Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ted Hughes

Breaking the silence

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On Saturday, I participated in an event at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans with the authors Alex White (A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe), Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear), and Robert Jackson Bennett (Foundryside). It went fine—I signed books, met some interesting people, and had the chance to speak to librarians about Astounding, which is why I was there in the first place. I had also been told that I should talk about a book that I had recently read, but because of a miscommunication, the other writers on the panel never got the message, so the idea was quietly dropped. This wasn’t a serious problem, but it deprived me of the chance to recommend the title that I’d selected, which I feel comfortable describing as the most interesting book that I’ve read in at least two or three years. It isn’t about science fiction, but about the art of biography, which can be a form of speculative fiction in itself. As regular readers of this blog know, I stumbled into the role of a biographer almost by accident, and ever since, I’ve been seeking advice on the subject wherever I can find it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that biographers are eager to speak about their art and struggles, and that they’ll sometimes overshare at moments when they should be fading into the background. (I have a sneaking fondness for books like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry and Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, in which the biographer smuggles himself into the life of his subject, even if I can’t defend it. And James Atlas recently published an entire book, The Shadow in the Garden, mostly as an excuse to air his grievances about the reception of his biography of Saul Bellow.) But it wasn’t until recently that I found a book that captured everything that I had been feeling and thinking, along with so much else.

The book is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which was originally published in 1994. I think it’s a masterpiece—it’s one of the best nonfiction books that I’ve ever read of any kind—and it instantly elevated Malcolm, whom I’ve long respected, into the pantheon of my intellectual heroes. I’ve read a lot of her work in The New Yorker, of course, and I greatly admired her books Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives. (The former includes a passage about the history of psychoanalysis that I find so insightful that I’ve quoted it here no fewer than three times.) But The Silent Woman is on another level entirely. On the surface, it’s a close reading of all the biographies that have been written by others about Plath and Hughes, but as you read it, it unfolds into a work of fiendish complexity that operates on multiple planes at once. It’s a fascinating—and gossipy—consideration of Plath and Hughes themselves; an account of Malcolm’s own investigation of some of the figures on the sidelines; a meditation on biographical truth; and a fantastically involving reading experience. Malcolm has a knack for crafting a phrase or analogy that can change the way you think about a subject forever. Writing about the appearance of the first collection of Plath’s letters, for instance, she uses an image that reminds me of the moment in certain movies when the screen suddenly widens into Cinemascope size:

Before the publication of Letters Home, the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms…Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who “wrote”) and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes.

The result is as twisty as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but even better, I think, because it doesn’t wear its cleverness on its sleeve. Instead, it subtly ensnares you, and you end up feeling—or at least I did—that you’re somehow implicated in the story yourself. I read the first half online, in the archive of The New Yorker, and as soon as I realized how special it was, I checked out the hardcover from the library. Once I was done, I knew that this was a book that I had to own, so I picked up a used copy of the paperback at Open Books in Chicago. I leafed through it occasionally afterward, and I even lent it to my wife to read, but I didn’t look at it too closely. As a result, it wasn’t until I brought it last weekend to New Orleans that I realized that it included a new afterword. Unlike many books, it didn’t advertise the presence of any additional material, and it isn’t mentioned on the copyright page, which made it seem like a secret message straight out of Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s also a confession. In the original edition, Malcolm states that Ted Hughes decided to posthumously release Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in America because he needed money to buy a second home. After the book was published, Malcolm reveals in the afterword, Hughes wrote to her to say that this was incorrect:

One part of your narrative is not quite right…You quote my letter to [Plath’s mother] Aurelia in which I ask her how she feels about our publishing The Bell Jar in the U.S. That was early 1970; I wanted cash to buy a house…When Aurelia wrote back and made her feelings clear, even though she said the decision to publish or not rested with me, I dropped my idea of buying the house. My letter reassuring her is evidently not in the archive you saw (or obviously your account would be different).

Before I get to Malcolm’s response to Hughes, who is politely but firmly pointing out a possible mistake, I should mention my own situation. Yesterday, I delivered the final set of corrections to Astounding. In the process, I’ve checked as much of the book as I can against my primary sources, and I’ve found a few small mistakes—mistyped dates, minor transcription errors—that I’m glad to have caught at this stage. But it means that I’m very conscious of how it feels to be a writer who learns that something in his or her book might be wrong. As for Malcolm, she wrote back to Hughes, saying that she checked her notes from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington:

In 1971, Aurelia made an annotation on your letter of March 24, 1970. She wrote, in tiny handwriting, “’71—children said this was a horrible house’ and they didn’t want to live there. Ted did send me $10,000 from the royalties (I protested the publication, which Sylvia would not have allowed) and deposited [illegible] in accounts for Frieda and Nick—Ted [illegible] bought the property!!!” Not knowing anything to the contrary, I took Aurelia at her word.

Malcolm and Hughes spoke on the phone to straighten out the misunderstanding, and everything seemed fine. But on the very last page of the book, Malcolm slips in the literary equivalent of a post-credits scene that changes everything that we thought we knew:

The next morning I awoke with one of those inklings by which detective fiction is regularly fueled. I telephoned the Lilly Library again and asked the librarian if she would read me Aurelia Plath’s annotation of Hughes’s letter of March 24, 1970—I was especially interested in a word that I had found illegible when I took notes at the library in 1991. Perhaps she could make it out? She said she would try. When she reached the relevant sentence, she paused for a suspenseful moment of effort. Then she read—as I felt certain she would—“Ted never bought the property.”

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

The essential solidarity of poets

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We now give more serious weight to the words of a country’s poets than to the words of its politicians—though we know the latter may interfere more drastically with our lives. Religions, ideologies, mercantile competition divide us. The essential solidarity of the very diverse poets of the world…is one we can be thankful for, since its terms are exclusively those of love, understanding and patience. It is one of the few spontaneous guarantees of possible unity that mankind can show, and the revival of an appetite for poetry is like a revival of an appetite for all man’s saner possibilities, and a revulsion from the materialist cataclysms of recent years and the worse ones which the difference of nations threatens for the years ahead. The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun, and we shall have to adapt or disappear.

