Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A writer’s hell – Ann Patchett on killing her butterfly

Enjoyed this excerpt from Ann Patchett’s new book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, about her struggles with writing each new novel:
The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

When I tell this story in front of an audience it tends to get a laugh. People think I’m being charmingly self-deprecating, when really it is the closest thing to the truth about my writing process that I know. The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies.
All this might sound precious to those who think artists agonise too much about their “process”, or romanticise their work needlessly rather than just sitting down and “getting it done” - but I think this is something nearly any serious writer has experienced at some point, and to some degree. A reader may love a book because it transports them into a different world, and opens new avenues in their imagination, but for the author the published version may be a vapid, colourless facsimile of the far more brilliant thing they had (and still have) in their heads.

Patchett's sadness about the necessity of making her butterfly "two-dimensional" was also a reminder of what Naseeruddin Shah once told me, about wishing he could rehearse a play endlessly, adding new things to it, discovering fresh nuances in a line, without ever actually staging it for an audience. A permanent work in progress, with no pretence that it can reach “finished” form.

And  a couple of related quotes from Vikram Chandra’s Mirrored Mind:

Most certainly there are writers in the world (Bradbury? Borowski?) who smile while they work, who create fiction and poetry in an ecstatic flow. I’ve never met a single one. Mostly, as far as I can tell, writing is not pleasurable. An interviewer once asked William Styron, ‘Do you enjoy writing?’ and the great man said, ‘I certainly don’t. I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started every day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.’

[…] Here’s Abe Kobe on the subject: ‘The most enjoyable time is when I suddenly get the idea for my work. But when I start writing it is very, very painful…To write or to commit suicide. Which will it be?’ Norman Mailer: ‘I think nobody knows how much damage a book does to you except another writer. It’s hell writing a novel; you really poison your body doing it…it is self-destruction, it’s quiet self-destruction, civilized self-destruction.’

[…] And the poet Robert Hass once said, ‘It’s hell writing, but it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is just having written.'


  1. Hear, hear.

    (or is that 'read, read')

  2. I wonder if poetry writers feel the same way as prose writers in this regard. Poetry is supposed to be more three dimensional than prose. Also, In my opinion , an artistic creation is always a work in process , till it continues to be read\reread\watched\rewatched. The reader\viewer will continue to find nuances in it.

    1. an artistic creation is always a work in process , till it continues to be read\reread\watched\rewatched

      Rahul: of course. But that's a different sort of "work in progress" from the one mentioned here - where an artist is wistfully contemplating the possibility of letting the thing stay in her/his head forever, never shared as a "finished" thing.

  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krAcVe77FhY

    1. Excellent, thanks. (And here I thought I was the only one who had a fully furnished bar four feet behind his office.)

  4. beautifully described.. the story in my mind is so glorious and to put it on paper is to demean it and belittle it.. only those authors are exceptional who go thru the painful process of ensuring each nuance of their story is captured to create the same or even better visual imagery in the mind of a reader. Yes the author who killed his butterfly but it was reborn in my mind when I read it...