Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Heard

Writing while sick

with 2 comments

Norman Mailer

Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 17, 2015.

Over the weekend, I got sick. Really sick. I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I don’t know exactly what happened—although the fact that I’m sharing a house with a toddler who recently got over her own stomach bug probably had something to do with it. It’s enough to say that around one in the morning, lying wrapped in blankets on the living room couch, with sleep only a remote possibility, I’d already given up on the idea of doing any work the following day. But somehow, when it come down to it, I muddled my way through, with the aid of white toast, chicken soup, and Gatorade. I’m not saying that the pages I managed to write yesterday were any good; I haven’t reviewed them yet, but given the way I cranked them out, I have a hunch that they were pretty terrible. Still, they exist. They’ll give me something to revise and tinker with today and tomorrow. And the fact that I was able to get a decent amount of writing done while being constantly distracted by my own digestive system speaks both to the power of routine and to something more useful about working on a project when you’re at less than your best.

A few weeks ago, I quoted an essay by the ecologist Stephen Heard on the matter of revision. He has a lot of good thoughts on the subject—including the tip that you should use the number of characters, not words, as a guideline when revising for length—and in particular, he recommends going over a draft at a time of day when you’re thinking less clearly than usual. If you’re a morning person and read your manuscript at night, your natural fuzziness of thought serves as a corrective to the tendency to take your own ideas at face value:

This isn’t about trying to simulate stupid readers; rather, you are looking to counterbalance your overfamiliarity with what you meant to say with a bit of useful mental fog. If your draft is clear to you even when you’re not thinking your best, great—and if it’s not, you’ve found something to fix.

Working while sick has much of the same effect. It’s the reason why producers like Bill Moriarty like to mix records on “crap speakers,” which more closely replicates the experience of most listeners. If the result works under the worst possible conditions, it’ll do fine on high-end gear. Or, as Brian Eno says: “It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.”

Brian Eno

A sick writer, then, becomes a kind of simulation of a distracted reader, and while I don’t exactly recommend seeking this out, it never hurts to take advantage of such circumstances when they present themselves. Yet there’s something even more profound at work here, and I can’t do any better than to quote Norman Mailer at length from his book Cannibals and Christians:

There’s a book came out a few years ago which was a sociological study of some Princeton men—I forget the name of it. One of them said something which I thought was extraordinary. He said he wanted to perform the sexual act under every variety of condition, emotion, and mood available to him. I was struck with this not because I ever wanted necessarily to have that kind of sexual life, but because it seemed to me that was what I was trying to do with my writing. I try to go over my work in every conceivable mood. I edit on a spectrum which runs from the high clear manic impressions of a drunk which has made one electrically alert all the way down to the soberest reaches of depression where I can hardly bear my own words. By the time I’m done with writing I care about I usually have worked on it through the full gamut of my consciousness. If you keep yourself in this peculiar kind of shape, the craft will take care of itself.

And there’s a very subtle point here that affects anyone who tries to write for a living. Occasionally, you’ll see a book that seems to have been written in a single white heat of inspiration, but more often, a novel or story is the product of extended labor over time, with all the highs and lows of capability this implies. This may seem like a liability, but really, it’s a strength: a work of art that reflects the full spectrum of its author’s experiences, good and bad, is likely to be richer and more full of life than one that the writer tackled only when he felt like it. (It’s worth noting, though, that even Mailer had his limits when it came to what kinds of mental states were acceptable for serious writing. Elsewhere, he says: “Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed, and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers his ribs are broken.”) A few great writers, like Proust, seem to have written only when they were sick. And although we don’t need to take it that far, it’s worth remembering that if a novel is like a marriage, we need to learn how to live with it for better and for worse, for richer or poorer—and in sickness and in health.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

Writing while sick

with 2 comments

Norman Mailer

Over the weekend, I got sick. Really sick. I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I don’t know exactly what happened—although the fact that I’m sharing a house with a toddler who recently got over her own stomach bug probably had something to do with it. It’s enough to say that around one in the morning, lying wrapped in blankets on the living room couch, with sleep only a remote possibility, I’d already given up on the idea of doing any work the following day. But somehow, when it come down to it, I muddled my way through, with the aid of white toast, chicken soup, and Gatorade. I’m not saying that the pages I managed to write yesterday were any good; I haven’t reviewed them yet, but given the way I cranked them out, I have a hunch that they were pretty terrible. Still, they exist. They’ll give me something to revise and tinker with today and tomorrow. And the fact that I was able to get a decent amount of writing done while being constantly distracted by my own digestive system speaks both to the power of routine and to something more useful about working on a project when you’re at less than your best.

A few weeks ago, I quoted an essay by the ecologist Stephen Heard on the matter of revision. He has a lot of good thoughts on the subject—including the tip that you should use the number of characters, not words, as a guideline when revising for length—and in particular, he recommends going over a draft at a time of day when you’re thinking less clearly than usual. If you’re a morning person and read your manuscript at night, your natural fuzziness of thought serves as a corrective to the tendency to take your own ideas at face value:

This isn’t about trying to simulate stupid readers; rather, you are looking to counterbalance your overfamiliarity with what you meant to say with a bit of useful mental fog. If your draft is clear to you even when you’re not thinking your best, great—and if it’s not, you’ve found something to fix.

Working while sick has much of the same effect. It’s the reason why producers like Bill Moriarty like to mix records on “crap speakers,” which more closely replicates the experience of most listeners. If the result works under the worst possible conditions, it’ll do fine on high-end gear. Or, as Brian Eno says: “It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.”