Ted Hughes, Selected Translations

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October 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Parkinson’s Law and the creative hour

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In the November 19, 1955 issue of The Economist, the historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson stated the law that has borne his name ever since, in a paragraph remarkable for its sheer Englishness:

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

Parkinson’s observation was originally designed to account for the unchecked growth of bureaucracy, which hinges on the fact that paperwork is “elastic in its demands on time”—and, by extension, on manpower. And he concluded the essay by stating, rather disingenuously, that it was only an empirical observation, without any value attached: “The discovery of this formula and of the general principles upon which it is based has, of course, no emotive value…Parkinson’s Law is a purely scientific discovery, inapplicable except in theory to the politics of the day. It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.”

In fact, Parkinson’s Law can be a neutral factor, or even a positive one, when it comes to certain forms of creativity. We can begin with one of its most famous, if disguised, variations, in the form of Blinn’s Law: “As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.” As I’ve noted before, once an animator gets used to waiting a certain number of hours for an image to render, as the hardware improves, instead of using it to save time, he just renders more complex graphics. There seems to be a fixed amount of time that any given person is willing to work, so an increase in efficiency doesn’t necessarily reduce the time spent at your desk—it just allows you to introduce additional refinements that depend on purely mechanical factors. Similarly, the introduction of word-processing software didn’t appreciably reduce how long it takes to write a novel: it only restructures it, so that whatever time you save in typing is expended in making imperceptible corrections. This isn’t always a good thing. As the history of animation makes clear, Blinn’s Law can lead to the same tired stories being played out against photorealistic backgrounds, and access to word processors may simply mean that the average story gets longer, as Ted Hughes observed while serving on the judging panel of a children’s writing competition: “It just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated.” But there are also cases in which an artist’s natural patience and tolerance for work provides the finished result with the rendering time that it needs to reach its ideal form. And we have it to thank for many displays of gratuitous craft and beauty.

This leads me to a conclusion that I’ve recently come to appreciate more fully, which is that every form of artistic activity is equally difficult. I don’t mean that the violin is as easy as the ukulele, or that there isn’t any difference between performance at a high level and the efforts of a casual hobbyist. But if you’re a creative professional and take your work seriously, you’re usually going to operate at your optimum capacity, if not all the time, than at least on average. Each day’s work is determined less by the demands of the project itself than by how much energy you can afford to give it. I switch fairly regularly between fiction and nonfiction, for instance, and whenever I’m working in one mode, I often find myself thinking fondly of the other, which somehow seems easier in my imagination. But it isn’t. I’m the same person with an identical set of habits whether I’m writing a novel, a short story, or an essay, and an hour of my time is pitched about at the same degree of intensity no matter what the objective is. In practice, it settles at a point that is slightly too intense to be entirely comfortable, but not so much that it burns me out. I’ve found that I unconsciously adjust the conditions to make each day’s work feel the same, either by moving a deadline forward or backward or by taking on projects that are progressively more challenging. (This doesn’t just apply to paid work, either. The amount of time I spend on this blog hasn’t varied much over the last five years, but the posts have definitely gotten more involved.) This also applies to particular stages. When I’m researching, outlining, writing, or revising, I sometimes console myself with the idea that the next part will be easier. In fact, it’s all hard. And if it isn’t, I’m doing something wrong.

This implies that we shouldn’t pick our artistic pursuits based on how easy they are, but on the quality that they yield for each unit of time invested. (“Quality” can mean whatever you like, from how much you get paid to the amount of personal satisfaction that you derive.) I work as diligently as possible on whatever I do, but this doesn’t mean that I’m equally good at everything, and there are certain forms of writing that I’ve given up because they don’t justify the cost. And I’ve also learned to be grateful for the fact that everything I do takes about the same amount of time and effort per page. The real limiting factor isn’t the time available, but what I bring to each creative hour, and over the long run, it makes sense to be as consistent as I can. It isn’t intensity that hurts, but volatility, and you lose a lot in ramping up and ramping down. But the appropriate level varies from one person to another. What Parkinson neglects to mention in his contrast between “an elderly lady of leisure” and “a busy man” is that each of them has presumably found a suitable mode of living, and you can find productive writers and artists who fall into either category. In the end, the process is all we have, and it makes sense that it would remain the same in its externals, regardless of its underlying goal. That’s a gentler way of stating Parkinson’s Law, but it’s no less accurate. And Parkinson himself seems to have softened his stance. As he said in an interview to the New York Times toward the end of his career: “My experience tells me the only thing people really enjoy over a long period of time is some kind of work.”

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2017 at 8:39 am

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

A trap baited with grass

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David Brin

Last month, in a post about the origins of my novelette “Stonebrood,” I quoted the author David Brin, who compared writing science fiction—with tongue in cheek—to wildcat oil drilling. Here’s more of what he said:

If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard SF writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking. For whatever it’s worth, some people think that way. A lot of SF writers aren’t writing hard science fiction because they think most of it has been written. If their reasoning is true—and I don’t think it is—one of the reasons is that you have writers like Larry Niven out there mining out whole veins and leaving nothing left for the rest of us to explore…He not only mines all those marvelous veins of ideas, he mines them to exhaustion.

Brin may not believe that writing is really like wildcatting, but his image gets at something meaningful about how authors work. When you embark on a project of any length, you’re making an excursion into unexplored territory. You can pick the area based on promising signs in the landscape, but in the end, you have no choice but to start digging and hope that the effort pays off. There’s skill involved, but also a lot of luck.

