Friday, November 18, 2005

Burn your novel

November's National Novel Writing Month has always intrigued me, from a distance. A novel in thirty days. Well, 50,000 words. How appealing! You become an equal of Anthony Burgess before his breakfast, of William T. Vollmann clearing his throat, of Joyce Carol Oates on Mogodon. Of course quality is not the issue with NaNoWriMo. That's the difference. Just get it written. That’s all. 50,000 words.

But it can never be that simple. Quality is always the only game in town. One might as well copy & paste from random documents until the magical word count is achieved. So how does one judge? Isn't it just a waste of time?

This week I have been reading Reiner Stach’s thrilling new biography Kafka: the Decisive Years. He begins two years before Kafka’s famous breakthrough work began on September 22nd 1912. It took him eight hours through the night to write The Judgment.

Stach makes it clear, however, that before this ecstatic night, Kafka had consigned many hundreds of pages to the family stove. His high standards could not have stood otherwise. Apparently he also spent hours lounging on the sofa, doing nothing. There seems to have been a lot of wasted time and effort in Kafka’s short life. The image of pages covered in his spidery handwriting disappearing into the glowing mouth of the stove has stuck in my mind. Maybe it was a good thing.

I'm thinking of what Emerson says in his essay Experience: We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.

The inverse is also true. Perhaps December 1st could become worldwide Burn Your Manuscript Day. Imagine what might emerge.

In Kafka’s diary entry for September 23rd, he looked back to the previous night: The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.

Later, he burned another story.

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