Newsletter #3: Time lags, deadline philosophy, childish scribbles.
Once, when I was little, my family went on a drive-through safari, the kind where humans stay safely in a car while lions and giraffes roam freely. I remember that I objected angrily when my father paused the audio tour, which was on a cassette player. We were going to miss what the park ranger was saying! In those days, radios and televisions couldn’t be paused, and I didn’t see how a cassette player could work any differently. To hear the whole tour, surely we had to keep the device always on, no matter how far ahead of us the taped narrator got.
It isn’t obvious that writing takes place in time, maybe because reading doesn’t take place simultaneously or even necessarily at the same tempo. My childhood confusion is the writer’s secret weapon. But while there may be enough time, thanks to this décalage, to hide some of a writer’s flaws, there’s never enough to hide all of them.
Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work.
That’s from Iris Murdoch’s highly entertaining novel The Black Prince; a genre writer is justifying his mediocrity, and Murdoch is making a joke about her own prolificacy. But it happens to be true! Every piece of writing has a deadline—a moment past which it will no longer be possible to slot it into the context for which it was conceived. “Don’t take too long,” the editor of my first book, which was scholarly, said to me when I was dilly-dallying on a revision. “I don’t want those endnotes to get stale.”
Maybe women writers, historically more subject to interruption, have more often been thoughtful about the way writing is vulnerable to time. Here’s the novelist-heroine of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A View of the Harbour:
“But it was through no fault of my own,” she thought, her mind reverting to those cracked and riven chapters of hers; all of her books the same, none sound as a bell, but giving off little jarring reverberations now here, now there, so that she herself could say, as she turned the pages (knowing as surely as if the type had slipped and spilt): “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”
The time of reading leaves marks, too. A couple of weeks ago, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, a bookseller let me page through a first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again(1595). About halfway through the book, on a mostly blank verso, a child had scrawled in pencil, in large, loopy characters,
11 66 55 33
The bookseller seemed a little startled. I said I thought the scribbles were charming, but I don’t think I looked enough like the sort of person who would actually be able to afford to purchase the volume to reassure him. “I don’t know,” he said. “It comes off a little strong, don’t you think?” When I got home, I asked Google but was unable to find a John or Thomas Cotton who was seven or eight years old in 1653. It also wasn’t until I got home that I wrote down the child’s inscription, from memory, which tends to be fallible. I see that the bookseller’s catalog entry does now mention it—I don’t know if it was added after the fair, or if it was there all along and I just now noticed it—and it records the inscription a little differently: “Thomas Cotton / 1653 / 165 / John / Cotton.”
The problem is more general, of course. Marcus Aurelius:
Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.
A person is more or less a firecracker, in other words, and one’s sparkle, as a writer or in any other capacity, comes from the process of one’s self being used up.