And a writer is less like a modern oil company with a team of geologists than a lone wildcatter driven by an obsession, like Daniel Plainview at the start of There Will Be Blood. Brian Frehner, in his interesting study Finding Oil, refers to them as “vernacular prospectors,” and describes how some relied on dowsing rods and mysterious black boxes called doodlebugs to identify potential sources of oil. It was crackpot science, but to the extent that it worked, it was as a way of focusing the user’s own hunches:

Like a blind man navigating the terrain with a cane, the most successful doodlebug prospectors also surveyed the landscape, and this activity cultivated within them an instinct for recognizing changes in topography and vegetation that indicated the presence of oil. In order to operate a doodlebug, [a prospector] explained that “you’ve got to have a lot of common sense and some knowledge of oil to get any effective results.”

Similarly, any writer eventually develops his or her own bag of superstitious tricks for identifying promising material, even if they’re ultimately just a means of enabling extended thought or reflection. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the specific tools that writers use, from mind maps to tarot cards, are less important in themselves than as an excuse that forces you to sit and think for the necessary number of hours that any idea requires.

Robert Caro

But sometimes your intuition can fail you, even if you’re an experienced writer who has navigated the blank places on the map before. I got to thinking about this after reading Robert A. Caro’s description of the Hill Country of Texas in The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Describing the view that greeted settlers in the nineteenth century, Caro writes:

The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides alike…To these men the grass was proof that their dreams would come true. In country where grass grew like that, cotton would surely grow tall, and cattle fat—and men rich. In a country where grass grew like that, they thought, anything would grow.

He concludes bleakly: “How could they know about the grass?” In reality, the grass of the Hill Country had taken centuries to form, growing on a thin, fragile layer of soil over limestone, and as soon as it was eaten by cattle or otherwise denuded, it would never return. In Caro’s memorable words, the Hill Country was “a trap baited with grass.” And any writer can relate to the problem of encountering what seems like a promising area for a story—just look at all that grass!—only to end up striking bare rock.

Even worse, it can take weeks, months, or even years of effort before the writer realizes that the land has gone sour. (As Ted Hughes once said, quoting an unnamed playwright: “Dramatists waste eighty percent of their productive life on unworkable ideas that have to be abandoned.”) And even caution and long experience can’t always defend you against such mistakes. Caro continues:

Moreover, as to the adequacy of rainfall, the evidence of the settlers’ own eyes was often misleading, for one aspect of the trap was especially convincing—and especially cruel…Rain can be plentiful in the Hill Country not just for one year, but for two or three—or more—in a row. Men, even cautious men, therefore could arrive during a wet cycle and conclude—and write home confidently—that rainfall was adequate, even abundant. And when, suddenly, the cycle shifted…who could blame these men for being sure that the dry spell was an aberration; that it would surely rain the next year—or the next? It had to, they felt; there was plenty of rain in the Hill Country—hadn’t they seen it with their own eyes?

The italics are mine. All the caution in the world can’t prevent us from sinking months or years of our lives into ideas that won’t pay off in the way we hoped. The only way to avoid it is to stick only to the areas that have been thoroughly explored, which can lead to its own kind of disappointment. Any ambitious writer—which is to say, any writer determined to strike off on his or her own—will fall into that trap sooner or later. And when it happens, all we can do is pull up stakes, try somewhere else, and hope that this time we’ll find the land that we need.

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October 6, 2015 at 8:54 am

The Ballad of John the Pig

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John the Pig

For the last month or so, one of the first things my daughter has said to me every morning, as well as one of the last things she says before she goes to bed at night, is: “Talk about John the Pig.” She’ll ask about John while eating breakfast, while we’re out in the stroller, when we’re together in the car, or when I’m giving her a bath, and I usually oblige, to the point where I’ve spent maybe a hundred hours over the past several weeks talking to her about John the Pig. Who is he? He’s the anonymous little pig who appears on the rightmost edge of page 13 of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, playing happily in his sandbox at the playground. I’m not sure exactly why I latched onto that particular image, but it was probably just the first one that happened to catch my eye. John’s name was similarly plucked out of thin air.  When I initially brought him up, I had the vague idea that I could make up a few stories about John to amuse my daughter, since we’d already gone through the book from cover to cover. Ever since, John’s story has expanded beyond anything I could have imagined. He’s acquired a family, a huge supporting cast—Molly the Rabbit, Mary the Mouse, Little Elephant, Sam and Sally the Sand Crabs—and a life that takes him through the city, the school, the park, and the beach, in a narrative that rivals any soap opera or oral epic in terms of length and density of incident. In short, he’s quite the little pig.

Many parents, I imagine, have undergone this kind of experience, and occasionally, the stories we make up take on a life of their own. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland famously began as a tale that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told to amuse the Liddell sisters on a day in the country, while Ted Hughes’s stories about the Iron Man—later filmed as The Iron Giant—originated in his stories for his own children. Until now, I’ve never quite understood how a bedtime story can grow and develop into something that deserves to be put down on paper, but now I do. My daughter’s questions and requests about John the Pig are inexhaustible, and it’s often all I can do to keep up with her appetite for more. (Often, they’ll take the form of oddly specific pitches: “I want John the Pig to get lost.” “I want John the Pig to hurt his knee.” “I want John the Pig to knock over his sand castle.”) Originally, the stories took place within the pictures provided by Best Word Book Ever, with John accompanying his parents or his friends to the grocery store or airport or zoo, but by now, the book has long since been put away, and we’re only limited by whatever events or settings the two of us can imagine. Not everything I make up on the spot is worth remembering, and the stories have a way of petering out toward the end. But not always. And sometimes even I’m curious to know where John will end up next.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

