The artist/provocateur Cory Arcangel recently published a book of "tweets" with Penguin (of all people, do Penguins tweet?) consisting of people's tweets where they are "working on a novel." ) Its one of those ideas, like Michael Landy destroying all his professions or Gormley's fourth plinth piece, which you kind of wish had stayed in one of those infra dig exhibitions of "ideas for art" rather than becoming an artwork in itself. Not that its a bad idea in itself, its just that the idea is so small, and even snide, that the work itself becomes much bigger than the intellectual frame of reference. Since any of the contributors in that book would probably have given a limb to be published in book form by Penguin, their being raw material for a trashing of creative dreams (or ironic commentary on our self-aware status alerts if you prefer) seems a little crass.
And I'm only saying that because of course I'm "working on my novel," though - and not because of Cory Arcangel's admittedly funny piece - I tend to now say I'm writing my "work in progress" or (as a few friends put it on their Facebook status) WIP. "Work in progress" has a long cultural history of course, being the original "name" or at least description for "Ulysses" by James Joyce. I appropriated it for my stream-of-consciousness prose poem sequence "Extracts from Levona (a work in progress)" because I liked that sense of unfinished business, as well as the anonymity it gives you. I have many "novels" which never got past a few pages, and quite a few that limped into 10-20 thousand words, without ever seeing the light of day, so "work in progress" is a good way of keeping your eye on the ball. Arcangel, to be fair, was, I think, interested in the idea of "working on a novel" as being something like the character in Camus's "The Plague" who is sure that his novel will be on the right track, as soon as he nails the first line, and of course, on detailing this regularly to the doctor in the story, dies before he achieves it. (Camus also wrote the "Myth of Sysyphus" so he knows of what he writes.)
Anyway, I've been "working on a novel" for a while now, since the start of the year, actually, where a little short story project I had ended up creating a bit of a template for a longer piece, which coincided with me joining a writing group. I'm nothing if not reliable when I join such endeavours, and rather than flitting from piece to piece, have continued with the "work in progress" whilst at the same time being (a) not entirely sure where I'm going with this and (b) wondering if it has the legs to be another "novel". Anyway, the writing group helped me hone my intentions, give it a title, and, now, eight months on, see me write most of the first half of it. Its kind of looking like it might be a (short) novel after all.
This week, for the first time in ages I've had the time to sit back down with it not as homework for the group but really getting stuck into it - over three or four days I've put together a third of what I've written to date. But how do I know its got "legs"? Well this morning I woke up with the characters speaking to me. Not in a hearing voices sort of way, (though it can come to this), but them jostling in my head for a bit of room. Whatever other plans I had to day went out of the window and I set down to get them down on the page. I've always felt myself even more of a fake calling myself a novelist than a poet, as my previous novels remain steadfastly unpublished, and its been several years since I've finished anything of serious length - yet long fiction has been what I set out to do from when I was about twenty one or so (and probably before then, though it was getting a computer that made me convinced I was able to be in this for the long haul). I've puzzled a little to why I've stopped aiming at novel writing. Most of the excuses have seemed practical - it takes a lot of time, you then have a "thing" that is competing with every other novel in the world for attention - but some have been aesthetic as well. Do I really want to add to the world's slush pile of books? Have I anything particularly special to say, or a particularly good way of saying it? Given that I can answer those questions via a poem or a short story I guess I put novel writing a bit to one side. The "big novel" of my dreams remains a mirage, (or a mountain), yet hearing those voices in my head this morning I remembered what you can do in a novel that no other form of writing can give you. It enables you to expand on character so that your creations do take on histories and futures of their own. Even as I frantically fill in the backstory of character's that a few pages before were mere ciphers, I realise their lives are becoming more than just "scenery" to the novel but are at the heart of it.
There's a peculiar excitement when this happens - and its one I'd temporarily forgotten about - one that the character in "The Plague" never understands, and one I wonder if Cory Arcangel has considered. For its only in the writing of the novel, not the thinking about it, or tweeting about it, or saying you've "got a novel in you" to mates down the pub, that the damn thing actually comes into existence, and whereas Cory's art project was probably just a matter of process once he'd had the initial idea, (and don't get me wrong, I like and appreciate artistic process), the novel has a tendency to defy any sense of over-ordering. Apparently Iris Murdoch used to write 30,000 synopses's before writing the novel itself - which sounds a little like a first draft to me. I have published writer friends who start with order and have to go through chaos before they come out the other side with an order that make sense. For me, I tend to have a big idea, and often a destination, but very little idea about the route or the method to get there. I'd forgotten, it seems, that there are unexpected pleasures along the way. Waking up with your characters doing your work for you, is one of those, and I thought I'd share it.
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