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At Yale last night I attended an event in honor of the SPanish novelist Javier Marias (A Heart So White, Your Face Tomorrow, among many others). He read a really quite striking piece (reading, with some effort, the English translation) that involved a man and his dying father, a pistol in the family since the Spanish Civil War, and a poem of Heine's. But after that he had a conversation with people from the Romance Languages and English departments, in which he revealed (or told us about, anyway) the way he goes about writing a novel. He writes with a typewriter, beginning with the first page, with a situation he has been brooding about, and some sense of the implications or characters involved, but no real storyline. He probes forward with this, discovering as he goes (he pointed out that the Latin root of "invent" also has the meaning "discover"), but here's the thing: he does not ever go back and change what he has written. It's a pact he has with himself. He must accept and work with what he has laid down as he goes. If he has had a character's mother die at a particular time, he can't alter that, even if becomes clear it would be convenient if she died earlier, or later. And writing as he does he has to remember just what he did say, so that later on he won't violate it (without a "search" function on the typewriter; the new work is a trilogy some 1200 pages long.)

My daughter when I told her this asked if he'd ever just given up on a book because of this -- got into such a mess trying to reconcile what he laid down at first with what he wanted to happen later on that he threw the book away.

I think there ought to be a word for writing in this way, something like villanelle or roman fleuve or roman a clef. I'd never thought of it before.

Oh and: my Nicholson Baker essay is now available on the Boston review website.


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
Serialized storytellers have often had to work with this constraint, especially comic-strip and comic-book artists. Webcomics artist Andrew Hussie recently discussed how integral it is to his working method.
Dec. 4th, 2009 12:41 am (UTC)
People who run plot-oriented role-playing games do too, with the additional complication that the major characters (the PCs) aren't under the storyteller's control (though one can kind of steer them a bit...) The process Hussie describes in that post is a lot like how I work when I'm GMing - have some big structures planned in advance, include things that will probably work with whatever the players decide to do, drop out a bunch of details and see what flies, leave some things open-ended so that they can be picked up later if it seems useful, etc.

I often feel like my campaigns are like writing a novel without knowing the plot, and there's many a day when I wish I could go back and change some detail (little or large), but I can't. I find I just have to accept that things will make sense in the end, somehow, or I'll get too frustrated/depressed to go on - and so far, they always have. I wonder if Dickens felt the same.
Dec. 4th, 2009 01:02 am (UTC)
the additional complication that the major characters aren't under the storyteller's control

What on Earth makes you think that an author's characters are under his/her control?
Dec. 6th, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
Oh they are -- at least for some writers. Nabokov mocked the idea of characters who grow beyond the author's ambitions for them and take on a life of their own, with the author stumbling along behind. His characters, he said, do exactly as he tells them to do.
Dec. 4th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
I remember reading an interview with Tom Robbins where he said he wrote his novels that way. I think the interview was done before computers became ubiquitous.
Dec. 4th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
I read the Robbins quote, and I took him to be pulling our legs.

There's also a Gene Wolfe short-short, "My Book" about a guy who does this technique backwards, writing first the last word of the story, then the second-to-last, and so on. I have it in the collection Endangered Species
Dec. 6th, 2009 12:27 am (UTC)
Yes, as with Dickens, as noted below.
Dec. 4th, 2009 12:14 am (UTC)
"Flying blind"? Or at least, entering the labyrinth without a clew. And minotaurs ad infinitum.

Congratulations on the "Writer's Almanac" piece. Garrison Keillor! You are now iconic. As if you weren't already.

Dec. 4th, 2009 12:27 am (UTC)
Did anyone ask whether he goes back and changes, not what happens, but the sentences, the foreshadowing, the tone of scenes? Because what he describes makes perfect sense to me as a method of plotting, but I feel one would probably have to go back and make it look intentional.
Dec. 4th, 2009 06:04 am (UTC)
He does go back. He says that he regards revision as like translation (he translated Sterne, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ashbery, and Stevens in to Spanish): the original is there (in the first draft) but the expression of that original takes enormous work of the subtlest kind.
Dec. 4th, 2009 12:46 am (UTC)
Dec. 5th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
In Latin, percompositum.

Dec. 6th, 2009 12:30 am (UTC)
Nice! Better than German, though not so impressive.
Dec. 4th, 2009 01:03 am (UTC)
I think there ought to be a word for writing in this way

Dec. 4th, 2009 01:19 am (UTC)
This sounds a lot like the constraint Jacques Roubaud has used in The Great Fire of London: "I never correct, I never go back—I just go on and on." (source; see also an article by his American editor). Though he's an Oulipian, this is a procedural constraint, not a formal one.
Dec. 4th, 2009 06:05 am (UTC)
Right -- I was thinking of oulipo too. Marías, however, tinkers a whole lot with his prose. He just doesn't change the plot. Whereas Roubaud wouldn't change a letter, or at least so he says.
Dec. 4th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
I agree that there ought to be a word, or a term, possibly German. Durchlaufschreiben? (Or, Durchlaufschreibmethode?) Einbahnschreiben?