And it’s starting to feel like an adventure for me, too. I’m the kind of writer who likes to plan everything in advance, but I don’t know how a John the Pig story will end, and it amuses me to come up with a conclusion that ties back into where the story began, or to figure out a reasonably clever way for John to get out of one of his predicaments. There’s an evolutionary process at work here, too. Most of my ideas are discarded as soon as the story is over, but occasionally, one of them sticks, and we’ve even had a few breakout characters. (Sam and Sally the Sand Crab were introduced to get me out of a particular narrative problem, but like Urkel or the Fonz, they’ve practically become the stars of their own spinoff.) It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to improvising for an audience, although it also helps that my daughter is a forgiving listener. She likes stories in which John goes on improbable adventures, but she’s equally interested in hearing about a day at school or a play date with Molly the Rabbit, and I’m often put in mind of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful observation:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

It can be a little exhausting, of course, and there are times—particularly after I’ve been dragged out of bed at five in the morning—when my invention sputters and I’d rather do anything but spin another interminable story. (Whenever I can’t think of what comes next, I fall back on something tried and true, like a visit to Molly the Rabbit’s house, which has convinced me that the formulas we find in so much oral storytelling are just ways to buy the poet time as he thinks his way through to the next plot point.) But I’ve also learned a lot in the process. Beatrix craves conflict, and she’s much more interested in stories in which John the Pig is sad than when he’s happy. And she’s starting to take an active role in the act of composition herself. Whenever I find my energy flagging, I’ll ask her: “And then what happened?” She’ll usually have a few good ideas of her own, and I get a sense that she doesn’t distinguish between the details I provide and the ones that she comes up with independently. Ultimately, my dream is that she’ll take up the thread herself and start telling me her own stories without any need of prompting. Busytown has plenty of characters and locations, and exploring it with her through it has turned, rather unexpectedly, into one of the great joys of my life as a father. John the Pig loves his sandbox, but the real sandbox is the one in which my daughter and I play every day.

Two ways of looking at the goddess

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Ted Hughes

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by the poet Ted Hughes, which is one of the strangest books ever published by a major author. Hughes believed that he had uncovered the formula—which he calls the Tragic Equation—that underlies all of Shakespeare’s mature plays, and he introduces his argument in terms that would make any writer sit up and pay attention:

The immediate practical function of this equation is simply to produce, with unfailing success, an inexhaustibly interesting dramatic action…[Shakespeare] was, after all, part theater owner, part manager, part worker, part supplier of raw materials, and full-time entrepreneur in a precarious yet fiercely demanding industry. Whether it was an old play rejigged or a new piece, it had to work. Maybe, under those pressures, it was inevitable that he should do as other hack professionals have always done, and develop one or two basic reliable kits of the dynamics that make a story move on the stage.

Hughes goes on to describe the formula as “the perfect archetypal plot, one that would guarantee basic drive.” And if you regard Shakespeare as our supreme maker of plots—an aspect of his work that has often been neglected—it’s hard not to feel excited by the prospect of a poet like Hughes reducing his method to a tool that can be grasped or reproduced.

Unfortunately, or inevitably, the core argument turns out to be insanely convoluted. According to Hughes, Shakespeare’s archetypal plot arose from the fusion of two of his early poetic works, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plot, as far as I understand it, is that the hero is courted by the goddess, either in the form of Aphrodite, the ideal bride, or Persephone, the queen of hell; he rejects her advances; she kills him in the guise of a wild boar; he descends to the underworld; and finally he “pupates” into a form that rises again to slay the goddess in turn, motivated by a horror of her sexuality. (Hughes also relates this myth to the struggle between Catholicism and Puritanism in Shakespeare’s time, to the myth of Osiris, to Rosicrucianism, and to the cabala, all of which only muddy the issue further.) The trouble, at least when it comes to applying this reading to all of Shakespeare’s plays, is that Hughes reassigns and shuffles the elements of the equation so freely that they lose all meaning or specificity. Sometimes the boar is the dark side of the hero himself, or an usurping brother, or even an entire city; in Macbeth, the goddess is Scotland, as well as the witches and Lady Macbeth; in Othello, it’s Desdemona’s handkerchief. And in attempting to make everything fit, Hughes ends up explaining almost nothing.

Robert Graves

Yet it’s still a book that I regard with a lot of respect and affection. Isolated insights and metaphors flash forth like lightning on the page, and even if the argument tells us more about Hughes than about Shakespeare, every paragraph pulsates with life. As the title implies, his book is greatly indebted to The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which Hughes elsewhere cited as a major influence on his thinking, and both books offer the fascinating prospect of a learned and intuitive mind—the kind that appears once in a generation—taking on an impossible argument. And if Graves is still read and discussed, while Hughes’s book remains a curiosity, part of it has to do with their subject matter. Graves centers his argument on a medieval Welsh poem, “The Battle of the Trees,” which few nonspecialist readers are likely to have encountered, while Hughes tackles the most famous writer in the English language, of whose works most readers have already formed an opinion. When Graves takes apart his sources and puts them back together like an enormous crossword puzzle, we’re likely to accept it at face value; when Hughes does the same to Hamlet or King Lear, we resist it, or suspect that he’s imposing a reading, albeit with enormous ingenuity, on a play that can sustain any number of interpretations. In the end, neither book can be accepted uncritically, but they still have the power to light up the imagination.

And in their shared aims, they’re agonizingly important, both to poets and to general readers. Reading them both together, I’m reminded of what Janet Malcolm says about a very different subject in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers)…As for Freud himself, he travelled both routes, extending the psychoanalytic view to literature, art, biography, anthropology, and social philosophy…as well as sticking to the theoretical and clinical core of psychoanalysis.

