I’ve got a new morning ritual. After I light a candle or two — currently it’s a Yankee Candle, because fat candles in glass jars last a lot longer than tapers in candlesticks — I open The Writer’s Chapbook at random and read a couple of passages.
The Writer’s Chapbook is, says its subtitle, is “A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers.” This is true. Organized into a couple dozen topics, the book consists of extracts from interviews conducted from The Paris Review from 1953 onward. Some extracts are aphoristic; others are full-blown anecdotes. It’s like listening in on an intense conversation among extremely accomplished and articulate writers, and because the writers in each chapter appear in alphabetical order, the likes of Anne Sexton, Georges Simenon, and James Thurber may show up on facing pages.
There are two editions out there. I borrowed the 1999 edition from the library and knew almost at once that I had to have it. Turns out it’s out of print and very hard to find: copies on BigBehemoth.com were going for $299 and up, and I dropped out of an auction on MegaMarketplace.com when the bidding sailed past $30 — that copy eventually went for $71. With a bit of persistence, I scored a used copy of the 1989 edition for less than $10, including shipping.
So this morning I opened to two pages in the “On Performance” chapter. On the verso (left-hand) page was this, from playwright Edward Albee:
Naturally, no writer who’s any good at all would sit down and put a sheet of paper in a typewriter and start typing a play unless he knew what he was writing about. But at the same time, writing has got to be an act of discovery. Finding out things about what one is writing about. To a certain extent I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind — in my case at any rate — without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.
And just opposite, on the recto (right-hand) page, novelist John Barth was saying this:
I have a pretty good sense of where the book is going to go. . . . But I have learned from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them; in a thing as long and complicated as a novel you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get around it. I can see in my plans that there will be this enormous pothole to cross somewhere around the third chapter from the end; I’ll get out my little pocket calculator and estimate that the pothole will be reached about the second of July, 1986, let’s say, and then just trust to God and the muses that by the time I get there I’ll know how to get around it.
Wolfie, my novel in progress, is fast approaching its second birthday. All through the first draft and well into the second, I told anyone who asked “It’s about the rescue of a dog and the rescue of an eleven-year-old girl and how they rescue each other — oh yeah, and the dog is based on my Alaskan malamute, Travvy.”
Then one character told another the tale of how she’d failed to rescue her father, who had been devastated by the shooting death of his three-year-old grandchild. And my protagonist, who as a teenager fled a violently dysfunctional family, gets a phone call from the younger sister she couldn’t take with her. To make it more fun, no one is sure exactly what the girl needs to be rescued from, though it’s pretty clear to all that she needs rescuing.
So yes, Edward Albee: writing this novel is finding out what the novel is. And yes, John Barth, I suspected the obstacles were out there, but until I drew closer I couldn’t see what they were, never mind how I was going to get round them. If I’d thought too hard about it, I would never have started.
But I’m trusting the muses and my fountain pens, and the candle burning on the table to my right, to show me how it’s done.