Entries from September 2010

Bellow on Inspiration

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

— Saul Bellow (via)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Giotto’s Red Circle

Pope Boniface VIII was looking for a new artist to work on the frescoes in St. Peter’s Basilica, so he sent a courtier out into the country to interview artists and collect samples of their work that he could judge. The courtier approached the painter Giotto and asked for a drawing to demonstrate his skill. Instead of a study of angels and saints, which the courtier expected, Giotto took a brush loaded with red paint and drew a perfect circle. The courtier was furious, thinking he had been made a fool of; nonetheless, he took the drawing back to Boniface. The Pope understood the significance of the red circle, and Giotto got the job.

James McMullan

The story of Giotto’s O apparently dates from Vasari’s Lives of the Painters. First published in 1550, more than two centuries after Giotto’s death in 1337, Vasari’s profile adds this nice coda to the story:

This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, “You are rounder than the O of Giotto,” which proverb is not only good because of the occasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, “round,” meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

Like being called “thick as a brick” today.

Categories: Art    Tags: ·

For Writers

A writer at work is about as isolated as it is possible to be. No matter if he is sitting in a crowded Starbucks, no matter how gregarious he may be at other times, when he is writing he is perfectly alone.

I have always welcomed the solitude. Most writers do, I think, otherwise we would not stick with the job very long.

At the same time, the writer’s isolation walls people out in an unhelpful way. Years ago, when I was unpublished and struggling to learn novel-writing (I never saw myself as any other sort of writer), I was eager to watch established novelists at work, to see what the job was all about. But of course the internal nature of the work makes that sort of access impossible. The real work of writing is invisible. Robert Olen Butler put the problem nicely in an interview once:

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Even now, when every author has a blog and a Twitter feed, there are surprisingly few good peepholes into the daily working lives of writers.

I try to provide such a peephole on this blog. I discuss my writing process, some of the ups and downs of my writing life, the snags I run into as — slowly, slowly — I produce a novel. In conversation I am usually bashful on the subject, and on the blog too I weigh my words probably more than necessary. Still, I’ve been more forthcoming than most authors, I think.

I have gathered up some of that material from the blog in a new page called On Writing. It will appeal mostly to writers, I think, though anyone interested in books may find it worthwhile.

The page has two elements: a collection of quotations which I use as a commonplace book, a place to keep quotes I’ve run across that I like to refer back to; and an index of blog posts that have to do with writing. Both elements — the quotes and the links — are reshuffled every time the page loads, so On Writing will look a little different every time you visit. The idea is to browse at random, to stumble across things serendipitously.

Just to be clear: my purpose is not to teach anyone how to write. I am not so presumptuous. Even if I were willing, what works for me may not work for you. Hell, what works for me one day often does not work for me the next. In the theater, actors used to talk about The Method. For writers there is no such thing. There are as many methods as there are writers. Nobody can tell you what will work for you.

Nor do I think I have anything especially profound or insightful to say about writing. The truth is, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. No writer does. We are all just feeling our way along, trying to find the sentences that please us, that sound right to our ears. We all tinker constantly with schedules, environments, work habits — anything that seems to help. Believe me: nobody knows how to do this. Nobody has the secret, the one true way.

So the goal here is not to lecture, but to share some of my own thoughts and experiences. It is important for writers to support one another. Writing is not a zero sum game: one writer’s success does not diminish another’s chances. Hopefully this material will help someone out there.

Categories: Writing    Tags:

What “finished” means to a writer

“Only by declaring a book completely finished can one start to see how much remains to be done on it.”

Alain de Botton

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from

“Chance favors the connected mind.”

Categories: Creativity    Tags: · ·

Churchill: On risk

Play the game for more than you can afford to lose … only then will you learn the game.

Winston Churchill (via)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · ·

Quote of the Day

There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein (via)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · ·

The Wages of Worry

“It seems the only way to write a half decent book is to worry oneself sick on an hourly basis that one is producing a complete disaster.”

— Alain de Botton

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

What makes Emma Bovary so interesting?

