Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Butler

The act of cutting

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In a recent article in The New Yorker on Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik evocatively writes: “The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.” He explains:

Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.

Gopnik concludes: “The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions.” Following Hemingway’s own lead, Gopnik compares his practice to that of Cézanne, but it’s also reminiscent of Shakespeare, who frequently omits key information from his source material while leaving the other elements intact. Ambiguity, as I’ve noted here before, emerges from a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been ruthlessly cutting the first draft of my book, leaving me highly conscious of the effects that can come out of compression. In his fascinating notebooks, which I quoted here yesterday, Samuel Butler writes: “I have always found compressing, cutting out, and tersifying a passage suggests more than anything else does. Things pruned off in this way are like the heads of the hydra, two grow for every two that is lopped off.” This squares with my experience, and it reflects how so much of good writing depends on juxtaposition. By cutting, you’re bringing the remaining pieces closer together, which allows them to resonate. Butler then makes a very interesting point:

If a writer will go on the principle of stopping everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes, as the true painter will stop anywhere and everywhere to sketch, he will be able to cut down his works liberally. He will become prodigal not of writing—any fool can be this—but of omission. You become brief because you have more things to say than time to say them in. One of the chief arts is that of knowing what to neglect and the more talk increases the more necessary does this art become.

I love this passage because it reveals how two of my favorite activities—taking notes and cutting—are secretly the same thing. On some level, writing is about keeping the good stuff and removing as much of the rest as possible. The best ideas are likely to occur spontaneously when you’re doing something unrelated, which is why you need to write them down as soon as they come to you. When you’re sitting at your desk, you have little choice but to write mechanically in hopes that something good will happen. And in the act of cutting, the two converge.

Cutting can be a creative act in itself, which is why you sometimes need to force yourself to do it, even when you’d rather not. You occasionally see a distinction drawn between the additive and subtractive arts, but any work often partakes of both at various stages, which confer different benefits. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman says of editing a movie in postproduction:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

We shouldn’t disregard how challenging that mental switch can be. It’s why an editor like Walter Murch rarely visits the set, which allows him to maintain a kind of Apollonian detachment from the Dionysian process of filmmaking: he doesn’t want to be dissuaded from the need to cut a scene by the knowledge of how hard it was to make it. Writers and other artists working alone don’t have that luxury, and it can be difficult to work yourself up to the point where you’re ready to cut a section that took a long time to write. Time creates its own sort of psychological distance, which is why you’re often advised to put aside the draft for a few weeks, or even longer, before starting to revise it. (Zadie Smith writes deflatingly: “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do.”) That isn’t always possible, and sometimes the best compromise is to work briefly on another project, like a short story. A change is as good as a rest, and in this case, you’re trying to transform into your future self as soon as possible, which will allow you to perform clinical surgery on the past.

The result is a lot like the old joke: you start with a block of marble, and you cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. When I began to trim my manuscript, I set myself the slightly arbitrary goal of reducing it, at this stage, by thirty percent, guided by the editing rule that I mentioned here a month ago:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

There’s no particular reason why the same percentage should hold for a book as well as a film, but I’ve found that it’s about right. (It also applies to other fields, like consumer electronics.) Really, though, it could have been just about any number, as long as it gave me a clear numerical goal at which to aim, and as long as it hurt a little. It’s sort of like physical exercise. If you want to lose weight, the best way is to eat less, and if you want to write a short book, ideally, you’d avoid writing too much in the first place. But the act of cutting, like exercise, has rewards of its own. As Elie Wiesel famously said: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.” And the best indication that you’re on the right track is when it becomes physically painful. As Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” That’s also true of books.

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June 29, 2017 at 8:38 am

Quote of the Day

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People between the ages of twenty and thirty read a good deal. After thirty their reading drops off and by forty is confined to each person’s special subject, newspapers, and magazines; so that the most important part of one’s audience, and that which should be mainly written for, consists of specialists and people between twenty and thirty.

