The New York poet, Bill Kushner, has said that he sometimes writes a line of poetry for each block of Manhattan he walks. “Look! the U.S. Marines! say pardon my stares but where’s / All this leading? oh it’s only Bill again, following his dick again / In search of his Fate in the form of a Man, how funny words look / As they stare startled back at you who just wrote them down / As he turns the corner with a swagger, should I follow after?” If Kushner published the routes he walked (which he doesn’t) then each poem could be its own tour. We could retrace each poem’s conception.
I’ve always liked the idea of having life statistics. How many upturned plugs will we stand on? How much toast will we burn? Will we say “sorry” more often than “thanks”? How many hours will we spend not listening to someone but pretending to? What’s our most frequent lie?
The closest I come to recording this kind of data is when I’m writing a novel. During the first draft, I draw a graph that shows the days of the month along the horizontal axis and the number of words written along the vertical. I then draw a “line of expectation” that represents my best self, steadily producing five hundred words a day. I get out my coloured pencils, decorate the page with seasonal symbols and a motivational slogan. Something simple like “Go Dunny Go” or “Think Of The Money.” Half a working day can be lost preparing the graph – this is a valuable use of time. The graph needs to be attractive enough that, as the month drags on, I start to regard its needs as more important than those of the novel. The novel may be ruined, pointless, a waste of everyone’s time but the graph will be a thing of beauty and permanence, if only I meet my daily word count. The graphs help me feel I am moving forward, even when I have no idea where I’m going.
In City of Glass by Paul Auster – the first novella in his New York Trilogy – Daniel Quinn, a soft-boiled private detective, is tracking a suspect around Manhattan. For many days, Quinn thinks the route the man walks is entirely arbitrary. In time, however, he realises that the man’s path has a hidden meaning, that it spells out the words THE TOWER OF BABEL on the streets of Manhattan. It’s shortly before this revelation that Daniel Quinn, for reasons I can’t explain, starts calling himself Paul Auster. Auster may be telling us something about his writing process, the idea that he is led by a character and only starts to see the hidden meaning after many weeks of work. What I like in the story is that the recording of arbitrary-seeming geographical details – “noting each street he followed, each turn he made, and each pause that occurred” – becomes the simple but consuming habit that allows Quinn or Auster to stay motivated. “Although this method had its drawbacks, it seemed to be the most comfortable arrangement over the long haul.” Quinn/Auster’s method chimes with my own path to writing a book. Concentrate on the micro and let the macro take care of itself. It should be said, however, that Auster is not a great advertisement for his own technique, since City of Glass is only 133 pages long.
For this project, I wanted to try and illustrate the mess of influences, anxieties, past failures, hopes, enemies, distractions and stimulants that make up the map of each writing day. Each morning, I climb out of the flood drain in the middle of the island and wander around, getting lost, climbing trees, getting into arguments with the locals. Sometimes I take a boat out and try and find new worlds. Usually those boats never make it back home. There are shipwrecks all around the coast.
In the west, J.D. Salinger is reclining on an island exactly the same shape as the Cornish State Wildlife Management Area, the parkland closest to where he lived.
The south coastline is traced from the real route the Jubilee line takes. That’s not because I commute on the Jubilee – although it is one of my favourites – but because my office is in a converted Jubilee line train carriage. The map above my desk is the tube map.
On the island itself, Thomas Pynchon is wearing a football kit because (and I’m not sure this helps open any doors into his work) he is a big West Ham fan.The fjord-like east coast of my island is traced from the ragged right-hand margin of a first draft of a poem I wrote to try and work out how to approach this project.Beyond that, to the east, there’s an archipelago of poetry sub-genres. Poets are unwilling to share islands with each other, no matter how scarce their resources.
The ghost pot, in the south of the map, represents an image that I keep coming back to. A lobster pot becomes “a ghost” when the rope that ties it to a buoy is severed, usually by the blades of motorboats. After that, the pot floats through the oceans. Because it continues to trap and kill lobsters, they say it is “still fishing”. When a lobster inside the trap dies, it becomes bait for the next creature. Eventually, the pot is full of the hollowed-out shells of all the shellfish who’ve fed upon each other until no more can get in. A free-floating buffet and graveyard. It feels like a brilliant metaphor for something, but I haven’t worked out what. I’ve tried to make it about love, death, the housing market – none of it quite works. But perhaps it is best used as a way of thinking about a career in writing. You read a great writer and decide you want to be like them. You cannibalize their work and follow them into a life of writing. Other writers have the same idea and you end up fighting and feeding on each other. Eventually, the pot becomes full and disgusting and that’s the end of a literary movement. Horace Walpole, the first Gothic lobster. Apollinaire, Surrealist lobster. Modernism is still fishing.
A few weeks ago, a young writer approached Philip Roth in a New York coffee shop (the literary equivalent of a lobster pot) and offered him a copy of his newly-published debut novel. Roth gave him some advice: “I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
I’m sure Roth knew his advice would be ignored. When I’m writing, I always lie to myself that I could go back to an earlier version of the story. Whenever I feel that I’m at a fork in the path of a narrative, no matter how insignificant, I save the document as a new draft before making my choice. This has two functions. First off, it feels good to tell people that I am “on the fifty-third draft”. Secondly, it gives me the impression that I could – if I needed to – retrace my steps and find the exact point at which a story lost its way. The reality is that I almost never go back and, if I do, I don’t recognise the landscape. The decisions I made seem foreign. If the poet Bill Kushner provided maps with his poems, following his footsteps would almost certainly fail to offer insight into his work. Still, I would find it satisfying. I like maps because they help us not notice we’re lost.
1I like to imagine that he went for walks there, in between turning out masterpieces we will never read. For anyone wanting the thrill of stalking the Salinger family house, without the legal troubles, let me recommend cruising Town House Road, Cornish, New Hampshire on Google Street View and trying to guess which was his. I like to think it’s the one with the raised pool and salmon-coloured gazebo.