Brian Eno

A sick writer, then, becomes a kind of simulation of a distracted reader, and while I don’t exactly recommend seeking this out, it never hurts to take advantage of such circumstances when they present themselves. Yet there’s something even more profound at work here, and I can’t do any better than to quote Norman Mailer at length from his book Cannibals and Christians:

There’s a book came out a few years ago which was a sociological study of some Princeton men—I forget the name of it. One of them said something which I thought was extraordinary. He said he wanted to perform the sexual act under every variety of condition, emotion, and mood available to him. I was struck with this not because I ever wanted necessarily to have that kind of sexual life, but because it seemed to me that was what I was trying to do with my writing. I try to go over my work in every conceivable mood. I edit on a spectrum which runs from the high clear manic impressions of a drunk which has made one electrically alert all the way down to the soberest reaches of depression where I can hardly bear my own words. By the time I’m done with writing I care about I usually have worked on it through the full gamut of my consciousness. If you keep yourself in this peculiar kind of shape, the craft will take care of itself.

And there’s a very subtle point here that affects anyone who tries to write for a living. Occasionally, you’ll see a book that seems to have been written in a single white heat of inspiration, but more often, a novel or story is the product of extended labor over time, with all the highs and lows of capability this implies. This may seem like a liability, but really, it’s a strength: a work of art that reflects the full spectrum of its author’s experiences, good and bad, is likely to be richer and more full of life than one that the writer tackled only when he felt like it. (It’s worth noting, though, that even Mailer had his limits when it came to what kinds of mental states were acceptable for serious writing. Elsewhere, he says: “Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed, and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers his ribs are broken.”) A few great writers, like Proust, seem to have written only when they were sick. And although we don’t need to take it that far, it’s worth remembering that if a novel is like a marriage, we need to learn how to live with it for better and for worse, for richer or poorer—and in sickness and in health.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2015 at 8:48 am

Character counts

with 3 comments

Novel spreadsheet with chapter lengths

A couple of years ago, I published a post called “Writing by Numbers,” in which I described the unconventional approach I took to editing my novel Eternal Empire. I’d already made several passes through the manuscript with an eye to cuts, but it was still nowhere close to 100,000 words, which was the maximum I’d contracted to deliver. What I did, in the end, was make a spreadsheet in which I recorded the length of each chapter and how much it fell short or exceeded the average. Chapters that ran long for no good reason became targets for pruning. (I was especially hard on transitional chapters, which included material that was necessary to advance the story, but which were relatively sedate compared to the central set pieces and action scenes.) And it all sort of worked. The manuscript shed several thousand words, a line or two at a time, and I still credit this quantitative approach with guiding my scalpel to the right places. In all likelihood, if I’d tackled the edit more intuitively, I would have cut most of it anyway, but the numbers gave me the push I needed.

In retrospect, though, I’ve concluded that the numbers weren’t the key factor here. The spreadsheet was less important in itself than as a kind of conceptual screen, a way of regarding a familiar manuscript from a new angle. Revision hinges on the ability to read your own work as it if had been written by a stranger, or, as Zadie Smith says, even an enemy, and nearly every relevant strategy has this end result in mind. The simplest way to get some distance is to take some time off—ideally four to six weeks, and it’s even better if you’ve been working on an unrelated project in the meantime. Changing the typeface, font size, or margins has a similarly alienating effect, although I’m rarely brave enough to go that far. The same is true of reading the work in a different setting, out loud, or on paper rather than on your laptop. And the quantitative approach has an analogous effect: it directs your attention to areas of the story you might never have noticed if you were merely reading through it with an author’s eye. Any target word count is inherently arbitrary, but that’s exactly why it works.

A page from my rough draft

I got to thinking about this again after a friend recommended that I read the thoughts of ecologist Stephen Heard on the subject of revision. Heard is speaking to an audience of academic writers, and his advice has more to do with submitting journal articles for review than with writing a novel, but many of his points are still valuable. He covers some of the same tips that I mention above—reviewing your work in a different font, in a different location, or even at a time of day when you’re tired—and he has a particularly interesting take on revising for length: “Manuscript lengths are most often expressed as word counts, but I suggest you work with character counts instead, because replacing long words with short ones is just as helpful to the reader as reducing the number of words.” This takes the quantitative approach to the extreme: the story is no longer a series of pages, or even individual words, but a string of characters, each of which has equal weight when it comes to reducing the length. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a feeling that it might turn out to be a useful tool, especially in nonfiction, even if its effects are close to subliminal. 

Obviously, an approach like this might be more practical in reworking a 2,000-word essay than a 100,000-word novel, for which it feels a little like digging a hole through a cliff with a needle, as the Humbug does in The Phantom Tollbooth. But while it might not be entirely feasible for longer works, it can’t help but make you more aware about the average length of your words, which can only be a good thing. It reminds me of an analogy given by the great Christopher Alexander, who describes how we can check whether a metal surface is smooth by inking a standard block and rubbing it against the face we’re testing:

If our metal face is not quite level, ink marks appear on it at those points which are higher than the rest. We grind these high spots, and try to fit it against the block again. The face is level when it fits the block perfectly, so that there are no high spots which stand out any more.

What’s nice about this approach is that the evidence is unambiguous—the marks show you exactly where the surface needs grinding. In fiction, the result doesn’t need to be a uniform face: all good novels have peaks and valleys, alternating rhythms, and variety of pacing. But the first step is to figure out what you have. And as in most things in life, the numbers can reveal patterns that the eye alone never could.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2015 at 9:21 am

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