Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Skull on the Shelf

After his thought-provoking discussion of the futility of self-promotion, I was afraid we might not hear much again from Roger Morris on his plog. I'm pleased to report that he followed up almost immediately with a post on the kinds of writing we face: works we are contractually obligated to write, works we would enjoy writing, works that are just too good an opportunity to pass up...

And those books we feel compelled to write, but fear. And postpone. And redraft...

John Gardner thought that important book you fear was an unexpected sort of asset:

I myself have kept myself going for years by avoiding the one serious novel I mean to write someday. There it sits, five hundred rough-draft pages of it, watching me from its shelf like a skull. Nothing else I do is significant, by comparison, at least in my own mind. I am free to scatter words as an October wind scatters leaves.

Of course, Gardner died in a motorcycle accident before the preceeding quote was published, so his "one serious novel" never saw the light of day.

Do you have a skull on the shelf, either in rough draft, or half-completed, or perhaps only in your mind? (I certainly do. One-and-a-half of them, in fact.)

12 comments:

Jen Ster said...

I had a manuscript that started out as a pretty darn cool haunted-house story but died on page 250. (If something's gonna die on you, it should be on page 4.) I think I understand the problem now, but I still can't finish it. So I plod along, writing something else.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

You're right, if it's gonna take you through to 250, it oughtta at least take through to an unworkable full first draft. I've got one of those.

Though, if you're going to have a Skull on the Shelf, a haunted house story seems fitting.

Oh, you're THAT Jen, from the forum, aren't you?

Usman said...

Dunno. There is this novel I am working on. It could be the worst piece of fluff that I've done. Or I could convert it to something extraordinary.
I know it has the meat. I am not sure I have the strength.

Neil said...

Boy do I ever have one of these. All else pales in comparison. It is to be my magnum opus, but I'm still not sure if I'll ever finish it. I have re-written half of the thing three times already. I usually let it rest for six months at a time and started it over five years ago. It's not even that tricky a subject matter or plot or anything. I pretty much know how it all goes, and the only bit I can't get on with is a pretty picaresque bit in the middle, which shouldn't be hard at all. But for some reason, it is. I am however striving for perfection with it.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

You've just described how I feel about everything I write.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Neil--

Yes, that indeed qualifies for the Skull-on-the-Shelf award.

Do you find, as Gardner did, that it makes writing other things easier? That certainly hasn't been my experience. It's hard to write with the Skull reproaching me all the time...

Neil said...

I suppose writing other things is easier, relatively. I find it easier to start and finish other stuff. Having all your projects unfinished doesn't really constitute being a proper writer does it. So for that one to stay unfinished. The rest need completion.

Sam Taylor said...

Perhaps the novel I'm currently tring to finish is my skull on the shelf. It's been bugging me since I was 16, 16-years-ago and now I'm trying to finish it.

But now that I'm in the middle of it, I realize that it's nothing particularly special. Oh well, it doesn't have to be special. It just has to be what it is.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Yep, sounds as if it's working for you as the doctor prescribed.

Just make sure to finish the skull before you have any fatal accidents. I wonder to this day what Gardner's magnum opus was.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

I think judging the quality of a work before one is finished is a dangerous practice. (Okay, one we all engage in to a greater or lesser degree, but dangerous nonetheless.)

I advocate writing first and worrying later. But do as I say, not as I do--I'm wringing my hands over my current project, and getting more worrying than writing done.

Seth Fleisher said...

I do. I do. A big one. (As with so many others, it's a particular novel.) It's been staring menacingly at me for a couple years now. Sometimes seems to laugh when I pretend I don't notice it. I suppose I'm going to need to do something about it one of these days....

David Isaak said...

Hi, Seth--

I think the trick is to keep asserting you're going to do something about it...and then don't.