Substitute “poetry” for “psychoanalysis”—or one impossible profession for another—and this is a perfect summary of what both Graves and Hughes are attempting to do: taking the intense, private, inexpressible confrontation of the poet with the muse and extending it into a form that can be applied to how we think about art, history, and our own inner lives. I’m not sure either of them succeeded, any more than Freud did. But the effort still fills me with awe.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 10, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater, Writing

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The jig is up

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Staircase jig

Maybe it’s because we feel guilty about spending our lives crafting such intangible objects, but I’ve noticed that a lot of writers have a way of talking like carpenters. “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry,” Gabriel García Márquez writes, and José Saramago adds: “If I can produce a great chair, even better. But above all I have to make sure it has four stable feet.” Speaking of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes says: “If she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” And if I’ve often called an outline a blueprint, an even better metaphor might be that of a jig. A jig is basically a tool used to control other tools, a way of guiding movement and placement to ensure accuracy and repeatability. Many are standardized, but they’re also often whipped up on the fly, cobbled together from whatever happens to be at hand in order to solve a particular problem—like this homemade jig a woodworker made from scrap to drill pocket holes for a big display case. And the more you look at what creative professionals do for a living, the more jigs you find. (I owe this idea to one of my wife’s coworkers, who used the jig as an analogy for creating shortcuts while writing and testing software.)

There are many kinds of jigs, but my favorite may be the simple staircase jig, pictured above, which is used to make stringers, or supports for a staircase’s treads and risers. It’s just a lightweight, convenient template used to cut the pieces more precisely, and it will generally be seen only by the woodworker. Yet it’s a pleasing, elegant object in itself, a perfect marriage of form and function. And I’m especially tickled by the fact that with its two legs meeting at right angles, with a slight overhang, it looks a bit like the Greek letter lambda. In Lisp and similar programming languages, lambda is used as a keyword to introduce anonymous functions, or short, specific procedures created for a particular purpose. You could always write a formal named function to do the same thing, but in some cases, when you only need it for a little while, it’s more efficient to create a one-off tool. In other words, it’s a lot like a jig itself—anonymous, convenient, and made for a specific task. And the staircase jig stands both as a useful implement and as an emblem for the idea of making and using small, disposable, but thoughtfully designed instruments in service of a larger enterprise.

Pocket hole jig

I like the metaphor of the jig both because it hints at the intimate, handcrafted nature of these invisible tools and because it’s inherently recursive. If a jig is a tool for making other tools, in theory, you could have a jig that only exists to make other jigs, and you often do. The craft of writing, to give just one example, offers many examples of nested processes, in which each stage is shaped by the ones that came before. An outline, for instance, can be seen as a kind of jig: it’s cobbled together in private to shape the visible result—the story itself—and it both guides and frees the author’s hand when it comes to putting words down on paper. The outline, in turn, is shaped by countless tiny rules and templates that the writer has developed over time: to think in threes, to structure each scene as a series of objectives, and so on. And those templates, in turn, are determined by another layer even further down, which shades into what we think of as the basic syntax of storytelling. “Show, don’t tell” may not seem like a jig, but it’s really a tool that helps the author decide between the range of choices available. It’s less a value judgment than a guide that encourages us to make those cuts precisely.

And just because jigs are standardized doesn’t mean that the result will always look the same. A staircase jig can be used to make staircases of different dimensions and styles; all they have in common is the fact that their bones are sound, with each tread fitting tightly into each stringer. The rest is a matter of interior design, or decoration, although it’s often most beautiful when the underlying forms are allowed to show through. I often see the same process at work in my own writing. All of my chapter outlines tend to look the same: they fall into three parts, they have roughly the same number of story beats, and they fit within a comfortable template. If I follow this structure closely in the outline stage, though, it’s less because I think it reflects how the story will ultimately look than as a kind of sanity check. When the outline looks more or less like the ones I’ve made in the past, I know that I’m done. In practice, the result is reworked to a point where that underlying structure is no longer visible; a scene that fell neatly into three parts in the outline may be revised until it’s all buildup or all denouement, or I might follow my favorite writing rule and cut the beginning and the end. But I needed that jig to make sure that all the parts were there—and in the right places.

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December 23, 2014 at 10:08 am


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The Scripps National Spelling Bee

At last week’s National Spelling Bee, many observers noted a small but telling change that says a lot about the shifting role of technology in the lives of kids. In the past, competitors would often use a finger to write out a difficult word in the air or on the palms of their hands, as I sometimes do when I’m trying to remember how to spell something. (In fact, that’s probably the only time I still use cursive.) At this year’s bee, it was more common to see spellers air-typing at an imaginary keyboard, and at least one girl mimed the act of texting. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: children are exposed to keyboards at an early age, and their hands are wired to their heads accordingly, to the point where it’s more intuitive to type something out using muscle memory than to pretend they’re writing it out. My own daughter will probably be no exception. The other day, at the thrift store, she saw an electric typewriter for the first time, and she immediately started hammering at the keys, trying in vain to make it play “Let it Go.”

But at the risk of sounding like a total luddite, I can’t help feel that the decline of handwriting is a genuine loss, and its impact over the long term will be hard to predict. A widely circulated article by Maria Konnikova of the New York Times makes a strong case that the link between handwriting and such cognitive activities as learning, remembering, and creativity is very real:

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize…Learning is made easier.”

Even a quick glance at a homunculus—the figure designed to indicate the relative amount of brain space allocated to each part of the body—vividly suggests how important our hands are when it comes to the way we think, and any shift in how we write and interact with text is bound to have consequences. Of course, there have been many such transitions over the centuries, from handwriting to typewriting to word processing, and there are equally fundamental changes yet to come. (If anything, I suppose I should be happy that kids are still typing at all, given how many of us interact with written content solely through a touchscreen.)

Ted Hughes

That said, I’m not about to give up my laptop anytime soon, and I can certainly write more quickly and fluently with the keyboard than by hand. Still, that kind of facility can have negative effects. I’ve shared this story from the poet Ted Hughes before, but I can’t resist quoting it again:

For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W.H. Smith children’s writing competition…Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works…It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words on the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

The nice thing about writing by hand is that it compels you to slow down slightly, and if you’re writing in ink, you’re more likely to reflect on each choice before you make it. (As the psychologist Paul Bloom says in the Times article: “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”) This transition is similar to the one in film editing from flatbed machines to Final Cut Pro, with the result, as Walter Murch has pointed out, that it’s almost too easy for filmmakers to make changes. The editor Michael Kahn says much the same thing:

But I do think something’s been lost with digital editing, I really do—the cogitation, the level of thought about how you should cut something. You have to study the material more on film, because you don’t want to make that cut unless you’re sure. I thought a lot more when I was using a Moviola.

