Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Paris Review

My ten creative books #7: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

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August 7, 2018 at 9:00 am

The gray backdrop

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In the most recent issue of The Paris Review, the photographer Joel Meyerowitz contributes a visual essay on the studio of Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, the subject of his new book Cézanne’s Objects. Meyerowitz says that a visit there resulted in “a flash of insight” that has influenced his own work ever since:

Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

He continues with a rhapsody on the effects of gray: “As I walked around Cézanne’s studio, I noticed that light bouncing up from the warm wooden flooring tinted the gray nearest it with rose and that under the shelves the light caromed back and forth between wall and shelf, carrying the subtle tones of whatever was nearby.”

After reading this, I went looking for contemporary descriptions of the studio, and I found several in the collection Conversations with Cézanne. One visitor, Jules Borély, recalls: “At my request we went up to the studio. I saw a high, wide room with empty, inanimate walls and a bay window that opened onto an olive grove.” The poet and critic Joachim Gasquet leaves us a more detailed account: “Cézanne was finishing his portrait of my father. I had sat in on the sessions. The studio was almost empty. The easel, the little taboret, the chair where my father was sitting, and the stove were its only furnishings. Cézanne stood as he worked. Canvases were piled up against the wall, in a corner. The soft, even light gave a blue tinge to the walls.” And Alex Danchev writes in Cézanne: A Life:

Most of the upper floor was taken up by the studio itself, a large, airy room eight meters by seven…and over seven meters from floor to cornice. Its walls were painted pale gray; it had a plain pine floor. Two south-facing windows looked out over the lower garden, and beyond. The north-facing studio window was a great glass wall, three meters high and five meters wide…The terracing of the hillside brought the olive grove in the upper garden to the level of the windowsill; Cézanne complained of the green reflections. “You can no longer get anyone to do anything right. I had this built here at my expense and the architect would never do what I wanted. I’m a shy person, a bohemian. They mock me. I haven’t got the strength to resist. Isolation, that’s all I’m fit for. At least that way no one would get his hooks into me.”

Yet it isn’t quite correct to say that the walls were bare. The descriptions of Cézanne’s studio make it clear that there was always something casually tacked up on every surface, along with the canvases in progress. In Conversations with Cézanne, Emile Bernard remembers:

The next day I arrived in Aix by the earliest tram and went to surprise Cézanne in his studio outside of town…I was tremendously pleased to see, hanging on his studio wall, the landscape study I had made the previous year. It represented the beautiful view of Aix from the lower studio. The painting of the skulls was tacked to the wall, abandoned.

Francis Jourdain records that Cézanne “talked exuberantly about a Daumier lithograph pinned to the wall,” while in Émile Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, which is a thinly disguised portrait of his old friend, we read: “Just now the studio walls happened to be covered with a series of sketches Claude had made on a recent visit to the haunts of their boyhood.” Even today, in the version of the studio that has been turned into a museum, there are pictures hanging on the walls, but it has the air of a moment preserved in amber, and it’s very different from what it must have been in the artist’s lifetime—a working surface, in a constant state of transition, where he could impulsively hang anything that he wanted to keep handy. And when Cézanne “moved his gaze from object to background,” as Meyerowitz puts it, his eye would have been just as likely to have been caught by a sketch pinned up for future reference as by the flat, absorbent surface of the wall itself.

Meyerowitz’s insights are profound, but it would be all too easy to come away thinking that the gray walls were what counted. In fact, it’s the interaction between the flatness of the backdrop and the fertile confusion of the foreground that seems to be the matrix where truly creative work takes place. Conversations with Cézanne includes a description by the critics R.P. Rivière and Jacques Schnerb of the artist’s two studios in Aix—he had another workspace in an apartment in town—that captures a quality that I miss from Meyerowitz’s cool, hermetic reading:

His studios, the one on the rue Bourgeon and the one on the road to Aubasane in the country, were in great disorder, chaotic disorder. The walls were bare and the light harsh. Half-empty tubes, brushes with long-dried paint, and lunch leftovers that had served as subjects for still lifes littered the tables. In one corner [of the studio on the rue Bourgeon] lay a whole collection of parasols, whose rough frames must have come from a vendor in town, the iron lance made by the neighboring blacksmith. Near them lay game-bags used to carry food to the countryside.

It’s in those parasols, not to mention the “lunch leftovers,” that we seem to get a glimpse of the real Cézanne, who chose his gray walls as a corrective to the clutter that fills any creative life. Gray alone would have been stifling, while the chaos on its own would have been overwhelming, and Cézanne, instinctively or otherwise, knew that he needed both.

