Upon reading your last open letter I thought, “This is the kind of person I want to be friends with.” Good fortune for me I already am.
Besides enjoying the letter for its own sake it also arrived an opportune moment. As you may already know, I’ve been engaged for the last two years in the enterprise of novel writing. I use the word “enterprise” purposefully, as it has been a long-term investment of time and brainpower, with a hoped for return on that investment sometime in the future.
Since the late summer of 2013 I’ve written many drafts of the same novel. Most of them reach chapter three. Twice I made it to chapter four. There was one version that got all the way to chapter six. I believe, although it happened too long ago in the past to say for sure, that one time I even reached the end. The total number of drafts I’ve completed is unclear, as sometime in late 2014 I took to calling all my drafts “Number Three” and appending version numbers as they do with software (“Draft Number 3 v184.108.40.206”). Once before boarding an airplane I gave a friend my Google Drive password: in case my life were cut short I wanted to know that at least one person would read my novel (notable how even after I had left this world the novel would still be mine). A couple of months later my friend sent me an email: “I’ve been reading your novel. Can’t wait to read more. But how many friggin versions are there? Am I supposed to read them all?”
“Only the one with highest version number,” I wrote back. “But wait please till I die or instruct you otherwise.”
This last draft I started a few weeks ago (no more “Number 3”; I’ve moved on to descriptions now; this one includes the word “Rewrite”) I made sure to do a few things differently. For one thing I consulted my journals upon which many of the events in the novel are based. I found new direction, new inspiration. Above all much new information. After completing chapter one once again, even giving it a new title, I did something else new. I re-read the chapter before endeavoring to re-write it—and by doing so probably saved myself several version numbers.
Thoughts going through my mind as I was re-reading it: “Dead.” “Flat.” “Beautiful but boring.” “And then this happened. And then that happened.” “Tuesday finished upon which occurred Wednesday. After Wednesday I awoke and it was Thursday.” (this last thought in imitation of my writing.)
And then I arrived at a passage that made me feel something. Ironically, when I had been writing it I kept thinking, “I have no idea what this has to do with the novel.” It went on about ten pages, and was something that could stand on its own. After a few rewrites it might be the kind of thing I could send to a magazine, or at the very least to people like my friend who has my Google Drive password (and who I pray doesn’t receive a notification from Google every time another file is added to my Drive).
“I accidentally wrote something good,” I thought in regard to the passage, “but I don’t know I how I did it.”
Actually I knew how I did it. I just didn’t know why it was actually good.
Until a week ago my approach to novel writing had been akin to “exercise” as you described it in your conversation with your brother. For all the good that might one day come out of it (novel purchased by ten thousand people; started by a thousand; finished by a hundred; caused inspiration in ten; hated by one), a lot of time was put into it, much of that time my face with an expression on it similar to those exercising in place on treadmills and elliptical machines.
This last week I’ve inaugurated every writing session with two thoughts: “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and, “This might be fun.” The things I’ve been writing are (to use some of your language) idiosyncratic, improvised versions of some memories I often tell to other people as anecdotes. When I write them they often don’t go where I expect them to go. But if were able to outline them ahead of time, what need would I have to write the actual story? I could do instead what I often do with films these days, especially period dramas: save myself the cost of the cinema and go straight to the entry on Wikipedia.
I call my new approach “agile writing” as opposed to the “novel writing” I was doing before. Something else I hope for in this new approach is to share my work more often in the process of writing it, e.g., I write something I think is a story, I send it to my friend Pamela, she tells me she sees this more as sketch comedy, I rewrite it as a sketch, then I invite her to help me perform it, perhaps with her hula hoop or skipping rope or improvised ballet barre.
All of this ties back to systems building, which was the starting point of our series of open letters. The thought on my mind is: if one can “write” without knowing whether it’ll turn out to be a sketch or a novel (or a hula hoop for that matter), can people “build” without having an image in mind of what “system” they’re building?