Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Physical Writing Process [Pt. 5: James Joyce & Jorge Luis Borges – Writing With Eye Trouble]

I have the impression that the most iconic images of James Joyce are those in which he's wearing an eye-patch, and the reason he’s wearing it is because he suffered from eye problems his entire life (iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma, episcleritis, synechia, and cataracts), which became worse as he got older. During the time he was living in Zurich he had to undergo several operations on his eyes, and for years he was almost completely blind. People close to the author and his works at the time have related stories about he coped with this. Joyce (of course) wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of his writing, so he took to writing with a red crayon on massive sheets of white paper. I haven’t seen any facsimiles of these manuscripts, but I like knowing that he was able to continue his writing in this fashion.

[This is only my creation of what I imagine some of Joyce's manuscripts may have looked like. Reading Joyce makes me think that I have an idea of the sorts of wordplay that must be going on when I’m reading someone like Witold Gombrowicz in translation and the translator says that the jokes in certain passages are untranslatable.]

In correspondence with his patron Harriet Weaver, Joyce wrote, "In spite of my eye attack I got on with another passage by using a charcoil pencil (fusain) which broke every three minutes and a large sheet of paper. I have now covered various large sheets in a handwriting resembling that of the late Napoleon Bonaparte when irritated by reverses." Some reports say that he was using charcoal on sheets of butcher’s paper. By his own words, it sounds like it was quite a struggle – not nearly as convenient as if he could have just written with a normal pen or typed it up.


Another great writer who went blind later in his life was Jorge Luis Borges. I love the passage in his short story “The Other” when the older Borges explains what it is like to go blind to his younger counterpart:

“When you reach my age, you’ll have almost totally lost your eye-sight. You’ll be able to see the color yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.”

That always resonates with me as a beautiful metaphor for losing one’s eyesight - something that people usually think of as anything but beautiful. I don’t know much about how Borges managed his reading and writing as he lost his eyesight, but he did have people who would assist him, including his mother who lived to be 99. It sounded to me like he would dictate what he wanted to write and manage to continue his literary work in this fashion. If anyone out there reading this has more to input about Joyce or Borges' writing habits, I'd appreciate the input!

I'll be back on June 5th with the final entry in this series.

P.S. In case you didn't hear about it, James Joyce was in the news recently in a story involving a synthetic cell's DNA and copyright law: "James Joyce's Words Come to Life and are Promptly Desecrated."

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Physical Writing Process [Pt. 4: Jonathan Franzen – Destroy the Internet]

In a recent post I wrote, “I tend to type my novels directly into GoogleDocs so that they are constantly backed up on Google’s servers” and I realized that my writing process being so entwined with the internet is the exact opposite of Jonathan Franzen’s, who wrote (in his top ten rules for writing), “It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” The Time Magazine article “Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist” details how he must be absolutely free of distractions when he writes, so he rented an empty office where he can work alone. That workspace on its own wasn’t distraction-free enough – he had to cleanse his computer too – so he uses an old Dell laptop that doesn't have a WIFI card, doesn't have any games or other distractions installed, and he literally destroyed his Ethernet port so that he wouldn’t be tempted to connect online. As he explains in the article: 
“What you have to do is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."

I’m in no position to judge his idea of the correlation between internet access and the quality of fiction writing because A) I’m too biased against my own appreciation for having internet access and B) I’ve barely read anything by Franzen. One day when I was killing some time at the Borders in the Garden State Plaza I picked up his book How To Be Alone and read a few of the essays in it, which I found quite fascinating. Then I left the Borders without having bought anything for my time spent there, and recently that very Borders went out of business (this makes my mind swirl with thoughts about the underlying themes I’m crafting in my novel The Bookstore Hobos as well as of the nature of capitalism). I also have a hardcover copy of his novel The Corrections on my bookshelf that I bought used at Brier Rose Books, but it’s way back in line behind a bunch of other books I’m going to read. I imagine his comments about the internet reflect what works for him, and I think that’s very cool. It reminds me of something Woody Allen said, “For instance, take someone like Kafka. He couldn't stand any noise. It was a very delicate muse that he had. There are other people like Fellini who thrive in chaos. There's nothing delicate about it at all.”