Samuel Butler, Notebooks

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June 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

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Composing the fugue

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Samuel Butler

The arts of the musician, the painter and the writer are essentially the same. In composing a fugue, after you have exposed your subject, which must not be too unwieldy, you introduce an episode or episodes which must arise out of your subject. The great thing is that all shall be new, and yet nothing new, at the same time; the details must minister to the main effect and not obscure it; in other words, you must have a subject, develop it and not wander from it very far. This holds just as true for literature and painting and for art of all kinds.

No man should try even to allude to the greater part of what he sees in his subject, and there is hardly a limit to what he may omit. What is required is that he shall say what he elects to say discreetly; that he shall be quick to see the gist of a matter, and give it pithily without either prolixity or stint of words.

Samuel Butler

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August 24, 2014 at 9:00 am

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What do you care what other people think?

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Immanuel Kant

We’re often told that we shouldn’t care about what other people think, but of course, we’re mindful of this all the time, and sometimes it leads to better behavior, in ways both large and small. When I’m noodling around on the ukulele, I find that my performance gets more focused when I imagine myself playing for an imaginary audience. Whenever I make an investment decision, I ask myself whether John Bogle—or, more accurately, the obsessively frugal index investors on the Bogleheads forum—would approve. More generally, when I stand back to look at my life, I often think about how it would seem to someone observing from the outside. I’m not sure who this hypothetical observer would be; perhaps, to take a page from Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar speech, it’s myself ten years from now. It’s a small thing, but I’d like to believe that it makes me slightly more civilized in my everyday actions. The existentialists believed that we should act as if what we did set the example for the rest of mankind, which only paraphrases what Kant said two centuries earlier: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”

Of course, that’s an impossibly high standard to maintain, so it’s usually enough to think in terms of one person, living or dead, real or imaginary, whose approval we’d like to earn. In writing, this takes the form of an ideal reader to whom all of our work is addressed, and I suspect that nearly every writer does this, whether consciously or not. In some ways, there’s no more fundamental decision in a writer’s life than the question of what reader you’re trying to impress. It shapes the projects you tackle and the style you employ, and it even influences some of your larger life decisions, like whether you want to end up in Iowa or New York. In practice, you’ll find yourself writing with an eye to real individuals with an ability to directly influence the outcome: trusted readers, prospective agents, busy editors. Over time, though, our ideal reader starts to resemble a composite of all these people, or a version of a particular person in our lives who may never see the draft we’re working on now. Ideally, this hypothetical reader should be benevolent but also a little scary, and the standards he or she sets for us should be at least somewhat higher than the ones we’d be willing to settle for ourselves.

Zadie Smith

Sometimes, our imaginary reader is another author whose work we admire, which can set insurmountable standards of its own: if we’re constantly wondering, as the critic James Wood says somewhere, what Flaubert would think of the sentence we’re writing, most of us wouldn’t get past the first paragraph. More commonly, this voice is often the product of the author’s own life story. In my own fiction, on the largest scale, I’m trying to live up to the standard that I set for myself when I was a child, back when nothing seemed more magical than the prospect of telling stories for a living. On a more granular level, I find that I’m often writing with an eye to the first writer who ever gave me useful feedback on a story. (I won’t mention him by name, but you can read more about him here.) Back when I was starting out, he read several of my stories and covered the pages with merciless notes and corrections, and although the process was draining, I’m convinced that it allowed me to get published five years earlier than I otherwise would. One of the stories he read, “Inversus,” was my first sale to Analog, and I don’t think it would have sold at all in its unedited form—which might well have discouraged me from pursuing that audience at all.

