Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Some Freaks

In the cards

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Vladimir Nabokov

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 21, 2016.

It’s been said that all of the personal financial advice that most people need to know can fit on a single index card. In fact, that’s pretty much true—which didn’t stop the man who popularized the idea from writing a whole book about it. But the underlying principle is sound enough. When you’re dealing with a topic like your own finances, instead of trying to master a large body of complicated material, you’re better off focusing on a few simple, reliable rules until you aren’t likely to break them by mistake. Once you’ve internalized the basics, you can move on. The tricky part is identifying the rules that will get you the furthest per unit of effort. In practice, no matter what we’re doing, nearly all of us operate under only a handful of conscious principles at any given moment. We just can’t keep more than that in our heads at any one time. (Unconscious principles are another matter, and you could say that intuition is another word for all the rules that we’ve absorbed to the point where we don’t need to think about them explicitly.) If the three or four rules that you’ve chosen to follow are good ones, it puts you at an advantage over a rival who is working with an inferior set. And while this isn’t enough to overcome the impact of external factors, or dumb luck, it makes sense to maximize the usefulness of the few aspects that you can control. This implies, in turn, that you should think very carefully about a handful of big rules, and let experience and intuition take care of the rest.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I’d include on a similar index card for a writer. In my own writing life, a handful of principles have far outweighed the others. I’ve spent countless hours discussing the subject on this blog, but you could throw away almost all of it: a single index card’s worth of advice would have gotten me ninety percent of the way to where I am now. For instance, there’s the simple rule that you should never go back to read what you’ve written until you’ve finished a complete rough draft, whether it’s a short story, an essay, or a novel—which is more responsible than any other precept for the fact that I’m still writing at all. The principle that you should cut at least ten percent from a first draft, in turn, is what helped me sell my first stories, and in my experience, it’s more like twenty percent. Finally, there’s the idea that you should structure your plot as a series of objectives, and that you should probably make some kind of outline to organize your thoughts before you begin. This is arguably more controversial than the other two, and outlines aren’t for everybody. But they’ve allowed me to write more intricate and ambitious stories than I could have managed otherwise, and they make it a lot easier to finish what I’ve started. (The advice to write an outline is a little like the fifth postulate of Euclid: it’s uglier than the others, and you get interesting results when you get rid of it, but most of us are afraid to drop it completely.)

David Mamet

Then we get to words of wisdom that aren’t as familiar, but which I think every writer should keep in mind. If I had to pick one piece of advice to send back in time to my younger self, along with the above, it’s what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

It isn’t as elegantly phased as I might like, but it gets at something so important about the writing process that I’ve all but memorized it. A real writer has to be good at everything, and it’s unclear why we should expect all those skills to manifest themselves in a single person. As I once wrote about Proust: “It seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape.” How can we reasonably expect our writers to create suspense, tell stories about believable characters, advance complicated ideas, and describe the bedroom curtains?

The answer—and while it’s obvious, it didn’t occur to me for years—is that the writer doesn’t need to do all of this at once. A work of art is experienced in a comparative rush, but it doesn’t need to be written that way. (As Homer Simpson was once told: “Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”) You do one thing at a time, as Mamet says, and divide up your writing schedule so that you don’t need to be clever and careful at the same time. This applies to nonfiction as well. When you think about the work that goes into writing, say, a biography, it can seem absurd that we expect a writer to be the drudge who tracks down the primary sources, the psychologist who interprets the evidence, and the stylist who writes it up in good prose. But these are all roles that a writer plays at different points, and it’s a mistake to conflate them, even as each phase informs all the rest. Once you’ve become a decent stylist and passable psychologist, you’re also a more efficient drudge, since you’re better at figuring out what is and isn’t useful. Which implies that a writer isn’t dealing with just one index card of rules, but with several, and you pick and choose between them based on where you are in the process. Mamet’s point, I think, is that this kind of switching is central to getting things done. You don’t try to do everything simultaneously, and you don’t overthink whatever you’re doing at the moment. As Mamet puts it elsewhere: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2018 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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Are you sitting down?

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Colin Wilson

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 26, 2016.

