Will Ashon, “Portrait of the Novelist As a Dead Butterfly,” Vernaland 3 July 2009:
I’ve been thinking of novel writing as a kind of minor utopianism. While I’m working on a book, the one in my head is always perfect, a masterpiece, a kind of personal Heaven on Earth. Then I get to the end of my draft and read through the one I’ve actually created and it’s a repressive regime. Flawed, dusty and restricted, with dog shit all over the pavements. And I polish and change and clean it and move it a little nearer to the ideal which motivated me, but it remains a disappointment. So I start again on a new novel and immediately convince myself that this time I will achieve something impossible, almost through belief alone.
Now, my question is this. Is this a necessary condition of writing novels (for me, anyway)? Or is it just immature delusion? i.e. will I only actually be able to write a truly great book (play along with me here) when I stop thinking in these terms? Part of the reason I ask is because I recently started writing something and I don’t have that usual feeling at all. So I’m wondering whether this is a Bad Sign, an indicator that I’m not truly excited enough by what I’m trying to do to pull if off in any satisfactory way. Whether what I produce will be, in fact, dowdy, worthy and safe, lacking in spark. Or whether, on the other hand, due to multiple disappointments, I’m finally able to write without becoming blinded by my own excitement and so will manage to keep control of the material instead of setting off on the kind of maniacal flights of fancy which seem to come to me when I feel the burn of “the star on the forehead” (to quote poor ol’ Raymond Roussel).
Of course the truth is that probably whichever way I write I’ll never come close to producing what I would hope to produce. In which case why do I keep on going? There are two possible answers, I guess. One is that it’s the struggle to create that ideal which is important, that it’s better to spend your life chasing after a beautiful impossibility than grinding through a grim reality. That, in fact, chasing a beautiful impossibility is maybe what a good life is about. The other is less cheering. A friend told me about research which shows that cult members become more committed to a cult after the events the cult leaders have predicted fail to come to pass. I’m either a beautiful butterfly or a one man cult. My one man jury is out. He’s staring through the window at an empty playing field when he should be trying to reach a decision. It’s cold and wet and not even butterfly season. It hasn’t, now he thinks about it, been butterfly season for years.
[Pic: Will Ashon, ICA, London, July 2009.]