Sometimes in reading at random, weird patterns emerge. The last couple of days I ran across these two quotes, both trashing sacred-cow novelists. In the first, from The Paris Review in 1963, Katherine Anne Porter explains why she detests F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Not only didn’t I like [Fitzgerald’s] writing, but I didn’t like the people he wrote about. I thought they weren’t worth thinking about, and I still think so. It seems to me that your human beings have to have some kind of meaning. I just can’t be interested in those perfectly stupid meaningless lives.

The next is from B.R. Myers’ acid review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, in The Atlantic:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? … Granted, nonentities are people too, and a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But … whatever is wrong with these people [i.e. the characters in Freedom] does not matter.

I won’t get into the mean-spiritedness of these reviews, except to say that they capture why I could never be a book critic. (I do post book reviews on this blog, but never negative ones. If I can’t recommend a book, I simply don’t mention it.) And I’m not especially interested in the merits of these opinions, either, though Porter’s dismissal of Fitzgerald seems asinine to me. (I haven’t read Freedom.)

But they do raise an interesting question: what makes an insipid character worth writing and reading about? Obviously it is not as simple as “dull characters, dull book,” as Myers’ example of Madame Bovary makes clear. (My choice would have been Mrs. Dalloway). Is it only the skill of the novelist that grants significance to minor lives? Or do the shallow protagonists of successful books share common characteristics — are they shallow in some distinctive, dramatically advantageous way? If it had been Flaubert rather than Franzen writing about ordinary folks in Minnesota, would it have made a difference to readers like B.R. Myers, who evidently feels the whole project was doomed from the start merely by Franzen’s choice of subject?

Categories: Books    Tags:

Photo of the Day

Teenage Obama 2

Teenage Obama 1

Obama as a teenager (via)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags:

“Strawberries” by Edwin Morgan

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

(Hat tip: My friend Michael Malone blogged this poem upon Edwin Morgan’s death a few weeks ago. More about Morgan here.)

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Orwell of the Tribune

Orwell journalists union card


Categories: Writers    Tags:

Katherine Anne Porter: This thing between me and my writing

This thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had — stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done.

Katherine Anne Porter

It’s All Been Done

For a crime-novel writer of any quality or ambition — for a serious writer working in any genre, I imagine — there is always the little voice whispering, “It’s all been done.” How can you possibly produce, say, a courtroom drama that is original, fresh, unpredictable when there have been ten thousand courtroom dramas already written? (And that doesn’t count the endless loop of “Law & Order” reruns on basic cable.) The ten-thousand-and-first, no matter how clever or well crafted, will inevitably feel derivative, formulaic, small.

On the other hand, writers choose to work in a genre for good reasons. I write crime stories because, first, the situations are dramatic and emotionally resonant (“bad men do what good men dream”). Storytellers need drama; crime stories have it in spades. But I also like writing crime stories because they come with a ready-made shape. A murder mystery will proceed, one way or another, from the crime to the unmasking of the criminal; a courtroom drama from indictment to trial to verdict; a heist from the planning to the robbery to the escape (or failure to escape). You can play around with these formulas as much as you like, but the formulas are there and that is no small thing when you are staring at a blank computer screen. (There is another, more obvious advantage to writing genre novels, of course: people actually read them. But we’re talking about an artistic problem here, not a commercial one.)

So that is the bargain. And the little voice whispering “It’s all been done” generally doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I find the conventions of the genre stimulating. Twice now, I’ve had a fine time playing with the tropes of police procedurals, subverting them in my first novel (“no unreliable narrators!”) and taking them out for a spin in a strange new neighborhood (Boston in the Strangler era) in my second. All been done? Well, let’s do it again, in a new way.

In fact, I try quite consciously to find a “precursor text” for all my books, that is, a book or film (usually several) that will give shape to the story I am trying to tell, particularly in the early stages of writing when the story is still unformed.* You don’t have to dig too deeply in The Strangler, for example, to see the influence of L.A. Confidential. All writers do this, with varying degrees of awareness. How could any writer not be influenced by the books he has read and loved? Even using the term “precursor text” to describe the practice is something I borrowed from one of my betters, novelist David Lodge, who always identifies a precursor for his novels.

