A Writer’s Nightmare?

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s fantastic book about writing, Lamott talks about giving yourself permission to write shitty first drafts. She says “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, and let it romp all over the place…you let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come though and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her….” But she also discusses the fear around someone reading that shitty first draft.  She wrote: “I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot…” If you have ever written a  first draft you didn’t want to see the light of day, then you must feel for the late Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov passed away in 1977. At that time, he had written, on 138 index cards, an incomplete manuscript for a new novel called The Original of Laura. He asked his family that these index cards, this incomplete work, be destroyed. Nabokov’s wife couldn’t bear to burn the work so she left it and after her death, Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, was left with the decision of whether or not to carry out his father’s wish. Finally after three decades and a huge lot of debate all over the world, Dmitri decided to get the work published. He said, of his decision, “I have decided that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, ‘Well, why don’t you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?'”

And so Penguin Classics will release the work. But how, you might ask, will they make a whole book out of 138 index cards? It works out to about 150 words per card. Now, I’m no mathematician but my trusty calculator tells me that 138×150=20700 words. A pretty short novella. The book will have images of the index cards, in Nabokov’s handwriting, with a transcript of the card on the opposite page.

Anyone who has ever written a novel  knows all the changes that can happen as you write and rewrite. On page 157 you may discover that your main character paints as a hobby and then you realize that you don’t have enough visual detail from the character because, being a visual artist, he will see things differently than the non-painter your character was when he started out. Nabokov won’t get that chance and it may well be why he wanted the cards destroyed. It’s why drafts are called drafts and not final manuscripts.

Alexis Kirschbaum, editor at Penguin Classics, says “it’s incredibly interesting to see his handwriting and read his prose – not necessarily extremely polished, but you can still see kernels of genius in everything he wrote”. Just what the poor guy probably wanted when he asked that it be destroyed.

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