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January 26, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, December 2008 Part II

Posted by carol
On Friday Joshua Henkin shared stories about some of his book club visits to discuss his novel Matrimony, including a very unusual question and how he answered it. A chronicle of his adventures in December continues here...

A Popular Book Group Process Question: How Do You Write --- By Computer or By Hand, How Often, What Time of Day, etc.?

Writers are often asked this question, and a lot of them get annoyed by it. Maybe I'm just a less easily annoyed kind of guy, but it seems to me a reasonable question. I think some writers dislike the question because they think lying behind it is the idea that all you need to be a good novelist is the right kind of pen. And I do think people can make too much of process. My writing students, for instance, sometimes use process as a way to procrastinate. If only I had the right computer, the right desk, the right environment in which to write, I'd get my work done. It's certainly the case that some situations are more conducive to writing than others (when I have my two daughters, ages 5 and 3, sitting on my lap and asking me, as they often do, to click on the YouTube video of the panda sneezing or the otters holding hands, that's a sign that I'm not going to get much writing done), but I'm a big believer that writers need to make do with what's given to them. You have to learn to write in a variety of places and under a wide set of circumstances. The writer who waits for the perfect environment and for the right amount of inspiration isn't going to write (I don't believe in inspiration, in any case. I think there's writing that's inspired and writing that's uninspired, but you can't always tell how you'll write from how you feel when you sit down to write. Sometimes when I'm feeling least inspired I write my best work, and sometimes when I'm feeling most inspired I write my worst work. Feeling too inspired can lead you to fall in love with the sound of your own voice.)

All that said, I do think how one writes can influence what one writes. Case in point. I've always written by computer, then printed my material out, then made changes, then printed out again, then made more changes, then printed out, and on and on and on (I'm a pretty bad environmentalist when it comes to writing --- I always print my work out because things look different on the page; the screen is a lot more forgiving). But early on in the writing of Matrimony, my computer broke down and it was in the shop for a few weeks, so I was forced to write by hand. And I found the experience surprisingly liberating. I'm a compulsive when it comes to writing; I can spend hours changing a word here, a word there, switching punctuation marks back and forth. I think you need to be a compulsive writer; you have to get everything exactly right. But a writer can be too compulsive too early.

The way I see it, writing the first draft of a novel is an act of ceding control. You're writing in a dream state; you don't know where the book is going, and that's a good thing. It takes a couple of years to know not whether it's going to be a good novel or a bad novel but whether it's going to be a novel at all. If you revise too soon, you interfere with that dream state. You spend months perfecting a chapter that, as beautiful as it is, doesn't belong in the book. There's a time for revision, and there's a time for not looking back. It's like building a house. You shouldn't be fiddling with the ornamentation on the doorpost before you've laid the foundation.

On the other hand, I'm instinctively, temperamentally an ornamentation-fiddler. Which is why I found writing by hand liberating. When the text appears on the screen it looks neat, so I feel compelled to make it neat in a deeper way. But I have terrible handwriting (I went to Jewish day school growing up, where we spent half the day reading and writing in Hebrew, and more than once people have looked at my handwriting and thought I was writing Hebrew, when it was just illegible English.), and so there's no illusion that what I'm doing is beautiful. And this lack of superficial beauty allows me to make an end-run around my revision problem. It allows me to plow forward without looking back and to save the all-important revision (ultimately, revision is what's most crucial; it's what separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls) for later. And it changes my sentences too --- makes them a little wilder and more surprising. So when my computer came back from the shop, I continued to write by hand. And that's how I ended up writing most of Matrimony --- the initial draft I wrote by hand, and then I typed the mess onto the computer and the hard work began.

Follow-up to one of November's "Most Unusual Book Group Questions"
The facilitator of a book group I visited in November wanted to know why it says at the back of novels what font the book was printed in. Here's the answer, care of (and with thanks to) Andy Hughes, the director of art and book production at Knopf:

"The note on the type colophon was instituted pretty much from the get go by Alfred Knopf, mostly in admiration of the Arts & Crafts movement in the UK the century before, when William Morris et al, in worshipful deference to the art of fine book making practiced in the Renaissance, adopted including a description (and celebration) of font design and all other forms of typographic excellence in their books."

O.K., folks, that's all for this month. A good January (and beginning of February) of book grouping to you all. By the way, groups who were registered with by January 16th were eligible to win copies of Matrimony and an author chat with me. If you entered, who knows: you just might make it into next month's roundup.

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, December 2008 Part I
Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part I
Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part II
Shouting Matches and More