Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘T.H. White

Quote of the Day

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T.H. White

To divest oneself of unnecessary possessions, and mainly of other people: that was the business of life.

One had to find out what things were not necessary, what things one really needed. A little music and liquor, still less food, a warm and beautiful but not too big roof of one’s own, a channel for one’s creative energies and love, the sun and the moon. These were enough…

T.H. White, The Goshawk

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August 18, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The Ive Mind

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Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs

Like many readers, I spent much of yesterday working my way through Ian Parker’s massive New Yorker profile of Apple designer Jonathan Ive. Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of extended feature pieces on Ive, who somehow manages to preserve his reputation as an intensely private man, but it feels like Parker set out to write the one to end them all: it’s well over fifteen thousand words long, and there were times, as I watched my progress creeping slowly by in the scroll bar, when I felt like I was navigating an infinite loop of my own. (It also closes in that abrupt New Yorker way that takes apparent pride in ending articles at the most arbitrary place possible, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before finishing the last paragraph.) Still, it’s a fine piece, crammed with insights, and I expect that I’ll read it again. I’ve become slightly less enamored of Apple ever since my latest MacBook started to disintegrate a few months after I bought it—by which I mean its screws popped out one by one and its plastic casing began to bubble alarmingly outward—but there’s no doubting Ive’s vision, intelligence, and ability to articulate his ideas.

Like a lot of Apple coverage, Parker’s article builds on the company’s mythology while making occasional stabs at deflating it, with paragraphs of almost pornographic praise alternating with a skeptical sentence or two. (“I noticed that, at this moment in the history of personal technology, Cook still uses notifications in the form of a young woman appearing silently from nowhere to hold a sheet of paper in his line of sight.”) And he’s best not so much at talking about Apple’s culture as at talking about how they talk about it. Here’s my favorite part:

[Ive] linked the studio’s work to NASA’s: like the Apollo program, the creation of Apple products required “invention after invention after invention that you would never be conscious of, but that was necessary to do something that was new.” It was a tic that I came to recognize: self-promotion driven by fear that one’s self-effacement might be taken too literally. Even as Apple objects strive for effortlessness, there’s clearly a hope that the effort required—the “huge degree of care,” the years of investigations into new materials, the months spent enforcing cutting paths in Asian factories—will be acknowledged.

Early patent sketches for Apple handheld device

I love this because it neatly encapsulates the neurosis at the heart of so much creative work, from fiction to industrial design. We’re constantly told that we ought to strive for simplicity, and that the finished product, to use one of Ive’s favorite terms, should seem “inevitable.” Yet we’re also anxious that the purity of the result not be confused with the ease of its creation. Writers want readers to accept a novel as a window onto reality while simultaneously noticing the thousands of individual choices and acts of will that went into fashioning it, which is inherently impossible. And it kills us. Writing a novel is a backbreaking process that wants to look as simple as life, and that contradiction goes a long way toward explaining why authors never feel as if they’ve received enough love: the terms of the game that they’ve chosen ensure that most of their work remains invisible. Novels, even mediocre ones, consist of “invention after invention after invention,” a daunting series, as T.H. White noted, of “nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, reeling across the page.” And even when a story all but begs us to admire the brilliance of its construction, we’ll never see more than a fraction of the labor it required.

So what’s a creative artist to do? Well, we can talk endlessly about process, as Ive does, and dream of having a profile in The Paris Review, complete with images of our discarded drafts. Or we can push complexity to the forefront, knowing at least that it will be acknowledged, even if it goes against what we secretly believe about the inevitability of great art. (“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” James Joyce writes, and yet few other authors have been so insistent that we recognize his choices, even within individual words.) Or, if all else fails, we can rail against critics who seem insufficiently appreciative of how much work is required to make something feel obvious, or who focus on some trivial point while ignoring the agonies that went into a story’s foundations. None of which, of course, prevents us from taking the exact same attitude toward works of art made by others. Ultimately, the only solution is to learn to live with your private store of effort, uncertainty, and compromise, never advertising it or pointing to all your hard work as an excuse when it falls short. Because in the end, the result has to stand on its own, even if it’s the apple of your eye.

