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COLUMN: HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL

November 19, 2017

Novel-writing is a desperate struggle against the community imposed by the world. It is a fight against so-called reality, which must be defeated at all levels to successfully create the alternate world that is represented by a novel.

The institutionalised writing world wants you to think that novels come out of sharing experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. Novels come from the hothouse environment of pure solitude, where stamina can be tapped to build alternate worlds, consistent with their own logic, alive and breathing precisely because they do not share the parameters of “reality.”

The novel-writer must actively create a new personality — a novel-writer’s personality — to confront external debilitations. Here are three essential novel-writing protocols with supporting frames of mind:

• Writing comes from writing, not “life”; therefore, one must reject one’s own life and embrace others’ writing;

• Imagination is self-sufficient; therefore, one must crush all competing deities and do away with the very concept;

• Imagination is bred only in solitude; therefore, one must reshape one’s personality to live outside of community.

My three premises sound alike, so perhaps there is only one: novel-writing is an internally driven process, so all outside influences must be purged. I’m presuming here that what one learns from others’ writing is fully internalised and made one’s own, creating a head of steam to abolish the external nonsense.

Reality is paradoxically located in what people normally consider unreality: the “fantasies” found in books, art, music and every expression of creativity. Ordinary relationships are mired in impurities that make novel-writing impossible, or dilute its power.

When we get transported to an alternate world, we are paying homage to the writer’s ability to have withstood the relentless distractions that have come his way; we respect that the writer has had the superhuman strength to dig deep into his imagination to offer us a world we can believe in, compared to the world around us, which no sane person believes in.

One must get to a point where the reality of others’ writing far outweighs whatever one confronts physically. Again, writing comes from writing; it does not come from what we mistakenly call life. The novels we admire are manifestations of pure spirit, the distillation of what the world should be about, even when their content is cynical or pessimistic, such as with Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Henry Miller; they are negations, and a writer cannot create a novel, ie an alternate world, as long as he is mired in accepting the world as it is.

What about great love then? Doesn’t that take one out of one’s element? But romantic love is itself a trope, largely derived from writing. Writing infects the real world, colonises parts of it and even in the direst situations, such as in totalitarian regimes, keeps part of the human spirit alive. Unfortunately, love doesn’t last, according to its own formal tropes, and besides, it is a secondary order of influence because it is an implementation of others’ imagination in the physical world.

Superior writers have the power to serve as guides. They will change from time to time, or perhaps it will be a group of them. When one gets tired on the highway, especially at night, one often attaches oneself to an 18-wheeler to follow it for as long as possible. When I first learned to drive, I once followed a truck from Berkeley almost all the way to LA until I ran out of fuel. For the novel I’m writing now, I hitched my ride to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and found myself at a loss once I slowly finished reading it in a month.

One tactic novel-writers often employ is to write at great speed. One writes at such speed — with daily minimum word quotas — that one never exits the bubble of imagination.

One tactic novel-writers often employ — I certainly do — is to write at great speed. This is simply a way to outwit the conscious mind from taking over. One writes at such speed — with daily minimum word quotas — that one never exits the bubble of imagination.

Imagination flourishes when one enters that sacred zone where the fates of characters are given to the writer. When I’ve cut myself off from the world and am reading novel after novel taking me to the realm of pure spirit, then I might experience sudden bursts of illumination where I might hear, “Prefect Capitani shows up in Meraviglio to pursue the dead girl’s fate,” or whatever needs to happen next.

But if I force myself, it won’t happen. The shape of the story is gifted to the novelist. It is almost a mystical proposition, where one cleanses oneself of all the debris — from the complications of relationships to the messiness of making money beyond survival to attending to the demands of children — that blocks the pure signal a novelist hears when he is told, from within the force field of his imaginative construct: character X does this or that, and so on until the novel is finished.

Now think what happens when one sits down among would-be writers in workshops, subjecting one’s imagination to what is known as community — that most depressing of words. And what kind of a novel will one produce if one reads 10 books a year, versus a hundred or a thousand?

The worst desire is to want to reproduce one’s reality as it is, as a form of therapy, rather than to transcend it, because one doesn’t trust other novels enough, because one fears that the truck one is following might crash. But a novelist is never not 18 years old and sleepy on the highway and rather ethereal; it is a state of mind consciously produced by showing up at the desk each day in the same state of reception, immersed in others’ imagination, ready to listen to the voice beyond one’s control.

A novelist cannot be a patriot or zealot or family man (animals are different: they inhabit a realm of pure imagination); a novelist ought not to take up the vocation to purge oneself of dilemmas arising from belief in external realities, which are always unreal impositions.

The columnist is the author of the novel Karachi Raj, poetry collection Soraya: Sonnets, and a book on literary criticism, Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2017