Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Whole Earth Catalog

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

The Book of McBees

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McBee cards

A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an intriguing profile of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, a librarian and food historian engaged in a decades-long attempt to catalog all the world’s recipes in a single database. The whole article—written appropriately enough, as we’ll soon find, by Bee Wilson—is fascinating, but this was the part that caught my eye:

In the 1970s Wheaton discovered McBee cards. They were a primitive data system, in which different pieces of information could be encoded by punching holes to designate broad categories (date, gender, country). “After the cards are properly punched, whole packs of them can be searched by running a knitting needle through the desired hole in the pack and lifting it up,” Wheaton explained in a talk last summer at a food symposium held at Oxford. “When, if one is lucky, gems of information will drop out.” McBee cards had obvious limitations, however. “My categories kept expanding, and the cards did not.” Wheaton tried to improve the cards by adding color-coded edges, but then she ran out of colors.

I was immediately captivated by the idea, and I soon found another article on the subject by Kevin Kelly, of Wired and Cool Tools fame. Back in the day, McBee cards came perforated on every edge by tiny holes, and the user employed a special tool to cut a notch—associated with a particular category—that allowed a card to fall out of the deck when the rest of the cards were skewered together. Given more than one needle, or successive selections, you had the equivalent of logical and and logical or functions. Kelly notes that the cards, sold under the brand name Indecks, were used to create the database of items at The Whole Earth Catalog, in which Stewart Brand wrote:

What do you have a lot of? Students, subscribers, notes, books, records, clients, projects? Once you’re past fifty or one hundred of whatever, it’s tough to keep track, time to externalize your store and retrieve system. One handy method this side of a high-rent computer is Indecks. It’s funky and functional: cards with a lot of holes in the edges, a long blunt needle, and a notcher. Run the needle through a hole in a bunch of cards, lift, and the cards notched in that hole don’t rise; they fall out. So you don’t have to keep the cards in order. You can sort them by feature, number, alphabetically or whatever; just poke, fan, lift and catch…They’ve meant the difference [at the Catalog] between partial and complete insanity.

McBee card and notcher

Reading over these descriptions, I began to wonder whether McBee cards would be useful as a writing tool, as a replacement or supplement to the index cards that many writers accumulate in such quantities. In some ways, a standard corkboard or separate stacks of conventional cards might seem preferable: they provide a necessary visual overview of the whole, rather than a single opaque deck, and the cards can be more easily recategorized and rearranged. (You can’t unnotch a McBee card.) But the McBee system offers some enticing advantages. For one thing, it’s portable: you can collapse the piles of cards that cover your desk into one rubber-banded deck, shuffle it, throw it into a backpack, and then easily restore the original order. Cards can also be sorted into more than one category, which is a genuinely useful feature. Let’s say you’re writing a novel like The Icon Thief, with multiple points of view, locations, and themes. Using the McBee system and some appropriate categories, you can quickly find all the scenes in which Maddy Blume appears, or the scenes set at Archvadze’s mansion, or the scenes in which the characters discuss the Rosicrucians—as well as any combination of the above. Instead of linearly categorizing each card only by where it appears in the book, you can “stack” cards across multiple dimensions with nothing but the thrust of a few needles. And I suspect that this method would yield connections and patterns that wouldn’t otherwise be visible.

Obviously, you can do much the same with a database or spreadsheet. But the tactile use of cards, as I’ve said elsewhere, confers other advantages: writing on physical cards with ink and manipulating them with your hands seems to yield insights and surprises that don’t appear when everything is in digital form. As a result, I’m seriously considering using McBee cards for my next big project—assuming that I can get my hands on some. As Kelly points out, there are “no sellers on eBay, no fan sites, no collector sites, no historical web pages, and no evidence that anyone is still using them. They are gone. Blasted out by the first computers.” But there might still be a place for them. They’d be particularly useful in applications in which the categories are clearly defined, as with Wheaton’s recipes, or with the bird or tree identification decks that are still gathering dust somewhere. Users could combine the easy searchability of a database with the rougher, more intuitive benefits that come from shuffling and stacking. (They’d also be a fantastic tool for tabletop games.) At least one writer has described making a deck at home, but the process seems unnecessarily laborious. They seem ideally suited for a modest Kickstarter campaign: all you’d need was a machine for punching the perforations, a supply of notching tools and knitting needles, and the cards themselves, presumably in colors and patterns cute enough to appeal to the hipster crowd. It’s a razor and blades model: once you sell someone a set, you can keep selling them the replacement decks, or starter kits with templates for recipes or other standard uses. If anyone reading this is an entrepreneur looking for an idea, consider this a freebie. I’d buy one in a second, and for a lot of other writers, I think they’d be the bee’s knees.

