On Writing

My Oblique Strategies

So much of writing is about starting. Getting those first few words down on the blank page or screen. Getting unstuck. Solving some problem — a scene that feels stagy or false, a knot in the plot that won’t come unknotted. A character enters a room then … what?

In 1974, the musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt first published Oblique Strategies, a tool for unlocking creative blocks. This was a printed deck of cards, each containing a short, cryptic, Zen-like koan meant to jostle the artist’s thinking and spark the creative process: “Use an old idea,” “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” “Work at a different speed.” The idea was that the artist, frozen with indecision or out of ideas altogether, could draw a card at random, read the mysterious phrase, and somehow the creative machine would stir to life. (You can shuffle through all the cards here.)

I have always loved the idea of Oblique Strategies, but I never felt that Eno’s and Schmidt’s original messages fit me very well. All artists have their idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, their particular ways of getting snarled up. In order to work for me, oblique strategies have to target my individual, habitual ways of getting stuck. It’s like getting a shot: what’s in the needle depends on the infection you’ve got.

So here are my oblique strategies. I’ve never bothered to put them down on cards, but I have always kept a list of them, which I refer to all the time. My strategies are a little less “oblique” than the originals, less out-of-leftfield, because they are not particularly concerned with stimulating ideas. Generally my problem is not lack of ideas; it is an inability to get the ideas out of my head and down onto the page. I have the syrup, as Gertrude Stein said of Glenway Wescott, “but it does not pour.” I’ll leave my list here, for my own reference and maybe yours. Hopefully they will help some writer someday. If not, try the originals or try writing your own.

  • Be professional and productive, not great, not even original
  • Think quantity: the goal is to complete as many novels as possible
  • Don’t overcomplicate the problem — look for the simple, obvious solution
  • Go back to your template stories
  • Always be starting
  • Lower your standards
  • Unplug
  • Take a walk
  • Steal
  • The hero must act
  • Don’t fucking procrastinate
  • The hero drives the plot
  • Don’t be secretive — discuss the problem
  • Work outside your habits
  • Believe in yourself and in your project
  • Get over yourself — your book just isn’t that important
  • Ask for help
  • Make them care by making yourself care
  • The problem contains the solution
  • Stay up all night
  • Prepare slowly and cautiously, write fast and reckless
  • Change speeds: compress a long scene, expand a short scene
  • Abandon the plan
  • Nothing clever or abstract, just simple physical actions: a character walks on stage, then what does she DO?

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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.

Continue reading →

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George R.R. Martin’s “secret weapon”

I love this: George R.R. Martin writes his novels on a DOS-based computer using a vintage 1980’s word-processing program called WordStar. In this clip, he tells Conan that he actually has two computers, a modern one with an internet connection for ordinary tasks and an old DOS-based, web-free computer for writing. I do something similar, though my work computer is not quite as ancient as Martin’s. I have an old ThinkPad T23, one of the last ThinkPads made without built-in WiFi. It dates from 2001 or so. It has no internet access, and better yet it is heavy and battery life is awful, so it’s effectively immobile — it chains me to my writing desk. I write my novels on WordPerfect, a zombie word processor that I’ve been using since 1984, when my college roommate introduced me to it on his state-of-the-art Kaypro II computer. I have been a WordPerfect devotee ever since. Writers go to all kinds of extremes to seal themselves off from the insidious distractions of the web. I am surprised more don’t just use an old computer from the pre-WiFi era. In this case, less is more.

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Public Writer, Private Writer

Preparations continue for this winter’s publication of Defending Jacob. The cover art is locked in (sneak preview soon). Yesterday I spent six hours being photographed on Boston street corners in various brooding writerly poses. This morning comes news that the book has sold in China, making it the rare product that we export to them. (Hang on, America, just a few more books and I’ll get this darn trade deficit turned around.)

But the strangest bit, to me, is that I will soon go off on a “pre-publication tour.” In September and October, I will visit regional trade shows for independent booksellers in New England, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, southern California (Long Beach) and northern California (San Francisco). I am delighted to do this, of course. Author tours, pre- or post-publication, are rare today. Not penny-on-the-sidewalk rare — unicorn rare. So I’m very grateful to my publisher for putting increasingly scarce resources behind my book.

