The Chapter

Whether read on scrolls, leaves, pages, napkins or computer screens, every reader needs to take a break now and again. Perhaps, before the art of punctuation was invented, the ancient readers approached texts intuitively and paused where it suited them. Perhaps they were bad at this and that’s why punctuation was invented.

A period is a nice place to take a breath. But what about stopping for the night? Bookmarks only work to an extent. Chapters are much more congenial, showing that the writer is in agreement with the reader and that the book must, at some point, be set on the nightstand and the light shut off (depending on the kind of reader you are—Some people blaze bleary-eyed through a book and come out the other side of the morning tired at work or school or gym).

But are chapters not a little tyrannical, too? It is by them that the author tells you how to read the book. But then, one could argue, punctuation does much the same. Language tells us how to think just as thoughts tell us how to speak.

The chapter, as a convention, seems to arise precisely from the means by which the book is published. In the nineteenth century, it was common for books to be published in journals. It was conducive to the medium that one chapter fit easily within the binding. It was usually meant to be consumed in one sitting like a television show today.

How does one chapter a book? How does one break a chapter up? Titles of chapters varied. You could do like Dickens and go with a simple Chapter One or Chapter 1. Or, simply, One. The minimalism of 1 has its appeal; it forces fewer presuppositions on the text. The more ambitious writers title their chapters like poets do poems. The latter-period Dostoyevsky resorted to the comical habit of titling chapters things like

Chapter 17

“You lie!”

in which a character, at some point in the chapter, utters the phrase, ‘You lie!’

Dostoyevsky in particular, along with a great many others of the journal-driven variety, wrote books featuring dozens and dozens of short chapters whose breaks would, by today’s breaking standards, seem wholly arbitrary. Every once in a while, the cliffhanger would take effect and an unexpected guest would walk into the room. The next chapter would immediately feature a description of the unexpected guest’s face or some exciting news he had to offer. Then other chapters would simply find their place between two pieces of dialogue, as if to trick the reader into a sort of maieutic excitement.

With Beckett and Joyce, we reach an immensely unjournalistic kind of novel. The chapters are books in themselves, written as though to be consumed in one sitting though this is often impossible.

A book like Gaddis’s JR,which plays with the theme of communication, is not split up by any chapters in the entirety of its 700 odd pages. Rather, the ‘breaks’ are densely written vignettes between bits of exhaustive dialogue which act as mechanisms to transition one scene and set of characters to another—the book being a series of literary French Scenes.

Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, though divided up more conventionally, is by no means conventionalwithin the chapter. In a chapter of this book, years might pass or days might pass, or perhaps a single meal which then turns into a meal months later. The second of two famous party scenes in the book runs to about 85 pages, making up the entirety of a chapter. Upon my second reading of the book, I realized with great amazement, after spending several hours on these 85 pages, that I was taking as much time on this party chapter as I would an actual party—a chapter written in real time.

For some writers, chapter breaks are merely something cumbersome to fit in. Certain long-winded writers of epics are always itching anxiously for the place they can finally end their thought so that they can go on to the next. For other writers, the chapter is a source of salvation—a means to switch first-person perspectives or a means to include a little aside or to issue a complete narrative rupture.

William T. Vollmann used fake chapters as a plot device in You Bright and Risen Angels by listing the names of unwritten chapters to give the reader an idea of what events take place after the actual book finishes.

The Adventures of Augie March allowed itself all the voluptuous tendencies of the old big European books to ruminate on some philosophical idea at the beginning and endings of its chapters, though the chapters themselves are quite long.

The Bible was chaptered and versed long after its writing. Perhaps writers who prefer to practice their craft off-the-cuff with no mind for cutting their work into marketable, bit-sized baby pieces would prefer the same for their own work.

Others make an art of it. Often, the structure of a book may be determined by the way its chapters come falling out of the book like cards with so many clues on them.Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship has a curious beginning. Several short chapters comprise one meal as Wilhelm tells his loved ones about his memories of puppeteeing with his peers as a child. These little pulsing spurts of story, broken up so frequently, were perhaps meant to act as a little selah in an introduction not labeled something so marketable, like ‘Prologue.’ It is asubterraneousintroduction, implied in the tone and pace of the text. As Goethe’s chapters get longer and longer, the fragmented story of puppeteering from the beginning suddenly struck me, while reading, as a strange memory, almost as though I was trying to recall a dream. I was able to recall all of the different, subtle shifts in perspective that this method of splicing awarded, which colored my view of the hero and how he acted for the longer stretches of text later in the book.

If pausing is also about reflection, it is little wonder that we impose a book-like structure to our own lives. How often, when speaking of changes, do we ‘open a new chapter?’ The forms of life and the condition of the universe have, perhaps, already planted the chapter-structure in our minds. Are the seasons not chapters? Are hours not scenes? Are our lives not stories from which we would like to take a break now and again so that we might reflect on what they mean before entering them again? Perhaps the similarity is a bit unfair. With life, we don’t have the luxury of re-reading any of the chapters.

