Monday, April 20, 2009

J.G. Ballard, Margaret Drabble, and Writers' Memories.

J.G. Ballard died on Thursday. The only thing of his I've read is the close-to- autobiographical Empire of the Sun, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Strange that he didn't write of his childhood memories in China until he was over fifty, when most writers would deal with such huge early upheaval in first novels. I've read nothing else by Ballard - for instance, Crash - knowing that his sense of the macabre would be too much for me to handle, but the book relating his formative years in China haunts me still.


My favorite writer is Margaret Drabble, and I've read every novel she's written. Knowing how difficult writing is for us all - trying not to be repetitive with phrasing, with descriptions, with single words, within ONE book, let alone if we're writing a second or third book - you'll appreciate her present dilemma. She believes she must stop writing because she now can't be sure she's not repeating herself. Ms. Drabble is not yet seventy, and has crammed a literary bounty into fifty of those years, but she's certainly too young to be finished. But I do understand how she feels.

When we write, it can be as irritating as all get-out having to go back (or use "Search") to check each time we feel we've already used that phrase, that precise description of a setting sun, whatever. Usually our hunch is right. There it is, more or less identically-worded, back in Chapter Five.

One of the oddities in writing is that you do so much of it away from the computer - while you're housecleaning, or in the shower, and so on. Many times I've thought of some brilliant bit that simply must go into the book, and eventually sat down to include it in the appropriate spot and - not really a surprise - it's already there; the idea was already incorporated when I thought it was sparkling and new. This is not a symptom of a failing mind (I'm pretty sure), but an indication of the constant perfection we look for when we write. Only that exact coupling of words will do right here .

Now imagine that you've written some eighteen novels (along with short stories, essays, and a ton of non-fiction) over the last forty odd years, and keep in mind that personal computers have only been around for about twenty. How on earth do you keep track of a delicious literary snippet you wrote in Novel Six, or Eight?

Which brings me back to Ms. Drabble. Oh, how I sympathize with her, brilliant and inexhaustible wordsmith that she is. If I can't remember a detail in my book from a month ago, how can she after decades?

Go ahead and take a break from it, Ms. Drabble, I say. You'll be back.

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