Durchlauf means flow or passage but it's also the path that paper in the copier takes. Einbahn is one-way street.
Dec. 4th, 2009 04:04 am (UTC)
Oh, German, absolutely. I love Durchlaufschreibmethode, but Einbahnschreiben suggests the relentless forward march.

Dec. 4th, 2009 06:14 am (UTC)
I think Marías's novels are very tightly plotted, and I think the reason they are is that he can't tinker with the plots. You get the sense of the refractoriness of the world in which his characters are trying to find their way, because he won't adjust that world to make their way any easier or harder or more "significant."

I think he does make a mistake though in Your Face Tomorrow, assuming [as we cannot help assuming] that Deza, its narrator, is also the narrator of the earlier All Souls, incidents and characters of which YFT are referred to in YFT several times. In All Souls the narrator has a sister, but in YFT tomorrow he complains that he never had one.

But that indicates the extent to which multiple novels inevitably prevent retroactive tinkering. Once you publish, the sequel has to deal with what you've already published. (Roth actually gets around this a bit, most obviously in The Counterlife.)

Anyhow, Marías is so much about history that the refractoriness of that history, especially in Spain, is part of the point, part of what the narratives and characters and narrating characters have to deal with.

And then there are all the ironies about the effects of the constraints on his own subsequent experiences. He can't change All Souls, even when people assume it's a roman à clef. But because he's mentioned certain things, all sorts of things occur to him in real life as a result -- most explicitly the entry of Redonda into his life.

For my money, one of his very greatest books is Dark Back of Time, which is a true story, and which shows just what Marías does best: he broods on what haunts him. But if you can adjust what haunts you, by revising, well it doesn't haunt you in the same way, does it?

....is what I think.
Dec. 6th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
Dark Back
Great comments. Agree with you completely about Dark Back of Time.
Dec. 4th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
Improvisational writing
I call it Improvisational Writing. It sounds a lot like my own process, but I don't bother with the typewriter. It can be quite a rush, writing this way, let me tell you.
Dec. 4th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)
N. Baker review
Thanks much for the Baker review update, and for clarifying the books you considered within the review; I wish more did that.

For the record, Checkpoint is likely the worst book I've read cover-to-cover.

Brad Orion
Dec. 5th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
What is more in character for a creator of fiction than to create a fiction as to how the fiction is created...
Dec. 6th, 2009 12:42 am (UTC)
Re: N. Baker review
I suspected that it would upset me, and avoided it.
Dec. 6th, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)
Here's a blog post by someone who was at the Marias reading and gives a fuller account of Marias's method than I do, though it still seems to me "sicidal" (Marias's word).

Dec. 9th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
Nicholson Baker
I really like your review of The Anthologist. It’s the kind of thought provoking, generous essay that situates a novel not only in the context of the author’s work as a whole but within a larger discussion of the possibilities of fiction. I mean generous in terms of scope and detail—the panorama you offer of Baker’s fiction against which you place your close examination of his word-artistry, the descriptive “clogs” he’s famous for. I think you capture something essential that other reviewers have missed—namely, that Baker’s narrators are the opposite of solipsistic. It’s the minutiae of the world around them that engages their passionate, if sometimes myopic, attention. The “outside-himself-ness” you note about the narrator of A Box of Matches is true of all his narrators—it’s part of what makes them so likable even when you want to muzzle them. But I agree that the “short, often tentative” sentences in The Anthologist—which I read and really liked—mitigate a lot of that impulse to muzzle. In fact, I think this quieter style serves to set off Baker’s flights much more effectively—not unlike the rests Paul Chowder sees as essential to rhyming verse. The way some of Chowder’s more erudite disquisitions bloom into pure silliness at the end caught me completely off guard, for example; I laughed like little kid. Anyway, I really enjoyed your review on its own merit, and it certainly left me with a deeper appreciation of Baker’s work.
I was away for awhile and just read the last several entries today. I noticed you are giving a reading in San Diego in January. Any chance you would be venturing further north, to the Bay Area, say? I realize it’s probably too late to ask you to come to the store where I work (Pegasus, in north Berkeley), but even if you get as far north as Santa Cruz I’d love to come to one of your readings.

Dec. 9th, 2009 07:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Nicholson Baker
Well, I'd love to come up that far -- but time is short, my wife is attending a conference, and this is our brief winter vacation -- so I'm going to go to the beach. Just to look, though.
Dec. 19th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)
Javier Marias
Frankly, I agree with Hem: "First drafts are shit."
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )