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"It comes in lumps..."

In a 1952 letter, Nelson Algren reflected on his writing, and re-writing, process.

No, it didn’t pour. It comes in lumps, and each lump has to be smoothed and grained down and then, when it’s just so shining and smooth that you read it over aloud to your self and love the sound of every perfect word, you find you can’t use it, it doesn’t tie in, it’s fine in itself but it diverts the whole story. So you gulp and put it away assuring yourself you’ll make use of it another day and sometimes you do, if you remember what drawer you put it away in. Sometimes it’s like a squirrel looking for the acorns he hid the fall before last - he knows he’s somewhere in the neighborhood, and digs up the whole plot and when he finds it, it’s gone to seed in those two years.

The letter is included in an appendix to the critical edition of The Man With the Golden Arm, which I just finished reading, for the fourth or fifth time (and was as astounding as ever). The letter is reproduced as an original facsimile, with typos, x-outs and handwritten edits. The editor’s decision to include this in its original form, instead of in pristine, typeset perfection, is curious but perfectly fitting. Algren was a brilliant but deeply flawed man whose writing never shied away from portraying the imperfect and often ugly side of human nature, and this letter (which he apparently mailed as-is, instead of drafting a clean copy) neatly encapsulates his essence.

May 6, 2019 in Books | Permalink