As a result, whenever I go over a draft, I’m frequently asking myself what he would think. It forces me to be harder on myself than I otherwise would: I’ll sometimes cross out entire pages and cut others to the bone, knowing that he’d react to what was currently there with a marginal question mark or even just a simple “No.” Of course, I’m really listening to my own inner voice, which has quietly taken on the qualities of the editors and readers I’ve come to respect. It’s a voice that is rightfully skeptical of everything it sees—as both Samuel Butler and Zadie Smith have pointed out, it’s a good habit to look over your work as if it were being read by an enemy—and I don’t think it would work nearly as well if I didn’t think of it as something external to me. I turn it off as much as I can during the first draft, but crank it up during the rewrite, when there’s no danger of fear or anxiety preventing me from at least finishing a manuscript. And although I try not to read published work with that voice, since there’s no changing what is already in print, I still sometimes sense it shaking its head when I go back to revisit a story, asking me: “Is that really what you wanted to say?”

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

Quote of the Day

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November 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The power of serial expertise

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Samuel Butler

I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned in college. Despite having majored in classical languages, I hesitate before translating the simplest Latin tag, and I don’t think I could sight-read a line of Homer or Plato. I took countless courses on subjects that have since disappeared completely down the memory hole: I couldn’t tell you more than a handful of facts about the English Revolution, practical astronomy, or the Peloponnesian War. Since graduation, I’ve also absorbed and forgotten an enormous amount of information that I’ve acquired professionally, in my reading, or online. Over time, I’ve realized that when it comes to retaining knowledge, I can only echo Samuel Butler’s words: “In art, never try to find out anything, or try to learn anything, until the not knowing it has come to be a nuisance to you for some time. Then you will remember it, but not otherwise. Let knowledge importune you before you will hear it. Our schools and universities go on the precisely opposite system.”

Because there’s another category of knowledge that has turned out to be more lasting. I can talk for hours—or at least minutes—on end about such esoterica as the late works of Marcel Duchamp, the Dyatlov Pass incident, and the history of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. I remember more than anyone needs to know about such unlikely topics as lake eruptions, Pendred syndrome and its relationship to iodine deficiency, autocannibalism among octopuses, the use of erysipelas infection to fight cancer, transcranial magnetic stimulation as a treatment for schizophrenia, and the logistics of moving a beached whale. These are the areas I’ve wandered into, without any existing interest in the subject, while writing my novels and short stories. In each case, I was driven into an unexpected topic by the evolution of a plot I wanted to write, and if I’ve retained the result longer than I have most other things, it’s because it importuned me, as Butler would say, to listen to it.

Ben Yagoda

In the past, I’ve taken a page from the Sherlock Holmes stories by describing a writer’s education as “accurate, but unsystematic.”  The author Ben Yagoda takes another stab at it in today’s New York Times, where he dissects—literally and figuratively—the familiar adage to write what you know. He notes that this piece of advice, if taken at face value, would only allow writers to treat subjects that they’re already passionate about, and he suggests another approach:

Fortunately, this conundrum has an escape clause: you can actually acquire knowledge. In journalism this is called “reporting,” and in nonfiction, “research.” I don’t write fiction, but I’d think that a rigorous combination of observation, reflection and directed imagination would have a similar result. In all cases, the idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority. Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing: You learn ’em and leave ’em.

Well, I do write fiction, and I can personally confirm the power of “observation, reflection and directed imagination.” As I’ve noted before, becoming a serial expert is a big part of the reason I wanted to be a writer in the first place: it’s an excuse to explore the world, indulge my curiosity, and poke my nose into subjects I never would have encountered otherwise. And it’s even better than Yagoda implies. In some cases, when you plunge into a new world for the space of a story, you do learn ’em and leave ’em—but sometimes you find that they’ve invisibly become a part of you. There’s no better way to instill knowledge in your own mind than to use it as the basis for constructing the lives of imaginary men and women who find such matters critically important. These characters or their concerns may rarely appear in your thoughts once you’ve set aside the story, but they’re still there, and they have a way of bubbling up at surprising moments. And although it may not be practical in every case, I’ve found that if you really want to learn something, you should write a novel about it.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2013 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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July 19, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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January 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

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