At the same time, I can’t help thinking that I am a hell of a lot less interesting in person than I am in my books. In person, I am a perfectly pleasant guy, I suppose, but no author can replicate the intensity and intimacy of a good reading experience. Most authors I’ve met? Meh, the book was better. That’s the nature of reading, which requires the reader to conjure the author’s voice out of squiggles on the page. Inevitably the voice you, the reader, create in your head has a special quality. It seems to come from inside you, it seems to originate in your own thoughts. A good book hijacks the inner voice that burbles constantly in every reader’s head. That’s what makes the medium so powerful: the story takes place inside the reader’s consciousness. No wonder the author’s voice seems so familiar and authoritative.

The author’s voice is not my real, conversational voice, of course. When you read my books, you hear only my most articulate, well-crafted sentences. My best and most refined self. That’s what good writing is. The rest — the clumsy phrases, the not-quite-right words or metaphors, all the inarticulate flubs that characterize ordinary speech — is edited out. Even my realistic dialogue is not quite real, the quotation marks notwithstanding. It is shaped, polished, crafted, improved. Every stammer and stumble is calculated for its precise effect. It is the way you would talk if you had a writer scripting your life. (How great would that be?)

Surely readers know all this, but they crave the writer’s personal presence anyway. They want to meet the awkward, bashful, inarticulate writer behind the exalted, hyper-articulate authorial voice they’ve heard in their heads. That’s why there are bookstore readings and author tours and Oprah (well, there used to be Oprah). Continue reading →

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Leonardo, procrastinator

I was heartened (relieved, really) to find this wonderful essay describing Leonardo da Vinci as “a hopeless procrastinator.”

Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the “Mona Lisa,” were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.

What makes the essay so interesting is the suggestion that Leonardo’s epic procrastination, far from being a character flaw or an impediment, was the very key to his creativity. So many of the things for which we celebrate Leonardo are the product of his procrastination, especially the notebooks which overflow with ideas and visions, daydreams about helicopters and double-hulled ships and so on. Leonardo’s notebooks are the primary reason we think of him as a genius, the archetypal polymath Renaissance man, rather than “just” a brilliant artist. And he was paid for none of that creative work. It is what he did when he ought to have been doing something else.

Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.

I don’t want to get carried away. The lesson of Leonardo’s life is not to abandon yourself to procrastination. Procrastination has to be controlled. There is work to do, bills to pay. I get that.

At the same time, it is useful — for artists, especially — to think of procrastination not as a vice or a personal weakness, but as a signal, an alarm bell. It is the clearest possible indication that your current project is not inspiring to you. After all, you don’t put off something you enjoy doing. Your mind does not wander if it is engaged in something interesting.

The usual advice to procrastinators who yearn to be “cured” is to exert ever more discipline and hard work. Manage the problem. Put systems in place to help you complete a project that bores you to tears. Those are useful strategies, sometimes. Boring work simply has to get done, sometimes. But maybe, sometimes at least, we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the problem is not the worker, but the work. Remember, it is the writer’s job never to be boring, and if a project is boring to the writer himself…

Every writer knows the self-lacerating guilt that accompanies unproductive days. Lately, I have been grinding away on a stalled, lifeless book. I have spent weeks on technical problems: trying to piece together the story or engineer characters to fill various plot functions. Or simply struggling to find new ideas worth writing about. It is an inefficient, unproductive, maddening part of the process. And of course I have bashed myself endlessly for procrastinating, for all the lost hours.

But maybe I ought to be asking not what’s wrong with me, but what’s wrong with this novel? Why doesn’t it inspire me? Or, more usefully, how can I turn it into the sort of novel that will inspire me? Every writer, every artist, of even moderate ambition wants to work with passion, on projects that fill him with a sense of mission. If the project before you does not do that, then change it till it does.

For a lot of writers, I admit, that is terrible advice. Certainly it contradicts the received wisdom. When wise old writers pontificate about How To Write, one chestnut they always toss off is “Don’t wait for inspiration.” And it is true that there are plenty of writers out there who work whether they are inspired or not. They churn out a book a year, steady, workmanlike, professional, unsurprising, consistent, well-crafted books. I admire them. I envy them, honestly. You should emulate them if you can.

