… or, at least, how the writers we already know and love do what they do.
Last week, La Nación published a series of interviews with prominent Argentinian writers about their creative process. What’s interesting about the piece is that it does not just address the intangible (and largely indescribable) epiphanies we associate with creativity, but the more mundane – and often far more illuminating – process part of the process: who works at a café and who prefers a corner of their home, who drafts by hand, who revises in the morning and who at night, etc.
I like the article’s approach because it reminds me of the discipline (well, in most cases) behind books that, being good, inspire a sense of immediacy and so appear to have emerged full-formed from the minds of their creators.
Nine writers participated with personal accounts, and the article includes a few additional anecdotes about Borges, Hammett, et al. I’m only posting from three of them: Alan Pauls, a perennial favorite of this blog; Rodolfo Fogwill, a staple of the Argentinian literary landscape and bit of a swashbuckler; and Pablo De Santis, whose novel La traducción I am currently in the middle of reading. The rest of the series is available here.
Alan Pauls tends to work in his studio at home on a Mac laptop, changing the font he’s using to suit his mood, a personal approach to the material aspect of writing that carries over into analog:
I write with fountain pens, which allow for the best falsifications, and use a mechanical pencil to make notes in the margins of things I read. I don’t use ball-point pens – I hate them almost as much as I hate cell phones.
When it comes to the plot and characters of his novels, Pauls does not seem particularly exacting, leaving himself plenty of room for improvisation.
In El pasado I had something of a roadmap, but a hundred pages in, I realized that I was much more interested in talking about the little signs, the frustrated conflicts and the empty promises that blossomed between the major dramatic events of the story. In Historia del llanto and in Historia del pelo there wasn’t even that: just a fossil to begin from (tears, hair) and a melodic hallucination running through my mind.
A brief note: El pasado, as many already know, is the Spanish title of The Past, which is available in English. The other two titles belong to a much-anticipated trilogy, and – as far as I know – have not yet been picked up by an English-language publisher.
Rodolfo Fogwill also likes to draft on a computer, and has been doing it a lot longer than most. Fogwill, who professes to be unable to read his own handwriting, has been using a word processor since the late 70s, and to this day prefers to work in white lettering against a dark background (I didn’t even know you could do that in Word). He claims to have written Los pichiciegos, his novel on the conflict in the Falkland Islands, “in the amount of time it took to go through two and a half days and twelve grams of cocaine.” Which is another, far more intense, way of saying – um – two and a half days.
Nowadays, Fogwill works without the stimulants, but doesn’t seem to have any trouble cranking out the pages – he produces about four per hour when he sits down to work in the morning, on a schedule devised to capitalize on his – ahem – biological rhythms. A bon mot from the author himself:
I laugh at those who are afraid of the blank page. More than the blank page, I’m afraid of the marked one, of asking myself, ‘how could I have written this nonsense?’
In terms of plot and character, Fogwill is not a big planner, either.
The characters don’t exist. I invent things in the moment. I’m not one of those who know what the last line is going to be, and I don’t name my characters. These days, they always have a first and last name. Why not give them documents, too?
An interesting argument, indeed.
And, finally, Pablo De Santis. In contrast to the authors already profiled, he is casual about the material aspect of writing, but particular about laying out the plot of his novels in advance. He also drafts by hand, using “the first thing he finds around the house” to write out ideas in his notebook. Once the basic structure of the text is fleshed out, he moves to the computer (his preferred font is Courier New, 12 point) to work through the details. He explains his methodology with simple but convincing metaphor:
I need to know the structure first if I want to be able to explore different paths. If you get in a car and know where you are going, you can talk or listen to music. But if you get lost, you can’t relax or pay attention to what is going on around you.
Toward the end of his interview, the author considers the effect that the material aspect of the creative process has on the work itself:
Before the computer, the development of a text used to be much more internal. When you wrote a draft on a typewriter, it seemed much more like a final version. The computer really transformed writing. A novel used to be written three, maybe four times. Now, who knows how many times it was revised?
To De Santis’ last point, does the number of times a work is revised have any bearing on its value or effectiveness? Perhaps a useful consideration for a time when many writers – through forums like blogs and other digital platforms – seem to be returning to a less-processed mode of composition, though many of these same authors still continue to rewrite their printed work before publication.