In the past, I’ve often mentioned what I’ve come to see as the most valuable piece of writing advice that I know, which is what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

You don’t try to do everything at once, which is probably impossible anyway. Instead, there are days in which you do “careful” jobs that are the artistic equivalent of housekeeping—research, making outlines of physical actions, working out the logic of the plot—and others in which you perform “inventive” tasks that rely on intuition. This seems like common sense: it’s hard enough to be clever or imaginative, without factoring in the switching costs associated with moving from one frame of mind to another. The writer Colin Wilson believed that the best ideas emerge when your left and right hemispheres are moving at the same rate, which tends to occur in moments of either reverie or high excitement. This is based on an outdated model of how the human brain works, but the phenomenon it describes is familiar enough, and it’s just a small step from there to acknowledging that neither ecstatic nor dreamlike mental states are particularly suited for methodical work. When you’re laying the foundations for future creative activity, you usually end up somewhere in the middle, in a state of mind that is focused but not heightened, less responsive to connections than to discrete units, and concerned more with thoroughness than with inspiration. It’s an important stage, but it’s also the last place where you’d expect real insights to appear.

Clearly, a writer should strive to work with, rather than against, this natural division of labor. It’s also easy to agree with Mamet’s advice that it’s best to tackle one kind of thinking per day. (Mental switching costs of any kind are usually minimized when you’ve had a good night’s sleep in the meantime.) The real question is how to figure out what sort of work you should be doing at any given moment, and, crucially, whether it’s possible to predict this in advance. Any writer can tell you that there’s an enormous difference between getting up in the morning without any idea of what you’re doing that day, which is the mark of an amateur, and having a concrete plan—which is why professional authors use such tools as outlines and calendars. Ideally, it would be nice to know when you woke up whether it was going to be a “careful” day or an “inventive” day, which would allow you to prepare yourself accordingly. Sometimes the organic life cycle of a writing project supplies the answer: depending on where you are in the process, you engage in varying proportions of careful or inventive thought. But every stage requires some degree of both. As Mamet implies, you’ll often alternate between them, although not as neatly as in his hypothetical example. And while it might seem pointless to allocate time for inspiration, which appears according to no fixed schedule, you can certainly create the conditions in which it’s more likely to appear. But how do you know when?

David Mamet

I’ve come up with a simple test to answer this question: I ask myself how much time I expect to spend sitting down. Usually, before a day begins, I have a pretty good sense of how much sitting or standing I’ll be doing, and that’s really all I need to make informed decisions about how to use my time. There are some kinds of creative work that demand sustained concentration at a desk or in a seated position. This includes most of the “careful” tasks that Mamet describes, but also certain forms of intuitive, nonlinear thinking, like making a mind map. By contrast, there are other sorts of work that not only don’t require you to be at your desk, but are actively stifled by it: daydreaming, brooding over problems, trying to sketch out large blocks of the action. You often do a better job of it when you’re out taking a walk, or in the bus, bath, or bed. When scheduling creative work, then, you should start by figuring out what your body is likely to be doing that day, and then use this to plan what to do with your mind. Your brain has no choice but to tag along with your body when it’s running errands or standing in line at the bank, but if you structure your time appropriately, those moments won’t go to waste. And it’s often such external factors, rather than the internal logic of where you should be in the process, that determine what you should be doing.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem that much different from the stock advice that you should utilize whatever time you have available, whether you’re washing the dishes or taking a shower. But I think it’s a bit more nuanced than this, and that it’s more about matching the work to be done to the kind of time you have. If you try to think systematically and carefully while taking a walk in the park, you’ll feel frustrated when your mind wanders to other subjects. Conversely, if you try to daydream at your desk, not only are you likely to feel boxed in by your surroundings, but you’re also wasting valuable time that would be better spent on work that only requires the Napoleonic virtues of thoroughness and patience. Inspiration can’t be forced, and you don’t know in advance if you’re better off being careful or inventive on any given day—but the amount of time that you’ll be seated provides an important clue. (You can also reverse the process, and arrange to be seated as little as possible on days when you hope to get some inventive thinking done. For most of us, unfortunately, this isn’t entirely under our control, which makes it all the more sensible to take advantage of such moments when they present themselves.) And it doesn’t need to be planned beforehand. If you’re at work on a problem and you’re not sure what kind of thinking you should be doing, you can look at yourself and ask: Am I sitting down right now? And that’s all the information you need.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2018 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books

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Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