But I don’t want to work that way and I don’t want to write books like that. I want every book to be the best fucking thing I’ve ever done. I want every book to be electric — a mission, not just a paycheck. I want to work at the absolute outer limit of my talent, always. That sounds naive and grandiose, I know, but there it is.

We writers always complain about modern readers. “They have lost their ability to focus deeply. The web has ruined them. They read like rabbits, skittish, hopping here and there. They don’t have the necessary attention span for novels. Novels are dying because of them.” We ought to remember that when we procrastinate, when we feel uninspired, our own mood — distracted, disengaged, dull, sniffing about for something interesting — is very much like the resting state of our audience. It is our job to make novels so intensely interesting that rabbity modern readers will feel they have to read them. They will close their laptops, turn off their ginormous high-def TVs, and pick up a book instead. The surest way to do that is to choose projects that are so intensely interesting to ourselves that we feel the same sort of compulsion to close our web browsers and get to work.

Procrastination is not always bad. It may be a signal. If you consistently feel you’d rather be doing something else, then your project is obviously lacking something. Don’t ignore that signal. Use it.

(Now go read that essay on Leonardo.)

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Think Quantity

As I read about how creativity works, an idea keeps recurring:

Groundbreaking innovators generate and execute far more ideas. Research has shown that the single strongest correlation to innovative success — any category, anywhere, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, musicians — is the number of ideas they came up with and tried to make happen.… The reason why we see this relationship is because of a fundamental flaw in humans when it comes to creative and innovative ideas, which is: we are not particularly good at predicting what’s going to work or not work.

I stumbled across that quote in a talk by Frans Johansson (at around 5:45 of the video). It echoed a similar striking quote from Robert Sutton, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn’t succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues. In every occupation … from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

I was so struck by this idea, I decided to quickly check out the evidence.

  • Artworks Picasso produced in his lifetime: 20,542*
  • Inventions patented by Thomas Alva Edison: 1,093
  • Major works written by Charles Dickens: 50**
  • Compositions by J.S. Bach: over 1,000
  • Scientific papers published by Einstein: over 300***

Those are outlandish numbers, obviously, from a cherry-picked list of the famously prolific. What happens when we ignore the obvious, certified geniuses? What if we look at a few of the modern novelists I admire most? Well, they are all prolific, too.

  • Philip Roth: 27 novels, plus a half dozen other books of memoir and criticism
  • Updike: 21 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, 4 children’s books, 12 collections of non-fiction, plus an ocean of criticism that has never been collected in book form
  • Bellow: 14 novels plus a half dozen or so short story collections and nonfiction
  • Ian McEwan: 11 novels, 11 screenplays, 3 short story collections
  • Graham Greene: 28 novels, 8 plays, 10 screenplays, 4 short story collections, plus memoirs, travel books, film criticism, etc.

No, it’s not the most scientific study. And there is some selection bias there: one of the reasons I admire these writers in the first place is that they have been so productive for so long. But it is hard to dispute Sutton’s conclusion: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

Lesson #1: Churn it out. Writers like Harper Lee — the one- or two-book writers who achieve great things — are a tiny minority. The surest way to create great work is to create a lot of work. Do not wait for the Big Idea; even if you had it, you would not recognize it. Execute a lot of ideas, even the imperfect ones. Trust that somewhere in that body of work will be the one or two transcendent achievements you are hoping for.

Lesson #2: Embrace failure. It is part of the creative process. You cannot succeed without failing — and failing a lot. No matter. As Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For a procrastinator and perfectionist like me, those are two vital points to remember.

* 20,542 is just the number of Picasso’s works that have been confirmed and cataloged thus far. Estimates of all work produced range as high as 50,000.

** Famously prolific, Dickens’ total output is hard to quantify. Some line-drawing is necessary. I’ve counted as “major works” the 20 novels, 4 short story collections, 17 Christmas numbers of the magazines Dickens edited and contributed to, and 9 collections of nonfiction, poetry, and plays. (The list I used is here.) It is a rough but conservative estimate since it omits the deluge of shorter pieces he wrote for periodicals, not to mention his myriad other activities.

