Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Daily Beast

The better part of valor

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This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.

This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”

Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.”

In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.

Confessions of an accidental freelancer

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One of the small surprises of the past few months has been the fact that, after a long absence from writing any kind of nonfiction, I’ve started to place occasional pieces online. This started out as a fairly calculated attempt to get the word out about my novel, but for the most part, I’ve found that the marketing benefit is minimal at best: there’s usually a slight sales bump after an article comes out, but it’s always temporary, and I don’t think I’ve sold more than a few dozen copies of my book based exclusively on my freelance writing. Still, I keep doing it, both because I appreciate the small amount of money it brings in each month and because I like doing this kind of work. There was a time when I really wanted to be a critic of some kind, and although my writing has since gone in a different direction, it’s still something I really enjoy—and it’s infinitely less taxing than working on a new novel, which has continued to take up most of my time. In short, it looks like freelance writing will continue to be a part of my life, at least for now, and with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice I wish I’d had when I started:

1. Pitch to people you know. Back in March, when The Icon Thief first came out, I got in touch with a wide range of publications, both print and online, introducing myself and the book and fishing for possible coverage. In a handful of cases, it worked as intended, but for the most part, the response was a deafening silence—which is a reasonable expectation for this kind of promotional activity. All the same, I did get a couple of polite responses from editors at The Daily Beast and The Rumpus, and although they didn’t lead to anything at the time, they at least gave me a tenuous contact at each site, as well as an email exchange or two. At first, I only made a mental note to send them a copy of City of Exiles when it came out. But when I decided to try placing an opinion piece on David Simon and Mike Daisey, I ended up sending it to my contact at the Beast, if only because I knew his email address—and he passed it along to the right editor, who liked it. Similarly, months later, when my piece on Jonah Lehrer was killed by another publication, I tried my contact at The Rumpus, who eventually took it as well. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have gotten very far in either instance if I hadn’t already been out there in a totally different context, making a handful of connections that didn’t pay off in one case, but finally did in another.

2. Don’t worry; they saw your email. One thing I’ve discovered about writing these kinds of pieces is that different editors have radically different attitudes about getting back to you. One editor will respond right away, or within a day or two, with a list of requested edits and revisions; another will remain completely silent for a week, not even acknowledging receipt of the attached file, at which point it appears with minimal changes; and others are even less communicative. And while a long silence may lead to paranoid thoughts that the editor forgot about your email, or even deleted it by accident, in my experience, this rarely happens. Have I ever followed up to make sure a piece didn’t get lost in the shuffle? Sure. But only after waiting a week or more—and in the end, it was never necessary. They have your article, but they also have a lot of other stuff on their minds. Let them do their jobs in peace. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that if an editor likes your initial pitch, he or she will usually respond right away, and that an extended silence is usually a negative sign. Conversely, a long silence after you’ve submitted a finished article tends to be a good thing—if they have problems with the draft, they’ll tell you.)

3. Don’t get hung up over timing. The piece I wrote on Jonah Lehrer was originally written the day after the first reports appeared of his so-called “self-plagiarism” scandal, but it didn’t appear until more than two weeks had gone by. Would it have been nice if the piece had been published while the story was still in the news? Sure—but it was still a decent piece after some time had passed, and its circuitous route to publication meant that it would have been hard to post it before then. Similarly, my piece in Salon about the uses of historical irony in The Newsroom was held back for a week because the site had already run a lot of pieces about the show, so it had to be revised at the last minute to take the latest episode into account. As a writer, these delays can be frustrating, but if you’re a freelancer, as opposed to a staff writer, it’s hard to control timing on these things. The moral, I guess, is that as a freelancer, it’s difficult to cover breaking news or write pieces on stories whose interest will diminish quickly after an initial burst of attention. Days or weeks will likely go by before a piece sees the light of day, so you should write stories that will remain compelling long after you wanted to see them in print.

4. Don’t ever read the comments on your stories. Just trust me on this one.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2012 at 10:04 am

The secret of creativity

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On Tuesday, in an article in The Daily Beast, I sampled some of the recent wave of books on consciousness and creativity, including Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and concluded that while such books might make us feel smarter, they aren’t likely to make us more creative or rational than we already were. As far as creativity is concerned, I note, there are no easy answers: even the greatest creative geniuses, like Bach, tend to have the same ratio of hits to misses as their forgotten contemporaries, which means that the best way to have a good idea is simply to have as many ideas, good or bad, as possible. And I close my essay with some genuinely useful advice from Dean Simonton, whom I’ve quoted on this blog before: “The best a creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.”

So does that mean that all other advice on creativity is worthless? I hope not, because otherwise, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on this blog. I’ve devoted countless posts to discussing creativity tools like intentional randomness and mind maps, talking about various methods of increasing serendipity, and arguing for the importance of thinking in odd moments, like washing the dishes or shaving. For my own part, I still have superstitious habits about creativity that I follow every day. I never write a chapter or essay without doing a mind map, for instance—I did the one below before writing the article in the Beast—and I still generate a random quote from Shakespeare whenever I’m stuck on a problem. And these tricks seem to work, at least for me: I always end up with something that would have occurred to me if I hadn’t taken the time.

Yet the crucial word is that last one. Because the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that every useful creativity tool really boils down to just one thing—increasing the amount of time, and the kinds of time, I spend thinking about a problem. When I do a mind map, for instance, I follow a fixed, almost ritualistic set of steps: I take out a pad of paper, write a keyword or two at the center in marker, and let my pen wander across the page. All these steps take time. Which means that making a mind map generates a blank space of forty minutes or so in which I’m just thinking about the problem at hand. And it’s become increasingly clear to me that it isn’t the mind map that matters; it’s the forty minutes. The mind map is just an excuse for me to sit at my desk and think. (This is one reason why I still make my mind maps by hand, rather than with a software program—it extends the length of the process.)

In the end, the only thing that can generate ideas is time spent thinking about them. (Even apparently random moments of insight are the result of long conscious preparation.) I’ve addressed this topic before in my post about Blinn’s Law, in which I speculate that every work of art—a novel, a movie, a work of nonfiction—requires a certain amount of time to be fully realized, no matter how far technology advances, and that much of what we do as artists consists of finding excuses to sit alone at our desks for the necessary year or so. Nearly every creativity tool amounts to a way of tricking my brain into spending time on a problem, either by giving it a pleasant and relatively undemanding task, like drawing a mind map, or seducing it with a novel image or idea that makes its train of thought momentarily more interesting. But the magic isn’t in the trick itself; it’s in the time that follows. And that’s the secret of creativity.

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2012 at 9:52 am

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