But with book three, for some reason I listened to that little voice too much. I let the genre novelist’s insecurity get to me. The book is, in the end, a courtroom drama. It is narrated by a man whose teenage son is accused of killing a classmate, and the centerpiece of the novel is the boy’s trial. The trouble was, when it came to writing the critical courtroom section of the book, I was too determined to avoid cliché, to write a courtroom drama utterly unlike any of the ten thousand that have come before — a fool’s errand, but then it’s easy to make a fool of yourself in this business. So out went the usual pre-trial strategy talks. Out went the tried and true good-cop-bad-cop interrogation of the defendant. Out went the dramatic parade into the courtroom for the arraignment. Any scene that felt remotely secondhand was cut or truncated.

Monday I heard from my editor that this section of the manuscript needs a rewrite to restore at least some of these conventional scenes. After I had ruthlessly excised every scene that had ever appeared in a legal novel, she suggested, there just wasn’t enough drama or mystery left. The storytelling was fresh and innovative, yes. It just wasn’t very compelling.

It ought to have been devastating news. This is the third or fourth major rewrite of the manuscript (I’ve lost count). And of course I was disappointed. The trial sequence ought to have been the most sure-footed part of the book. As a former trial lawyer, it’s what I know best. Worse, I had resisted making these very changes in previous rewrites.

But I see now, after taking a day or two to wrap my brain around the problem, that my editor was right. The formulas work. Subvert them, twist them, depart from them by all means. Be daring and original. But remember that story comes first. It is a mistake to sacrifice good storytelling to some abstract conception of immaculate originality. It has all been done, it’s true. The trick, so late in the life of the genre, is to innovate just enough — make it new, but keep what works.

Another rewrite. So it goes.

* Note to the book-nerds out there: Yes, yes, I know, the term “precursor text” is borrowed from Harold Bloom and I’m not using it properly. Obviously I am talking about a purposeful, self-aware sort of borrowing, which is not the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom means. The term is a useful descriptor, though, and I’ve been using it this way for years in plotting my books. No emails, please, about what a boob I am to have misappropriated it. Emails calling me a boob for other reasons are of course always welcome.

The scope-severity paradox

The more victims, the less likely we are to respond.

[A recent study] is the first to show that the bias toward feeling empathy for a single individual versus many — known as the identifiable victim bias — causes people to make judgments based on emotion that are disproportionate to the severity of a crime.

“The inspiration for the study was the observation that we tend to focus an extraordinary amount of attention and resources to crimes that have a really small number of victims, and have a harder time remaining engaged to larger scale kinds of crime,” said psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, lead author of the paper Aug. 25 in Social Psychological and Personality Science (.pdf).

The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.

“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem [rises] — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

It has to do with the way empathy works, Slovic said. People empathize with people by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. The more shoes there are, the harder it is to empathize with any single individual. People don’t multiply their feelings of empathy by the number of people involved.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags:

Oliver Sacks on Mythmaking

Is the human instinct to tell stories — and it does seem to be instinctive since it crosses all boundaries of time and place — a way we explain the world to ourselves?

I would say that the human brain or the human mind is disposed to create stories or narratives. Children love stories, make up stories. Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models. And of course some of these will come together because then you want to have a story which explains. We all come into the world, and human beings sort of evolved into a mysterious world and had to wonder where they came from, how the world came from [sic], what are the stars doing. And in the absence of better explanations, I think, supernatural explanations sort of come to mind.

Via Big Think.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · · ·

John Cleese on creativity

Categories: Creativity    Tags:

Sontag: Uncertainties and anxieties

Here is the great difference between reading and writing. Reading is a vocation, a skill, at which, with practice, you are bound to become more expert. What you accumulate as a writer are mostly uncertainties and anxieties.

Susan Sontag, from Writers [On Writing]: Collected Essays from The New York Times (via)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

What “free” means on the web

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

“blue_beetle” on Metafilter

Categories: Internet    Tags:

Auden: Murder is unique

Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.

W.H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage” (via)

Categories: Crime    Tags: ·