On Creative Contingency

Home stretch, people. Home stretch. I have committed to sending a “completed” manuscript, whatever that means, to an editor friend, on September 20th. That’s 84 days from now and yes, I’m counting.

Having set a hard deadline I find myself constantly besieged by anxiety, an amped-up version of the sense that’s attended almost every single one of my waking moments over the last four years, that I should be writing all the time. (Which just to be clear, I’m not, I still engage in an egregious amount of procrastination even when I’m not on Twitter, something that seriously needs to change if I’m going to hit my target, damn you internet for being so interesting.)

Karl Ove KnausgaardThe other source of this anxiety, as it is for any perfectionist, is fear of the draft not being good enough. And a central aspect of this fear, I think, is that there’s some Platonic form that my book’s supposed to take; even more specifically the dread of being aware that I can’t/won’t achieve this perfection.

Recently though, I was assuaged by reading an interview with literary star du jour Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of My Struggle, a six-volume autobiographical novel being compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He says something that is balm (bomb?) to my neurotic writer’s brain:

I know that if I had started any of my novels two days later it would be a different kind of novel. I just love that thought, that concept. Same thing in the writing process — it’s almost completely accidental, what happens when you are writing. I think it’s mostly going on a subconscious level. It has to be like that for me; it’s the only way it’s possible … not knowing what to expect. It’s also a way to include whatever is going on in the world.

This, to me, is the essence of what writing is. That every single word you put down is subject to the same constraints as all the other undertakings of your life: whether you’re hungry, what you’ve read that day, how many episodes of your favorite show are left before the season finale. Therefore the writing, inherently, is completely contingent.

To be sure, what makes a book-length work in any genre different from other creative forms is that it’s made over an extended period, and thus accrues layers of meaning and allusion that 140-character observations can’t approximate (and that I would argue makes books all the more valuable in our consumptive times). But as someone with only 84 – make that closer to 83 – days to go until someone assesses mine as it currently stands, it’s an enormous relief to admit this contingency, this relationship to the exigencies of my body and its chemistry, the vagaries of thought and time. And to assert that this quality isn’t just unavoidable, it’s actually to the benefit of the writing. It’s what makes it vital.

In other words, my perfect novel doesn’t exist. And as Knausgaard says, “you want there to be risk and you want danger and you want it to be threatening, if you write, at least I do.” Amen, brother. Amen.

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