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Writing Into Your Arc


as championed by Merlin Mann and including a reference to Nabokov, the writer.


Merlin Mann of 43Folders and You Look Nice Today is on a crusade and I salute him. While I really want to discuss this crusade with you, that is for another time when we are both less tired and possibly more inebriated. For today, I want to reflect on the first entry of that crusade.

In a recent post on 43Folders -- The Wire: Writing Into Your Arc -- Merlin writes about the TV show The Wire, and specifically about how well constructed it is. Each scene works well on its own, but also works really well as part of a show, as part of a season, as part of a series. Each piece fits into, and indeed, receives it's power from a larger arc.

OK BUT: Merlin's post isn't just about how awesome The Wire is - though it is very much about that - it is also about this idea of an arc, and how important thinking in terms of an arc is to being creative in the world. He asks: What is the story you are telling with what you do? How does it all fit together? As he writes:

The inspiration you need to take away from this is the idea that every scene matters to some arc... Whether your given "scene" is in a screenplay, or an Excel spreadsheet, or the Tweet that you’re about to type about your flight delay: it matters. It all matters.


It's a great post - you should read it, but now - HOW THIS RELATES TO NABOKOV:


Very soon after I graduated from college, I read a collection of Vladimir Nabokov's writing on butterflies. Aside from being an other-worldly good writer, VN also worked as a semi-professional lepidopterist, publishing actual scholarly work on the subject, as well as peppering his fiction with butterfly references. He is attributed as saying, "Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man," which while odd and totally anachronistic, is also kind of charming.

Ok, but anyway: when I read this book, which book arranged VN's butterfly writing chronologically and spanned nearly all his books, I got a very strong sense that all of VN's books fit together to form a sort of super Vultron book; and so, being recently out of school and still both smart and dumb enough to do this, I decided to read all of VN's books in sequence.

VN wrote a lot of books. The novels alone count 17; then there's the poetry and the short stories and the plays. I focused on the novels, but still. It took me a little over a year, a good chunk of that spent on Ada and rereading Lolita, because holy crap, it truly is that damn good.

NOW: The point here is that whether or not VN set out to do this, his arc was completely clear and by the end totally devastating. A lot of VN's writing deals with time and madness, and while that sounds terrible, I assure you it is not. But what really enriched the whole experience for me, and this is the important part, is that I decided to read them as an arc. I chose to open up my brain and allow the stories to get bigger. This is important and translates to one's work as a creative person, the choice to see everything as part of a larger whole means that you are working on something bigger, something unified. In a cultural moment where it's easier to spread out, to sidetrack-task, it's cool to think that you can tie it all together and make it more than the sum of it's parts if you choose to participate in it as an arc. Again, as Merlin writes:

But you very much do have the power to design the arcs you make, starting today. And even if you haven’t figured out how your final episode ends, consider how the pieces you want to lay down might fit together. And how the string that you gather might crack a case you hadn’t expected.

So this is cool, but it really resonates with us here at Cognomen recently (about which: more later) - this idea that you can be both wildly divergent and connected at the same time; that everything is connected if you allow it to be, and the thing you are working on will fit in if you think it will.

(Inspired by 43 Folders.)

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Reader Comments (2)

Hello sir,

Noodling on twitter and saw the tweet linking this post. I like Nabokov, and I like this post. I don't watch the Wire and I hope that's OK. Have you read Remembrance of Things Past?

I have read 2/3ds of it, then bought a car and rode public transit less often and never read any more of it. Anyway. There is a theory expressed in there that any great artist really only produces one single work that does not become clear until they have finished their arc, as it were. Not only does it fit in if they think it will, there is no way they could avoid it fitting in.

For a short cut, I recommend the Samuel Beckett essay on Proust - it is fantastic.

Best regards,JS
October 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJS van Buskirk
Hey there JS -

It is a rare comment that references both Proust and Beckett. Bravo.

I have read Swann's Way, but not the other 50 volumes or however many he wrote; though I A) love that you have plowed through most of it; and B) totally agree re: a great artist produces one long work. Proust might be the most focused example of this, though I suppose Walt Whitman could also be considered - literally writing one book over his whole life that essentially fused with his life (while Proust basically stopped living in order to write out the entirety of his past...)

OK, BUT ANYWAY: I will most definitely read Beckett's essay on Proust (thanks for the tip); and if you have not done so already, might I recommend in return, Pale Fire by Nabokov re: these same issues.
October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Latkiewicz

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