Of a Fyre on the Moon

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Along with much of the rest of the world, I spent last weekend looking with a kind of ashamed fascination at the disaster of the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, which went in the space of about twelve hours from a luxury event in paradise to an apocalyptic implosion of bad food, poor accommodations, and a mad dash back to the mainland. Nobody involved seems to have the slightest idea of what they were doing, but their incompetence was remarkable less in degree than in kind—and in its broad outlines, it isn’t so different from the other failed attempts at entrepreneurship that I discussed here last week. The festival was a marketing scheme destroyed by its inconvenient obligation to follow through on its promises. Like the Unicorn Frappuccino at Starbucks, it was conceived explicitly as an event to be posted on Instagram. It was thrown together by a twenty-five-year-old startup founder whose primary qualifications, to misquote what E.B. White once said about Thoreau, were that he was young, male, and well-connected. (It’s hard not to think of the writer Sarah Hagi’s serenity prayer: “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”) The primary difference between the Fyre Festival and its precursors is the fact that it wasn’t selling an app or a coffee maker, but an experience on the ground that could be documented live by customers who had shelled out thousands of dollars. Countless technology ventures have wiped out a comparable amount of time, money, and goodwill, but they’re lucky enough to do it incrementally, online, and for a smaller financial loss per user. The Fyre Festival fell apart so publicly that it reminded me of what Goethe said about the downfall of Napoleon:

[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that pulling off this kind of event is an art in itself, and the ones that succeed tend to be the handiwork of supremely well-organized hippies. As I mentioned in my post on Stewart Brand, it isn’t vision, but sheer competence, that sets such people apart—which is part of the reason why the science fiction community depends so much on professional fans, like the late Sam Moskowitz, who can will conventions into existence. By coincidence, just as the Fyre Festival was unfolding, I was researching a curious episode that provides an interesting counterexample. In 1972, Isaac Asimov was approached by a science promoter named Richard Hoagland, whom he described as “an enthusiastic young man” with “all sorts of plans and projects in mind” and “an eager spirit that was very contagious.” Hoagland delivered an enticing pitch:

He had a new project under way. This was to arrange a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to Florida to witness the launching of Apollo 17 in December. Apollo 17 was to be the last manned trip to the moon and the only night launch. I was intrigued, even though I shuddered at the thought of going as far afield as Florida. I promised to consider the possibility of going.

In the end, Hoagland and his partner, Dr. Robert Enzmann, weren’t able to land the QE2, settling instead for the ocean liner S.S. Statendam, but they managed to secure an incredible roster of attendees. Arthur C. Clarke and Wernher von Braun bowed out at the last minute, but the panelists included Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Ted Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, Marvin Minsky, Ben Bova, Katherine Anne Porter, and Norman Mailer, with the newscaster Hugh Downs serving as master of ceremonies. The cruise departed from New York on December 4, 1972, and thanks to the presence of Porter, as Asimov noted, “all outsiders felt it incumbent upon them to refer to the cruise as ‘a ship of fools.’

The result wasn’t quite a disaster of Fyre Festival proportions, but it was far from a success. A ticket cost a thousand dollars—or about six thousand dollars in today’s money—and only a hundred paying passengers ended up on a ship with a capacity for six times that number. Also onboard were a pair of stowaways, the underground publishers Rex Weiner and Thomas King Forcade, who simply wandered up the gangplank in hopes of meeting Mailer. As Weiner recalled in an amazing reminiscence for The Paris Review:

Canceled seminars, speaker mix-ups, and a cascade of organizational snafus led to a shipboard free-for-all as the S.S. Statendam steamed southward…Rounding Cape Hatteras, the ship’s cinema was screening 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gale-force winds rose up that evening to buffet the ship, decks tilting crazily, people puking over the railings.

At one point, Asimov and Mailer served on a panel together, where the latter, who had recently published Of a Fire on the Moon, expounded at length on his theory of the thanatosphere, a zone in the upper regions of the earth’s atmosphere populated by the souls of the dead. (You can find priceless video of his speech and the rest of the cruise here.) When Mailer disembarked in the Virgin Islands, the media seemed to lose interest in the whole thing—and it’s a useful reality check for science fiction fans to realize that both the mainstream and the alternative press were far more interested in Mailer than in any of the genre writers on board. When it was time for Heinlein’s presentation, he was asked at the last second to cut it from half an hour to fifteen minutes, forcing him to rewrite it in his head on the way to the podium. Not surprisingly, Heinlein’s talk struck Asimov as “rather wandering.”

