“Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it’s the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I’ve always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.”Don DeLillo, Mao II
The Moral Force of a Sentence
Killing a Butterfly (To Make It Real)
The novelist Ann Patchett once said that writing a novel (or anything really) is like killing a butterfly. The novel in our heads (the butterfly) is perfect because our imagination isn’t subject to the limits of reality, but eventually we have to pluck that butterfly out of the air and pin it down on the page with (at first) imperfect words. In my experience, rewriting revives the butterfly. While it may not be the same butterfly of our imagination, it’s real.
. . . I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.Ann Patchett
On Potentially Writing a Play
For years I’ve had a mild yet persistent interest in writing a play. I like the limits of the stage just as I like the limits of haiku because when there’s only so much I can do behind a closed curtain or on a page with three lines those limits become creative restrictions. And yet I have thoughts that there’s no point writing a play unless it’s guaranteed to be produced. What are those thoughts? Why is it so important to have a guarantee before starting?
A while ago Alan Jacobs wrote a three act play based on the friendship and correspondence between J.R.R. Tolkien and W.H. Auden. I have no idea if the play is any good because I don’t yet have playwriting standards (the mark of a true amateur perhaps?) but I admire that he gave it a shot and then published the play on his website as if to say it didn’t need to be produced by a stage company to be validated.
Sometimes I find that rather than trying to identify what feelings are holding me back from starting, in this case, a play, it’s easier to group them together under the umbrella of ‘resistance’. Could those thoughts be fear disguised as reason? Yes. Could those reasons be valid? Yes. But I suppose, if I really wanted, I could find a good reason not to do anything if I thought about it long enough.
Perhaps the creative impulse never “makes sense” because it doesn’t always lead to money and recognition in an artist’s lifetime (or ever) so I may never find an airtight reason to fulfil that need. And yet, it still makes me happy and I still need to do it, with or without guarantees.
A few days ago Harper Collins published an anthology of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison’s writing. The bulk of this near 600 page tome of poetry, lyrics, transcripts and more comes from the 28 (now privately held) notebooks Jim left behind after his death. Imagine if Jim instead saved his work on a computer and no one could access it because they didn’t know the password or the hard drive crashed. Paper can burn but it can’t crash.
Some time ago two universities in Texas, Texas State and Uni of Texas at Austin, acquired the papers of my two favourite novelists Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. McCarthy’s papers amount to 96 boxes and DeLillo’s 157 boxes. I was curious how either man was convinced to part with their work but then I thought if a university asked me if they could collect my work for preservation and research I would probably oblige. Maybe they would take better care of those papers and notebooks than me?
So what kind of trail am I leaving? I backup my work on clouds but how secure are they? I also think perhaps the more my work stays in the disembodied realm of a computer the more, in a sense, the trail becomes lost to me.
Next time I’ll think twice before I feed the paper shredder.
Make Your Own Rules
T.S. Eliot once wrote that “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.” Given his background Eliot may have been talking about the creative restrictions of poetic forms but I think the principle applies to rules in general as well.
Art is one of the few places where you get to make the rules. When recording his fifth studio album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye West laid out some studio rules that included:
NO HIPSTER HATS
NO RACKING FOCUS WHILE MUSIC IS BEING PLAYED OR MUSIC IS BEING MADE
These rules may seem arbitrary to me or you but to Kanye these were essential to the particular situation he was in. Someone in the studio, possibly Kanye himself, was tweeting or blogging and no music was being made. So, in that hypothetical situation, the rules are there to prevent (or minimise) the sprawl of procrastination because it’s easy, maybe even natural, to turn away when there’s difficult work to be done.
On this dual nature of ours Don DeLillo wrote that “a writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” If an award-winning novelist also struggles with procrastination (and still manages to write) we’re in good company.
So go ahead. Make some rules for yourself.
Lila: An Inquiry into Morals is a novel about a writer writing a novel while sailing down the Hudson River with the eponymous Lila in tow. Phaedrus, the main character, coaxes his novel into existence with index cards instead of the traditional notebook or typewriter. As it turns out there’s a method to the madness.
“The reason Phaedrus used slips rather than full-sized sheets of paper is that a card-catalog tray full of slips provides a more random access. When information is organized in small chunks that can be accessed and sequenced at random it becomes much more valuable than when you have to take it in serial form. It’s better, for example to run a post office where the patrons have numbered boxes and can come in to access these boxes any time they please. It’s worse to have them all come in at a certain time, stand in a queue and get their mail from Joe, who has to sort through everything alphabetically each time and who has rheumatism, is going to retire in a few years, and who doesn’t care whether they like waiting or not. When any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is dead.
Some of the slips were actually about this topic: random access and Quality. The two are closely related. Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it.”Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
When I rummage through the cabinet drawers and archive boxes in my bedroom on a whim I’m often surprised by things I’ve forgotten I had. On my computer, where my files are stored in folders upon folders and I can’t see what they are until I click on them, it’s more difficult to be surprised. Random access and serendipity go hand in hand.
- The Colours of Spring, the first issue of my newsletter Hearts & Minds is out now. If you like what you see, feel free to subscribe for more.
- Austin Kleon also writes about the art of finding what you didn’t know you were looking for.