Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Silent Clowns

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

The bent toward reduction

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Logically, art begins in a taking away. No painter or dramatist in his right mind ever attempts to reproduce the abundance of life in toto. He may wish to evoke the sense of that abundance, in Brueghel’s way or in Shakespeare’s, but he doesn’t do it by constant addition; he does it by constant subtraction. He limits the frame, sacrifices a dimension, chastens color, looks for absences, refusals, self-imposed limitations that will enable him to suggest more with less. It is the only thing he can do…

If art tends to become livelier as it learns to leave things out, artists are not always astute enough to remember this…Audiences too can grow sluggish for reasons that have little to do with art, more to do with ebbs of energy in the body politic. There are times—long times—when audiences prefer being coddled to being challenged; they are weary at the moment and look for a form of waking sleep…The history of art, then, has not been a record of uninterrupted, ever-increasing selectivity, moving from an initial and quite childish love for superabundant detail to an ultimate, exquisitely chaste refusal of detail. It has, rather, been a seesaw affair, with periods of relative severity giving way to a new taste for opulence, periods of opulence being shattered by fresh calls to severity…The bent of art, when it is attempting to renew itself as art, is toward reduction.

Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

Written by nevalalee

April 9, 2017 at 7:30 am

“He took in his surroundings…”

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"He took in his surroundings..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the few really useful tricks I’ve picked up as a writer is that if you don’t know what happens in a particular scene, try giving it a location. There’s a book on the movies—I think it’s Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title, but it could also be Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns—that describes a comedian walking onto a standing set and immediately coming up with bits of business involving the furniture and props on hand, and a similar process seems to operate in fiction. When you’re inventing a sequence from scratch, whether it’s a chase scene or a quiet interaction between two characters, you’re initially handicapped because the setting in which it occurs is a blank stage. If you can assign it a location, even a relatively arbitrary one, the layout of the surroundings quickly suggests ideas for movement, action, and rhythm, or what a stage director would call blocking. And although a novelist can design a fictional location in any way he likes, in practice, it’s best if the place involved is a real one with concrete physical constraints.

This is part of the reason why so many authors enjoy drawing maps. In fantasy fiction, a map of the territory often precedes the writing of the story itself, both because worldbuilding is a fun pursuit—even without a narrative to support it—and because the landmarks can impose their own kind of logic. (There’s an entire book, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi, devoted to teasing out the parallels between cartographic and narrative thinking, and it’s worth a read.) Robert Louis Stevenson went so far as to recommend mapmaking to writers of all kinds:

But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, shortcuts and footprints for his messengers.

"He forced himself to think..."

The value of maps may be less obvious for a novel like City of Exiles, but in practice, they turned out to be absolutely crucial. Much of suspense fiction, as I’ve noted before, consists of laying down an intensely detailed stratum of “realism” that allows the writer to get away with greater imaginative leaps, and that was especially the case here: the plot hinges on a series of implausible events that work only if they’ve been grounded in what seems like some version of the real world. Location research played an important role here, and the trip to London I took paid dividends in such scenes as Karvonen’s first hit and the chase at the London Chess Classic. These are scenes in which real locations dictated much the action, and I don’t think I could have invented anything nearly as convincing if I hadn’t, as Stevenson says, walked every foot and learned every milestone. And even when I wasn’t able to check out a location firsthand, I still relied on maps and landmarks, arguably to an even greater extent, since it meant that I had to plot out complicated action from an armchair.

In Chapter 50, for example, the logic of the story hinged on a solution to a specific series of geographical problems. Karvonen is driving through a snowstorm in Helsinki, heading for the passenger harbor, when he’s forced to make a detour because of a traffic accident. Along the way, he’s stopped by a police van, and in order to avoid being arrested, he shoots and kills the officer. The crime has to be witnessed, forcing him to abandon his car, but he still has to be able to slip away and head for the next place in his itinerary, the network of tunnels under the city that I knew from the beginning would be the setting for my climax. After poring over Google Maps for most of an afternoon, I finally ended up with a location that worked, near the park by Uspenski Cathedral. (Among other things, it allowed me to conveniently interpose a canal between Karvonen and the onlookers to the shooting, who could witness it without being able to respond in time.) If you read the chapter carefully, you’ll see that every beat was suggested or determined by the geography I had to follow. The result is one of my favorite scenes in the novel. And it wouldn’t have worked at all if I hadn’t had a map…

Solving a problem with scissors

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In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, audience attendance at films dropped so spectacularly that thousands of film houses closed and the studio system itself was destroyed. The decline is normally attributed to television. But in certain Rocky Mountain states where television was not yet available, the falloff was exactly as precipitous. Filmmakers had put their audiences to sleep. They had done it by taking care of everything—smoothing the way with slow dissolves that made transitions plain, firmly ending sequences with fade-outs followed by a few seconds of blankness to indicate the passage of time, beginning new sequences with fade-ins that made adjustment easy, always indicating shifts of time and place with calendar leaves slipping from the wall, candles burning down, railroad wheels racing…

The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors. Directors and editors began leaving things out: indications of time, place, advancing steps in the story. Suddenly we were hurtled from room to room, country to country, year to year, event to event—and left to account for the spaces between jumps for ourselves. The new game was to see if one could follow the film, so swift were its leaps, so wide its gaps. The audience, now put to work again, promptly woke up.

Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

Written by nevalalee

November 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Movies

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