Thursday, September 06, 2007

Twenty Lines a Day

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of the inspirations for this blog was Harry Mathews's Twenty Lines a Day (1988), a brief book that Mathews wrote following an instruction Stendhal gave himself in the course of working on a novel:
Twenty lines a day, genius or not.
Mathews explains his intentions in his introduction:
Like many writers, I often find starting the working day a discouraging prospect, one that I spend much energy avoiding. . . . I deliberately mistook [Stendhal's] words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page. Even for a dubious, wary writer, twenty lines seemed a reassuring obtainable objective, especially if they had no connection with a "serious" project like a novel or an essay.

When I began this blog, I wasn't doing any writing regularly outside of work. I've never been one to keep a journal, and while I would regularly find myself--especially while running--thinking at length about, or even arguing with, the books I had been reading, absent any outside pressure I would eventually just open up a new book and move on. So with Harry Mathews in mind, I decided that I would commit to writing at least a couple of times per week about books and see if I could turn it into a habit--a concept that Michel Tournier explains, cryptically yet unforgettably, in The Mirror of Ideas (1994), with reference to the brain:
The role of the brain is precisely to elaborate the past for the needs of present life. It keeps only the learned movement, eliminating the date and circumstances that surrounded its acquisition.
We cultivate a habit, and eventually it becomes so ingrained, so natural, that we don't even remember quite how we developed it in the first place. So I signed up for a blog and got to work.

While I set myself a specific writing task, Harry Mathews seemingly let his mind work through whatever topic floated to the top when he sat down. Twenty Lines a Day includes entries that essentially take the form of a journal, some that border on automatic writing, a few that are fable-like, and others that resemble Oulipean experiments. Not all of them are interesting or successful on any terms other than that of the original impulse to write something; the entry for December 13, 1983, for example, begins:
I have nothing to write in particular. I'm writing these lines because of my rule that I must write them.
Though I know that some days my posts are better or more inspired than others, it's got to be a good sign that I haven't yet had a day when I felt that I was writing solely out of obligation. (To be fair, Mathews had a good excuse for being empty of ideas that day: he was in the middle of writing his masterpiece, Cigarettes.)

Mathews's good entries, on the other hand, are so varied that it's hard to pick a favorite. Twenty Lines a Day is a book that's best read a bit at a time, here and there, a book to keep next to the chair in which you drink your coffee of a morning. My favorite today, I think, is this one, from just a few days after the uninspired entry above, December 17, 1983:
The fun about things, as about thoughts, is getting them, not having them. They become obvious once you have them, just another part of a familiar landscape. Two days ago I came across my course notes about the imaginary reader--the one the writer invents to listen to his imaginary narrator, and on whom the actual reader eavesdrops--and because I'd forgotten the notion I enjoyed a moment of mild excitement reunderstanding it. But after a moment it was back on its rack among the dusty bottles. This has also happened with what I bought myself yesterday (a day mainly devoted to the purchase of Christmas presents): a tape deck, a cassette rack, an outdoor winter country jacket. I nailed the rack into place last night; the tape deck, having been adequately studied in the instruction manual, has been installed in its definitive place; the jacket hangs on a peg by the front door as if it had been there for years. All three will certainly provide convenience or pleasure in coming days as they are used, but the wonder disappeared from them as soon as they were unwrapped and their price tags removed. The wonder grew from the expectation that they would change something in life (how nifty having one's cassettes so handily arrayed, how delicious acceding to glorious music by slipping cassettes into the deck, how warmly glamorous walking outdoors in a bronze-colored, ring-necked, thigh-long jacket). But "of course" I know that expectation is the stupidest kind of lure. . . . What I know too is that the pleasure of buying the things was a real and sufficient one: the pleasure of giving presents and of allowing oneself to be their worthy recipient.

I think of bringing home a couple of lovely, well-designed books from the bookstore, and of how as I stack them on the windowsill or precariously wedge them atop a row of books in the bookcase, it will seem essential that I read them right away--as soon, that is, as I'm done with what I'm in the middle of reading at that moment. A few days pass, my time and attention are lured away by other books, and soon those books are buried under a newer, fresher layer, becoming an indistinguishable part of the never-diminishing mass of unread words that fills our house. The urgency--that "lure of expectation"--is gone.

But books, unlike cassette decks and cassette racks and jackets, are capable of storing that urgency, unsullied, to surprise you with it some Saturday morning when you're wandering your bookshelves, looking for a novel. You're in the mood for a particular tone, a specific feel, and you just can't identify it . . .

February 22, 1984:
Choosing the next book to read resembles choosing a restaurant or the next Italian town to visit: none ever seems quite right. You want something that corresponds perfectly to your desire, and you can't identify that desire until you find what arouses it. . . . What do you want from a book? No: what do you want from choosing a book? To stand on the threshold of the unfamiliar, the inevitably familiar viewed unfamiliarly, the known capabilities of language yielding opportunities for you to react to them (to reinvent them yourself) with breathtaking, with breathgiving wonder.

Finally you spot it, just the book you needed, and you remember how excited you were when you brought it home. How could you have left that sitting on your shelf, unread, for a year?

And then there are the books we re-read, discovering that they, too, have retained that power, that a single reading hasn't come close to exhausting their possibilities. That's where my wander through my bookshelves took me last Sunday night, to an old favorite, and all week I've been wrapped up once more in Proust--who, incidentally, also had something to say about the blank page.

From The Guermantes Way (1920), translated by Mark Treharne
If only I had been able to start writing! But, however I set about it (all to similarly, alas, to the resolve to give up alcohol, to go to bed early, to get enough sleep and to keep fit), whether it was in a spurt of activity, with method, with pleasure, in depriving myself of a walk, or postponing it and reserving it as a reward, taking advantage of an hour of feeling well, making use of the inaction forced upon me by a day's illness, the inevitable result of my efforts was a blank page, untouched by writing, as predestined as the forced card that you inevitably end up drawing in certain tricks, however thoroughly you have first shuffled the pack. I was merely the instrument of habits of not working, of not going to bed, of not sleeping, which had to fulfil themselves at any cost; if I offered no resistance, if I made do with the pretext they drew from the first opportunity that arose for them to act as they chose, I escaped without serious harm, I still slept for a few hours towards morning, I managed to read a little, I did not over-exert myself; but if I tried to resist them, by deciding to go to bed early, to drink only water, to work, they became annoyed, they resorted to strong measures, they made me really ill, I was obliged to double my dose of alcohol, I did not go to bed for two days, I could not even read, and I would vow to be more reasonable in future, that is to say less wise, like the victim who allows himself to be robbed for fear of being murdered if he puts up resistance.

And with that, because I am, after all, decidedly a creature of habit, I'm off to bed before the hour gets too unreasonable.

1 comment:

  1. Have we talked about Mathews?!