it’s the first touch of mainstream fame that these poets have ever received, and you can feel their eagerness to pour out decades of accumulated wisdom for a larger audience. If much of the resulting advice is relentlessly pragmatic, this only reflects the reality of poetry itself, which doesn’t have much patience for dilettantes or dreamers. Threading the needle in any creative profession is a tricky proposition, and it’s all the more true in poetry, in which the needle, not to mention the thread, has a way of disappearing entirely. A poet smart and talented enough to pursue that calling successfully for years has to be preternaturally driven in the face of widespread indifference, a combination that tends to produce useful strategies for living and working.

Dennis Lehane

And what they have to say is often more valuable than what other writers might have to offer under similar circumstances. Looking at the quotes that I’ve posted on this blog over the years, I’m struck by the fact that many of the best come from three professions: poets, playwrights, and programmers. I’m just more likely to learn something interesting from an interview with someone in one of these categories than I am from yet another novelist. Part of this is because the best insights often come from outside your own field, and applying a trick from one discipline to another can be as useful in the arts as it is in science. Even more fundamentally, though, I’d like to think that there’s something about these three jobs in particular that enforces a certain quality of thinking, and it isn’t hard to guess what it might be. All three are defined by constraints. For a poet, those constraints are self-imposed, but any meaningful career in poetry has been shaped at some stage by a prolonged confrontation with form, meter, and rhyme. A playwright—at least one who has any interest in being performed—operates under considerable limitations of length, budget, cast size, sets, and practicable action onstage. And while the hardware and memory limits that coders once had to confront are becoming less of an issue, programming is still constrained by the problems it has to solve and the unforgiving logic of the language. Writers would take a vastly different approach to their work if a poorly written story refused to load altogether.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the answer to Job’s famous question—”Where shall wisdom be found?”—lies in the following equation:

Wisdom = Constraints + Time

If the novel has produced less in the way of useful advice than we might expect, it’s in part because it has been historically defined by its lack of constraints: originally, it was simply a long prose narrative that didn’t fit into any other category. A novel can be anything we want, and as a result, the tips that novelists provide have a hard time being useful to anyone in particular. In poetry, playwriting, and programming, by contrast, the constraints inherent to the form result in a lot of collective wisdom about how to survive. And the lesson for novelists isn’t that we ought to switch fields, or even that we have it easy: in some ways, the lack of constraints in the novel makes it the hardest of all to do well. The real takeaway is that we should impose constraints on ourselves whenever we can, even if it’s just an arbitrary word limit, and that we should pay close attention to fields in which such practical limitations aren’t merely voluntary. (Even better, spend an hour or two talking to a poet over the age of sixty.) And we should remember one of the few great pieces of advice from any novelist, in this case Dennis Lehane, while substituting one of the other two professions as necessary: “The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?”

Written by nevalalee

October 7, 2015 at 9:48 am

Painting, writing, and the shape of fiction

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At the moment, along with about eight other books, I’m working my way through Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein. It’s basically an account of what the authors regard as the thirteen essential tools of artists and other creative types—abstracting, analogizing, playing, and so on—and while the book’s argument isn’t all that tightly structured, as a series of illustrations of the creative process, it’s great. Every page has three or four juicy stories or quotes from a wide range of artists, writers, and other thinkers, and it’s already proven to be a useful source of advice and inspiration.

I’ve just finished the chapter on imaging, which points out that many great writers have also been painters or visual artists. Along with Wyndham Lewis, quoted below, the authors list Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Edward Lear, D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, and G.K. Chesterton, who actually drew charming cartoons of the action he wanted to portray. As Wyndham Lewis notes, artistic training obviously helps an author with his or her observational skills, but I think it’s even more valuable in encouraging nonlinear thinking. After even a little experience in the visual arts, it’s hard not to see one’s novel—as Beethoven did with his symphonies—as a kind of sculptural entity, which can inform narrative structure in ways that aren’t obvious when the story is taken moment by moment.

My own art background is sort of a mixed bag. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and was pretty good at it all the way through my twenties, but it’s been so long since I’ve picked up a pen that I don’t know how much of that early facility is left. In college, I took an intensive semester-long course on oil painting, and while most of the paintings I produced were fairly embarrassing, I welcomed the chance to learn the elements of an unfamiliar craft—making stretchers in the Carpenter Center woodshop, stretching the canvas with a staple gun and some cool pliers, mixing the paint, managing the palette. The background I acquired served me well for The Icon Thief, in which the details of painting construction play a small but crucial role, but it also allowed me to think about narrative in unexpected ways.

A painting, after all, is experienced all at once, while a novel is experienced one moment at a time. (An author’s skill, as certain critics like to point out, is generally judged on the level of the paragraph.) But when I think back to my own favorite novels, I don’t always think of individual scenes or moments, but of the entire book at once, as if I’m viewing it as a single plastic object. Stories have inherent shapes and patterns that only appear when you stand back, and while they may remain invisible to the first-time reader, they affect the unfolding story of the book in perceptible ways. (An early example of this is The Divine Comedy, which is organized along two distinct dimensions.) Some background in painting and other forms of visual composition—as well as the allied arts, like animation—is as good a way as any for a writer to get into the habit of seeing how his novel really looks.

(And of course a painting, in turn, can be experienced as a work of narrative, as The Mystery of Picasso so memorably demonstrates. Art, especially great art, refuses to fit into the obvious categories.)

Learning from the masters: an introduction

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Today’s quote of the day comes from a fascinating interview with the poet Gary Snyder, which I came across yesterday after seeing it mentioned in Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein’s stimulating book Sparks of Genius. The part of the interview that caught my eye goes as follows:

Say you wanted to be a poet, and you saw a man that you recognized as a master mechanic or a great cook. You would do better, for yourself as a poet, to study under that man than to study under another poet who was not a master, that you didn’t recognize as a master.

Snyder goes on to give a specific example:

I use the term master mechanic because I know a master mechanic, Rod Coburn. Whenever I spend any time with him, I learn something from him…About everything. But I see it in terms of my craft as a poet. I learn about my craft as a poet. I learn about what it really takes to be a craftsman, what it really means to be committed, what it really means to work.

Which struck me for a number of reasons. As a writer, I’ve always been conscious of the fact that much of what I’ve learned about the creative process comes from the work of nonliterary artists. Regular readers of this blog know how much I’ve learned about writing and editing from David Mamet and Walter Murch. My approach to my own work owes as much to The Mystery of Picasso or the video games of Shigeru Miyamoto as to John Gardner’s Art of Fiction. More recently, Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, with its detailed descriptions of the lyricist’s craft, has been an endless source of instruction and encouragement.

The point of all this, I think, is that it’s easy to get caught up in the conventions of the craft—whether it’s fiction, poetry, art, or something else entirely—that you know best. Studying other forms of art is one way, and perhaps the best, of knocking yourself out of your usual assumptions. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I recently came across an interview with cartoonist Daniel Clowes in which he explained how his work in film (including Ghost World and Art School Confidential) has influenced the way he plans his comics:

To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence.

And the best way to put lessons from other media to work, as Snyder points out, is to study the masters. This week, if time permits, I’m going to be talking about a handful of artists in other media—music, comics, film, and television—that have influenced the way I approach my own writing.

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