Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Little Lisper

An alternative library of creativity

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If you want to be a writer, there are plenty of guidebooks and manuals available, and some of them are very good. When you’re stuck on a particular narrative problem or trying to crack a story, though, you’ll often find that it’s helpful to approach it from an alternative angle, or to apply tactics and techniques from an unrelated creative field. I’ve always found inspiration from works intended for other disciplines, so here’s a sampling, in chronological order of original publication, of ten I’ve found consistently stimulating:

Magic and Showmanship (1969) by Henning Nelms. A magic trick is a work of theater in miniature, and writers can learn a lot from the insights that sleight of hand affords into the use of staging, emphasis, and misdirection, as tested under particularly unforgiving conditions. This book by the great Henning Nelms is the most useful work on the subject I’ve found from the perspective of storytelling and performance, and it’s particularly helpful on the subjects of clarity and dramatic structure.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation (1972) by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. An eccentric, highly opinionated meditation on bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever happens to be at hand, which is something writers do all the time. (The real trick is taking a story assembled out of odds and ends and making the result seem inevitable.) Out of print for many years, it was recently reissued in a handsome new edition that belongs on the shelf of any artist or designer.

A Pattern Language

The Little Lisper (1974) by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen. Coding is a surprisingly valuable field for writers to study, since it deals directly with problems of structure, debugging, and managing complex projects. I could have named any number of books here—Programmers at Work and its successor Coders at Work are also worth seeking out—but this classic work on the Lisp programming language, later updated as The Little Schemer, is particularly elegant, with a focus on teaching the reader how to think recursively.

A Pattern Language (1977) by Christopher Alexander. Alexander’s magnum opus—which is one of the two or three books I’d take with me if I couldn’t own any others—is ostensibly about architecture, but its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software design. This isn’t surprising, because it’s really a book about identifying patterns that live, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures, all from the perspective of those who use them every day. Which is what creativity, of any kind, is all about.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I’ve always been fascinated by animation, which scales up from the simplest possible tools and materials—a pencil, a pad of paper, a hand to flip the pages—to collaborative efforts of enormous complexity that can require years of effort. Not surprisingly, its traditions, tricks, and rules of thumb have plenty to teach storytellers of all kinds, and this work by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men comes as close as a book can to providing an education on the subject between covers.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) by Edward Tufte. Tufte’s rules for clarity and simplicity in the presentation of statistics apply as much to writing as to charts and graphs, and his ruthless approach to eliminating “chartjunk” is one that more authors and editors could stand to follow. (“Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”) His other books—Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence—are also essential, hugely pleasurable reads.

On Directing Film (1992) by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book endlessly before, but it’s still the single best introduction I’ve found to the basic principles of storytelling. (In the meantime, I’ve also learned how much Mamet owes to the works of Stanslavski, particularly the chapter “Units” from An Actor Prepares.) It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a set of immediately applicable tools that solve narrative problems under all circumstances, and although it can be read in less than an hour, it takes a lifetime to put it into practice.

Behind the Seen (2004) by Charles Koppelman. The problem that a film editor faces is a heightened version of what every artist confronts. Given a large body of raw material, how do you give it a logical shape and pare it down to its ideal length? The physical and logistical demands of the job—Walter Murch notes that an editor needs a strong back and arms—has resulted in a large body of practical knowledge, and this loving look at Murch’s editing of Cold Mountain using Final Cut Pro is the best guide in existence to what the work entails.

Field Notes on Science and Nature

Finishing the Hat (2010) by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s candid, often critical look at his own early lyrics shows the development of a major artist in real time, as he strives to address the basic challenge of conveying information to an audience through song. Cleverness, he finds, only takes you so far: the real art lies in finding a form to fit the content, doing less with more, and navigating the countless tiny decisions that add up to the ultimate effect. “All in the service of clarity,” Sondheim concludes, “without which nothing else matters.”

