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Oh, Patricia.

I sometimes get a kick out of reading writers' "this is how you do it" books, especially when they were written in the golden era of magazine publications. To hear tell of it, the writer could bolt down a story or two in a garret somewhere, take a spin around Positano, go ice-skating in a picturesque season, and be back around to moping up a draft of something new a mere month later. Nobody's charging a submission fee for a lit mag that nobody reads except in contributor's copies. Writing is a job, a proper job with regular intervals of work, rather than a personal discipline so frequently lonely it attains a whiff of the spiritual. Sounds fun!

Patricia Highsmith, by her own assessment, isn't exactly the acme of fun, but I love this book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction because it's so well leavened by her obvious enjoyment of the work itself. Sometimes writers, myself included, characterize the process of cultivating a germ of interest into a story and a character and an inevitable end as maddening/grinding/unfun, but not Patricia! She sounds actually quite cheerful to do the work, and it's a joy to read this book just for the glimmer of a soul happily at work. (Happily at work reality-testing the ways a man might be poisoned, OK, yes.)

My favorite quotes:

"I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don't dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine. I do not 'have to work' in the sense that I must drive myself to it or make myself think what to do, because the work will come to me. I get the same pleasure from making a table, a good drawing, occasionally a painting, as I do from writing a book or a short story. This boredom is a happy thing, and I am scarcely aware of it until an idea for a short story or a book strikes me. Then I realize how much more interesting I shall find the world I enter when I start working on this idea. I am already entering that world when I start thinking about the development of the idea. Perhaps most writers feel this way."

"As for life's little difficulties, they are myriad. What writer hasn't had to work with a toothache, with bills due, with a baby sick in the next room or the same room, with the in-laws visiting, or at the end of a love affair, or with the government demanding the filling out of endless forms? I have scarcely a morning that doesn't bring something in the post that could be called psychically disturbing."

"Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone. I am so law-abiding, I can tremble before a customs inspector with nothing contraband in my suitcases."

"There are some writers who in their first drafts write too briefly. I have met one. But for that one, there are a hundred who will write too much. There is a tendency to overdescribe and even overexplain. In describing a room, for instance, it is not necessary to describe everything in it--unless the room is full of interesting incongruities like spider webs and wedding cakes."

"One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours' absolute privacy here and there."

"Why worry about point of view? You might as well have a spittoon in the corner talking next."

"A writer is usually asked by the publisher to read his book in galley proofs. These are narrow and a yard long, difficult to handle, and most easily read in bed."

"Like boxers, we may start to flag after thirty, that is, not be able to do on four hours' sleep any longer, and then we begin to grumble about taxes, and to feel that the aim of society is to put us all out of business. It is then good to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of."  


I had been talking with someone the week before about Jesse Ball's writing process. Apparently he does a lot of reading/walking/thinking for a year, without putting down anything more settled than notes. When it's time to write the book, he works for two weeks. In an interview with David Naimon on the Between the Covers podcast, he elaborates that he thinks of this process as an analogue to the way that classical musicians rehearse, then continuously perform a piece for an audience. Maybe recordings of the performance splice together multiple days/takes to produce an artificially clean track, but the performance itself, in its most timebound form, cannot be edited, only prepared for.

Last week, I taught an intensive novel writing seminar for high school students. They take "intensive" to heart, these kids. They were slamming through drafts in every moment of downtime, or they had already written the next five novels in their series and grown bored of the one we were about to workshop, or something. No doubt this was precious time for them, as I got the sense they were usually squeezed to perform in every other possible academic or athletic capacity (one of my students had to leave early to run the steeplechase), and no doubt they've been rewarded for goal-oriented behavior. But they were writing so fast, it almost seemed like they were trying to stop breathing. 

One of my colleagues at the seminar told me about Jesse Ball's rehearsal technique while we walked around in a state park after closing class for the day. I guess we were talking about what is a novel for--is it for getting a book deal before you turn 20? Is it worth rushing through the writing process? Is it even possible to do so? I've been thinking that maybe the real art of the novel is in the ocean of time spent contemplating your own concerns and finding something to say about them, and the novel itself is a husk of that experience. I've been telling myself this as a way of letting it not matter that much, how my novel does when it comes out next year: If the attention is the primary art form, my book is already a perfect success, as is every book.

And then, I pick up Aja Gabel's The Ensemble, which I read so enthusiastically that at one point I noticed I had begun carrying the book into the kitchen with me while I made tea, just so I wouldn't have to put it down. It chronicles the relationships of the Van Ness string quartet from student days to Juilliard residencies, and if there's any book taking on the idea of art behind the art, here it is. I took violin lessons as a child. I don't know how serious I was, exactly, but I did progress all the way through the Suzuki Method books and play in competitions. (In the world of the Van Ness, this would make me a rude beginner, but it was fun to recognize the physical realities of rosin and neck pain.) 

One of the quartet's fundamental conflicts pits the individual talent against the compelling synthesis. In the earliest scenes, a pompous soloist is already trying to poach Henry, the group's prodigy. Everyone knows he could conjure a brilliant success on his own, but much less sure about what their own careers would amount to without him as a part of their composite identity. But this isn't actually central to the novel's concerns. As much as I'll always love a turn of the A Star Is Born story, artistic success is secondary to the pursuit of intimacy, and intimacy not limited to romantic relationships. It seems really fitting that in the coda, the book switches back to a moment that precedes all of the other events: the quartet's first practice ever, a messy, fun rendition of a Suzuki etude, in which they grasp, in an instant, the outlines of each other's emotional continents, long before the rest of their time together fills in some of what they already know. 

It's such a beautiful idea--that it's possible to truly see someone in the first instant you meet them, and also possible to continue seeing them for the first time, for the rest of your life. I don't know how this relates, exactly, to my idea about the novel as a husk of a cosmic experience or Jesse Ball's rehearsal/recital, but they feel connected in a way I find interesting. In all of these is the possibility that process is an illusion, travel and achievement is an illusion, and there is a constant floating architecture within the moment. Is it music? What is it?