Writer’s Desk: Writing in Plain Sight

Most writers prefer practicing their craft alone. There are the occasional ones who can get good word count on the bus or in cafes. But in the main, it’s the sort of thing best done in solitary, by guttering candlelight if you can manage the stagecraft.

DangerousVisions1Then there’s Harlan Ellison. Over the years he’s written everything from gangland fiction to dystopian comedy to TV and film criticism. And he’s done it not just from the comfort of his study, but sometimes in plain sight of the public.

From time to time, Ellison accepts the challenge to write, as a sort of literary improv, a story or a number of stories, in the window of a bookstore. Usually it’s for charity or just to help promote the store.

From a 1981 TV interview with Ellison:

I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job of work like being a plumber or and electrician…

The best part about this quote is that when Ellison compares being a writer to a plumber or electrician, he means it as a good thing.

(h/t Mental Floss)

Writers’ Desk: Future Library

Trees into books ... eventually.

Trees into books … eventually.

Because there is apparently no end to the inventive riches of Scandinavian literary culture, we now have the Future Library Project.

They are planting a forest of 1,000 pine trees in Norway north of Oslo that will be harvested a century in the future and used to print an anthology of writing. In the manner of a literary time capsule, the pieces for the anthology are being written now at the rate of one per year and held in secret until publication in 2114.

Margaret Atwood, who knows a few things about future writing, is the first contributor, with a piece about which only the title is known: Scribbler Moon. According to Atwood:

There’s something magical about it … It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years.

Fellow quasi-futurist David Mitchell (Cloud AtlasBone Clocks) is next up.

It’s a fascinating thing to contemplate, writing something that won’t be read until well after one is dead. The advantage? No worries about reviews. The downside? No adulation.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the next time you sit down to your next writing assignment. Pick up a book from the 1910s and see how much the language and underlying societal assumptions have changed since then. Then, taking that into consideration, start writing with an eye for timelessness. Who knows? Somebody may pick it up in 2114, on a screen or yellowed paper, and you want to make sure that they will know what you are talking about.

Writer’s Corner: Hitting Your Word Count

Some writers can work anywhere, in any circumstances, with any implements, on a schedule that only their muse is herself fully comprehending. The rest of us need to set goals.

GrahamGreene_TheEndOfTheAffairTake Graham Greene. According to legend, he wrote 500 words a day, no more and no less. Take this recollection from writer and editor Michael Korda, who was introduced to Greene while cruising on a private yacht in the Antibes in 1950 (as one does):

An early riser, [Greene] appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?”

By the way, the novel Greene was finishing in such an offhanded way was The End of the Affair.

In any case, the lesson from Greene is a good one. Once he hit his word count, he supposedly quit and went off to live his life; possibly one of the reasons his fiction is so richly imagined and deeply reported.

Readers’ Corner: Samuel Beckett’s Boat

beckett1Well, not literally. A cursory glance at Samuel Beckett’s biography does not indicate any particular love for sea or boats, though there is an annual Beckett festival in Enniskillen where at least one performance can only be reached by boat.

But never mind, because even though Beckett was no great joiner or lover of institutions, the Irish government has gone ahead and named a warship (OPV, or offshore patrol vessel, technically) after the author of Waiting for Godot.

According to the Irish Times, the LE Samuel Beckett was completed in April and was commissioned at a special ceremony in Dublin in May. It will eventually be joined by a second patrol vessel, the LE James Joyce. Hopefully the two can prowl the Irish Sea together in elegant futility, crews pensively pondering the waves and composing quatrains in dead languages…

Writer’s Corner: Doris Lessing (1919-2013)

goldennotebook1

Born in Iran, raised in Rhodesia, and schooled in London, novelist Doris Lessing was a Nobel Prize-winner, inescapably brilliant, unclassifiable, and a world-class grump. Lessing passed away in mid-November and would have hated all the fuss being made about it. Not because she was necessarily modest, she just didn’t see the point.

There are many writers, particularly those who have received as many plaudits as she had over the years, who would have reacted with much more self-puffery than she did when hit with the news of her Nobel. From The Economist:

As she climbed slowly out of the taxi with her shopping, her grey bun coming down as usual, Doris Lessing noticed that the front garden was full of photographers. They told her she had won the 2007 Nobel prize for literature. She said, “Oh, Christ.” Then, picking up her bags, “One can get more excited.” And then, having paid the cab man, “I suppose you want some uplifting remarks.” She supplied a few later for her official Nobel interview, but still on her own terms: wearing what looked like a dressing gown and a lopsided, plunging camisole at a kitchen table overloaded with open packets of crackers and messy jars of jam.

Although Lessing’s greatest work probably came later, with novels like The Good Terrorist, she was best known for 1962’s The Golden Notebook, which was seen as something of a feminist statement at the time. This from an author who had always lived as a feminist, on her own terms, but didn’t cotton to statements and pronouncements.

Again, The Economist:

As she plumped herself wearily down on the doorstep to answer questions, that Nobel morning in 2007, she seemed to show an authentic, unbrushed side to the world’s press. But the real Doris was saying, as she had every day for decades, Run away, you silly woman, take control, write.

Reader’s Corner: Authorial Garbage

kenlopezFor writers who are looking for another reason why they never ever need to clean up after themselves, now they have something to work with besides: “I just need to polish this chapter.” The success of literary estate bloodhounds like Ken Lopez has proven the strange marketability of all kinds of marginalia (especially “interesting paper piles”) that nobody would ever have thought made sense to hang on to. Norman Mailer sold over a thousand boxes of his odds and ends in 2005 for $2.5 million.

Also, according to the Wall Street Journal, sometimes the buyers of this margnalia (university libraries, normally) can help function as a kind of executive assistant:

In 2006, for an undisclosed amount, Salman Rushdie sold [Emory University] 200 “falling apart, crappy cardboard boxes,” as he said at the collection’s opening in 2010. After Emory’s archivists put his “mess” in order, Mr. Rushdie capitalized on their tidiness to research his own 2012 memoir.

All authors need now to ensure that their various scribblings, laundry lists, and whatnot will fetch a pretty price in the future is to become wildly beloved by critics and preferably sell a million or so copies of their work in order to achieve a profitable literary immortality. Cake.