Avocado’s number

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Earlier this month, you may have noticed a sudden flurry of online discussion around avocado toast. It was inspired by a remark by a property developer named Tim Gurner, who said to the Australian version of 60 Minutes: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocados for nineteen bucks and four coffees at four dollars each.” Gurner’s statement, which was fairly bland and unmemorable in itself, was promptly transformed into the headline “Millionaire to Millennials: Stop Buying Avocado Toast If You Want to Buy a Home.” From there, it became the target of widespread derision, with commentators pointing out that if owning a house seems increasingly out of reach for many young people, it has more to do with rising real estate prices, low wages, and student loans than with their irresponsible financial habits. And the fact that such a forgettable sentiment became the focal point for so much rage—mostly from people who probably didn’t see the original interview—implies that it merely catalyzed a feeling that had been building for some time. Millennials, it’s fair to say, have been getting it from both sides. When they try to be frugal by using paper towels as napkins, they’re accused of destroying the napkin industry, but they’re also scolded over spending too much at brunch. They’re informed that their predicament is their own fault, unless they’re also being idealized as “joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction,” as Laura Marsh noted last year in The New Republic. “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice,” Marsh wrote, unless it’s being told, as the middle class likes to maintain to the poor, that financial stability is only a matter of hard work and a few small sacrifices.

It also reflects an overdue rejection of what used to be called the latte factor, as popularized by the financial writer David Bach in such books as Smart Women Finish Rich. As Helaine Olen writes in Slate:

Bach calculated that eschewing a five-dollar daily bill at Starbucks—because who, after all, really needs anything at Starbucks?—for a double nonfat latte and biscotti with chocolate could net a prospective saver $150 a month, or $2,000 a year. If she then took that money and put it all in stocks that Bach, ever an optimist, assumed would grow at an average annual rate of eleven percent a year, “chances are that by the time she reached sixty-five, she would have more than $2 million sitting in her account.”

There are a lot of flaws in this argument. Bach rounds up his numbers, assumes an unrealistic rate of return, and ignores taxes and inflation. Most problematic of all is his core assumption that tiny acts of indulgence are what prevent the average investor from accumulating wealth. In fact, big, unpredictable risk factors and fixed expenses play a much larger role, as Olen points out:

Buying common luxury items wasn’t the issue for most Americans. The problem was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family seventy-five percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: fifty percent. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the quickest way to land in bankruptcy court was not by buying the latest Apple computer but through medical expenses, job loss, foreclosure, and divorce.

It turns out that incremental acts of daily discipline are powerless in the face of systemic factors that have a way of erasing all your efforts—and this applies to more than just personal finance. Back when I was trying to write my first novel, I was struck by the idea that if I managed to write just one hundred words every day, I’d have a manuscript in less than three years. I was so taken by this notion that I wrote it down on an index card and stuck it to my bathroom mirror. That was over a decade ago, and while I can’t quite remember how long I stuck with that regimen, it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks. Novels, I discovered, aren’t written a hundred words at a time, at least not in a fashion that can be banked in the literary equivalent of a penny jar. They’re the product of hard work combined with skills that can only be developed after a period of sustained engagement. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, and you can only arrive at a workable system through the kind of experience that comes from addressing issues of craft with maximal attention. Luck and timing also play a role, particularly when it comes navigating the countless pitfalls that lie between a finished draft and its publication. In finance, we’re inclined to look at a historical return series and attribute it after the fact to genius, rather than to variables that are out of our hands. Similarly, every successful novel creates its own origin story. We naturally underestimate the impact of factors that can’t be credited to individual initiative and discipline. As a motivational tool, there’s a place for this kind of myth. But if novels were written using the literary equivalent of the latte factor, we’d have more novels, just as we’d have more millionaires.

Which isn’t to say that routine doesn’t play a crucial role. My favorite piece of writing advice ever is what David Mamet writes in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

A lot of writing comes down to figuring out what to do on any given morning—but it doesn’t mean doing the same thing each day. Knowing what achievable steps are appropriate at every stage is as important here as it is anywhere else. You can acquire this knowledge as systematically or haphazardly as you like, but you can also do everything right and still fail in the end. (If we define failure as spending years on a novel that will never be published, it’s practically a requirement of the writer’s education.) Books on writing and personal finance continue to take up entire shelves at bookstores, and they can sound very much alike. In “The Writer’s Process,” a recent, and unusually funny, humor piece in The New Yorker, Hallie Cantor expertly skewers their tone—“I give myself permission to write a clumsy first draft and vigorously edit it later”—and concludes: “Anyway, I guess that’s my process. It’s all about repetition, really—doing the same thing every single day.” We’ve all heard this advice. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But when you don’t take the big picture into account, it’s just a load of smashed avocado.

