When I start writing a novel, I never know much about the plot, and certainly not the ending. I simply have an idea, or an image, or a sentence that has been lurking for a while. So I suppose my first sentences have to be interesting and appealing enough to lead me down the path they reveal. I very much decide things on the spot, I improvise a lot. But, once I make a decision, I almost never go back on it. I stick to what I said on page 10, even if on page 200 I discover that it would have been easier to say something different on page 10. I realize this is absurd—and perhaps suicidal—but I apply to my novels the same principle of knowledge that rules life: at 40 you may wish you had made a different decision when you were 20, but you can’t go back. Well, in my novels it is the same. The funny thing is that many critics have pointed out that, often, on my very first page, there is a sort of “summary” of the whole novel. But, as I have said many times before, I don’t have a map when I write, just a compass. So I know I am heading “north,” as it were, but not the way I will get there.
I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasselled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.” Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”
I headed home.
—Denis Johnson, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”
Nothing’s calculated like—calculated. It’s accumulated. Then I consider the material, and turn it every possible way over a period of years, and then, one day, it’s over. T. S. Eliot spoke of making “quasi-musical decisions.” That’s how I’d put it, too. Do you know the Billy Strayhorn composition “Lush Life”? The way this story unstrings itself reminds me of “Lush Life.”
—Denis Johnson newyorker
There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living. But only in man does it assume a spiritual character. And only through spirit does life continue by decision…But this answer only points to a deeper question. Perhaps we shall not fathom the wonder of life at its roots, or discern how strength can rest on such frail foundations. Only within the last hundred years have the biological sciences begun to formulate objectively what might be meant by ‘life in itself’…but already we can grasp some part, at least, of what the survivor’s experience reveals: that whether felt as a power, or observed as a system of activities, life is existence laboring to sustain itself, repairing, defending, healing.
—Terrence Des Pres
“When all music is available to everybody all the time, first of all, there can be no sense of something radically new and, second, you may never have the capacity to focus and concentrate yourself, a process which requires really filtering out a lot of noise in order to see the urgency of any particular utterance.”
When you’re drunk it’s so much fun—
Your stories don’t make sense.
An early fall has strung
The elms with yellow flags.
If you know what you’re going to write then that’s death for me, then nothing is happening. If I plan something it’s just dead. And almost everything I write is dead in that sense really, but if I speed up then something, all of a sudden, is happening because I can no longer control it. —Karl Ove Knausgaard
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…
I try to forget what I’ve already written, and forget what it sounded like, and treat each attempt as if it were my very first.
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand.
My mother’s brother died in the Second World War. His wife had a son from a previous marriage, to a Wichita playboy millionaire, from whom she inherited lots of filthy lucre, sufficient to purchase the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the city, down the block from my parents’ house, and that son—my stepcousin, maybe?—died at age fifteen, in an explosion at a cabin at camp (possibly a suicide), and my other cousin, a full cousin, the son of my dead uncle, also a playboy, drowned in a pool at age twenty-eight, when he was just about to wed. His mother, a woman unrelated to me by blood, yet who had lived at one time (during the Second World War) with my grandmother, my mother, and some nieces who needed rescue from their violent father—well, she drowned in a hot tub a couple of decades later. The whole family is dead, and the Frank Lloyd Wright house is still down the block, and I toured it not that long ago; the docent, retelling the history of the place, shook her head in disgust at the mess that one set of owners had made of it in the unfortunate nineteen-seventies, installing turquoise kitchen appliances! Carpeting the hallway! Requiring an elevator! The horror! That would be my family.