I invite you to get the new year off to a hilarious start by watching Muriel Spark describing her creative process in this 35-second interview clip, which makes me howl with laughter and/or frustration every time I watch it.
I can’t be the only one who finds that video maddening. Are we really supposed to believe Muriel Spark would just sit down, write a book, and then be done writing the book?
The implication is that Spark told her stories to herself multiple times, essentially drafting entire novels in her head over a period of weeks or months, before she ever set pen to paper. (As she once put it, “I do all the correcting before I begin, getting it in my mind. And then when I pounce, I pounce.”) If that sounds like a plausible approach for you, go for it! To me, it sounds like torture.
Both my writing and my translation skills improved once I’ve accepted that, for me, the purpose of a first draft is to be a mess. I don’t just mean it’s okay for a first draft to be “bad”; I mean the more cluttered the pages are with notes I’ve written to myself, the better the second draft is likely to be.
I’m just starting now to look at the 50,000 words I wrote during NaNoWriMo in November. Did they get me 50,000 words closer to the end of my story? Absolutely not—and I’m glad! For me, the real benefit of that challenge lies in the prioritization of quantity over quality. If I’m trying to accumulate words for NaNoWriMo, I’m not tempted to delete an awkward bit of dialogue or an unwieldy phrase; instead, I add a bunch of alternatives and plan to figure out what works when I come back to the draft with fresh eyes.
I do the same thing with the first draft of a literary translation; my notes might include links to resources I’ve already checked, but they consist primarily of alternative options for word choice or phrasing. (That said, I recently found a couple of comments I’d left for myself that simply said “nope” and “THIS IS NOT IT,” which might not be great for bolstering confidence but did give me a laugh.)
Sometimes I decide my first instinct was the right one, but the third or fourth idea I had is often my best option. My second thought virtually never turns out to be the best one, but it’s still worth putting on the page; without it, the third and fourth versions wouldn’t exist.
Anne Lamott’s famous “shitty first draft” advice notwithstanding, I think a lot of us privately fear we’re the only ones struggling through messy drafts while everybody else simply sits down with a fresh notebook and writes the title and then their name and then “Chapter 1” and then the first sentence of Chapter 1 and then the second sentence of Chapter 1, à la Muriel Spark. The thing is, even Muriel Spark didn’t actually write that way. The process she describes in that interview clip is transcription; she had done the real work of writing before she sat down. She didn’t have a preternatural capacity for summoning a novel out of thin air, but she did have the self-knowledge to develop a method that worked for her. That—not the bit with the christening of a new notebook—is worth emulating.
For the last few years, I’ve looked forward to Iron Horse Literary Review’s annual PhotoFinish issue—a compilation of very brief prose and poetry based on the same photo prompt, released at midnight on New Year’s Eve and free to read online. The 2022 edition is here, and I’m thrilled to say it includes a flash fiction piece of mine. The photo prompt is on page 4, and each contributor provides a statement at the end of the issue saying how they drew inspiration from the photo. Please do take a look!
Songs for the Gusle, my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1827 hoax, La Guzla, will be published in March by Frayed Edge Press, and I’m excited to make this unique collection of fake folklore and bogus travelogues available in English for the first time. Come for the vampires and ghosts, stay for the trenchant critique of cultural imperialism! I’ll have information to share about pre-orders soon.
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. This time around, I’m highlighting two recent articles that focus on increased interest in (and demand for) translated literature in traditionally insular Anglophone publishing markets.
Fiona O’Connor wrote last week in The Irish Times about a dramatic surge in sales of translated fiction in the UK and Ireland. O’Connor points to small presses as a particular driver of a “disruptive swipe on big publishing houses” but also notes that Brexit has threatened UK-based small presses’ business models.
In her introduction to The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, Valeria Luiselli presents the common threads in the twenty stories she selected for inclusion, fully half of which were first published in languages other than English. Works in translation only recently became eligible for the O. Henry Prize, and Luiselli notes that this change was a deciding factor in her acceptance of the invitation to serve as guest editor.
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.
All the best for a joyous start to the new year!