Fitzgerald: “utter helplessness”

I am thirty-six years old. For eighteen years save for a short space during the war writing has been my chief interest in life, and I am in every sense a professional. Yet even now when, at the recurrent cry of “Baby Needs Shoes,” I sit down facing my sharpened pencils and a block of legal-sized paper, I have a feeling of utter helplessness. I may write my story in three days or, as is more frequently the case, it may be six weeks before I have assembled anything worthy to be sent out. I can open a volume from a criminal law library and find a thousand plots. I can go into highway and byway, parlor and kitchen, and listen to personal revelations that at the hands of other writers might endure forever. But all that is nothing — not even enough for a false start.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “One Hundred False Starts” (1933)

Make it new (and not)

According to an article in the Atlantic, the industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a theory about what makes new products desirable.

He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—MAYA.

The theory applies equally to art.

Could Loewy’s MAYA theory double as cultural criticism? A common complaint about modern pop culture is that it has devolved into an orgy of familiarity. In her 2013 memoir cum cultural critique, Sleepless in Hollywood, the producer Lynda Obst mourned what she saw as cult worship of “pre-awareness” in the film and television industry. As the number of movies and television shows being produced each year has grown, risk-averse producers have relied heavily on films with characters and plots that audiences already know. Indeed, in 15 of the past 16 years, the highest-grossing movie in America has been a sequel of a previously successful movie (for example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or an adaptation of a previously successful book (The Grinch). The hit-making formula in Hollywood today seems to be built on infinitely recurring, self-sustaining loops of familiarity, like the Marvel comic universe, which thrives by interweaving movie franchises and TV spin-offs.

But perhaps the most maya-esque entertainment strategy can be found on award-winning cable television. In the past decade, the cable network FX has arguably produced the deepest lineup of prestige dramas and critically acclaimed comedies on television, including American Horror Story, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, and Archer. The ideal FX show is a character-driven journey in which old stories wear new costumes, says Nicole Clemens, the executive vice president for series development at the network. In Sons of Anarchy, the popular drama about an outlaw motorcycle club, “you think it’s this super-über-macho motorcycle show, but it’s also a soap with handsome guys, and the plot is basically Hamlet,” she told me. In The Americans, a series about Soviet agents posing as a married couple in the United States, “the spy genre has been subverted to tell a classic story about marriage.” These are not Marvel’s infinity loops of sequels, which forge new installments of old stories. They are more like narrative Trojan horses, in which new characters are vessels containing classic themes—surprise serving as a doorway to the feeling of familiarity, an aesthetic aha.

I have always believed in studying older stories, even using them explicitly as templates or models, so Loewy’s theory comes as no surprise to me.

In fact, there is a sub-genre of how-to books for the analytically-minded looking to write a bestseller. These guides dissect popular novels for common elements — a recipe for success. The latest, called The Bestseller Code, sics a computer algorithm on the data and concludes that my Defending Jacob is #10 on its list of “100 novels our computer thinks you should read.” So it turns out my blazingly original work is actually hopelessly derivative, which, if Loewy is right, might explain a few things.

Creating vs. analyzing

“Do not try to create and analyze at the same time… they are different processes.”

— John Cage

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2012) is a devastating and important book. Alexander’s thesis will be difficult for well-intentioned people to accept: our 30-year “War on Drugs” and the resulting mass incarceration of African-American men is “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Whether the drug war was purposely designed to immiserate African-Americans is not clear. Racist intent would be almost impossible to prove today; in our “color-blind” society, racists do not explicitly announce their motivations as they once did. I tend to be cynical about such things, but at this point the legislators’ intent hardly matters. Even if the mass incarceration of black men is an innocent, unintended consequence of the anti-drug crackdown, it is now an accomplished fact. It doesn’t matter how we got here; we are here now. The question is what to do about the problem. Acknowledging that the problem exists is a necessary first step.

I admit I was skeptical about Alexander’s conclusion. I still don’t buy all of it. But the statistics are overwhelming. I am a former prosecutor, I am not naive about the court system, but I was shocked by the numbers.