*** Einstein also published about 150 non-scientific papers, mostly on humanitarian or political subjects.

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The Patron Saint of Writers

I am heartened to learn there is a patron saint of writers, St. Francis de Sales. I suspect I am not the sort of writer St. Francis watches out for (atheist, lapsed Jew, author of wicked books). Nevertheless, in a pinch I may send up a prayer or two, just in case. No atheists in a foxhole.

Image: an 1867 medal of St. Francis de Sales (via).

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Why do writers like working in coffee shops?

Writers love to work in coffee shops, and I am no exception. I can’t imagine how many gallons of coffee I have consumed over the years in order to pay the “rent” for a seat at Starbucks. And yes, for writing I prefer Starbucks, in all its antiseptic corporate blandness, to funkier indie coffee shops. Probably I prefer it because of its antiseptic corporate blandness. I feel less distracted, better able to blend in there. I do have a home office but I am not very productive there and I tend to avoid it. So I spend my days traipsing from coffee shops to libraries, usually the Boston Public Library in Copley Square or the Athenaeum on Beacon Hill. I am most productive in coffee shops, though, a fact I am vaguely embarrassed to admit.

But what is it, exactly, about a bustling cafe that is conducive to writing? Conor Friedersdorf rounds up a few theories. Here is my favorite, which Friedersdorf quotes from an academic paper:

…when we are alone in a public place, we have a fear of “having no purpose.” If we are in a public place and it looks like we have no business there, it may not seem socially appropriate. In coffee-shops it is okay to be there to drink coffee but loitering is definitely not allowed by coffee-shop owners, so coffee-shop patrons deploy different methods to look “busy.” Being disengaged is our big social fear, especially in public spaces, and people try to cover their “being there” with an acceptable visible activity.

That is, we writers are such hopeless procrastinators that we will only get down to work when our natural inability to focus is outweighed by something even more unpleasant: the fear of being exposed as a procrastinator, the potential embarrassment of looking like we “have no purpose” — the fear of being exposed as a fraud. We go to coffee shops to work in public because we want to feel those eyes watching us, shaming us into work. The advent of wi-fi at coffee shops largely short-circuits this strategy by allowing writers to look busy from a distance when in fact all we are doing is surfing the web. Still, it gives us a fighting chance in the war against our own worst instincts.

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What Creativity Means

Everything Is a Remix

Creativity is not about making something out of nothing. It is about making something new out of old things. When we say that an artist creates, what we mean is that he refines, reshapes, remixes. He synthesizes. I am not creative, in the sense that I have no ability to manufacture novels out of thin air. I am an exceptional remixer.

Lately, desperate to get my new novel started, I have been suffering from a wrongheaded dread of influence, formula, and topicality, when in truth these are the very things I should be looking to. I have been suffering from a lack of input, starving the creative machine of fuel — ideas — then wondering why the engine will not start.

Wannabe writers ask, “Is there a book in me?,” then lose themselves in introspection, like a dog chasing its own tail. It is the wrong question. Look outward.

Image: Kirby Ferguson – “Everything Is a Remix.”

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The Five Commandments

The last couple of weeks I’ve been cleaning up a few final details for my last novel and trying — futilely — to get the next one started. How, exactly, do you start writing a novel? Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve been spending my days writing and unwriting the same few sentences, kneading the same few barren ideas in the hope they will yield something new — a character, a scene. So far, nothing.

Of course, the initial stages of a new project are always hard. There is nothing to work with, just a few very vague concepts and reams and reams of blank pages. Big deal, right? I’ve been here before. I know how the process works. I know this period is going to suck. I expect it to suck. The trouble is, well, it has sucked.

It is an intractable fact of the writing life: a writer who stops writing for any reason is vulnerable to all sorts of infection. Laziness. Time-wasting. Loss of confidence. Now a new peril: impostor syndrome, as the rave reviews for my just-completed novel increasingly diverge from the endless fail-loop of my workdays, and the disconnect between hype and reality becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Enough is enough. Herewith, a reminder to myself of some basic rules. They aren’t really commandments; in fact, they may not work for other writers at all. And there aren’t even ten. But they’re important enough to me to recite them here, again. (If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, you’ve probably run across these ideas in bits and pieces.) These are the things I tend to forget when I fall into an unproductive rut in the beginning stages of a novel, as I have now.