Another interesting thing Franzen did to facilitate writing his latest novel, Freedom, involved chewing tobacco. The Time article mentions some of the difficulties Franzen had working on his latest novel (he threw out an entire year’s worth of writing at one point) and then touches on the grief that he went through after his friend and fellow writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide (another writer I’m not very familiar with. I’ve only read his essay “Laughing With Kafka” and all I’ve heard about Infinite Jest is that it’s very long). From Lev Grossman’s article:

“Wallace was a big tobacco chewer … the morning after Wallace's memorial service in New York City, Franzen did something he'd never done before: he walked into a bodega and bought some chewing tobacco. Then he went to his office, closed the door, put a plug in his mouth and started chewing. It was so revolting, he almost threw up. But he kept chewing. Then he started writing, and he didn't stop. He finished the first draft of Freedom on Dec. 17, 2009, a little more than a year later.”

I wonder if chewing tobacco in memory of his friend became part of his writing ritual. At the end of the article Grossman mentions that he’s still chewing it.

You're reading this, so it's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Physical Writing Process [Pt. 3: Neal Stephenson - Fountain Pen and Malfunctioning Typewriter]

Neal Stephenson started out writing on a typewriter, but when he began work on The Baroque Cycle, he decided to write the whole thing with a fountain pen. In an interview for Quicksilver, Stephenson said, “I’ve written every word of it so far with fountain pen on paper. Part of the theory was that it would make me less long-winded, but it hasn’t actually worked.” The plan didn’t seem to have worked out at all, as I believe the complete Baroque Cycle turned out to be his longest work yet:

I’m currently reading books 4 and 5 (con-fused together) of the 8 books that stack of paper was eventually turned into. (Image courtesy
That’s the complete manuscript, created only using a fountain pen as he’d intended at the outset. The paperback version is about 2600 pages, but I'm sure the handwritten one takes up even more.

It would seem that writing with a pen worked out better than when he used a typewriter – at least better than when he used a typewriter to write his first novel The Big U. During a keynote speech in 2003, Stephenson told the story of how his first novel was created. He had written up an outline, character biographies, and a few sample chapters, which he sent out to a bunch of editors. One of them replied back with interest, requesting that Stephenson send along the entire novel. Stephenson was excited, but quickly realized there was a problem – he hadn’t written the novel yet. He was working a standard full-time job, so he used all his vacation days - and including the 4th of July - that gave him 10 days to write the novel.

He rented a typewriter and got to work, but he was faced with yet another problem: the typewriter had a plastic ribbon and it was melting and getting stuck in the summer heat of Iowa City. The only way to keep the ribbon from sticking was to keep it in constant motion, which meant typing nonstop. As Ehud Lamm explains, it “did wonders for his productivity.” With speed that may have been even quicker than Kerouac’s, Stephenson was able to finish the novel and send it off to the editor, who said that his publishing house couldn’t print it. Nevertheless, Stephenson found an agent and another publisher who did publish the novel. I have no idea how much he edited the manuscript between that first draft and what was eventually printed, and I haven’t read The Big U myself, but I do know that Stephenson doesn’t really like it anymore, and for years it wasn’t in print. This changed when he realized that the scarcity was causing the used copies to be sold at very high prices, so now anyone can hop over to Amazon and get it new for $11.24 or used for a penny plus shipping.

UPDATE - May 2nd, 2011: Logan Cale on Reddit taught me something cool about Stephenson's manuscript for The Baroque Cycle: "It's pretty awesome, the Baroque Cycle manuscript is (or was at one point) on display at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, along with all the ink bottles and cartridges he consumed while writing it, and what appears to be his blotting paper."