Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Edgar Hyman

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

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 December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with a tricky problem: how would you compare the areas of the different kinds of rock shown above? A quick look at the map by the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers—no relation—is enough to establish that some formations are clearly larger than others, but it isn’t immediately obvious how to quantify the difference more precisely. Darwin’s answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, I also like how it testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) And while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I’ve realized that I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I enjoyed about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and for those who are trying to go even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And playing with physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. If you were prototyping a game like Tetris, for instance, you could cut pieces out of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became visibly more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is a reminder that I really should get back to my cards when it comes time for my next big project. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

Charles Darwin and the triumph of literary genius

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Last week, while browsing at Open Books in Chicago, I made one of those serendipitous discoveries that are the main reason I love used bookstores: a vintage copy of The Tangled Bank by Stanley Edgar Hyman, which I picked up for less than seven dollars. Both the author and his work are mostly forgotten these days—Hyman is remembered, if anything, for his marriage to Shirley Jackson—but this book caught my attention right away. It’s an ambitious attempt to consider Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as imaginative writers who made their arguments using the strategies of narrative artists and storytellers, and as such, it’s a great bedside book, if not completely successful. Hyman obsessively details how books like Das Kapital mimic the tropes of narrative art (“The dramatic movement of Capital consists of four descents into suffering and horror, which we might see as four acts of a drama”) while neglecting the main point: if authors like this are storytellers, it’s because they’ve turned themselves into the protagonists of their own books, with their attempts to impose order on reality as their most enduring literary monuments.

And we may never see such protagonists again. If Darwin or Freud are literary characters as memorable as Pickwick or Hamlet, it’s in the tradition of the solitary man of genius considering the world through the lens of his own experience, a figure who has, of necessity, gone out of fashion in the sciences. As Jonah Lehrer recently pointed out in the New Yorker, the era of the lone genius is over:

Today…science papers by multiple authors contain more than twice as many citations as those by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to so-called “home-run papers”—publications with at least a hundred citations. These were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.

The explanation for this is easy enough to understand: most remaining scientific problems are far too hard for any one person to solve. Scientists are increasingly forced to specialize, and tackling important problems requires a greater degree of collaboration than ever before. This leads to its own kind of creative exhilaration, and perhaps a different model of genius, as that of a visionary who can guide and direct a diverse team of talents, like Steve Jobs or Robert Oppenheimer. But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get to know such thinkers as living men and women, at least not as well as the ones profiled in The Tangled Bank.

Of these four, the one who interests me the most these days is Darwin, whose birthday was this past Sunday. (And while I’m on the subject, if you haven’t picked up a copy of Darwin Slept Here, by my good friend Eric Simons, you really should.) Darwin emerges in his own works as a fascinating figure, a ceaseless experimenter whose work is inseparable from the image of the man himself. One of the pleasures of The Tangled Bank lies in its reminder of how ingenious a scientist Darwin was. To  compare the area of geological formations on a topographical map, he cut them out and weighed the paper. He tickled aphids with a fine hair and made artificial leaves for earthworms by rubbing triangular pieces of paper with raw fat. And this impression of Sherlockian thoroughness, of leaving no experimental stone unturned, is more than just a literary delight: it’s an integral part of the persuasiveness of The Origin of Species, which is convincing as an argument largely because we’re so charmed by the author’s voice.

As Daniel C. Dennett has famously argued, Darwinian evolution is probably the best idea of all time, but it’s also impossible to separate the idea from the man, who survives in his own work as one of the great literary characters of the nineteenth century. It’s true that if Darwin, or Alfred Russel Wallace, hadn’t arrived at the principle of natural selection, somebody else would have done so eventually: it’s one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect. (After reading The Origin of Species, Thomas Huxley is supposed to have said: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”) But there’s no denying that the force and appeal of the book itself, which Darwin worked on quietly for years, bears a great deal of the credit for the theory’s rapid acceptance, at least among reasonable readers. Without that presentation, and the author’s personality, the history of the world might have been very different. And for that, we have literary genius to thank.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

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