  • Since the War on Drugs was declared in the 1980’s, “the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million.”
  • “There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.”
  • “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”
  • “In seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison,” according to one study from 2000.
  • “In Washington, D.C., … three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”
  • “African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.”
  • Actual drug crime does not explain the racial disparities in our criminal justice system: “People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.”
  • There is no evidence that locking up non-violent drug offenders has made us any safer: “violent crime rates have fluctuated over the years and bear little relationship to incarceration rates — which have soared over the past three decades regardless of whether violent crime was going up or down.”

That the criminal justice system does not treat African-Americans equally is not news. It is the scale of the injustice that is so shocking, and the fact that the problem has gotten so much worse so recently. Go back, read those numbers again.

We like to think that history equals progress — that over time, things get better. In many ways, of course, they do. But progress is never guaranteed and never uniform. The New Jim Crow is a sobering reminder of that, particularly at a moment in our politics when wisdom and compassion seem to be in short supply.

Story machines

story-machine

I love this: “small vending machines dotted about French train stations that dispense short stories for free at the press of a button.” (Via SwissMiss)

Theories of procrastination

toure_1

toure_2

The Efficient Plots Hypothesis

The [Efficient Plots Hypothesis], as I imagine it, says that the ideal reader can’t know if the mood of a book is about to get sunnier or darker at any given point in the plot. This … [is] because the purpose of a narrative is to engross the reader. Engrossment proceeds through uncertainty. If you knew what was about to happen, you’d skim ahead or stop reading.

That is: at any moment in a story, the emotional trajectory is a random walk for the reader because anything else would be boring. And stories aren’t boring.

This could be tested empirically by asking readers if a book will get more positive or more negative over the next five pages, and by how much. In a pure EPH world, they’ll only be right about half the time.

If the EPH holds, then, it doesn’t suggest that fiction is truly arbitrary; rather, that it’s an elaborately constructed game between reader and writer, socially conditioned and in no way permanent. It would suggest that there are enough fundamental plots that at any point in a book you are unsure what plot you are in; and that plots tend to wear themselves out over time.

Read about it here.

Ian McEwan’s writing day

I’m pretty obsessive once I get going. I tend to throw everything at it, and I’m generally rather happy if I’m making progress of 450 to 500 words a day. I work from 9:30 in the morning. If things are going, I see no reason to stop, because I know there’s a point I’ll get to, a moment of hesitation, and a day or a week will pass before I see the way through.

Sometimes, I work late at night, sometimes into the early hours if things are going along. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a day looking over things from the day before. I was a very early adopter of word processing back in the early ’80s. Being able to constantly correct is good for writers.

I think you do need to come away, somewhere along the line, and let it sit, so you can come back with a completely fresh eye and almost regard it as the work of a stranger.

Source. Earlier installment is here.

On Voluptas

Gisze by Holbein

“Nulla sine merore voluptas” — no joy without sorrow. Detail from “The Merchant Georg Gisze” by Holbein (1532).

Auden: “a genuine writer forgets”

Just as a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.

W.H. Auden

How Styron wrote

The previous summer, Styron had begun [The Confessions of Nat Turner]. He nudged a No. 2 pencil across sheets of yellow legal paper, each sentence polished before he moved on to the next. The most methodical of novelists, he demanded utter silence, even with small children in the house. He had a stone wall built in front to try to muffle the noise of passing vehicles, according to his daughter Alexandra in her 2011 memoir, Reading My Father. His pattern was all but inviolate. Up at noon, leisurely lunch or brunch with Rose. Push away from the table at two o’clock for a long walk with his dogs, while he organized his thoughts for the afternoon siege. Then, into the barn until he emerged at 7:30 with “my painful 600 words,” which he refined some more over a drink at the bar and then gave to Rose for typing, about two and a half pages in all. Once he was done he tinkered very little. “This guy does not revise heavily and start all over again,” says his longtime editor, Robert Loomis, aged 89. “Bill’s first draft was essentially his final draft.”

Sam Tanenhaus, “The Literary Battle for Nat Turner’s Legacy” (great read)

“My painful 600 words.” I know the feeling. It took William Styron four and a half years to complete The Confessions of Nat Turner.

