Short Books, Transcription, and Solitude
15 February 2011
I’ve been chewing on a few things Nicholson Baker said at a recent lecture:
1. Write short books. This extends, in his opinion, to “read short books.” There is, of course, some relief for me here. I’ve been thinking lately about how a big book in some ways has the same requirements as a short story, i.e. every word must be compelling. Otherwise, how will the reader persist? Middlemarch was compelling from beginning to end. War & Peace is my summer project (I am hopeful). 2666 lost me in the midst of the endless litany of murders. (Note: I am a slow reader; fast readers will find all of this inconsequential. The divide between fast readers and slow readers is enormous in terms of reading prioritization.) Short books, Baker contends, are each really part of the larger, singular work of an artist; in other words, all the books you write are of a piece, so why not make them compact.
2. Copy out writing that you admire – regularly, religiously. I’ve always done this but I am inspired by the “regularly, religiously.” It feels so inefficient to do this – it takes time, forces you to slow down (you should do it by hand, in my opinion) – but it isn’t. It seems almost too simple, i.e. teach yourself to write by writing someone else’s actual good words. But I do think there’s something else that happens, a kind of transference, when you actually engage physically with good/great words and sentences and ideas.
3. Block yourself off from the world. You have to get distance in order to get closer, is how Baker put it. And the goal of all good novels is to get closer – to the human experience, to life on earth. You can’t get closer from within, it’s like trying to capture the image of a person’s face when you’re nose to nose. As a matter of practical example, he often writes with headphones on, blasting music that floods his brain and functions as a buffer between his mind and his environment.
I don’t always get out for readings and lectures, but it’s good – especially the reminders that it’s supposed to be difficult. “You can’t get what it means to write honestly until you’ve suffered something,” Baker said. We twist ourselves up when we lapse into the erroneous expectation that it should come easy.