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2015 at 8:55 am

My great books #8: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his coauthors didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to the next president to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the work, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

My great books #6: The Whole Earth Catalog

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The Whole Earth Catalog—or, as Steve Jobs famously called it, “Google in book form”—was a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the late sixties and early seventies, centered in particular on Berkeley and Sausalito. Stewart Brand conceived of it as a book, modeled on the L.L. Bean catalog, that would provide resources for exploring a range of issues that remain relevant today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from planetary environmentalism to the humblest forms of home economics. In its book recommendations, accompanied by a running commentary that articulated an entire theory of civilization, it gave readers the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more. As a work that unfolds endlessly onto others, it’s been the most influential book in my life by far. Of the five titles that I mentioned here last week, I owe my discovery of three of them to browsing in the Catalog, while a fourth, The Complete Walker, features prominently in its pages. (Strangely enough, Brand and his colleagues never seem to have taken any notice of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which played much the same role in the seventeenth century that the Catalog did in the twentieth, as a kind of clearinghouse of ideas and excerpts for curious readers.)

Taken simply as a guide to the world’s greatest bookstore, it’s an essential part of anyone’s reading life. (The edition to get is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which is so massive and packed with information that leafing through its pages feels like an adventure in itself.) But its larger vision is what lingers. The Catalog is both a guide to good reading and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. In its physical format, with double spreads on everything from computers to ceramics, it naturally emphasizes the connections between disciplines, and the result is an atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. Its intended readers, both then and now, are resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of enabling choices; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next. Browsing through it even for a few minutes is enough to rekindle your belief in serendipity and the possibilities that the world presents, and although it has inspired a number of worthy successors, notably Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, the original remains irreplaceable. It turned me, for better or worse, into a generalist. And it’s still the model I try to follow whenever I wonder what my life should be.

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Threading the needle

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Camel engraving by Heath

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

—Matthew 19:24

When people find an idea disturbing, especially if they have no choice but to trust its source, they’re often perversely eager to twist themselves into knots to avoid its implications. The quotation above provides as striking an example as any I know. Over the years, there have been many attempts to make this image from the New Testament seem less nonsensical or extreme than it initially appears: we’re told, for instance, that the eye of the needle was really a gate in Jerusalem through which a camel couldn’t fit without removing most of its baggage, or that “camel” is a faulty transcription for the Greek word for “cable” or “rope.” In fact, there’s no evidence that this passage means anything else than what it clearly states: the earliest attestation of the gate theory, which I remember hearing in Sunday school, dates from many centuries later. It’s a strange picture, but that’s why it lingers in the imagination. The Jesus Seminar, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to recover the historical deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, gives it high marks for authenticity, for the very reason that later readers found it so problematic. In their words:

The fact that this saying has been surrounded by attempts to soften it suggests that it was probably original with Jesus.

But it isn’t hard to see why many listeners would prefer to wave it away, even to the point of distorting the original or taking refuge in an apocryphal explanation. If it really refers to a camel squeezing through a gate, it seems that much more possible: if the camel can get through simply by unburdening itself, it implies that you can be just a little rich, but not too rich, and still push your way inside. The history of Christianity—and most other religions—consists of taking an uncompromising original message and looking for ways to pay homage to it while keeping things more or less as they already are. We’d all like to have it both ways, and the implication that reconciling wealth with eternal salvation isn’t just difficult, but physically impossible, makes most of us uneasy. But even those of us who aren’t conventionally religious would benefit from taking those words to heart. However we envision our own happiness, whether as a form of fulfillment in this life or as a reward in the world to come, there’s no denying that we’re more likely to reach it if we’re unrelenting about renouncing everything else. And this applies as much to something as modest as writing stories for a living as to trying to save one’s soul, which, to a writer, amounts to more or less the same thing.

Stewart Brand

I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, particularly in relation to making a living through art, which is often compared to threading a needle. It’s a phrase we see tossed around frequently, especially with respect to navigating our way through a world that seems ever more hostile to the idea of creative careers. If you want to be a novelist or freelance writer or critic, you soon find that the eye of that needle has grown increasingly narrow, as publishers are squeezed by declining sales, magazine circulation continues to fall, and websites search for sustainable business models while readers expect to read everything for free. I’ve been writing for a living for close to ten years now, and I don’t think I’m any closer to threading that needle than I ever was: if anything, the environment for writers has become so challenging that I’m not sure I would have tried to write professionally if I were faced with the same decision today. A few weeks ago, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox wrote a long article about the pitfalls confronting anyone trying to make it as a writer online—or anywhere else—in this climate, and if it peters out in the end without a solution, that isn’t his fault. Nobody, including people whose job it is to think about this stuff all the time, has yet managed to come up with a good answer. And the clock is ticking for all of us.