Are you sitting down?

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Colin Wilson

Last week, I mentioned what I’ve come to see as the most valuable piece of writing wisdom I know, which is David Mamet’s advice in Some Freaks “to go one achievable step at a time.” You don’t try to do everything at once, which is probably impossible anyway. Instead, there are days in which you do “careful” jobs that are the artistic equivalent of housekeeping—research, making outlines of physical actions, working out the logic of the plot—and others in which you perform “inventive” tasks that rely on intuition. This seems like common sense: it’s hard enough to be clever or imaginative as it is, without factoring in the switching costs associated with moving from one frame of mind to another. The writer Colin Wilson believed that the best ideas emerge when your left and right hemispheres are moving at the same rate, which tends to occur in moments of either reverie or high excitement. This is based on an outdated model of how the brain works, but the phenomenon it describes is familiar enough, and it’s just a small step from there to acknowledging that neither ecstatic nor dreamlike mental states are particularly suited for methodical work. When you’re laying the foundations for future creative activity, you usually end up somewhere in the middle, in a state of mind that is focused but not heightened, less responsive to connections than to units, and concerned more with thoroughness than with inspiration. It’s an important stage, but it’s also the last place where you’d expect real insights to appear.

Clearly, a writer should strive to work with, rather than against, this natural division of labor. It’s also easy to agree with Mamet’s advice that it’s best to tackle one kind of thinking per day. (Mental switching costs of any kind are usually minimized when you’ve had a good night’s sleep in the meantime.) The real question is how to figure out what sort of work you should be doing at any given moment, and, crucially, whether it’s possible to predict this in advance. Any writer can tell you that there’s an enormous difference between getting up in the morning without any idea of what you’re doing that day, which is the mark of an amateur, and having a concrete plan—which is why professional authors use such tools as outlines and calendars. Ideally, it would be nice to know when you woke up whether it was going to be a “careful” day or an “inventive” day, which would allow you to prepare yourself accordingly. Sometimes the organic life cycle of a writing project supplies the answer: depending on where you are in the process, you engage in varying proportions of careful or inventive thought. But every stage requires some degree of both. As Mamet implies, you’ll often alternate between them, although not as neatly as in his hypothetical example. And while it might seem pointless to allocate time for inspiration, which appears according to no fixed schedule, you can certainly create the conditions in which it’s more likely to appear. But how do you know when?

David Mamet

I’ve come up with a simple test to answer this question: I ask myself how much time I expect to spend sitting down. Usually, before a day begins, I have a pretty good sense of how much sitting or standing I’ll be doing, and that’s really all I need to make informed decisions about how to use my time. There are some kinds of creative work that demand sustained concentration at a desk or in a seated position. This includes most of the “careful” tasks that Mamet describes, but also certain forms of intuitive, nonlinear thinking, like making a mind map. By contrast, there are other sorts of work that not only don’t require you to be at your desk, but are actively stifled by it: daydreaming, brooding over problems, trying to sketch out large blocks of the action. You often do a better job of it when you’re out taking a walk, or in the bus, bath, or bed. When scheduling creative work, then, you should start by figuring out what your body is likely to be doing that day, and then use this to plan what to do with your mind. Your brain has no choice but to tag along with your body when it’s running errands or standing in line at the bank, but if you structure your time appropriately, those moments won’t go to waste. And it’s often such external factors, rather than the internal logic of where you should be in the process, that determine what you should be doing.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem that much different from the stock advice that you should utilize whatever time you have available, whether you’re washing the dishes or taking a shower. But I think it’s a bit more nuanced than this, and that it’s more about matching the work to be done to the kind of time you have. If you try to think systematically and carefully while taking a walk in the park, you’ll feel frustrated when your mind wanders to other subjects. Conversely, if you try to daydream at your desk, not only are you likely to feel boxed in by your surroundings, but you’re also wasting valuable time that would be better spent on work that only requires the Napoleonic virtues of thoroughness and patience. Inspiration can’t be forced, and you don’t know in advance if you’re better off being careful or inventive on any given day—but the amount of time that you’ll be seated provides an important clue. (You can also reverse the process, and arrange to be seated as little as possible on days when you hope to get some inventive thinking done. For most of us, unfortunately, this isn’t entirely under our control, which makes it all the more sensible to take advantage of such moments when they present themselves.) And it doesn’t need to be planned beforehand. If you’re at work on a problem and you’re not sure what kind of thinking you should be doing, you can look at yourself and ask: Am I sitting down right now? And that’s all the information you need.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2016 at 9:47 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