Continue reading →

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Creating Billy Bathgate

“He was born in that first sentence, in the rhythm of it, in the syntax. You could even hear his breath just by reading that sentence out loud to yourself.”

— E. L. Doctorow on the creation of Billy Bathgate, a character who arose not from Doctorow’s research or his own childhood memories — not, that is, from a concept — but organically in the moment of writing, from words on the page. In another interview Doctorow has said of the 131-word sentence that opens the novel,

“I found Billy in the syntax of that sentence. What you see, if you care to look, is all there in the breathing. It was the only thing I was sure of when I began — that the story came from that first sentence. It carried his rhapsodic intelligence and was capable of sustaining his keenness and emotional response and fear. His voice sustains or finds its form in a long roving sentence. It’s part and parcel of Billy. In all my books I’ve stumbled upon a voice in which to tell the story. It’s not my voice — it’s the character’s.”

The lesson (if there is one): Don’t wait too long to start writing. Don’t waste time perfecting your ideas. Trust that inchoate notions will coalesce into concrete things as you write them into existence. (Of course, an alternative lesson you could draw from all this is “Be E. L. Doctorow.” Now there’s a demoralizing a thought.)

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Flaubert at Work

From Frederick Brown’s definitive biography of Flaubert, a typical day during the writing of Madame Bovary in 1851-56. Flaubert was 30-35 at the time.

Flaubert, a man of nocturnal habits, usually awoke at 10 a.m. and announced the event with his bell cord. Only then did people dare speak above a whisper. His valet, Narcisse, straightaway brought him water, filled his pipe, drew the curtains, and delivered the morning mail. Conversation with Mother, which took place in clouds of tobacco smoke particularly noxious to the migraine sufferer, preceded a very hot bath and a long, careful toilette involving the regular application of a tonic reputed to arrest hair loss. At 11 a.m. he entered the dining room, where Mme. Flaubert; Liline [Flaubert’s niece]; her English governess Isabel Hutton; and very often Uncle Parain would have gathered. Unable to work well on a full stomach, he ate lightly, or what passed for such in the Flaubert household, meaning that his first meal consisted of eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate.… In June 1852, Flaubert [wrote in a letter] that he worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. A year later, when he assumed partial responsibility for Liline’s education and gave her an hour or more of his time each day, he may not have put pen to paper at his large round writing table until two o’clock or later.

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Fast Fish and Loose Fish

Barry Moser, "Head of the Sperm Whale"

In a famous chapter of Moby Dick, Melville explains the law governing ownership of whales at sea.

It frequently happens that when several ships are cruising in company, a whale may be struck by one vessel, then escape, and be finally killed and captured by another vessel; and herein are indirectly comprised many minor contingencies, all partaking of this one grand feature. For example,— after a weary and perilous chase and capture of a whale, the body may get loose from the ship by reason of a violent storm; and drifting far away to leeward, be retaken by a second whaler, who, in a calm, snugly tows it alongside, without risk of life or line. Thus the most vexatious and violent disputes would often arise between the fishermen, were there not some written or unwritten, universal, undisputed law applicable to all cases.…

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

…What is a Fast-Fish? Alive or dead a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,— a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same. Likewise a fish is technically fast when it bears a waif [ed. note: a pole stuck into the floating body of a dead whale as a marker], or any other recognized symbol of possession; so long as the party wailing it plainly evince their ability at any time to take it alongside, as well as their intention so to do.

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In Between Days

Productive novelists hurry from one project to the next. Lee Child has said that the moment he types the last sentence of a book, he immediately writes the first few sentences of the next one. That manic pace is partly a function of the book-a-year schedule that top-sellers like Lee have to maintain. As a practical matter, if you intend to deliver a book every twelve months, there just isn’t time to slow down between projects.

But there is something else, too. The doldrums between books is a dangerous, depressing time for a writer. In an interview I posted here a long time ago, Philip Roth said, “Without a novel I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy.” I have that bereft feeling now.

I sent off my last book to my editor a few weeks ago. Since then, I have been trying to assemble the first stirrings of the next book, all the notes, clippings and research, all the vague notions that I have been collecting for the project over the years. These scraps don’t mean much. When I look them over now, they don’t cohere. Whatever glimmer of inspiration I saw in them is long gone. But I keep organizing my old notes, studying them, rereading them, because they are the only clues I have about what this dim intuition in my head is leading to. Also, honestly, I don’t know what else to do. How, exactly, do I go about finding the story in all this mess?

