A new writer has piqued my curiosity. Well, Lydia Davis is not a new writer, as she has at least 16 books to her credit. Only one of them is a novel, “The End of the Story.” I have not read it and likely will not read it. A brief description of the story made me think it would not hold my interest.
Another writer, who does capture my attention, mentioned how much he admired Davis’ short stories and essays. That made me curious. So, I ordered one of her books, “Can’t and Won’t.” It is a collection of essays and short stories. Davis is known for her short fiction, a.k.a. Flash fiction. She also translates from the French.
A confession: Her title intrigued me, but her explanation for it sold me. She was denied a prize because they said she was lazy. The rest of the story decorates the dustjacket.
Another confession: Novelists and short story writers have something I envy. Yes, I know envy is one of the seven deadly things we are not supposed to do. On the other hand, confession is reputedly a good thing, so maybe the two balance.
It is not real envy. It is not a desire to take what they have from them. It is more like, “Gee, I wish I could do that. Or simply longing for the ability, or talent, or whatever makes a person able to produce story after story after story. If I were a musician, I would likely feel the same about composers and songwriters.
My envy is not of producing a novel or two, or even a dozen or so short stories—or even the one-time bestseller authors. It may be an urban myth, but I believe everyone has at least one novel lurking around waiting for the opportunity to spring forth and enlighten the world. It may not be a “good” novel, but the story is there.
No, I envy the people who turn out story after story or book after book. Don’t ask me what number would bring a writer into my envy zone. I can’t specify a number, but I will know it when I see it.
How do they keep coming up with story after story after story for years, for decades? Hemingway wrote ten novels and who-knows-how-many short stories. One collection of his stories is titled “The First Forty-nine Stories.”
Stephen King says he writes over 2000 words per day. I am not sure anyone knows how many novels he has authored, but it is at least 60, and he has more than 200 short stories.
Those guys are pikers compared to Barbara Cartland, who may still be the Guinness Book of World Records champion for writing the most novels in one year—23. She published more than 700 works.
Many prolific writers say they make and keep notes. But how does one have time to make notes if you are writing one or two novels each year? Authors are notorious for keeping notebooks, jotting down characteristics of people they meet or observe. Some record their thoughts about what they see and hear. Journals, some dating back to childhood, also are common among writers. The notes are good raw material and help to make readable tales, but where do they find the plots? Do they just imagine them?
Lydia Davis writes about her dreams. She also writes about her observations of three cows in the pasture she watches while peering through her kitchen window. And she started keeping notes at a precociously early age—as in a single digit.
I have tried making notes about what I see and think. I made tons of notes in those long, long-ago staff meetings. Once such meetings became a thing in my past, I looked over the notes. My handwriting was illegible.
As for dreams! Do people remember dreams? If a dream awakens me in the middle of the night, I am too groggy to write. When I wake up, the dream’s details are out of my memory.
That leaves me with my imagination as my resource. That translates to mean age is not the only factor working against my becoming a novelist. So, I will continue to envy novelists. But mainly, I will continue to enjoy the fruits of whatever makes them able to do what they do. It is far more than just labor.
Meanwhile, I also will enjoy the musings of writers like Lydia Davis. She writes a thought-provoking story in one short paragraph and then takes 28 pages for a letter of appreciation to a foundation for a grant. The letter is lengthy because she explains why the letter comes many long years after the award. Another details her dissatisfaction with a producer of frozen peas. Davis’ writing is intriguing as much for its unpredictability as for her discerning insight into the characters.