Pretending to Write

To divulge to you the way that I go about writing, the actual mechanics of it, would be to utter what had once felt like a series of grave secrets; the kind which would suggest that all advice is hypocrisy, that all earnest top-ten lists and seven-ways-to bullet-points are worth their weightlessness in the floating click-away abstractions of the internet. I’m afraid that I have reached a point in my methods where I have become severly, obstreperously free, contingent and moveable. When I was young, I would fill a notebook with a sole novel. On the occasion that the novel took up two notebooks, I would keep them together with a rubber band. On the front of my notebooks, I would write a title in sharpie and also draw a cover. It was very important for me to create a bookshelf likeness to the paperback racks I saw at grocery stores, carrying what were, then, my favorite authors: writers of science fiction disguised as ‘biochemical thrillers’ or ‘creature thrillers.’ My notebooks abounded with movie tie-ins, originals which resembled movie tie-ins for films that didn’t exist, originals which resembled the originals of other writers, and finally, my own originals which didn’t directly resemble anything, hopefully. This is an incomplete history, certainly, but that is more or less the focal succession. Having spent more than half of my teenage years in a home with the internet, I belong to a generation who learned about a great many things from it, including, inevitably, literature. I wonder if I would have come to my current conclusion about my best personal method earlier had I not been disposed to a great many commentaries about literature at such a young age by the people who produced it. The wildly entertaining interviews of authors I admired in The Paris Review, or Powells, or Bookslutor The Dalkey Archive Press, were filled with great wars of conflicting advice concerning writing methods, fetishisms, practices, rituals, preliminaries and conditions. As an adolescent, I didn’t think it so strange to have three different notebooks in which three different novels in progress were being chipped away at, though when I got older and started to read the accounts of the world’s best, who seemed to think that writing was such a lofty, taxing business (something which most of them never seemed to spend more than three hours or so a day on), I found myself challenged by their example. Certainly, a book couldn’t be good unless it was written in segments of 1,000 words a day, worked on no more than four hours a day, always during the morning, always on a full stomach, always sober, always alone, and never with noise of any kind save the music of Wagner. If one was to follow their example, there were to be no other books written while that one was being written. It needed to be written chronologically so that it felt cohesive. A first draft would be written completely through, which would get the general idea down. A second draft might serve another purpose, such as making the dialogue pop. The third draft might be for the purpose of smoothing out the prose. If you were the kind of writer who ventured beyond the three drafts in keeping with the requirements of school essays, the fourth draft might be to strengthen symbols thrown up by your subconscious in your rambling first draft. The fifth draft might be to make your jokes funnier. By the time you get to the sixth draft, you might go through such extensive editing coupled with flights of verbal fancy that you’ll end up writing something similar to your first draft again. I would try many of these methods. I would write 1,000 words a day, feeling terrible about myself on the days I failed and feeling like I didn’t do enough when I met my quota. I’d write one book at a time and give up half way or three fourths of the way through the composition of the first draft, or halfway through the paltry second draft. I would write chronologically and rush through uninspired but oddly necessary parts of the story—those perennial parts in which a character needs to get from one room to another— promising myself I would go back and smooth them out, not realizing at the time that they were what dragged the entire novel into the declevity responsible for its indefinite hiatus. I grew tired of this pattern. I slid, ever guiltily, back into my old habits—the ones that I developed as an adolescent when I was writing what I considered to be, simply, ‘practice novels,’ if you will—things meant only to give myself a sense of accomplishment and, hopefully, entertain my family and friends. I would write several at a time. It wasn’t until I continued on one day, indulging in my crack-cocain-like habit of reading the words of writers about writing, that I came upon a few authors who wrote according to methods similar to mine. Reading John Gardner or Villiam T. Vollmann or Blaise Cendrars on the subject of writing more than one novel at a time, didn’t necessarily inspire me, as I initially thought, but, I felt at the time, allowed me to continue doing what I was already doing. They gave validity to the haphazard, whistful ways in which I was working, until a frightening thought came over me and that was this: Why did I so require the validation of other writers who, like me, are wandering out into the dark, grasping for images the best they can, articulating them in the soberest moment of their afternoons after nights of fevered dreams? I asked myself, very truthfully, if the methods by which I was working were not constraining me to my own detriment more than they were benefiting me. I stopped counting my daily word-count. I stopped pushing myself forward until I’d written ten pages or ended on an incriment of ten pages. Not only did I work on more than one book at a time, but within a single book, I wrote various different scenes, non-chronologically, while beside it I wrote the chronological version from the beginning, trusting my own sense of intuition and knowing that the scenes that I ‘wrote ahead,’ as it were, would come to my aid later when the timing was right. Even when the novels were tightly structured and had a definite sense of beginning, middle and end, I behaved like an alchemist at times, with a great deal of subtlety and caution, and at other times, like a fevered dope-fiend, breathing heavily with my hair disheveled as I prattled about for the last sentence in a thread of writing to which I could add words that seemed to enter my brain as if delivered by letter from a friend from long ago. I would tell acquiantances that I was working on a book when I was, in fact, working on four. I would tell my close friends and family that I was working on four when, upon making inventory of the works I’d actually touched in the last three months, I was working on six or seven projects, both fictional and essayistic. For times when expression seemed to me like such a paltry thing—and I admit that, perhaps, it was only my being overstimulated—and when I was in great need of encouragement concerning the abstract truths that I had written upon my own consciousness, I wrote pieces of writing that were strictly for myself. Perhaps they were not so much different than some of the greatest creative liberties I would have taken within my own diaries, though with these projects, since they possessed a somewhat ‘theraputic’ nature, for lack of a better phrase, I was in great need of a format which resembled an essay or book. In other words, I was writing books strictly for myself, for my own pleasure. You can probably imagine that I was writing in several different genres under more than one name, as this suits my temperament; it being, in my mind, not much different from the musician who has ‘side projects’ which deviate in sound and aesthetic from his primary band in order to impose upon himself constraints that open up voluminous possibilities available in a sole genre. It was by all of these things that I recaptured something which I feared I’d lost and which my work greatly needed: a sense of patience. Now, when a novel that is tightly structured and for which I feel strongly is discouraging me to any great degree, I can put it away in faith that it will call to me again, or that the working out of another problem will solve its unknown one. It is put away without guilt, for I commence work all the while on other things. You may say to me, it was a self-imposed guilt all the while. These were all self-imposed rules. Then so be it. Let me come out the other side of a novel, polished, neat and supple for the kindness I granted both it and myself during its long life and that which fed it, whether that be other novels gestating over long periods of time, or the many experiences that I allow myself to take on, concerned more about the end than the means of getting there. An artist with a clear vision as to what he wants to accomplish can allow himself a great many means of getting there. It is not for anyone else to decide what methods best suit his work. 