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2015 at 9:50 am

The limits of obsession

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The head beagle

If there’s a theme that runs throughout this blog, it’s that a novelist needs to be a creature of exceptional obsessiveness. You can start with the mere fact of solitude, which is perhaps the one necessary precondition for the writing life: enduring it, while not falling into a cycle of procrastination, requires an almost monastic dedication to the idea of stringing words together for a living. Doing it for one day is hard enough; keeping at it for year after year demands not just commitment but countless small tactics and habits for meeting your quota while staying sane. As T.H. White points out, a novel consists of thousands of discrete decisions—”nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, reeling across the page”—and the writer, in turn, has to transform himself into a kind of machine for making choices. Many of those judgment calls arise more or less logically from the premises you’ve established from the beginning, but others, like the ones involving a story’s major elements and themes, need to be willed into existence from scratch. It’s exhausting, even for experienced writers, and sticking to it calls for a singlemindedness that verges on the psychotic.

Yet like most things about the writing life, there’s a buried irony here. An identical degree of obsessiveness, devotion to craft, and tenacity goes into writing a bad novel as it does a great one. When you look at it from the outside, there’s nothing to separate the series of actions taken by a writer on the right track from those of an equally talented writer moving steadily in the wrong direction. Both spend about the same amount of time at the computer; both generate the same kind of ephemera—notes, outlines, discarded drafts—that surround any writing project; and even the quality of the writing itself may look largely similar from page to page. It’s only when the work is done, if then, that the outcome is clear. The strategies that a writer develops to survive from one day to the next tell us nothing about whether an idea is promising or misguided, marketable or unpublishable. And in some ways, the more disciplined and professional the writer, the easier it is for him to wind up in a dead end: the very same habits of work and discipline that sustain him also make it possible to keep pushing forward into a cul-de-sac after a less capable writer might have given up.

The head beagle

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I’ve reached the point in my current project when such distinctions start to weigh most heavily. At the moment, I have a tight draft that will run 85,000 words or so when done. It’s a novel I badly wanted to write—although as with most stories, there are often times in the dusty middle innings when I have trouble remembering why—and it’s as accurate a portrait of myself and my ability as I can manage. Technically, it’s fine: it starts in the right place, ends where it should, isn’t longer than it needs to be, and keeps the story moving. The writing is about as strong as it should be, given my level of experience and the rounds of revisions I’ve undergone. What I don’t know is if it’s any good, or if anyone else will want to read it. It all hinges on a hunch, dating back more than a year, that this would be a worthwhile use of my time, but that initial intuition has long since been lost, or dispersed, by rewrites, notes, and the endless process of fixing small or large problems in a story that once seemed so simple. I know that my solutions are better than most and probably worse than others. But I don’t know much of anything else.

What’s clear to me, at this point in my life, is that love of writing alone isn’t enough. Neither is craft, or even obsessiveness. They’re necessary, but not sufficient. And one of the central realizations of writing is that you can be smart, diligent, and crazy in all the right ways, and still miss the target. I’m not saying it’s true in this case; only that I don’t know, and there’s a sense in which I can’t know. That’s part of the appeal of writing: if it were predictable, like an industrial process, it would be even less likely to reward a reader’s time. All I can do is follow Mamet’s advice, as best as I can: “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.” And if it doesn’t work here, there’s always the next one. In a sense, that’s the most valuable aspect of a writer’s obsessiveness—not so much the kind that keeps you going within a particular story, but the kind that sustains you from one project to the next. Given enough will, it’s possible for anyone to slog from first page to last, but another order of stubbornness entirely is required to do it again. It can be hard to distinguish it from the psychosis of an untalented writer who refuses to quit. But that’s just one more reason why good and bad writers have more in common with one another than they do with anyone else.