If the Statendham had set sail during the era of social media, it seems likely that it would have been dismissed as a debacle before its third day out of port, assuming that its passengers could get reception on their cell phones. It cost Holland America a quarter of a million dollars, which, when you adjust for inflation, puts its losses in the same general range as those of the Fyre Festival. Yet I would have given just about anything in the world to have been there, and I’m still writing about it more than four decades later. (The Fyre Festival, perhaps to the relief of its organizers, seems destined to become another trivia question, along the lines of DashCon, which I followed with equal avidity less than three years ago but barely remember now.) Part of the difference lies in the gap between a cynical marketing scheme and a passionate, if misguided, vision. Richard Hoagland’s career since the cruise has been a peculiar one—he became a NASA conspiracy theorist with an obsession with the Face on Mars—but there’s no questioning his commitment. And it gave us this moment, as chronicled by Weiner, just as the rocket was about to launch:

We fired up a fat joint…“Say, you want to pass some of that over here?” Mailer asked us. The joint was passed around and everyone took a toke. When it reached [Hugh] Downs, the NBC star sucked in a lungful and coughed out a plume of smoke—surely something the Today show audience had never seen.

Asimov recalled: “The rocket slowly rose and the vast red flower at its tail bloomed…We, and the ship, and all the world we could see, were suddenly under the dim copper dome of a sky from which the stars had washed out.” But what stuck with him the most was the reaction of “some young man” behind him, whom I’d like to think, but can’t prove, was either Weiner or Forcade:

“Oh shit,” he said, as his head tiled slowly upward. And then, with his tenor voice rising over all the silent heads on board, he added eloquently, “Oh shi-i-i-it.

And while I suspect that many of the attendees at the Fyre Festival said much the same thing, it was probably for different reasons.

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

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Vladimir Nabokov

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2015.

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that even ordinary authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s yet another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

The Mule and the Beaver

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If you wanted to construct the most prolific writer who ever lived, working from first principles, what features would you include? (We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that he’s a man.) Obviously, he would need to be capable of turning out clean, publishable prose at a fast pace and with a minimum of revision. He would be contented—even happy—within the physical conditions of writing itself, which requires working indoors at a desk alone for hours on end. Ideally, he would operate within a genre, either fiction or nonfiction, that lent itself to producing pages fairly quickly, but with enough variety to prevent burnout, since he’d need to maintain a steady clip every day for years. His most productive period would coincide with an era that gave him steady demand for his work, and he would have a boundless energy that was diverted early on toward the goal of producing more books. If you were particularly clever, you’d even introduce a psychological wrinkle: the act of writing would become his greatest source of satisfaction, as well as an emotional refuge, so that he would end up taking more pleasure in it than almost anything else in life. Finally, you’d provide him with cooperative publishers and an enthusiastic, although not overwhelming, readership, granting him a livelihood that was comfortable but not quite lavish enough to be distracting. Wind him up, let him run unimpeded for three or four decades, and how many books would you get? In the case of Isaac Asimov, the total comes to something like five hundred. Even if it isn’t quite enough to make him the most productive writer of all time, it certainly places him somewhere in the top ten. And it’s a career that followed all but axiomatically from the characteristics that I’ve listed above.

Let’s take these points one at a time. Asimov, like all successful pulp writers, learned how to crank out decent work on deadline, usually limiting himself to a first draft and a clean copy, with very little revision that wasn’t to editorial order. (And he wasn’t alone here. The pulps were an unforgiving school, and they quickly culled authors who weren’t able to write a sentence well enough the first time.) From a young age, Asimov was also drawn to enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he had a persistent daydream about running a newsstand in the subway, where he could put up the shutter and read magazines in peace. After he began to write for a living, he was equally content to work in his attic office for up to ten hours a day. Yet it wasn’t fiction that accounted for the bulk of his output—which is a common misconception about his career—but a specific kind of nonfiction. Asimov was a prolific fiction writer, but no more so than many of his contemporaries. It was in nonfiction for general readers that he really shone, initially with such scientific popularizations as The Chemicals of Life and Inside the Atom. At first, his work drew on his academic and professional background in chemistry and biochemistry, but before long, he found that he was equally adept at explaining concepts from the other sciences, as well as such unrelated fields as history and literature. His usual method was to work straight from reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, translating and organizing their concepts for a lay audience. As he once joked to Martin Gardner: “You mean you’re in the same racket I am? You just read books by the professors and rewrite them?”