How to start a new book is an especially fraught subject for me. I have had long gaps after each of my novels, which has hurt me commercially. My first English publisher, Transworld, dropped me because I was not “writing regularly.” But the problem has not been slow writing. The problem has been projects that were badly chosen, badly planned, or simply abandoned too soon — healthy babes smothered to death in the crib. I have learned the hard way how crucial this inception stage really is. Choose the wrong story or build the right story the wrong way, and you may wind up writing yourself into a corner or (every writer’s nightmare) abandoning a half-finished manuscript. The time-penalty for a mistake like that is measured in months, even years.

So I want to move quickly this time, but I do not want to make a mistake. Hesitation is fatal, but lack of hesitation can be, too. The trick, as John Wooden put it, is to “move quickly but don’t rush.”

In the meantime, tonight is New Years Eve. The clock will be ticking especially loudly for me.

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Shoes

This video made the rounds on the web a while ago, when Converse announced the latest reinterpretation of its sneakers by designer Ryusaku Hiruma, but I only discovered it the other day.

Fashion clod that I am, I had never heard of Hiruma or his Converse shoes. For the uninitiated: Ryusaku “Sak” Hiruma is a Japanese designer who has been studying traditional shoemaking techniques in Florence for almost a decade. Over the last few years, Sak has applied old-world craft to produce chic, luxurious handmade versions of Converse’s classic Jack Purcell, Chuck Taylor, and One Star models. The latest Sak/Converse shoe, a design based on an old basketball shoe called the Star Tech, features fine leather and hand-stitching throughout. Only 64 pairs will be made, in natural shades of tan, off-white and black leather. Retailing for $600, they will be available only in New York, Boston, and Costa Mesa. (Costa Mesa?) If you’re into shoe porn, details are here and here.

I loved this video. I found it oddly touching and romantic, not just for Sak’s dedication to craft and tradition but for personal reasons. My own family was in the shoe business for several generations. Growing up, I assumed I would be too. There were no writers or artists of any kind in my family or anywhere else in my world. Even now I think I might have been very happy making shoes.

Maybe that is why I have a nagging sense that, as a writer, I don’t really “make” anything. A book is an ethereal creation, a non-object. It exists as a chain of words, separate and apart from the paper-and-ink thing we call by that name. Book publishing is only now transitioning to digital, permanently alienating the idea of a “book” from a physical object, but writing made the leap decades ago. In my own daily working life, paper plays no part. Over the two years or so it takes me to produce a novel, I never print out a hard-copy manuscript. And when I am done, I simply email a digital file to my editor. There is no object to hold, really, until I receive bound copies from the publisher, long after the writing is done. Even then, the physical books do not feel like my creation. Only the words do.

Contrast that with the intensely physical world of traditional shoemaking in this video. The materials are so lush and sensuous. Even the tools have a gorgeous patina. That the shoemaker’s artistry is lavished on such a low, practical object — when you step in shit, it is not your hat that is ruined — only makes the concrete physicality of the whole thing that much more real and authentic. Only 64 pairs of these shoes will be made, and Hiruma will touch every one with his own hands. And, poignantly, every one one of those shoes will wear out.

Novels, of course, are theoretically immortal precisely because they are insubstantial. My books can be reprinted and rescreened into infinity, and each copy is no less my creation than any other. Maybe that is what makes the shoemaker’s art so poignant to a writer: he cannot give you his creation without surrendering it himself.

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Voices in Our Heads

This afternoon at a crowded Starbucks in Back Bay — where I was writing furiously to finish my latest rewrite while gorging myself with pumpkin scones — there was a homeless man sitting alone in one of the burgundy plush chairs. He had the typical homeless look: scraggly hair, sunken eyes, windburned skin, ragged army jacket, patinaed head to toe with dirt. But he was also handsome in a down-and-out way. He had a thin face with dignified features. His nose was as narrow as a shark’s fin. When he smiled, his teeth were very straight and white. There were laugh lines around his eyes and mouth which, if he were a banker or lawyer, would have seemed very distinguished.