And the solution, obviously, is to make a conscious decision to preserve the older methods, even if they’re no longer the default. Half of my planning process for any story is still done with pen on paper, and although there are plenty of excellent software options for mind maps and notecards, I don’t expect I’ll ever stop. And it’s not just a matter of stubbornness. There’s something irreplaceable about writing by hand, for authors as much as for everyone else, and if we give it up, it spells trouble.

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June 4, 2014 at 9:32 am

Constructing a shrine to the random

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Gregory Bateson

“I am going to build a church some day,” Gregory Bateson once said. “It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” I’ve shared this quote here before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really dug into its underlying meaning. As Bateson knew, many creative processes originate in raids on the random, and the holy of holies he describes genuinely existed in a number of incarnations. The Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament were evidently oracle stones that were used to ask questions at important moments: their actual form is still a matter of debate, but it’s likely that they were a bag of small metal discs that were pulled one by one to spell out various permutations of the divine name, each with its own network of meanings. Lots, oracle bones, and divinatory texts have always been treated with ritual care. I’m as left-brained an author as they come, but I always incorporate randomness into the early stages of any writing project, and while these habits are useful in their own right, I’ve also come to see them as a gesture of respect for the unknowable. Whether or not they result in a useful idea is almost beside the point, although they invariably do; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that there are aspects of creativity that can’t be controlled in rational ways.

In fact, I’m starting to believe that every writer needs to maintain a personal shrine to the random. I’m thinking in particular of those portable shrines carried by bullfighters, explorers, and aviators, which can be folded, tucked into a suitcase or bag, and unfolded to be set up in any camp or hotel room. After much trial and error, I’ve found that the ideal vehicle of randomness is a collection of many short, compact units of information of uniform density that can easily be selected by chance. The quintessential example is the I Ching, although I’ve found that it’s a little too vague for my tastes. As I’ve said in other posts, my own favorite oracle is Ted Hughes’s A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, a collection of upward of two hundred quotations from the poems and plays, helpfully numbered for convenient consultation. I’ve often thought about doing the same thing with the numbered entries in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, each of which lays out a design problem and its solution, or Robert Bresson’s Notes for the Cinematographer. (Numbers are useful because they allow you to employ a random number generator to select the one you need, which strikes me as a better approach than simply opening to a random page.)

A Pattern Language

Conceiving of randomness as an end unto itself—especially in how it inspires the mind to come up with unexpected connections and associations—almost redeems such questionable practices as Tarot cards, tea leaves, and astrology, which are useful when they encourage the consulter to apply novel patterns to the situation at hand, rather than slavishly following the response. If this strikes you as too fuzzy, there are plenty of alternatives. I’ve long been a fan of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and I’ve recently become intrigued by the IDEO Method Cards, which represent a more detailed approach to the same problem. Again, the real value they add is portability, concision, and convenience, as well as material that has gone through a prior stage of refinement. In theory, you could use the Yellow Pages as a source of randomness, too, and while some might argue that this is the way to really whack yourself out of established modes of thinking, I prefer my ore to be slightly more filtered first. (The raw materials don’t need to be words, either: as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, combinations of pictures have been used to stimulate creative thinking, and it’s easy to imagine a similar approach with music, or even with objects in the room you happen to be in now, as Julian Jaynes has done.)

Ultimately, though, the shrine depends on the user. Chance only brings your attention to what is right before your eyes, or reminds you of something you already know, as expressed in an anonymous verse that has been rattling around in my head for years: 

Whenever you are called on to make up your mind
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the way to solve the dilemma you’ll find
is simply by flipping a penny.

Not so that chance will decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping
But the moment the penny is up in the air
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Randomness works in much the same way, so its source needs to be something you find personally meaningful—which is true of any shrine. So why not build yours today?

Bricolage and the working writer

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Ad hoc chair

Yesterday, I posted an extended passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss on the concept of bricolage, or the art of using whatever happens to be at hand. I stumbled across it while browsing through a book that has fascinated me for a long time, Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, which is essentially an extended love letter to the art of creative improvisation. The more I think about that quote, the more it resonates with me, although the reasons might not seem obvious. As regular readers know, I’m an innately left-brained author: I love planning, research, and outlining, and I rarely sit down for a day’s work without a detailed idea of how the end result will look. On a deeper level, though, just about everything I’ve ever written has been an act of bricolage. I’m only really happy when I’m working on some kind of project, so in the early stages, I’ll often assemble a few promising scraps that look like they might lead to a story and see where they take me after a few days of noodling. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how random these building blocks can be—a few magazine articles, a book I want to read, an idea for a scene or character, a world I feel like exploring—and while I don’t always know how these components will eventually come together, that’s part of the fun.

And while I’ve previously emphasized the random nature of the pieces, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that randomness is less important in itself than a natural side effect of the way in which the parts are acquired. This isn’t to say that randomness isn’t inherently valuable: I still believe that creativity is primarily about connections, and I’ve gotten many of my best ideas by juxtaposing ideas that might as well have been drawn out of a hat. But this is only a more systematic, or more artificial, version of a process that would probably take place on its own even if I didn’t make a point of it. The assortment of ideas competing for our attention at any one time is likely to be inherently random; as writers, we’re exposed to countless stray influences and oddments of material, whether we seek them out deliberately or come across them by chance, so the result will naturally resemble a kind of lucky bag. And this is all the more true to the extent that the process is a continuous one. A writer, if he or she is lucky, will stumble onto a coherent network of previously unexplored material maybe once every few years, which isn’t often enough to make a living at it. In order to achieve the level of productivity required to sustain a career in art, a writer needs to become very good at making use of whatever happens to be at hand right now.

