Not just what he wrote, but how

August 21, 2007

Quite often in the course of my ongoing education, I stumble across huge gaps in my knowledge, even related to topics that I hold dear. One of these gaps was made evident this summer during my fiction workshop when we talked about Ralph Ellison’s Paris Review interview, and the prof asked how long after the publication of Invisible Man the interview had taken place. See, I didn’t realize how significant this was: Invisible Man was the only novel Ellison ever published, although he was at work on a second for the rest of his career. How long after the publication of IM the interview took place could have had a big effect on the kind of Ellison we would find portrayed in it–a still hopeful one, a resigned one, a worried one. The prof helpfully gave us a little background on the topic, so the nuance of the question wasn’t totally lost on me, but somehow even after a full undergrad degree in English and studying IM with none other than Judy Smith, I was ignorant of the fact that Ellision was one of the great enigmas of the literary world. He published one book that was instantly capital-g Great. And then never another one.

With this in mind, I was eager to read the Washington Post Magazine piece titled “The Invisible Manuscript” by Wil Haygood about the process of turning thousands of pages of writing left after Ellison’s death in 1994 into the closest possible approximation of his long awaited second novel. Talk about a can of worms. Should that book be published? Does our desire to read every last word a great writer ever wrote outweigh the fact that, unlike a journal or a letter, the pages combed over to form this second novel were explicitly written with the intent to publish and always found lacking by the author? Why did Ellison never finish it anyway–too much perfectionism or too much technology?

Given my current interest in/anxiety about how something as simple as a web browser is transforming the way I think and compose my thoughts (my tabbed browsing ADD theory), my favorite part of this article was when the second generation of manuscript hunter, a then-undergrad student named Adam Bradley, noticed that Ellison’s writing and revising habits changed utterly when he began to write on a computer. In particular, Bradley noticed that after adopting the Osborne 1 (a really old school computer) as his writing instrument of choice Ellison was prone to infinite revision, never truly moving past a particular section and instead endlessly tweaking it by rearranging paragraphs and re-writing individual sentences. He got addicted to being able to have all the possible versions exist at the same time.

A lot of other stuff happened a long in there too–his house burned down and destroyed a lot of his manuscript(just like MHK’s did when she was writing a sequel to Tripmaster Monkey), he dealt with success and fame and the pressure to continue to be Great, and his second novel was hugely more ambitious than the first.

I’m not going to make the case that the changed writing technology was the cause of his never finishing his second novel (and the article doesn’t either), but it’s fascinating to hear an account of how it did become one more way for the urge not to finish to take over. I think this is something that all writers struggle with at some point–when to let go, when to move on with the story that you have rather than keep digging in square-inch size pockets of imagination for the story you’d like to have. It might be even harder when you’ve got a canonized, culture-altering book out already to force oneself out of addictive limbo of potential and into the yucky, usually disappointing world of choices made.

Or maybe I’m just projecting my current life confusion a little bit much… in any case, it’s kind of a haunting article. It makes it clear that Ellison always thought he would finish, but time ran out on him.

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