But the first step is to honestly acknowledge the challenges at stake. We aren’t dealing with a rope and a needle, or a camel and a gate, but a camel and a freaking needle. And it’s likely that anyone who pursues this life with any kind of seriousness will have to be just as methodical about stripping everything else away. I’ve always been heartened by what Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, had to say about voluntary simplicity: “What I find far more interesting [is] the sheer practicality of the exercise.” Anybody who tries to make a living as an artist soon finds that scaling back everything else isn’t just practical, but essential: threading that needle demands time, as well as many failed attempts, and you have to give up a lot to buy the necessary number of years it takes to get there. It doesn’t mean that you have to go up into the garret at once, as Thoreau advised, but it does mean that you can’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get there with half measures, or by pretending that the needle is a gate. The needles of the art world come in different sizes, but they’re all getting smaller, and if we can’t control the top line, we can at least control the bottom, by sacrificing as much as we can to buy the time we need. If we aren’t willing to do this, there are plenty of others who will. A compromise here and there may seem harmless. But sooner or later, one of those straws will break the camel’s back.

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2015 at 10:24 am

The great teachers

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In his recent New Yorker review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, Nathan Heller offers up a piece of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me fifteen years ago:

The best advice I ever got in college came from the freshman-year adviser to whom I had been assigned…I had come into her office with a dog-eared copy of the catalogue. I thought that maybe I would take a class on Keats? And physics? My adviser, who taught history, shook her head. “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.”

I’m not sure if I ever articulated this principle to myself as clearly as it’s stated here, but a fumbling version of it guided many—though not most—of my choices in college. I was able to audit courses from the likes of Cornel West and Stephen Jay Gould, and when it came time to select a major, I was guided primarily by the idea that I should spend my time in a department that was ranked among the best of its kind, which is how I ended up in classics. But if I have one regret about how I spent those four years, it’s that I didn’t follow this tip more systematically. There were a lot of great classes that I could have attended but didn’t, and I won’t have a chance again.

Fortunately, though, the scope of this advice isn’t confined to college. When I look at my own bookshelves, I get the sense that I’ve been unconsciously following this model all along, at least when it comes to the authors I read. There’s a wild array of titles and subjects here, and I picked up many of these books on little more than a lucky hunch. What unifies most of them, though, is the aura they radiate of lives spent in pursuit of difficult intellectual goals, and the ability to convey them in ways that shed light onto unexpected corners. It’s why Edward O. Wilson’s books on ants share space with the work of statistician and graphic designer Edward Tufte, and why I keep The Plan of St. Gall a few shelves away from books by or about Colin Fletcher, George Saintsbury, Pauline Kael, Roger Penrose, Kimon Nicolaides, and Saul Bass, along with such otherwise inexplicable titles as Chinese Calligraphy and Ship Models: How to Build Them. These books don’t have a lot in common except for the fact that they’re all the work of great teachers, and I’ve found that it’s best to follow them wherever they decide to go, without worrying too much about the subject.

Edward O. Wilson

Recently, for instance, I’ve become interested in the work of Ernest Schwiebert, a legendary author among fly fishermen who remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. I’ve never been fishing in my life, but after encountering Schwiebert—thanks, as with so many other books that have changed my life, to a glowing mention in The Whole Earth Catalog—I’ve started to think of him as a mentor and kindred spirit. Angling is an appealing sport, even from the confines of an armchair, because of the multitude of skills and states of mind it requires, and there are times when I feel that Schwiebert, who was a Princeton-trained architect and author by trade, is really talking about something else:

Its skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge. It also combines the primordial rhythms of the stalk with the chesslike puzzles of fly-hatches and fishing, echoing the blood rituals of the hunt without demanding the kill.

Take out the reference to physical dexterity and grace, and you have a pretty good description of how it feels to write a novel, which requires a constantly shifting balance between intellectual precision, brute force, intuition, and luck. And this is ultimately true of any craft, which goes a long way toward explaining why I find myself reading books on urban planning, coding, theater, animation, and other subjects that have only a tangential connection to what I do for a living. At one time, I thought I was looking for particular insights from other fields that would turn me into a better writer, but that isn’t necessarily true; the challenges that writing presents are so specific that approaches from other disciplines are useful primarily as metaphors. What really matters, I’ve found, is spending time in the company of great teachers and craftsmen. Those qualities of temperament—curiosity, diligence, an embrace of serendipity combined with ruthless pragmatism—remain constant across all forms of workmanship or expression. And even after college, we can find role models and examples in all the best teachers, regardless of their areas of expertise, as long as we’re willing to seek them out.

Written by nevalalee

September 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

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