This man was carrying on an animated conversation with an imaginary friend, who seemed to be sitting by the man’s left knee. The man would turn to his invisible friend and say, “It was a gentleman’s agreement.… Spartacus was the leader of the Anatolians.… It was Johnson was the leader then.… I told him, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he wouldn’t listen.” As I was only hearing half of the conversation, I can’t say what tied these sentences together. He kept repeating the phrase “it was a gentleman’s agreement” over and over; he seemed to be telling his friend a story about how he’d been stiffed somehow. (What part Spartacus and his brave Anatolians played in the whole thing is anybody’s guess.)

What set this man apart from the usual crazy, murmuring homeless guy was how well he acted the part of a man in conversation. He listened attentively while his imaginary friend spoke. He nodded and smiled. When his friend made a joke (apparently), he pointed and grinned appreciatively: good one. He spoke in an ordinary, natural conversational tone, with the sort of expressive gesturing you see in a lot of hand-talkers. And he did all this without acknowledging the crowd of customers on every side of him.

I watched this performance furtively, avoiding eye contact, ducking down behind my laptop, and I thought, How sad, a crazy homeless guy talking to himself.

Then it occurred to me that I was writing dialogue, too. Specifically, I was imagining a conversation among four fictional characters, all of whom I have described in elaborate, fastidious, lunatic detail over the course of five hundred or so double-spaced pages, a project that has taken me the better part of three years now.

Then the homeless man left, and I was the only crazy one.

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Drawing Circles

The other day I blogged about the story of Giotto’s O: A messenger from the Pope arrived in Giotto’s studio in Florence one morning. He asked for a drawing to prove the artist’s skill to the Pope, who was seeking a painter for some frescoes in St. Peter’s. As Vasari tells the story, Giotto “immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.” Of course, Giotto got the job.

I had never heard the story until I ran across it online recently. It stuck in my mind, a romantic parable of what artistic mastery means. To paint an angel, first you must learn to paint a perfect circle — something like that.

Curious, I wandered around the web looking for more information about Giotto and his circle, and, in the hopscotch way of the web, I found an interesting blog post that linked Giotto’s O to a different sort of circle, the ensō, the asymmetric circle of Japanese Zen calligraphy.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. [Wikipedia]

The imperfection of the circle — the asymmetry, the visible brush trails, the blobs of ink — is the point. In its very “flaws,” ensō embodies a traditional Japanese aesthetic, fukinsei (不均整), asymmetry or irregularity. Garr Reynolds (one of my favorite bloggers) explains,

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso … is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.

So these two famous circles, Giotto’s O and the ensō, embody very different aesthetic ideals.

Giotto’s circle is precise mechanical perfection, “a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see.” Even his technique is machinelike: he pins his elbow to his side, turning his arm into a virtual compass.

Vasari adds another detail, as well. In the versions of the story that I initially read, Giotto loads his brush with red paint and paints the circle with a single sweep of his arm. But in Vasari’s telling, Giotto scratches out his circle with a pen (a quill, presumably) rather than a brush. He wants to eliminate even the wavering edge of a brush stroke, the little quivers of the bent bristles.

In writing, that sort of perfectionism is fatal. The very idea of creating “perfect” sentences or stories is paralyzing. No one can write perfectly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I am a perfectionist by nature. It is no wonder the Giotto story appealed to me. But there are no Giottos in writing. You have to embrace imperfection, you have to accept the little oddities and surprises that emerge in the moment of creation, in the immersive “flow” state that characterizes the best writing sessions. I don’t know the first thing about Zen, but to me the go-with-it philosophy of the ensō feels much truer to the actual experience of writing well. It is not a feeling of abandon; like ensō painting, good writing is never careless or out of control. At the same time, every writer has to accept the little wobbles of his brush, the little traces of his bristles, the funny pear-shape of his ensō. Not because these flaws are unavoidable (though they are) but because they are beautiful.

To a writer like me — who tends to self-edit too much, who sometimes imagines he can write perfectly — the story of Giotto’s O teaches the wrong lesson. I will think of the ensō instead.

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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.