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2015 at 9:10 am

Posted in Writing

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“Write your own name a hundred times…”

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T.H. White

Write your own name a hundred times, and you will be bored; seven hundred times and you will be exasperated; seven thousand times, and your brains will be reeling in your head. Then realize that you have only written one tenth of a novel, and you will be lucky to escape the madhouse.

And yet you haven’t the full of it. Your own name can at least be written down mechanically. You need have no ideas. You can work like a sweated laborer doing piece-work in a factory. But the novelist has to write down different names: nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, reeling across the page. They have to make sense. They have to produce ideas. All the ideas were produced long ago, by Adam, and yet he has to produce new ones.

T.H. White, Earth Stopped

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December 6, 2014 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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November 3, 2011 at 8:15 am

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon…”

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Now that I’ve already looked at the problem of endings in possibly excessive detail, it’s time to turn to the even greater challenge of beginnings. The first sentence of a novel is, obviously, the most visible; it’s under the maximum amount of pressure to be interesting and graceful; and it can be fetishized and scrutinized out of all proportion to its actual importance. As a result, many first sentences have an air of desperation. (American Book Review’s list of the hundred “best” first sentences, read consecutively, makes for oddly depressing reading.) That said, I can only begin by quoting my own favorite opening, from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

No desperation there—just a clean headlong plunge into story. I don’t want to analyze this opening too much, except to say that it beautifully exemplifies the quality of momentum that Tom Wolfe, among others, has praised in Cain’s work: no other novelist has ever been faster at coming out of his corner. Cain was the most impressive stylist in the history of the suspense form—even Edmund Wilson, no fan of the genre, was an admirer of Cain—and he did it with language that was clean, direct, and surprisingly subtle. (And the wording is more nuanced than it looks. Changing “hay truck” to “fruit truck,” for instance, would alter the entire mood of the opening.)

The crucial quality of an opening sentence or paragraph, of course, is that it keeps the reader going. Most writers try to do this with action, often violent or melodramatic, but it can also be done with character, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in The Sign of the Four:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Any story that begins with the words “Sherlock Holmes…” is interesting in itself, so it’s useful to note that this is only the second Holmes novel ever published, written when Conan Doyle was barely thirty, but already a master at seizing the reader’s attention. (Perhaps too much of a master: his depiction of Holmes using cocaine was still controversial enough, nearly a century later, that the above paragraph was cut entirely from The Boy’s Sherlock Holmes, which was the edition I read growing up.)

The examples I’ve mentioned so far come from genre novels, but even a literary novel with a more leisurely pace benefits from a good, clean opening. For sheer magic and confidence, it’s hard to top the first sentence of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale:

There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.

But not every great novel has a great opening sentence. It’s difficult to imagine a more snooze-inducing opening line than this one:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.

This is from The Once and Future King, and I can only assure you that it gets a lot better from there. (It’s likely that T.H. White was deliberately trying to convey an air of boredom in the first sentence, in order to contrast the young Arthur’s conventional schooling with his much more exciting educational experiences to come. This, needless to say, is a strategy that most novelists would be advised to avoid, at least at first.)

What I’ve said before about closing sentences applies equally well to their opening counterparts: there are as many different kinds as there are novels. If there’s one rule that I’d encourage writers to follow, though, it’s not to try too hard. A novel isn’t a newspaper article; not every relevant detail of time, place, and circumstance needs to be crammed into the first sentence. Many suspense novelists, in particular, seem so terrified that the reader will read the first sentence and nothing else that they overload their openings like a fishing line strung with multiple flies. The result is often a sentence like this:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

This particular opening, with its infamous “renowned curator,” has been so thoroughly eviscerated elsewhere (notably here and here) that no further commentary would seem necessary. And yet the sentence does work: millions of people, for better or worse, kept reading. Which suggests, as I’ve already said, that it’s hard to lay down any definitive rules, only examples. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be looking at the openings of some of my own stories, and talking about what at least one writer is thinking when he stares at that first, terrifyingly blank page.

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