Three months ago, on 1 Aug, I started a project to finally make it through David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I had failed to finish the gargantuan novel on three previous occasions despite being in love with Wallace’s writing; it was just too big, too unwieldy a physical artefact, and too demanding of the reader’s engagement to be picked up lightly or granted anything other than one’s full attention. Which is why I started Infinite Jetzt: a scheduled reading of the novel where I would tackle about 10 pages a day for three months. I sent out word on Twitter and was joined by a group of friends who picked up copies of the novel, printed copies of the schedule, and read alongside me.
As of 31 Oct, I’m happy to be able to say that it worked: I finally finished the novel, and not only that but the project itself proved invaluable. There was a period, 600 or so pages in, when I fell some way behind. I can be pretty sure that had it not been for the sense of community that had already grown up around the endeavour of reading the novel along with others, I would have put the thing aside again and maybe not picked it up for years to come. As it was I had both the internal pressure of a commitment to a weekly blogpost to motivate me, and the support of a group of sweet, dedicated people who I was heartened to find supporting me and each other. I caught back up, kept the pace, and finished the book on schedule at the end of last week. Doing so brought a mixed sense of relief, accomplishment, and an odd sense of loss that something that had been a daily part of my life for quarter of a year was now past. It did make me smile, however, to see that I wasn’t the only one feeling all of these things - it meant others had also got something out of the experience that they found valuable.
So, with 92 days and 981 pages of Infinite Jest behind me, what’s next? How about writing 50,000 words in 30 days?
I’ve been meaning to try my hand at NaNoWriMo for years, and when it popped into my mind again a few weeks ago it felt like a neat transition from a long-distance reading project to an intensive writing one. Like many, many people who harbour secret (or not-so-secret) writerly ambitions, I have long struggled with maintaining the kind of persistence required to see anything of substance through to the end.
Another trait I suspect I share with many aspiring writers is the tendency to collect writerly advice: snippets of wisdom from those who have completed a novel or 30. These include several thoughts on the relative importance of writing versus editing, and the necessity of completing the first draft before returning with any kind of eye for quality. Take this example I encountered recently from Warren Ellis:
[T]he first draft will always, ALWAYS be terrible, and you should make sure everyone knows that. The first draft is just surrounding the battlefield. The second draft is the actual battle, and, most often, where the real writing happens.
Despite reading variations on this piece of advice many, many times I have failed to internalise the message. I’ve never been able to complete one pass before tinkering, re-reading, evaluating…. It really is death for my desire to carry on with a piece, but it’s something I can’t help doing. To my mind NaNoWriMo may be a perfect antidote. 50,000 words in a month seems like a near-breakneck pace to write at, but is just the trick to stop me indulging my inner editor: there simply won’t be time to look back; the schedule demands a constant forward momentum which, I’m hoping, will carry me through a first draft and leave me, when December rolls around, with a substantial enough stack of pages that I’ll remain invested in the idea of making it all into something worthwhile.
Rationally I know that none of those pieces of writing advice is going to provide a magic bullet that suddenly makes novel-writing easy. The not-so-secret trick that everyone who completes a task of this size learns, I think, is persistence. I’m anticipating that NaNoWriMo will teach me that with writing, as with distance running and developing a daily meditation practice, the only way to do it is to do it, and eventually, maybe, it gets easier. At the least it gets more familiar.
The successful completion of the Infinite Jetzt project has me thinking I need to revise my conception of myself as someone who doesn’t finish reading the novels he starts. This year I completed The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (528 pages), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (880 pages), and Murakami’s colossal 1Q84 (1,328 pages) among others, before taking up Wallace’s novel (1,104 pages incl. the endnotes!). This month I’m working towards also revising the idea that I don’t follow through on writing fiction. If I can just get my pages together, worrying about quality can wait until December.