Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Top 10 creative books

My ten creative books #10: A Guide for the Perplexed

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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.

As regular readers know, I’m a Werner Herzog fan, but not a completist—I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored territory, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. Yet Herzog himself is endlessly fascinating. Daniel Zalewski’s account of the making of Rescue Dawn is one of my five favorite articles ever to appear in The New Yorker, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his mystique, there’s no better place to start. For a deeper dive, you can turn to A Guide for the Perplexed, an expanded version of a collection of the director’s interviews with Paul Cronin, which was originally published more than a decade ago. As I’ve said here before, I regret the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance, and I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all. It’s huge, but every paragraph explodes with insight, and you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately transfixed. Here’s one passage picked at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Or take Herzog’s description of his relationship with his cinematographer: “Peter Zeitlinger is always trying to sneak ‘beautiful’ shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.”

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s stories, which are inexhaustible. He provides his own point of view on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by a catalog in his jacket pocket, and he asked to keep going—or how he discouraged Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) We see Herzog impersonating a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys that he needed for Aguirre; forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo; stealing his first camera; and shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example is enough to sustain and nourish the rest of us. In On Directing Film, David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he recommends Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as examples of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

My ten creative books #9: Behind the Seen

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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.

For reasons that aren’t too hard to figure out, the most comprehensive accounts that we have of the creative process tend to focus on mediocre works of art. Since the quality of the result is out of anyone’s hands, you can’t expect such extensive documentation to coincide with the making of a masterpiece, and the artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium are often too busy to keep good notes. (One possible exception is the bonus material for The Lord of the Rings, although you more typically end up with the endless hours of special features for The Hobbit.) This is why the most interesting book that I’ve ever seen about writing and publishing is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which tells you more than you would ever want to know about his justly forgotten bestseller The Prize. It’s also why my single favorite book about filmmaking is Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which centers on Walter Murch, an undeniable genius, and his editing of the film Cold Mountain. Even at the time, the movie found few passionate defenders, and watching the first half again recently didn’t change my mind. But the book that resulted from it is amazing. The critic David Thomson called it “probably the subtlest and most tender account of what a craftsman brings to a motion picture ever written,” but it’s also much more. From the moment that I first learned that it existed, I knew that I had to have it, and ever since, my copy—autographed by Murch himself—has occupied an unusual role in my writing life. It’s the book that I read whenever I need to revise a draft, get editorial feedback, or do anything else that frightens me as a writer. This is partially because I value Murch’s perspective, and because the craft of film editing has surprising affinities to what a writer does during the revision stage. Above all, however, it’s because this may be the most complete chronicle in existence of any act of creation whatsoever, from start to finish, and its wisdom is inseparable from its accumulation of ordinary detail over three hundred dense pages.

Behind the Seen is an unforgettable experience in itself, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Yet it also contains detachable pieces of lore, advice, and insight that anyone can take to heart. There’s Koppelman’s discussion of the “little people,” the tiny paper silhouettes that Murch attaches to his television monitor to remind himself of the size of the movie screen. Or there’s Murch’s lovely analogy of “blinking the key,” in which a lesson drawn from lighting a set tells you what happens when you take away what seemed like an indispensable element. And then there’s this:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

Perhaps best of all, there’s the shiny brass “B” that Murch hangs in his office. Koppelman explains: “Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a ‘B.’ Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how.”

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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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.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

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.”

Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2018 at 9:00 am

My ten creative books #6: The Art of Fiction

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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.

I bought The Art of Fiction by John Gardner nearly a quarter of a century ago, at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, California, shortly before starting my freshman year of high school. (On that same afternoon, I picked up a copy of Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller, and my family also somehow acquired our first cat, which suggests that my life would be significantly different if that one day were magically erased.) Since then, I’ve read it in pieces a dozen or more times—it’s one of the few books that I’ve brought wherever I’ve moved—and I still know much of it by heart. Writing guides tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, and his illustrations of process are still the most vivid that I’ve ever seen:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Yet Gardner is equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul,” including frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism, and in reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with his high standards in mind.

By now, I’ve internalized all of his advice, even if I don’t always follow it, and as a result, when I read his book again now, it’s less as a guide than as a novel in itself, with an archetypal writer—who shouldn’t be confused with Gardner—who emerges as a character in his own right. For instance:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And his offhand observations about other writers have stuck in my head as well. Writing of a possible plot hole in Hamlet, for instance, Gardner offers a view of Shakespeare that I’ve never forgotten:

The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.

Of the countless books that I’ve read on writing, this is still the best, as well as the finest manual of the life of which Gardner writes elsewhere: “Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world…For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2018 at 9:00 am

My ten creative books #5: Ogilvy on Advertising

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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.

Believe it or not, I’ve been posting here on a daily basis for nearly a decade, which means that I’ve devoted something like five hundred working days to this blog. When I first threw it together, however, I couldn’t have spent more than a couple of hours deciding on its overall layout, which has turned out to be surprisingly consistent. It took me a while to get the hang of the format, and I’ve tweaked a few minor elements along the way, but this site looks pretty much the same now as it did eight years ago. Part of this is because I knew how I wanted each post to look—black text on white, a headline, an illustration or two, and not much else. (I ended up using a WordPress theme called The Journalist that is no longer being actively updated, and I plan to stick with it for as long as I possibly can.) But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that my preferences along these lines had been formed by the legendary advertising executive David Ogilvy, who laid out his conclusions as clearly as possible in his book Ogilvy on Advertising: “Research suggests that if you set the copy in black type on a white background, more people will read it than if you set it in white type on a black background.” Ogilvy was infuriated by print ads that refused to acknowledge this basic fact, complaining that he had counted forty-seven offenders in a single recent issue of one magazine: “I have even seen coupons in reverse; you cannot fill them out unless you have white ink in the house.” And as the creative director of the agency Ogilvy & Mather, he enforced the same layout on all of his magazine advertisements, with a color photograph, a headline, and the copy set in black type underneath. “I challenge you to invent a better layout than these,” Oglivy concludes, and I don’t think anyone ever has. And within the limitations imposed by the template of this blog, I’ve spent much of my online life operating within the constraints that Ogilvy recommends.

It might seem questionable to take creative inspiration from a book about advertising, but this one has a few strong points in its favor. The first is that Ogilvy on Advertising really reads—I pick it up every couple of years, and I can never resist leafing through the whole thing. Another is that the ads themselves are more interesting and beautiful than a lot of the content that was being published at the time, or even now. But its real value lies in the challenges of the advertising industry itself, which constantly confronts its practitioners with the need to balance lasting interest with the demands of the moment. At times, Ogilvy can come across as hostile to familiar standards of creativity, as when he witheringly writes: “I occasionally use the hideous word creative myself, for lack of a better…Meanwhile, I have to invent a Big Idea for a new advertising campaign, and I have to invent it before Tuesday. ‘Creativity’ strikes me as a high-falutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.” Yet here’s what he says about the process itself:

I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea. I am supposed to be one of the more fertile inventors of big ideas, but in my long career as a copywriter I have not had more than twenty, if that. Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

And his test for a big idea is one that all artists should remember: “Could it be used for thirty years?” It was true of the Pepperidge Farm baker, who came to Oglivy in a dream—and perhaps we’d all be better off if we asked ourselves, before devoting ourselves to any new idea, if it could be useful for thirty years.

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

My ten creative books #4: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

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.

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 diverse slate of coauthors—Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Schlomo Angel—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. These days, the values that it endorses seem more remote than ever, but it’s still the one book, above all others that I’ve read, that offers the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

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