Sylvia Plath

Which gets at what I think is a surprisingly powerful concept. Becoming comfortable with randomness—or being able to see affinities between the pieces that the universe happens to give us at any given time—isn’t just a necessary part of the creative process, but a survival tactic that keeps the whole machine running. When an artist like Gerhard Richter tells us that we need actively to go out and find an idea, he’s really talking about seeing what’s right in front of our eyes, which rarely falls into an order that is evident at first glance. More often, it’s a hodgepodge that we’ve gathered unconsciously or according to intuitions that aren’t easily explained, and it’s the willingness to follow through on those instincts, even if we aren’t sure if they’re right, that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional. Someone who dithers between ideas, picks up and drops projects, or agonizes endlessly over where to begin isn’t likely to invest a lot of time into a set of components with no clear payoff—the opportunity cost is just too great. A working writer with sufficient confidence in his or her ability to see things through, by contrast, is more likely just to jump in and see where it goes. And while that sort of security in one’s own talents is only earned through practice, some version of it, however irrational, is probably required from the beginning.

This isn’t to say that every intuition a writer has is correct, or that everything we assemble through bricolage will result in a great, or even publishable, story. Every writer knows what it’s like to spend weeks or months on a project that turns out to be a dead end, and the garages and workshops of every bricoleur are filled with the remnants of unfinished conceptions. More often than not, though, if we push past our doubts and proceed under the assumption that the outcome will be worth it, we’ll end up with something that at least advances our understanding of the craft and teaches us a few tricks that we can put to use elsewhere. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as it keeps us in the game. As Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath, who rarely left a poem unfinished: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” A working artist is someone whose threshold level of engagement is set just low enough so that he or she is making toys all the time, even if they occasionally turn out to be the size of a house. And if I were giving advice to someone who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure where to start, I’d say that the best thing you can do is assemble a few pieces, trusting both to chance and to your own intuition about what parts will fit, and get to work.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

“She was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy…”

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Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

To my knowledge, [Plath] never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.

Ted Hughes, in The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath

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November 2, 2013 at 9:00 am

The magic feather of randomness

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Walt Disney's Dumbo

I’m very deliberate about my randomness. If there’s a single recurring thread that runs through this blog, it’s the search for ways to introduce chance into my creative process, which otherwise tends to be a little too rational and organized. Randomness plays a huge role in the early stages of any project: the choice of one subject over another is really just an educated guess as to what you’ll find engaging for the next few months or years of your life, and there have been times, looking back, when I realize that I clearly guessed wrong. Later on, though, it’s easy to go overboard with research and outlining, so I’m always looking for reliable tricks to shake up my thinking. For a while, I used the I Ching, before its vagueness started to get on my nerves, and my tattered copy of A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, combined with a random number generator, is still my favorite way of finding a random quote that might shed light on my current creative problems. And I’ve increasingly started to consult Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, to the point where I’ll often draw a card when faced with any dilemma at all, creative or otherwise.

But what happens when you don’t have your usual tools available? This came up during my recent trip to Spain, during which I hoped to keep thinking about the project I’m currently writing. I didn’t have room to pack the books I usually employ as a source of random thoughts, and I didn’t expect to have reliable access to the Internet. For a while, I thought about generating a few random tidbits in advance—by, say, drawing an Oblique Strategy card for each of the five scenes I was hoping to work on, then keeping them in reserve until I needed them—but I quickly realized that this was only avoiding the larger question. Randomness, like anything else in life, can be pursued too systematically, and I had fallen into the trap of relying on the same handful of tools, when randomness is really all around us. Julian Jaynes, writing on the subject in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicemeral Mind, talks about how he’ll deliberately trigger random chains of associations by looking out the window or around the room where he happens to be, and when it comes to inventing material for this blog, I’ll occasionally ask myself, while seated at my desk: “Is there an idea for a blog post that I can see right now without turning my head?”

Brian Eno

You can pull random inspiration from other works of culture, too, and not just the I Ching or Shakespeare. When I’m at the movies, I’m usually too immersed in, or at least distracted by, what’s happening on the screen to think usefully about anything else, but when I’m watching a television show or a play, my attention tends to wander from time to time. I’ve found it useful to have a plot problem or other issue in mind even before I sit down, so when I start to drift a little, my thoughts turn naturally to my work. And I’ve found that this is a really great time to daydream. I’m not talking about looking to works of art specifically for insights into storytelling, but merely as a source of words, images, and moments that can spark an unexpected train of thought. Last night, for example, I was watching television—all right, it was The Vampire Diaries—with a particular story problem still bothering me, and when one of the characters said “Close your eyes,” it gave me the answer I needed. You can get the same kind of mental jolt from a page of any random book or magazine. As Pliny says: “No book is so bad as to have nothing good in it.”

Which gets at an important point about randomness of the kind that I’ve long pursued. It isn’t an end in its own right, but a way of teaching yourself to find similar inspiration in the chance events that occur every day. To go back to the I Ching for a moment, it’s useful to remember that divination, at least in the Confucian sense, isn’t really about seeing the future: it’s about becoming aware of the influences that bind all of reality together at that moment, and which affect both the larger patterns of your own life and the way a few coins fall when tossed. Whether or not you believe in such synchronicity, it’s worth keeping in mind that the most valuable source of randomness is the whole world. Focused kinds of randomness have their place, but they’re really more like strength training for a deeper sense of awareness, one that helps us see a greater significance in the objects or people around us than they may initially seem to have on their own. That’s what writing, or any form of creative activity, is really about. External devices for finding randomness are a little like Dumbo’s magic feather: they’re comforting, and they allow us to take leaps that we otherwise might avoid, but the real magic is in the act of seeing.

