The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

Arts vs. Crowds

If you’re the type of performer who finds a comfortable venue in small clubs and bars, particularly if you’re a musician or standup comedian, you’ve had to deal with obnoxious crowds. It’s just a fact of the business, like late hours and occasionally free beer.

Performers should want the crowd to feel engaged and enthusiastic about what it is they’re doing and sometimes they even goad the audience into participation, but some nights the vibrations in the room or a slight miscalculation of pints-per-hour can send certain types right over the edge.

Hecklers can be nice-and-annoying, but more often are annoying-and-annoying. Screaming “Canada loves you!” at Bill Maher might seem nice—it is a compliment, technically—but this eruption means little or nothing to a man performing for thousands. My bet is that the standing ovation will clue him in that at least some small part of Canada (heckler included) loves him.

Some hecklers seem jealous that lights are pointed at the comedian on stage, and they try to compete by being obnoxious and loud. These people, presumably attending the show of their own free will, find it easier to antagonize the performer than to just walk out. That combative approach would be intimidating if it wasn’t draped over their desperation for some small piece of the limelight.

Some people yell “Freebird!” at every rock show, which wasn’t funny when I was a kid and hasn’t become funny since.

Usually artists have planned their material. Doing the odd request is fine, but it seems a bit condescending to me that a member of the audience would rather hear something familiar than something the artist has planned. If the artist has something worth saying, I don’t want them to digress for one loud person.

I suppose comedians have special purview here, since the role of the heckler is perfect for comedic riposte. That being said, I can’t wait to yell “Freebird” at Todd Barry this Friday.

Autopilot

From the first moments of our lives we are conditioned through pain (negative reinforcement), reward (positive reinforcement) and habit. Before we say our first words most of us learn to avoid things if they’re too hot or too sharp, and we’ve learned these things so deeply we don’t even have to think about them. When it comes to staying safe, autopilot is a trusted friend that will last a lifetime.

You don’t walk into a room conscious of every facet of the experience. You aren’t necessarily paying attention to your ankles as you turn a corner, or the way the denim over your left knee flexes against your skin. Even if you decide to pay attention to these experiences, there are always other inputs you’re ignoring. You don’t have to be conscious of every little thing because we’ve evolved competencies at a great number of safety maneuvers, like blinking, that automatically keep us protected.

Fortunately, just being alive in the physical world forces us into these good habits, and much of our learning in this capacity is the result of pain. If I rested my hand on a cold burner and then turned it on, it wouldn’t take long for the signals to engage my brain to pull my hand away. In fact, it would take a tremendous effort of will to keep my hand there despite the pain.

Positive reinforcement works too, but it can be difficult to give yourself enough pleasure to make it work. Pain is acute and causes a quick response, but to cause an equally acute pleasure can be a bit dangerous; the pleasant brain state has to be severe enough so the accompanying behaviors are imprinted with pleasurable reinforcement. This is what makes some drugs so dangerously habit-forming.

Mental habits are a bit trickier to pick up, but pain and pleasure can still be used to install programs that seem just as automatic as our physical safety features. You can eliminate a word from your vocabulary very easily: put an elastic band around your wrist and snap yourself so it hurts every time you say the word. It won’t take long until you find yourself speaking more consciously and deliberately, and you’ll quickly gain more control of your vocabulary. (Pick a word you use frequently if you want to see effects quickly.)

If you have an aversion to pain, and don’t have a quick and safe way to administer pleasure, an effective but more difficult way to learn something is by installing a habit. Consciously decide to do something every day, stick with it, and soon the habit will become engrained. Self-programming can be a real pain, but that pain might be the reason it works. You spend extra willpower now so you can use less later.

For example, I meditate every morning on the same cushion in the same part of my home. Those mornings when I wake from a dream or I’m otherwise mentally distracted, I sometimes catch myself unconsciously grabbing the cushion, setting it in place and having a stretch to get ready for my session.

I sometimes appreciate the value of this habit when I can fully remember what I was distracted about while I put the cushion in place. I was working out some story problem or thinking about something for the day’s work, and I sometimes don’t even remember grabbing the cushion because it was so far from my conscious mind. I was just “going through the motions,” and I’ve trained daily to perfect those motions so I can literally do them without thinking.

The goal is to make the habit unconscious, so that all things being equal, when my mind is on autopilot, my unconscious or subconscious mind will simply follow through with the routine and I won’t have to engage consciously in any debate about whether or not I should go through with it.

If you want to pick up a new behavior or habit, grit your teeth and commit to doing it for a week. Keep in mind that if it’s a bit of a pain, if it sucks and you catch yourself trying to talk yourself out of it, it’s probably because you’re body and mind just aren’t used to the behavior. Tell yourself it’s just for a week and get on with it. Odds are that by the end of the week you won’t find it nearly as hard to continue as you previously thought. You’ve begun training your autopilot, and from now on it will take over some of the workload for you.

The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.