Constraint, ii

26 January 2010

For those of you who were interested the last time I wrote about Javier Marías’ reading at New Haven & the constraint (at least that’s what I called it) that he employs, here’s another account of the same event by Andrew Seal at Blogophia Literaria:

Finally, he [Marías] offered an interesting account of how he writes. After a page is finished—I don’t believe he said “perfected,” but he could have, not because he was less than humble, but because that would be an appropriate verb for his writing—he will not add new material or subtract anything from it to restructure the shape of the narrative. He says he will make continuity corrections (switching a Thursday to a Tuesday), but he doesn’t change what he has written if doing so might make things more convenient for the novel at a later stage; if Marías didn’t think of it the first time, he has to write his way around it at the point in the narrative when it becomes necessary to do so. If it might help, for instance, that a character knew something 20 pages earlier than when Marías thought about it, all the worse for the character—and for Marías—he described this method as “suicidal!” He sticks to this principle, he says, because he wants to parallel the conditions of knowledge in real life. Not knowing something when you’re twenty has actual consequences, no matter how much you might wish you had known that thing now that you’re thirty.

I’d wished before I could have been there to ask Marías in more detail, but a stereoscopic report of the answers he gave is the next best thing. It’s fascinating to see two people give such different accounts of the same thing — I know I’m reinventing the Rashomon wheel here, but still.

Seal doesn’t mention the typewriter, which honestly was the first thing that caught my eye in Crowley’s version, but his account is a nice answer to my nagging skepticism over what had before sounded to me a little like a Kerouackian scroll, writing without revision. I wrote before that the essential unit of Marías prose was the long, baroque, redoubled sentence; later I emended that to the paragraph; but now, knowing that he ‘perfects’ or ‘finishes’ a page & then moves on, it’s easier to read the long paragraphs as ‘pages,’ & the effect of the way he writes that I keep trying to describe is the same, a kind of working-out or working-through of a thing, turning it around & around in hand & reconsidering it & then setting it down & moving on to the next. And I still think the typewriter is an especially good vehicle for this kind of writing, the way the sentences are set down immovably & you have to work out what you want to say before diving into them.

All of this, at any rate, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago that turned to the idea of writing in darkness. A couple of lines from a letter Diderot wrote always come to my mind —

“This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . .. not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

— Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

— but also got me thinking about Nicholson Baker, who told the Wall Street Journal that he writes essentially the same way that his protagonist writes in A Box of Matches, at 4 a.m. on an old laptop with the background black & the letters dark blue, the screen lowered so that it’s grazing the tops of his knuckles, staring into a fire; darkness writing. For The Anthologist, though, he’d recorded a few hundred hours of tape narrating as the titular poetry anthologist & then transcribed it, to try to get the voice right.

Method of composition leaves its mark on writing — whether we write it out in longhand, whether we assemble on notecards, whether we dictate or record our own voices or type out & refuse to change pages once they’ve been perfected. I remember reading once, years ago, Walker Evans’ introduction to an edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that talked about James Agee’s ‘night writing’ . . . ah. Here it is, from google books:

Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the result shows this; some sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter (p. 34) is particularly night-permeated.

— “Forward,” p. vi

You could make method a kind of performance art, define in advance a method of composition for each novel, suited or at odds with the project, to capturing the voice or produce something different from what you’d written before. Dictate one novel via telephone, assemble the other out of napkins, type the third on Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, bought at auction, write the fourth with nothing but a quill pen, the fifth into your second language & then retranslated. I don’t know if constraints of writing method are the same as constraints as in Georges Perec — but aren’t the rituals of our national writers, reported on wide-eyed by journalists in the Wall Street Journal, already performative?

(Speaking of that article, headlined — really? — “How to Write a Great Novel,” here’s Margaret Atwood treating the question with the appropriate level of seriousness:

“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot,” Margaret Atwood says when asked where her ideas come from. When questioned about whether she’s ever used that approach, she adds, “No. I don’t have to.”)

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2 Responses to “Constraint, ii”

  1. John B. Says:

    This was fun to read, Jim.

    You know about Oulipo, I assume (Perec was among them). Their methods (the ones I’ve heard of, at any rate) consist of rules imposed on language itself, as opposed to the time(s) and space(s) of composition.

    Somewhat like Marías, John Gardner (Grendel) wrote from memory: He wouldn’t outline beforehand but plot it out in his mind. I don’t know if he’d go back and revise for convenience’s sake, though.

    Thomas Wolfe, a tall man, wrote by standing and using the top of his icebox as a desk. Faulkner (his three essentials: “Paper. Tobacco. Whiskey.”), when he went into his study to work, would remove the outer doorknob and close the door behind him. Someone whose book I read–not a novelist; I forget the book and the writer–wrote in his foreword that he wrote while wearing a hat (a signal to his family not to disturb him).

    This stuff fascinates me. I’m not sure why; I suppose that it’s because the whole notion of the writer’s discipline (and its accompanying ritual) is something I admire, since I am not anyone’s idea of “disciplined” as a writer.

    • Jim Sligh Says:

      James Baldwin would keep a typewriter in the kitchen at parties & work while he socialized.

      Thomas Pynchon, at least according to this article (in last month’s London Review of Books), would wear the same outfit, or copies of the same outfit, green cords & a purple shirt, kept drawerfuls of gun manuals — “He liked to think of weapons as ambivalent sexual components of the underworld he was tying to make sense of” — never took phone calls, & the reference we get in the article to Gravity’s Rainbow is “a pile of papers on a desk – scraps, handwritten notes, different coloured paper – and he would add to it if you said something he thought worth keeping.”

      Notebooks show up to in a Times profile of David Mitchell: “Here, written in minuscule, exquisite print, are the raw materials of a future novel, set in 18th-century Holland: columns of mix-and-match Dutch first and last names, schematic diagrams of possible scenes, historical facts, interesting words, stray thoughts, snippets of dialogue. He reads one aloud – ” ‘Would you buy a thing you can’t see? Would you buy a cat in a bag?’

      The baroque way that Gay Talese works (how is this not performance art regardless of what he writes?): ziploc bags with typewritten labels, file boxes marked with handmade collages, notes written on drycleaners’ shirtboards in six different colors of pen, two changes of clothes just to get down to his study, the day’s single page pinned to a styrofoam board over his desk.

      But surely there’s also a way that we can usefully distinguish between idiosyncratic personal habits that allow us to carve out space in our personal lives & the tools we use, methods of composition. Writer’s rituals are always interesting, but also interesting to me is the way a method can be adopted in order to modulate the voice that comes out of you when you write, change the product. At what point is discipline just good work ethic, at what point constraint art?


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