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Experimental Writers vs. Conceptual Writers

Economist David Galenson posits that there are two types of writers: experimenters, a group that includes Dickens, Twain, and Virginia Woolf; and visionaries, such as Melville, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.

Experimental innovators are seekers. Their most basic characteristic is persistent uncertainty about their methods and goals: they are typically dissatisfied with their current work, but have only vague ideas about how to improve it. Their dissatisfaction impels them to experiment, and their uncertainty means that they change their work by trial and error, moving tentatively toward their imperfectly perceived objectives. No matter how great their progress, their uncertainty rarely allows them to consider any of their works a complete success.

In contrast, conceptual innovators are finders. Their basic characteristic is certainty about some aspect of their work — their method, their goals, or both. Their certainty often allows them to work methodically, according to some system, toward their goals. Their clarity of intent and confidence in their ability often allow them to feel that they have fully realized their objectives in a particular work.

The life cycles of experimental and conceptual writers tend to differ sharply. Experimental writers’ achievements usually depend on gradual improvements in their understanding of their subjects and in their mastery of their craft. Their major contributions consequently emerge only after many years of writing, often late in their careers. Conceptual innovations, which depend on the formulation of new ideas, are made more quickly, and … typically occur early in a writer’s career.

— David W. Galenson, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Carers of Modern Novelists” (2004) (link, fee required).

Galenson’s research is fascinating and feels dead-on to me. I am very much an “experimental” writer. No lightning bolts, no visionary insights, no “Eureka!” Only gradual, uncertain, incremental iterations of idea after idea, draft after draft. I plane my sentences over and over, like a carpenter, yet they never feel finished. No book ever feels completed, only abandoned. And always flawed.

The good news? Experimental writers tend to reach their peak later and hold it longer. That feels right to me, also. I am convinced my peak is still ahead of me and that ten years hence I will be writing much better books than I am now. But then, that attitude is probably the mark of an “experimentalist” personality too — the actual, completed books feel hopelessly botched, but the faith always remains that someday, by rigorous trial and error, I will chisel out a “perfect” book. So it goes.

(For a fuller explanation of Galenson’s theory, Malcolm Gladwell repackaged Galenson’s research for an interesting New Yorker article a couple of years ago.)

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Vita Brevis, Ars Brevior

 

Last night I watched The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the 1965 film version of le Carré’s novel. The movie is very good — not quite great, but very good. It does a lot of things well. It is beautifully shot, with an elegant gray palette and wonderfully dingy sets. It is well written. Even at 112 minutes long, the plotting is tight and the dialogue is generally rich and credible. (Le Carré himself added some polish to the screenplay.) The acting is terrific. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom shine in the lead roles, of course, but the cast is filled out with obscure actors in supporting roles who are just as good, especially Cyril Cusack as the spymaster “Control” in London, and Oskar Werner as an East German intelligence officer named Fiedler. The whole thing plays like a watered-down version of The Third Man — which I mean as high praise, actually. You could do a lot worse than The Third Man Lite. I came away thinking that TSWCIFTC sits somewhere in that range of movies that are much better than average yet not good enough (or lucky enough) to last. I have no doubt it was one of the best movies of 1965; now it is almost completely forgotten.

To an artist, that is a queasy thought. Ars longa, vita brevis, we like to think. Life is short, art endures.* But the truth is, the vast majority of the art that gets churned up every year — movies, music, literature, pictures, dance, all of it — is about as brevis as you can get. It perishes almost immediately. Even very, very good work like this movie is quickly buried in the endless avalanche of newer creations.

This is no great insight. Every writer knows that ars longa, vita brevis is a vanity. You have only to walk through the endless dusty, abandoned stacks of a library to realize how quickly books are forgotten, even very good books. (Dr. Johnson pointed this out long ago.) Only an infinitesimal percentage of books remain current for any length of time. The rest die by the millions. Ars longa, my ass.

The good news is that, from the audience’s perspective, the reservoir of good art is vastly deeper than we tend to think, especially now, when the long-tail economy of the digiverse makes even the most recherché obscurities quite easy to obtain. If you scratch below the surface even a little bit, there are lots of forgotten jewels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. That is a fact I will do my best to ignore when I sit down to work.

* Yes, I know that is not a completely accurate translation of ars longa, vita brevis, but it is how the phrase is generally understood today.

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