Monday, July 13, 2009

Refraining from writing and Joseph O'Neill

I've written before about refraining from writing at a micro level, and I came across a related idea today.

One, inspired by something Elvis Costello said about songwriting about giving up the recording every snippet of a song idea he ever had, I gave up the habit of jotting down every clever turn of phrase or observation I had. Costello said this was a kind of wasted energy and if the song was any good he would remember it later anyway. Similarly I've come to feel that all those accumulating scraps of paper, from pads I kept next to every place where I might ever come to rest, didn't do anything to help me produce an actual piece of writing.

Another example is that I no longer leap up late at night when inspiration strikes. My writing time is in the morning, and if I'm in bed at 11 p.m. and get an itch to make progress or have an idea about how to solve a particular problem in the WIP, it used to be I would spring into action out of respect for the impulse. Now I respect the process more. I refrain.

The Elegant Variation is running an interview with Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, and they have a discussion about refraining from writing on a more macro level--refraining from even having a WIP. From starting a second novel before you have an idea that really warrants it. He seems to have the counter-intuitive goal of writing less, and there's a certain kind of sense to it.

TEV: How much writing constitutes an average day, whether in hours or in pages. And how much planning or outlining do you do?

Joseph O’Neill: It is far too shameful to start talking about that stuff.

TEV: Keep that in the box?

Joseph O’Neill: Yeah.

TEV: Next question please?

Joseph O’Neill: Well, it’s a disgrace, really. Having said that, I’m a great believer in the essential disgraceful nature of writing. I mean it really should be as close to idling as possible. Of course, I venerate the 300-400-500 words a day sort of writers. I used to be one of them. But at the moment, I’m just too idle to do that.

TEV: Someone, I think it was Fran Leibowitz, talked about the curse of the writing life, that we always feel so felonious because we aren’t writing more often than we are. And there’s not a writer I know who isn’t sort of secretly ashamed in some way of their work habits, that they don’t write enough, or they aren’t disciplined enough.

Joseph O’Neill: I have the opposite. I am secretly ashamed about the fact that I have written so much even thought I have only written very little.

TEV: Can you elaborate?

Joseph O’Neill: Let me put this another way. I think the sort of middling kind of novel that tides you over between novels is not ideal. There’s a lot of that around: “I haven’t got a fantastic idea for my next novel, but I must write 500 words a day. Because if I don’t write 500 words a day, then I won’t have a novel of 65,000 words in the next 18 months. Therefore, I must start writing 500 words a day based on idea X, even though it’s not that brilliant.’

TEV: The system must be fed.

Joseph O’Neill: The system must be fed. Less cynically, there’s the hope that, by writing, you will come to discover that idea X is, in fact, much better than you suspect. So refraining from writing is never, for me, a source of artistic or professional guilt. Of course, to be fair, there may be pressing financial reasons to be productive.

I just remembered that I read a Toni Morrison interview once where she professes a similar Zen-like lack of anxiety about not writing--that she writes when the story is ready to be written, and otherwise she doesn't force it and spends her time on other things that are important to her. I'll have to look that up. It's somewhere in Conversations With Toni Morrison by the University of Mississippi Press.

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