“The Year of Lear”

Shakespeare became a god long ago. He exists outside history, eternal, unconfined by any particular historical moment. He is literally timeless. In The Year of Lear, James Shapiro swats away all the writer-god stuff and plunks us down with Shakespeare in grubby, plague-ravaged, terrorized London in 1606. It is probably as close as we can come to glimpsing the man himself; too little is known about Shakespeare’s life to reconstruct a proper biography. And for a writer like me, it is stirring to see Shakespeare grapple in his plays with the obsessions and anxieties of Jacobean England — fear of a bloody succession battle, the hunt for Catholic recusants, the Gunpowder Plot (the 9/11 of its day), witchcraft, demonic possession, on and on. Just a working writer at his desk, in a dirty, day-old shirt, his thoughts tossed around like all of us. It’s a great read.

If it’s hard, why do it?

Hard Things

This graphic, from a story in the Times the other day, pretty well captures the appeal of novel-writing for me. You do it precisely because it’s difficult.

Writing as meditation

I see writing as a form of meditation, where I can let everything else fall away for a few moments and just stay with this one activity. It means I need to get my mind into the writing space, notice when the urge to go to distraction comes up, and not just automatically follow the urge. I can look within myself and let feelings flow out through the written word, or see the truths within me and try to channel those onto the page.

Leo Babauta, “Training To Be a Good Writer

Quote of the day

I’m most in awe of novelists, who move sets, lights, scenery, and act out all the parts in your mind for you. My kind of writing requires collaboration with others to truly ignite. But I think of Dickens, or Cervantes, or Márquez, or Morrison, and I can describe to you the worlds they paint and inhabit. To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Horace: Artless art

“The art lies in concealing the art.”

Horace

On procrastination, good and bad

We tend to think of procrastination as a personal failing, even a moral flaw, a sin. For novelists in particular, marooned at our lonely desks and in our heads, facing enormous tasks and distant deadlines, procrastination is a besetting danger. The web makes the problem infinitely worse, with its little cruelty of turning the writer’s workspace, his computer screen, into an endless cabinet of wonders. Distraction is always just two clicks away.

There is now a small industry churning out advice on how to stay productive in the age of distraction, but it all boils down to this: put away your toys and get to work. In his wonderful The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advises, “Be a pro.” And that, honestly, is the bottom line. Just do it.

Personally, I try to live by that advice. By nature I am lazy and undisciplined, a lifelong procrastinator, so I rely on a set of formal strategies to stay focused. I work in a barren office, on an ancient ThinkPad T23 laptop that has no internet capability. I cripple my smart phone using various apps. (I fiddle constantly with how best to disable my phone during work hours, which, yes, I know.) When all else fails, I leave the damn phone at home.

Fellow weak-willed writers, I can’t say this strongly enough: do not burn energy resisting the temptation of the web. Just turn it off completely. Unplug. Research has shown that people who exhibit strong willpower are not better at resisting temptation; they simply do not expose themselves to temptation. They do not bravely refuse to eat the ice cream in the freezer; they never go down the frozen-food aisle in the supermarket in the first place.

Once I have unplugged from the web, I focus on starting. Not writing a whole novel or even a single scene, not writing for a certain period of time or hitting some daily word-quota. Just starting. As a writer, that is the most essential and difficult thing you will do: start. You must learn to start and start and start. Every morning, despite the awesome scale of the task, despite your own mounting anxiety, you must start. You will fail, of course. All writers fail. Most writers fail most of the time. Doesn’t matter. Get up, dust yourself off, and start again. If you start enough, in some small percentage of those attempts, you will achieve the blessed, transporting, trance-like state of flow that every writer treasures, and the residue of that deeply-focused work will be words on the page.

So that is my anti-procrastination strategy. In two words: unplug and start. I do not claim there is any special wisdom there, nor do these strategies work infallibly for me. I fail all the time, and I scourge myself for it. Probably you do, too.  if you are a writer. It seems to be a universal feeling in this job. But failure is part of writing. Tomorrow you will try again. What choice is there? As Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

With all that said, I would like to suggest that some procrastination is actually good. Yes, good. Sometimes a writer resists writing not because he is lazy or careless, but because the passage just isn’t ready to be written. Hemingway famously said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Sometimes the way your shit detector goes off is by refusing to allow you to write shit in the first place.

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A better map of the world

Gall–Peters_projection

The Gall-Peters projection map, showing the true relative size of the continents without the distortion of the traditional Mercator projection. (As usual, “The West Wing” got there first.)

A natural style

When we encounter a natural style, Pascal says, we are surprised and delighted, because we expected to find an author and instead found a man.

James Wood

George Saunders on writing