A choice of tools

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The poet Ted Hughes once told a wonderful story to The Paris Review about judging the W.H. Smith children’s writing competition. In the early years of the contest, the stories were fairly short—just a page or two—but in the eighties, they started to balloon, until the judges were seeing stories of seventy pages or more, usually in the genre that Hughes charmingly calls “space fiction.” The culprit? Word processors:

What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

The result, according to Hughes, were stories that were “always very inventive and always extraordinary fluent—[with] a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring.”

I believe it, mostly because I could easily have been one of these kids. When I was thirteen, I wrote a 70,000-word novel using WordStar and an ancient dot matrix printer that probably would have given Hughes an aneurysm, and there’s no question that the available technology is what allowed me to write it. Most of my earlier stories—and by “earlier,” I mean written when I was nine or ten—were almost graphomaniacally compressed, with tiny lines squeezed together on a little square of paper, mostly because I liked the way it looked. Later, when I got my hands on a series of electric typewriters, I began to compose longer pieces, but even then, they were rarely longer than a few pages, and I almost never finished what I started. It was only the combination of a word processor and a printer that freed me to plunge into longer projects, and by the time I was in high school, I was regularly writing stories that were hundreds of pages long. (And although I haven’t gone back to read many of them since, I’m pretty sure that they were very inventive, extraordinarily fluent, and without exception strangely boring.)

Joe Eszterhas

Tools matter. They liberate us, but they can also trap us and lead us into dangerous habits, and the choices we make early on can shape our work in ways that we can’t expect. Joe Eszterhas, who can be a bit of a tool himself, but surprisingly compelling on the subject of craft, wrote all of his screenplays on a manual typewriter—which makes a cameo appearance as a crucial piece of evidence in his script for Jagged Edge—and he claims to be terrified of learning how to use a computer. In The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, he writes that he has a closet at home filled with the same model of typewriter, still in their original boxes, but since he can wear out a machine in a matter of months with his aggressive two-fingered typing, he’s always worried about running out. And yes, it would be a loss: it’s easy to imagine that the mood of his scripts—which are short, punchy, with minimal filler—stems at least in part from the medium on which they were composed. I’ve dabbled a little in screenwriting, mostly as a source of insights into story structure, but I’ve resisted switching over to Final Draft, preferring to format the page manually in Word. It’s less efficient, but it forces me to think about every choice I make, and I’d like to think that the finished product is a little more textured as a result.

And this isn’t just true for writers. Recently, I’ve begun to learn Lisp, the strangest and most powerful of all programming languages, and although there are a handful of convenient development environments available, like LispWorks, I spent the better part of a day setting up Slime, the Lisp development mode for Emacs. For those who haven’t experienced it directly, Emacs is a venerable text editor primarily used by coders, and for anyone used to working with polished graphical interfaces, it’s enough to make you break out in a cold sweat: it’s text only, controlled solely through keyboard commands, with an initially bewildering labyrinth of key combinations you need to memorize just to navigate through a document. Yet it’s also enormously powerful, flexible, and customizable, and it affects the way coders think. They can live in a wall of text for years, and the commands become wired into their fingers to an almost musical degree: it’s no accident that the key combinations in Emacs are called chords. It subtly influences the way they feel about formatting and syntax, which filters up imperceptibly into decisions involving the design of larger structures, up to the level of the program itself. And it all starts, as with most other things in art and life, with the choice of tools.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

A child with a word processor

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For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition. Annually there are about sixty thousand entries. These are cut down to about eight hundred. Among these our panel finds seventy prizewinners. Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through. After two or three years, as these became more numerous, we realized that this was a new thing. So we inquired. It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

Ted Hughes, to the Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 11, 2012 at 10:00 am

The power of intentional randomness

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I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.

Gregory Bateson, quoted in The Whole Earth Catalog

Randomness has been used as a creative tool for a long time. (Leonardo Da Vinci recommended that painters generate ideas by splashing paint on a piece of paper and seeing what images were suggested by the random shapes.) It’s a way of forcing the brain to be ingenious: we’re all very good at seeing connections between unrelated objects, or patterns where there really are none. Intentional randomness is the easiest way to put this ability to useful work.

At the earliest stages of a project, randomness can be used to generate ideas for an entire story. The plots for the three novelettes I’ve sold to Analog, for example, all came about in the same way: I leafed through a pile of science magazines (usually Discover, but sometimes Scientific American), chose two or three articles essentially at random, and tried to figure out what the subjects might have in common. “The Last Resort,” for example, arose from the juxtaposition of two unrelated articles, one about the snakes of Narcisse, the other about the tragedy of Lake Nyos. “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to come out next year, originated in a similar way.

For a novel, which can take up a year or more of your time, the underlying idea will probably not be the result of such a mechanical process (although I’ve done this, too). Once you have a plot, though, you can use intentional randomness to enrich your outline. For a while, I would cast a hexagram of the I Ching for every scene I wrote, looking at the result and trying to figure out how it applied to the current chapter. (At least two editions of the I Ching have been published specifically for writers, although the Wilhelm translation is probably still the best.) I haven’t done this in a while, mostly because I found the I Ching to be a little too vague, but it’s certainly worth a try.

More recently, I’ve taken to doing something similar with A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which is admirably suited for this approach. It’s an anthology of 218 numbered quotations from Shakespeare, selected by Hughes, presented without context or comment. When I’m brainstorming a chapter, I’ll choose a quotation at random—ideally with a random number generator—and then try to see how the passage might apply to the scene at hand. And I’ll almost always come up with an unusual angle or insight into the story that I wouldn’t have stumbled across any other way.

This technique (which sometimes verges on bibliomancy) is especially useful when combined with a mind map. I’ll write a single guiding word on the page, generate a Shakespeare quotation, and write it down beneath the central word. I’ll then noodle for a while with that particular passage before moving on to less structured brainstorming.

If this sounds a little mechanical, well, it is. And I don’t claim that it works for everyone. But over the past few years, it has become an essential part of my writing process.

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