Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Portable Dragon

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.

The end of browsing

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A while back, I wrote a post about intentional randomness as a creative tool, explaining how I sometimes use Shakespeare and the I Ching to generate ideas. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I’ve neglected to discuss the single most useful source of creative randomness, and the one that has given me the most pleasure over the years: other books. In particular, the neglected books, often obscure or out of print, that you discover by accident, when looking for something else or nothing at all—which is when your mind is most receptive to unexpected influences. And the only place where such discoveries can really take place is a great used bookstore.

Jorge Luis Borges famously said that heaven, for him, was a sort of library. For me, it’s more like the perfect used bookstore: musty, crowded, cheap, and only vaguely organized. Libraries are great, but their very rationality, which is otherwise such a miracle, greatly reduces the chances of a spontaneous discovery—although I’ve recently taken to roaming the shelves of the Sulzer Regional branch here in Lincoln Square, hoping that I’ll stumble across something unexpected. To find something really special, though, you need something like the massive dollar bin at the Strand in New York, or the late lamented basement of The Ark in Chicago: a chaotic jumble, a mildewed treasure hoard, a browser’s paradise.

And the discoveries you make are unforgettable. I still remember the moment, something like fourteen years ago, when I first saw The Anatomy of Melancholy at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley. More recently, I found The Road to Xanadu at Bookman’s Corner here in Chicago—a wonderful bookstore that looks like the remains of another, larger bookstore that exploded. The Portable Dragon all but leapt off the shelf two months ago at Pegasus Books. Even a chain like Borders has its occasional surprises: my copy of David Mamet’s On Directing Film, which faithful readers will know I treat almost as a religious text, was picked up for something like five dollars in the Borders bargain bin.

But even Borders, alas, is closing most of its Chicago stores. And as Noel Murray recently pointed out on the AV Club, the death of such big box stores, on top of the independent bookstores they replaced, threatens to mark the end of browsing, which had already been dealt a mortal blow by the coming of Every book imaginable is available online, at least for a price, which would have dazzled my younger self, who looked eagerly forward to his monthly trip to Waldenbooks—but it also threatens to eliminate the happy accidents for which I still spend hours at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest and Newberry Library Book Fair. In the old days, you had no choice but to browse; now it’s something you need to make time for. And you should. Because you never know when you’re going to find the book that will change your life.

Research as a way of dreaming

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As I argued yesterday, researching a novel, at least at its earliest stages, isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about dreaming. While it’s certainly important for an author to get his or her facts straight—if only because there’s nothing like an obvious error to yank the reader out of the story—such fact-checking can usually wait until later in the process, sometimes even after the bulk of the novel is finished. The first round of research, by contrast, is less about verifying facts than about gathering material for the imagination, which runs best when kept fed and happy. Here, then, are some tips on approaching the research process when you have the germ of an idea for a novel, but not much else:

1. Cast your net wide. Later, as you dig more deeply into the meat of your story, specifics are essential, but at the earliest stages, they can be deadly. An unwritten novel can be about anything, and it’s a mistake to lock yourself into one particular conception before it’s absolutely necessary. It’s best, then, to begin your research with as general a view on the subject as possible—even to the point where the subject itself disappears. For Kamera, which is about the art world, I didn’t begin with books on art collecting, or even on the history of art, but with books on eyesight and visual perception. In particular, I began with James Elkins’s excellent Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—a book I found at random in the library, as I’ll be discussing further below. And if it weren’t for an aside in Elkins’s book, I never would have thought of learning more about Marcel Duchamp, a decision that has shaped the past three years of my life, and counting. Careers are made from such moments.

2. Stay off the Internet. While the Internet certainly has its place in the research process—especially for checking the thousands of small, specific details in a novel that would be impossible to verify otherwise—it isn’t very good for dreaming. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and how the right side, which is where ideas come from, operates at a slower pace than the left. Doing research online is a classic left-brained activity: it’s fast, efficient, superficial. To lure out the right brain, you need to park yourself in a comfortable chair with a couple of the largest books you can find, because it’s often not until after a few hundred pages that the right brain finally kicks in. Sometimes you’ll emerge with only one good idea from a book of three hundred pages—as I recently did with The New Cold War by Edward Lucas—but it’s an idea that never would have occurred to you online. Books, in this case, are just better.

3. Read the books that nobody else reads. Books and authors go through cycles of popularity, and in my experience, it’s the books that are out of print or out of fashion that are the most fruitful for a writer’s work. Remember, we aren’t looking for factual accuracy, but to coax the right brain to life, a sensation that is almost inseparable, at least to me, from the smell of old books and bookstores. (Which, my dad says, is really the smell of mildew. “And happiness,” I reply.) If you’re doing research on a particular subject, unless it’s something like search engine optimization, look for books that were published before you were born: they’re likely to be better written, more eccentric, and more conducive to imagination than books that came out yesterday. The more recent the book, the more likely it conforms to currently fashionable habits of thought, which is the last thing a writer needs. (Example: an original edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while useless as a reference book, is infinitely superior to more recent versions as a tool for dreaming.)

4. Let books find you. On this subject, I’ve already quoted Robert Graves, who said that the books he needed to write The White Goddess “were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.” Most writers, I imagine, know how this feels. Perhaps the most useful book that I’ve found in the research for Midrash is James Billington’s great The Icon and the Axe, which I discovered in the dollar bin of the Housing Works Bookstore in New York. And I’ve already mentioned how the heart of Kamera was inspired by a chance library discovery. But such books will only find you if you’re prepared to recognize them when they appear—and if you haunt used bookstores and libraries on a regular basis. If you don’t already spend at least an hour a week browsing the stacks somewhere, you probably should.

5. Allow for randomness. Sometimes the best ideas come from sources that have nothing to do with your novel at all. It’s hard to predict when such moments will come—it can be when you’re watching television, or at the movies, or reading a novel on a plane—but it’s also possible to encourage them to appear. There are certain books in our culture that are treasure hoards of randomness, mines of ideas waiting to attach themselves to your imagination, and it’s crucial to find time for these books as well. You’ll probably have your own favorites, but my own indispensable lucky bags of ideas include Brewer’s Dictionary (the older the edition, the better), The Whole Earth Catalog (ditto), The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe, and (a recent discovery) The Portable Dragon.

This, then, is the first stage of research, which involves endless browsing and daydreaming, and what seems like a lot of wasted time—as does much of a novelist’s life. But this stage is so essential that I recommend that you devote at least a month to it (though more than six weeks is verging on procrastination). Later, when you’re drawing on the well of ideas you’ve acquired, you’ll be very glad you did.

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