The Muse Won’t Quit

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In the summer of 2006, Jesse Ball sat down to write a novel. Ball kept a constant vigil; he remained with his instruments, more like a performer than a novelist, a pianist absorbed in the madness of his music, blending themes, changing his intonation, but never letting the line break or fall away. Two weeks later, a novel had emerged, a series of nested boxes called The Way Through Doors. Now, normally I like to know as little as possible about a book’s origins and the circumstances of its composition before sitting down to read. If, for instance, I know that Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler to pay off a gambling debt, I’m likely to waste time parsing the plot for clues about the author’s circumstances instead of losing myself in the story. But in this instance I was happy to have read an interview with Ball in which he divulged certain information: not only did he finish Doors during a two-week stay in Pau, France, but he wrote his Plimpton Prize-winning novella “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr” in a single sitting. Sometimes the muse won’t quit.

Knowing that Ball’s book had been written in such haste (“haste” suggests something shameful; my fingers formed the word without with my brain’s approval, and I’d like to modify my phrasing, but in the spirit of this piece I’ll leave it there, a glittering mistake) I forgave certain snags and glitches in the prose: “…the fox himself roused himself from a sudden sort of slumber.” The story leaps and spins, sometimes tripping over its own knees. Once in a while the prose seems to surprise itself, and the narrator has to double back to grab a loose thread. But Ball’s a born performer. Even when the story stumbles the effect is numinous rather than tedious, there appears to be a secret order at work, a device deeper and more profound than plot driving the action. This, I suppose, is what happens when you write from dreams, when the story takes possession of your soul. Ball writes without ego. He lets go of what Buddhists call the “little mind.” He runs for pleasure, and his pleasure gives the story blood.

Reading Ball put me in mind of NaNoWriMo and it’s little sister NaPoWriMo, the annual writing projects that encourage would-be novelists and poets to complete a full-length manuscript in 30 days or less. Now, I’m not against projects per se, but nine times out of ten I find myself siding with Dottie Lasky, whose polemical essay “Poetry Is Not A Project” (available from Ugly Duckling Presse and worth whatever they’re charging) dismissed literary projects as, essentially, little mind writ large. Now, Ball’s novel has me reconsidering the NaNos.

Two years ago a friend convinced me to participate in National Novel Writing Month. For thirty days I woke earlier than usual, brewed a pot of coffee at my desk, and beat my head against the wall. Thirty chapters, each one about 3000 words, more words than I could have imagined. I terrorized my muse, driving her on through rain and sleet and blinding sun. By the second week I started feeling like a penitent, each string of words a sin against my own sense of self. When I stopped and scanned the page I could not locate myself in the prose. Looking back, I think that was the point. I out-wrote myself. My ego couldn’t keep up and my little mind could not compete with the egg timer tick-tick-ticking on a shelf  beside my desk. Of course, I’m not Ball, I just borrowed his method. My writing didn’t leap and spin so much as stagger.

Reading my novel now I feel that, given another month, I could knock it into shape. Maybe somewhere in the broad confusion there’s a single story, ten or twenty pages, a lean thing like a beating heart I might remove from the big shaggy body of the novel. A dozen drafts, merciless cuts, stitch up the seams. My inclination is to clean up the mess. But I wonder if that’s just my ego and my little mind at work. After all, the world is messy, life makes room for mysteries and accidents of all kinds. That’s what makes The Way Through Doors a thrilling read. In a single breathless utterance, it tells the story of a total world. Chaos, bliss, confusion, discord, magic and coincidence—everything in its place. The big mind rejoices.

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