Field Notes on Science and Nature (2011) by Michael Canfield. Much of the creative process boils down to keeping good notes, which both serve to record one’s observations and to lock down insights that might seem irrelevant now but will become crucial later on. Scientists understand this as well as anyone, and there’s an unexpected degree of art in the process of recording data in the field. It’s impossible to read this beautiful book without coming away with new thoughts on how to live more fully through one’s notes, which is where a writer spends half of his or her time.

Looking at the books I’ve cited above, I find that they have two things in common: 1) An emphasis on clarity above all else. 2) A series of approaches to building complex structures out of smaller units. There’s more to writing than this, of course, and much of what authors do intuitively can’t be distilled down to a list of rules. But seeing these basic principles restated in so many different forms only serves as a reminder of how essential they are. Any one of these books can suggest new approaches to old problems, so you can start almost anywhere, and in the end, you find that each one leads into all the rest.

The jet set

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite pop culture to enjoy on a plane?”

Whenever I end up on an airplane, I find myself torn between two competing impulses. On the one hand, for the next few hours, I’m in a kind of sanctuary, without any of the temptations I find online, in a reasonably comfortable chair with a minimum of distraction—at least back in the days before I was flying with a toddler—so it seems like a good time to catch up on a big, difficult book I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to read for years. This goal isn’t entirely unrealistic: in the past, I’ve gotten through the likes of Gravity’s Rainbow, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and most of Proust while traveling in foreign countries where I didn’t speak the language, and most of that reading took place on planes, trains, and other modes of transportation. On the other hand, there’s SkyMall, and movies on demand, and the seductive line of fat paperbacks at Barbara’s Books. And when you’re halfway across the ocean with thousands of miles between you and your destination, there are times when you want to relax with something less demanding.

In a way, a long airplane ride is a kind of laboratory for the way we read in general. A nourished reading life consists in some proportion of both masterpieces and worthwhile junk, and it’s a sad life that consists only of one or the other. As Robertson Davies once wrote:

Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.

On an airplane, these choices acquire more urgency, or at least they did once. As soon as you’ve selected your book or magazine, you’re stuck with it, and the decision can feel like a less weighty version of the desert island question. You may not have to live with this book forever, but if you’re three hours into a nine-hour flight, it sometimes seems that way. (I’m aware, of course, that with a Kindle and a good menu of inflight entertainment, your choices aren’t quite as limited these days, but I’ve found that my own approach to the question hasn’t changed.)

The Magic Mountain

Most of the time, I find myself splitting the difference, bringing one ambitious read while keeping something more accessible in reserve. On a trip to Hong Kong, I brought The Magic Mountain and James Clavell’s Noble House—the most massive of great trashy novels—and found myself totally enraptured by the former, although the Clavell worked as a nice backup option for my moments of downtime. More recently, while flying to Spain with a nine-month-old in tow, my choices were a couple of John D. MacDonald thrillers and The Little Lisper, the classic introduction to the Lisp programming language. The latter ended up being a particularly good choice, because I could prop it open on the tray table while holding a baby in my arms, working through one exercise at length without having to turn pages more than once every ten minutes. Later this year, I’m flying to Los Angeles for my brother’s wedding, and I’m already reserving a spot in my garment bag for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, along with a trashy novel to be determined later. Maybe Scruples? I’m not sure yet, but that’s part of the fun.

And it’s on an airplane that Pauline Kael’s great dictum—”Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them”—seems the most true. Critics, too, are a captive audience, forced to sit through whatever happens to be coming out that weekend whether they like it or not, so they’re primed to appreciate good trash when it comes their way. On an intercontinental flight or a long bus trip, the difference between a great pageturner (Without Remorse) and a mediocre one (The Plot) is rarely more clear. It’s just you and the book, and your contract with the author is laid out in stark terms. I want the book to excite and entertain me, or at least repay my investment in time with something worthwhile, and if it fails, I’m up a creek. Sometimes, I’ll put it down with resignation and start eyeing the crossword in the inflight magazine. But when it grabs me to the point where I’m surprised that it’s already time to transfer in Atlanta, it feels like a validation, in miniature, of why I read in the first place. Books, like planes, are made to transport us, and a good trip is one in which both get us there in one piece.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2014 at 9:39 am

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