In the cards

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Vladimir Nabokov

It’s been said that all of the personal financial advice that most people need to know can fit on a single index card. In fact, that’s pretty much true—which didn’t stop the man who popularized the idea from writing a whole book about it. But the underlying principle is sound enough. When you’re dealing with a topic like your own finances, instead of trying to master a large body of complicated material, you’re better off focusing on a few simple, reliable rules until you aren’t likely to break them by mistake. Once you’ve internalized the basics, you can move on. The tricky part is identifying the rules that will get you the furthest per unit of effort. In practice, no matter what we’re doing, nearly all of us operate under only a handful of conscious principles at any given moment. We just can’t keep more than that in our heads at any one time. (Unconscious principles are another matter, and you could say that intuition is another word for all the rules that we’ve absorbed to the point where we don’t need to think about them explicitly.) If the three or four rules that you’ve chosen to follow are good ones, it puts you at an advantage over a rival who is working with an inferior set. And while this isn’t enough to overcome the impact of external factors, or dumb luck, it makes sense to maximize the usefulness of the few aspects that you can control. This implies, in turn, that you should think very carefully about a handful of big rules, and let experience and intuition take care of the rest.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I’d include on a similar index card for a writer. In my own writing life, a handful of principles have far outweighed the others. I’ve spent countless hours discussing the subject on this blog, but you could throw away almost all of it: a single index card’s worth of advice would have gotten me ninety percent of the way to where I am now. For instance, there’s the simple rule that you should never go back to read what you’ve written until you’ve finished a complete rough draft, whether it’s a short story, an essay, or a novel—which is more responsible than any other precept for the fact that I’m still writing at all. The principle that you should cut at least ten percent from a first draft, in turn, is what helped me sell my first stories, and in my experience, it’s more like twenty percent. Finally, there’s the idea that you should structure your plot as a series of objectives, and that you should probably make some kind of outline to organize your thoughts before you begin. This is arguably more controversial than the other two, and outlines aren’t for everybody. But they’ve allowed me to write more intricate and ambitious stories than I could have managed otherwise, and they make it a lot easier to finish what I’ve started. (The advice to write an outline is a little like the fifth postulate of Euclid: it’s uglier than the others, and you get interesting results when you get rid of it, but most of us are afraid to drop it completely.)

David Mamet

Then we get to words of wisdom that aren’t as familiar, but which I think every writer should keep in mind. If I had to pick one piece of advice to send back in time to my younger self, along with the above, it’s what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

It isn’t as elegantly phased as I might like, but it gets at something so important about the writing process that I’ve all but memorized it. A real writer has to be good at everything, and it’s unclear why we should expect all those skills to manifest themselves in a single person. As I once wrote about Proust: “It seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape.” How can we reasonably expect our writers to create suspense, tell stories about believable characters, advance complicated ideas, and describe the bedroom curtains?

The answer—and while it’s obvious, it didn’t occur to me for years—is that the writer doesn’t need to do all of this at once. A work of art is experienced in a comparative rush, but it doesn’t need to be written that way. (As Homer Simpson was once told: “Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”) You do one thing at a time, as Mamet says, and divide up your writing schedule so that you don’t need to be clever and careful at the same time. This applies to nonfiction as well. When you think about the work that goes into writing, say, a biography, it can seem absurd that we expect a writer to be the drudge who tracks down the primary sources, the psychologist who interprets the evidence, and the stylist who writes it up in good prose. But these are all roles that a writer plays at different points, and it’s a mistake to conflate them, even as each phase informs all the rest. Once you’ve become a decent stylist and passable psychologist, you’re also a more efficient drudge, since you’re better at figuring out what is and isn’t useful. Which implies that a writer isn’t dealing with just one index card of rules, but with several, and you pick and choose between them based on where you are in the process. Mamet’s point, I think, is that this kind of switching is central to getting things done. You don’t try to do everything simultaneously, and you don’t overthink whatever you’re doing at the moment. As Mamet puts it elsewhere: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

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