1. Because Roland Barthes: “A writer is a person for whom language is a problem.”
2. Because Alfred North Whitehead: “One main factor in the upward trend of animal life has been the power of wandering.”
3. Another way of saying this: I was asked here to supply an excerpt from the first draft of Dreamlives of Debris aimed at demonstrating the struggle of completing/editing a manuscript.
The problem is I don’t keep anything from earlier drafts.
The final draft is the only draft.
4. I used to, but I don’t anymore.
Let me tell you why.
5. “All the maps you have,” Michel Butor once suggested, “are of no use — all this work of discovery and surveying: you have to start off at random, like the first men on earth; you risk dying of hunger a few miles from the richest stores.”
6. What I mean to say is that, back in 2000, I was about a hundred pages into a new novel when I woke up one morning, sat down to work, and realized how bored I was by what I was doing, like I had been eating exactly the same Chinese takeout for dinner seven nights in a row.
7. It’s not that there was something wrong with my novel-in-progress. Just the opposite. It felt as if it were doing exactly what it should be doing. It felt as if its language and plot were marching down the page from upper left to lower right like they were an army of ants on snow.
That was the trouble.
8. Sipping my coffee, I leaned back and stared at my computer screen for a long time.
9. In part this is because once John Cage once said: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
10. And in part this is because Paul Theroux once said: “Travelers don’t know where they’re going, and tourists don’t know where they’ve been.”
11. I quit the file, took another sip of coffee, and then sort of eased up on the .doc with the cursor.
12. I want to say this is because the philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term Grenzsituationen — limit situations — to describe existential moments accompanied by radical anxiety in which the human mind is forced to confront the restrictions of its existing forms: moments, in other words, that make one abandon, fleetingly, the securities of one’s limitedness and enter new realms of possibility.
13. Over the last few years I have come to think of certain writing practices as Limit Texts: varieties of disturbance that carry narrativity to its brink so the reader (and, perhaps more importantly, the writer) can never quite think of it in the same way again: Beckett’s Unnameable, say, or, in a different key, Anne Carson’s Nox.
14. In any case, I dragged the file from where it hovered on the screen down into the trash.
It felt like an out-of-body experience.
I saw myself fingering the cursor, saw the .doc sliding lower, lower, lower, was increasingly interested to see what I was going to do next.
15. [[ The very idea of narrative, in other words, becoming a means for unlearning. ]]
16. You have to understand, in order to get the full impact of this parable, that I had worked on those hundred pages for more than six months, thinking I was getting somewhere, writing hard, rewriting hard, giving up hard, starting over hard, trying to make those page into something they refused to be.
17. In part this may have been because Robbe-Grillet observed: “To tell a story has become strictly impossible.”
18. I saw my cursor float up toward the menu at the top of my screen, saw it find Finder, saw it drop down to the words Empty Trash — words which suddenly seemed very important.
19. In a sense this is because all how-to tips about creative writing are really spiritual autobiography in disguise.
They teach you nothing except about the people who wrote them.
20. And in a sense this is because Ludwig Wittgenstein once pointed out: “One of the most misleading representational techniques in our language is the use of the word ‘I.’”
21. All I did what lightly touch those two words, and the novel-in-progress I had been working with went away.
22. I didn’t have a backup, in case you were wondering.
23. I didn’t believe in backup at the time.
24. [[ In a sense I still don’t. ]]
25. “The aim of literature,” Donald Barthelme once pointing out, being “the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.”
26. I can’t begin to articulate how relieved I felt at that moment, how unnerved, how strange, how proud, how stupid, how thrilled.
27. The screen just sat there waiting for me, the way screens do for writers, wondering what I would do next.
28. What I did next was reach over and create a new file.
29. What I did next was watch the cursor blinking.
30. What I did next was type this line, a line I didn’t know I would type: Examine the photograph as closely as you like, only you will not be able to locate the child in it.
31. It was the first line of what would become a novel called Girl Imagined by Chance, which for me helped change the way I thought about fiction.
32. Because — and this is the real point — in the end Annie Dillard once advised: “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
33. If not that, then what?
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