NovelversaryNovember 3, 2006 at 2:04 pm | Posted in backstory, books, writing | 8 Comments
As some of you may know, I am currently slogging my way through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Last night I came upon this gem in the notes et variantes section, from a letter written by Flaubert on the 18th of April, 1854:
Next September, I will have been working on this book for three years. That’s a long time, three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (particularly a style which has about as much to do with my personality as with the emperor of China’s), living always with the same characters, in the same setting, constantly beating oneself up over the same illusion.*
As of November 1st, I have been at work on my novel, more or less consistently, for exactly three years. It seems a bit wrong to celebrate it as a birthday, since I don’t think the book’s been properly “born” yet — let’s just call it the third anniversary of its conception.
And I have to agree with Flaubert: it is an awfully long time to be living with these characters, these ideas, this stylistic voice which, although it may have more in common with my voice than with the erstwhile emperor of China’s, is nonetheless a sometimes awkward and imperfect fit. But it is nice to know that this titan of literature once experienced the same exhaustion and ennui that I am now encountering.
I haven’t done it much on this blog, but longtime readers of my livejournal know that I love to, well… bitch about my writing. I tear my hair out over an inelegant turn of phrase, I despair over the occasional cliché, and a minor plot hole can send me spiraling off into deepest depression. And don’t get me started on the irrational rage inspired by certain friends and acquaintances who innocently note how easy it all is for them.
In light of this character defect of mine, I’m sometimes asked why I bother: “If writing makes you so unhappy, why do you do it? Why waste your life on something that brings you no pleasure?”
I can only answer that pleasure is sometimes found via a circuitous path.
This may sound a bit weird (and irredeemably geeky), but I think it best compares to the pleasure of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Now, jigsaw puzzles aren’t for everyone — lots of people think they are dull and frustrating and completely pointless. Why would I put so much effort into building a picture that I could just buy as a poster, and probably cheaper?
Puzzle nerds, of course, can’t help but smile at this question. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are frustrating. There’s a moment, just after you’ve spilled all those tiny pieces all over your table or floor, when you can’t help but think, Jesus, why am I doing this? And there’s another point, about two-thirds through, when you’ve finished all the easy parts, and all that’s left is about a hundred indistinguishable grey pieces, and you think, That’s it, this puzzle is a dud. They gave me way more pieces than I need, and none of them fit together! Obviously there’s been a mistake at the factory.
And if you are a normal human being, you walk away and watch tv or something. But if you are a puzzle geek, you will persevere, because you know that just behind this despair, a quiet sense of triumph is waiting for you when you find that perfect piece that suddenly brings the whole picture into view.
For me, that’s what writing is like: a series of seemingly impossible puzzles that only make sense once I, through perseverance and dumb luck, stumble happily on their solutions. That plot hole can be fixed by changing the season from late spring to early fall! That ugly turn of phrase will work if only I replace those two clunky words with this lovely one! And look here: a fabulously original way to restate that sloppy old cliché!
And suddenly the whole thing starts to fit together quite beautifully, and you allow yourself to feel just a little bit proud of all the hard work you did to get there.
Right now, the puzzle I’m attacking is, How do I take a character who is meant to be campy and over-the-top, and make her accessible and sympathetic? And all without resorting to cliché? At the moment, this problem seems insurmountable. I lay in bed last night thinking, “That’s it, it’s just not possible. I’m going to have to throw the whole book away.”
But today, the sun is shining, my calendar is clear, and the ghost of Flaubert is looking over my shoulder. So, who knows? Maybe today is the day that it all falls into place.
* “Il y aura en septembre prochain trois ans que je suis sur ce livre. Cela est long, trois ans passés sur la même idée, à écrire du même style (de ce style-là surtout, où ma personalité est aussi absente que celle de l’empereur de Chine), à vivre toujours avec les mêmes personnages, dans le même milieu, à se battre les flancs toujours pour la même illusion.” The translation is mine, please forgive any errors or stylistic oddities.
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