On the art... ...of being prolific
WHAT prompts a person to forsake a warm bed for a cold study at 5 a.m.? Day in, day out, Anthony Trollope rose, took only a cup of coffee, briefly edited yesterday's writing, then set his watch on the desk where he could see its minute hand. Trollope trained himself to produce 250 words every quarter hour. By his account, he penned more than 10 pages a day. In all, Trollope generated more than 60 multi-volumed books, most of them written in the gray hours before breakfast.
Trollope's athletic steadiness seems as extraordinary as his hefty output. Isaac Asimov, with more than 350 books to his credit, has said that to be a prolific writer you have to like writing and very little else. But Trollope liked lots of other things - hunting, whist, travel, entertaining - and he was employed full time during most of his literary career.
Working 10 hours a day for seven weeks, Stendhal dictated ``The Charterhouse of Parma.'' Though he was to write no great novels after it, the method of its writing rings with one of the central traits of prolificacy. After having thought through its major historical circumstances and their effects on individuals, the novel came to him in a rush. The writing, which we think of as the original creative act, was just copy work.
Joyce Carol Oates has disclosed much the same thing about her work habits. She claims to have a ``mystical imagination.'' Like Stendhal, she peoples an empty space, coloring whole timescapes from slim clues in popular magazines. ``It's mainly daydreaming,'' she says. When the world of her story is populated and plotted, she just writes it down: ``With a story it's one evening, if I can type that fast.''
Prolific authors must spend hours at the writing desk, yet speed of composition is only an adjunct to their talent. Jack Kerouac breathlessly beat out the 175,000 words of the first draft of ``On the Road'' on a continuous roll of teletype paper. It took him 20 days. In this instance, he was three times as fast as Trollope, but Kerouac never achieved that pace again.
As a boy, Trollope built air castles and dwelled in a world outside that of his everyday life. When his adult writing went more quickly than the already strict daily measure he set for himself, it was not simply because he could set words to paper more quickly. It was because he could give full time to daydreaming. ``At such times,'' he wrote, ``I have been able to imbue myself thoroughly with the characters.... I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand, and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.''
In the Victorian era, Trollope was derisively called a photographic writer, a mechanical copyist, not a creator. But there is a positive sense in which he, and Joyce Carol Oates, should be seen as photographers. Their method, shared with many other prolific writers, is one that recognizes a fundamental biological truth: Images are prior to words in our lifetimes, and they have a primordial power that words never achieve. It is little wonder that our dreams are mostly pictures, not conversations. The best of our prolific writers can conjure waking dreams and share that experience with us in fiction.
SO lofty an accomplishment is frequently abetted by mundane considerations. Trollope professed to have approached writing as he would have any other business: with the workmanlike rhythm of a shoemaker, and with a concern to provide his family with a comfortable income. If we forget that artists and writers must make a living, we are somehow robbing the work of art of its origins in human society. Bach cantatas and Mozart operas cannot be equated with money, but they were paid for, and in an important sense they represent earnings.
H.G. Wells's output owes something to his financial need, but it also reflects a condition common to many prolific writers. Authors like Wells and Asimov coalesce ideas and events, arranging them in discernible patterns for adult learners. James Michener's fiction also achieves this goal. The prolific consolidators of ideas do not exhaust themselves, because the need to find order and meaning in the world and natural history is never exhausted.
Prolific writers of fiction and nonfiction operate in a community of shared values and accessible language. Despite the obvious advantages of wealth, prolific writers have been mostly middle class. They accept the world enough to accept success in it. Trollope put it bluntly: ``I wished to be something more than a clerk in the Post Office. To be known as somebody - to be Anthony Trollope....'' Of course, the prolific writer's rapport with society is no predictor of quality. Hack-work and potboilers owe to the same disposition that burned in Balzac.
The vexing truth is that prolific writers do not have to make themselves write. What we envy as their discipline is, for them, a relatively effortless, self-satisfying solo recital: word music for one.
Trollope said just that in his autobiography. Addressing the question of how to become a popular writer, he wrote: ``language must come from him as music comes from the rapid touch of the great performer's fingers; as words come from the mouth of the indignant orator; as letters fly from the fingers of the trained compositor; as the syllables tinkled out by little bells form themselves to the ear of the telegraphist.''
Most of us cannot prefabricate our thoughts in images, or paragraphs, or pages. We slowly labor to form, inform, and reform ideas and words simultaneously. Meaning grudgingly enlarges through will and effort. If we could people universes in our minds, and let words tinkle like bells from our finger tips, there would be more of us up before the ``Today'' show, writing.