Your Art's Life Force

Are you stuck on a creative work because you no longer feel passionate about it? It happens to many creative people. I'm not going to tell you to ‘never give up.' You have to ask yourself a question, if this happens to you. What were your motives for starting it in the first place? Perhaps it was an incredibly exciting idea, you felt it best represented how you saw the world or what you wanted to put into it, or perhaps it was just the work you wanted to tell people you were working on or what you thought you should make.

If you discover that it's something you felt like you should make, rather than something you wanted to make-which happens to artists from time to time, almost as though there is another self inside of us we're trying to impress-you might consider altering the project to better suit your needs or dropping it altogether.

However, if it's a project you felt good about at one time, you might want to ask yourself where it went wrong. Were you letting certain inhibitions take hold of you? Were you trying too hard to compete with one of your heroes by answering them move for move or by directly structuring your work after theirs? Are you simply holding back because you don't want your work to drift into whimsicality or into uncharted waters? It might be all or none of these things.

The point is, you were excited about the work and you are no longer. I've had this happen to me with a book I was writing for years and am still working on. I was worried that the storyline was going stale. The book was a long one, and as I kept writing, I realized that nothing was happening. It didn't have any of the energy I wanted it to have. The characters weren't clicking, the story wasn't extreme enough or moving enough to me.

Having taken some time away from it, I came back to it and realized that I had been saving up all my best ideas and timidly withholding them from the story. It was as though I was saving all the best stuff for some later book.

I forced myself to think about the book in a detached way. What were the best set of images and ideas I had thought up so far? How could I embellish them? What techniques had I been excited to try but which had faded out of the picture in favor of how I thought the book should be written? What were my themes and had I picked the best vehicles to embody them? I thought about what I needed to do to make it a book that, by its mere description alone, would be something that I, personally, would want to read before anything else.

The book had been alive in my head before I sat down to write it, but with time, it started to lose its life force. Sometimes you have to go back to that excitement and find its life force. To be less mystical and more specific, you have to change the work in order to please you again. If it's an idea that you've been invested in for a while, it's possible that you're just looking at it through a fog of discouragement and ego.

If you invest time into going back and finding that original force of excitement for you in your work, you won't have to worry about whether or not you have the stamina to finish it. You'll do it because the activity is pleasing to you. You won't fret if you miss a day, for you'll feel the work tugging at you.

You may need discipline in the beginning. I've mentioned in another post that, if you're starting out as an artist, you might want to set yourself a quota. However, I think everything I've mentioned in this post is important too. A quota won't mean anything at all if you get halfway through the project and have absolutely no excitement for it.

Don't be afraid of the project changing too much. That'll happen if you're trying to make something that fulfills you. Allow room for change. You can always look at the project in its entirety later and change what you need to.

Shane Eide