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Urgency and the Novelist

Ed Champion recently posted an excellent quotation from Anthony Burgess, following with a fine question that I'd like to address at length. First, the quotation:

The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses. The ending is different from the beginning. Technique changes halfway through. Joyce spent too long on the book.

Next, Ed's question:

To what extent does a novelist have an obligation to remain urgent?

My personal experience, as a fledgling writer, tells me that a novelist first has an obligation, to himself, to remain urgent. There's an obligation to readers, too, but that comes secondary to that of the writer. In crafting a novel, the writer is obliged to devote as much attention as possible, in a compressed amount of time, on the novel. Lacking this, a consistency of voice, tone and theme (Burgess' "unity of the work") is inevitably lost. Along with, perhaps, the finished novel itself.

(More, much more, after the jump.)

Thus far as a writer I've focused almost entirely on short stories. The only times I've worked intensively on novels has been during the Novembers of 2002, 2003 and 2005, as part of NaNoWriMo: I worked on a historical novel, Eden in 2002 and 2003 and a more contemporary novel, The Wheatyard Chronicles, in 2005. (In November 2004, I wrote only short stories, recognizing that I owed it to Eden not to start a brand new novel before the earlier one was completed.)

Eden is a pioneer novel set in northern Illinois during the mid-19th Century which tackles a lot of big themes: pioneer settlement, the Utopian commune movement, Irish-American identity, community versus self-sufficiency, personal isolation, and the canal-building mania of that era. As is typical of NaNoWriMo, I wrote the novel in a flurry of creativity, churning out page after page of promising but far from polished prose. Although during NaNoWriMo 2003 I wrote the story straight through to its conclusion, I did so while skipping over a significant portion of the narrative. That skipped passage involved my protagonist, Miles Farnham, adopting a New York City orphan as a foster son, through an ambitious program run by a New York-based charitable organization. I had only read about the orphan relocation mission (which actually existed in real life) from a newspaper article which was based on Steven O'Connor's historical study Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. I was having a bit of trouble with the narrative in conceiving the foster son's upbringing in New York, and how it would impact his relationship with the protagonist and his behavior on the desolate prairies of Illinois. I thought that reading O'Connor's book would give me valuable insights into the foster son character, though I obviously wouldn't have time to read the book until after NaNoWriMo. So to avoid allowing my progress on the novel to flag, I skipped over the foster son section and continued writing. Though I did finish writing the novel, I did so while leaving a yawning gap in the narrative.

And that gap continues to this day. I still haven't read O'Connor's book, due to any number of competing distractions, and until I do so I don't feel I can adequately create the missing passage. Yet until I have what I consider to be a "complete" first draft, I can't really justify undertaking the heavy editing that the entire manuscript requires. Thus, the novel is in limbo, and I'm not sure I'll ever take it up again. The 19th Century setting, language and tone makes it a somewhat difficult novel to write (even though my style is relatively straightforward and coventional) which makes resuming the writing to be a formidable psychic challenge. Had I not set the novel aside at the end of November 2003, with the missing passage unwritten, and continued on to finish a complete first draft, I might very well have had the courage to delve into rewriting, and might conceivably have a finished novel today. But I let it lapse, to the novel's detriment. Burgess would undoubtedly say I lost the necessary "urgency."

Wheatyard is a completely different novel, set in the early 1990s and told from a much more informal, first-person perspective. The narrator (ostensibly me) relates the story of a summer spent in a college town, jobless after finishing grad school, and the odd-duck fiction writer he happens to befriend. The writing of Wheatyard (during NaNoWriMo 2005) went extremely well; I really liked the plot and the overall tone that I was able to create last November. However, as NaNoWriMo concluded, the novel was still unfinished.

NaNoWriMo, with its goal of 50,000 words written in one month, is a pretty intense experience for writers, and even more so for myself, as I limited my writing sessions to my train ride to and from work, with no writing during evenings or weekends or the Thanksgiving holiday. (Those are family times, and I never want to be the kind of writer who abandons his family in some lofty pursuit of his art. For me, family comes first, no matter what that means for my writing.) When November ends and one finds himself without the arbitrary stimulus that NaNoWriMo's 50,000-word goal creates, there's inevitably a letdown, an enormous exhalation, and for several weeks afterward one wants absolutely nothing to do with writing. By the time one begins to decompress, and might otherwise start consider resuming writing, it's late December and the holidays have arrived as considerable distractions.

I really want to resume Wheatyard, which I feel is a very promising novel or novella (much more so than Eden), but in reading it now I'm doubting if I could ease back into the narrative, and in particular I'm wondering if I could get the tone just right after being away from the manuscript for nine months. I'll probably still attempt it (it's much easier writing than Eden was, since the former is based largely on personal experience while the latter relies heavily on historical research) but I'm not at all confident that the novel I'd end up with in any way resembles the one I started writing last November. Again, I lost that urgency; had I kept writing during the first couple weeks of December, I'd now have a first draft, with nothing stopping me from revising it into a finished novel. Instead, I have doubt.

So, yes, the novelist does have an obligation to remain urgent. Because without urgency, without churning out prose as if nothing else matters, without later editing and editing and editing some more to get the sentences and paragraphs just right, the novel will never be written.

August 31, 2006 in Books, Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink

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