This kind of writing is harder than it sounds. Asimov noted, correctly, that he added considerable value in arranging and presenting the material, and he was better at it than just about anyone else. (A faculty member at Boston University once observed him at work and exclaimed: “Why, you’re just copying the dictionary!” Asimov, annoyed, handed the dictionary to him and said: “Here. The dictionary is yours. Now go write the book.”) But it also lent itself admirably to turning out a lot of pages in a short period of time. Unlike fiction, it didn’t require him to come up with original ideas from scratch. As soon as he had enough projects in the hopper, he could switch between them freely to avoid becoming bored by any one subject. He could write treatments of the same topic for different audiences and cannibalize unsold material for other venues. In the years after Sputnik, there was plenty of demand for what he had to offer, and he had a ready market for short articles that could be collected into books. And since these were popular treatments of existing information, he could do all of the work from the comfort of his own office. Asimov hated to fly, and he actively avoided assignments that would require him to travel or do research away from home. Before long, his productivity became a selling point in itself, and when his wife told him that life was passing him by, Asimov responded: “If I do manage to publish a hundred books, and if I then die, my last words are likely to be, ‘Only a hundred!’” Writing became a place of security, both from life’s small crises and as an escape from an unhappy marriage, and it was also his greatest source of pleasure. When his daughter asked him what he would do if he had to choose between her and writing, Asimov said: “Why, I would choose you, dear.” But he adds: “But I hesitated—and she noticed that, too.”

Asimov was a complicated man—certainly more so than in the version of himself that he presented to the public—and he can’t be reduced to a neat set of factors. He wasn’t a robot. But those five hundred books represent an achievement so overwhelming that it cries out for explanation, and it wouldn’t exist if certain variables, both external and internal, hadn’t happened to align. In terms of his ability and ambition, Asimov was the equal of Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, but in place of their public entanglements, he channeled his talents into a safer direction, where it grew to gargantuan proportions that only hint at how monstrous that energy and passion really were. (He was also considerably younger than the others, as well as more naturally cautious, and I’d like to believe that he drew a negative lesson from their example.) The result, remarkably, made him the most beloved writer of them all. It was a cultural position, outside the world of science fiction, that was due almost entirely to the body of his nonfiction work as a whole. He never had a bestseller until late in his career, but the volume and quality of his overall output were enough to make him famous. Asimov was the Mule, the unassuming superman of the Foundation series, but he conquered a world from his typewriter. He won the game. And when I think of how his talent, productivity, and love of enclosed spaces combined to produce a fortress made of books, I think of what David Mamet once said to The Paris Review. When asked to explain why he wrote, Mamet replied: “I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.”

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

The superstructure

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James Ellroy

I take notes: ideas, historical perspective, characters, point of view. Very quickly, much of the narrative coheres. When I have sufficient information—the key action, the love stories, the intrigue, the conclusion—I write out a synopsis in shorthand as fast as I can, for comprehension’s sake. With the new novel, Blood’s a Rover, this took me six days. It’s then, after I’ve got the prospectus, that I write the outline.

The first part of the outline is a descriptive summary of each character. Next I describe the design of the book in some detail. I state my intent at the outset. Then I go through the entire novel, outlining every chapter. The outline of Blood’s a Rover is nearly four hundred pages long. It took me eight months to write. I write in the present tense, even if the novel isn’t written in the present tense. It reads like stage directions in a screenplay. Everything I need to know is right there in front of me. It allows me to keep the whole story in my mind. I use this method for every book…I think of the outline as a diagram, a superstructure. When you see dialogue in one of my outlines, it’s because inserting the dialogue is the most complete, expeditious way to describe a given scene…

I set a goal of outlined pages that I want to get through each day. It’s the ratio of text pages to outline pages that’s important. That proportion determines everything. Today I went through five pages of the outline. That equals about eight pages of the novel…I need to work just as rigorously on the outline as I do on the actual writing of the text, in order to keep track of the plot and the chronology. But once I’m writing text, I can be flexible, because the outline is there. Take today: I woke up early, at five-thirty. I worked for a couple of hours, took a break for some oatmeal, shut my eyes for a moment, and went back at it. I was overcaffeinated, jittery-assed, panic-attacky. Sometimes I go until I just can’t go anymore. I flatline and need some peace.

James Ellroy, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

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