Thursday, January 7, 2010

Scroll Appeal

The literary obssession with obsolete, crude or bizarre methods of transcribing one's masterwork.

I joined a conversation on one of Slate's Facebook pages that seemed appropriate to reprint here. The discussion is spawned by a short video interview with author Jonathan Letham where, among other things, he shares his experience as a creative writing teacher and how, for purposes of revision, he encourages them print out their work, delete the file, and re-type the piece in its entirety.

I identify strongly with Letham's writing and enjoy it even though I never finished either of his novels that I started.  And I do see where he's going with this re-type-the-whole-thing thing. But there are many, many methods to facilitate "revision" (to see again, to see anew). Retyping the full work from start to finish strikes me as a potentially effective but grossly inefficient one.

One of the easiest and oft-neglected things a writer can do to "see" their work anew is to simply read it aloud. The experiences of seeing your work on the page and hearing yourself render it vocally are vastly different!

I also like to break up a chapter arbitrarily into pieces, be they pages, paragraphs, or even portions of paragraphs. Just shuffle them around, then read what I wrote in a new order. I often discover a sequence that more powerful than the original; more than that, busting up my own work dispels some of the self-defeating anxiety that I might destroy something good and not get it back (never happens). And, reading my work out of sequence helps me see those individual slices in a new light.

But Lethem's method certainly sounds sexy, doesn't it? Sexier than the examples I mention here, anyway.  As two of the other Facebook commenters pointed out, however, scribbling your work on a roll of toilet paper, or writing it in feces on the wall of an asylum, does not a more brilliant piece of literature make.

Is there a phrase for this, I wonder? For now I'll call it "scroll appeal," after Jack Kerouac and his famous first draft of On the Road. This attraction, this need for a creative process that is somehow unorthodox (even if only superficially so) is undoubtedly the same kind of romantic notion that produced the myth about J.K. Rowling writing the first bits of Harry Potter on napkins.  Scroll appeal presents a false hope of sorts, a promise that by simply abandoning traditional modes and replacing them with something old, unsophisticated or just plain weird, we can make inspiration appear as if by magic.

Just as every individual believes, often to a delusional degree, that a legendary vocalist resides deep inside of them (if you don't believe me just watch the American Idol tryouts next week), I believe there's an aspiring novelist inside us all.  And to a world of would-be novelists -- admittedly, yes, even to some of us who have already written one -- ANYTHING is better than the prospect grinding out hundreds of frustrating, often uninspired hours in front of a screen or sheet of paper.

But that's what it takes.

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