Write Long, Write Short? Write More or Less?

Monday, September 19, 2011

The ever-provocative Dwight Garner opines about the productivity of Important Novelists in today's New York Times, expressing a desire for work that yields "heat as well as light"—and a frustration with "the long gestation period [that] is pretty typical for America's corps of young, elite celebrity novelists."  Says Garner (who cites Eugenides, Franzen, Tartt, Chabon, and David Foster Wallace among the slower working novelists):
Obviously, some of this is about personal style. There have always been prolific writers as well as slow-moving, blocked, gin-addled or silent ones. It’s worth suggesting, though, that something more meaningful may be going on here; these long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.
The economics of novel writing (how many must teach, for example, to survive) and the tugs on a novelist's time (book tours, interviews) clearly, Garner notes, run interference in a writer's life.  It's likely that other things are also to blame—life itself, for example, by which I mean the need for a writer to live deeply so that he or she might know even more deeply.  Then there are the demands of research—how long, one wonders, did David Foster Wallace have to steep himself in the arcania of tax code before he could even begin to find the story inside The Pale King?

As I read Garner's piece, I reflected—as I often do—on my own "productivity."  I published my first book in 1998; by the end of next summer, with the publication of Small Damages with the rocking house Philomel, fourteen of my books will sit across the room from me on the shelf.

Some would categorize that effort as prolific.  In fact, I feel anything but.  I may have published my first book in 1998, but I was writing long before that, and many of my books—Small Damages being a prime example—went through ten years of work, more than eighty drafts, and two genres before it became the story it was always meant to be.  Still Love in Strange Places (W.W. Norton), published as a memoir, was for a decade a novel about El Salvador before I spent three years turning the fiction into fact.  You Are My Only, which will launch in a month, was three very different books (written for adults) before I wrote it as a young adult novel.  And I am, at this very moment, utterly overhauling a novel for adults that I was so sure was cooked to order six months ago.  I am, in some ways, starting from scratch.

Writing has never been, for me, a straightforward process.  Publishing has been anything but.  I am trying to suggest that as writers we work and work (when time allows, when the day job on occasion eases up), but we rarely control the outcome itself.  The story comes on us, at us.  It dawns, it reveals, it retracts.  It's there for a moment, and then it scuttles away, and as much as we would like to put ourselves on a publishing schedule, our imaginations are countries unto themselves.

Today I wake, for example, to a scene that has eluded me for weeks.  The same darned scene.  The same patch in the same woods.  Something happens here.  A single tag of dialogue will determine just what.  I'd like to say that I'll have the answer by early this afternoon.  I know my imagination better than that.


Becca said...

From the little bit of writing I've done, I know that you're right. Writing is, to a large degree, a mystical process. Yes, you can and must put your "butt in the chair" on a regular basis, but you must accept that the outcomes will not always be perfect or even presentable.

Flannery O'Connor wrote about the need to write every day, to be in a certain spot so that "if it (the creative spark) comes, it will know where to find you."

Lilian Nattel said...

In my book you're admirably prolific! In the same amount of time I have 3 books to sit beside your 14. I agree, the process isn't controllable and it isn't easy, prolific or not. Writing is too precarious a living for anyone to demand any kind of production. Give me a steady (and decent) salary, give me a place to work, give me the support that other professionals have, and you can require a certain level of production--but you can't require art, creativity or soul as well. Those come as they come. I show up. I work hard. But the process of creativity can't be controlled.

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