Alphonso: a fable for writers

There was a man who wanted to write – I don’t know his name. I think I’ll call him Alphonso (having just read A Letter from Casablanca by Antonio Tabucchi). Alphonso loved literature and dreamed of writing a novel which would change the lives of those who read it. Of writers he admired Proust and especially Flaubert the most, two authors whose books he had not actually read. But he liked the idea of these two, what they stood for. The idea of an artist agonising over finding the mot juste appealed to him. The concept that, once found, the word must then be moved to precisely the right place in the sentence was something he loved to consider. It was like arranging flowers in a vase till precisely the right effect was achieved.

One day Alphonso was dreaming of his book, of how admired he would be, and how moved people would be by reading it. He decided to actually start writing. After purchasing exactly the right paper and the certain type of pen of which he approved, Alphonso sat down at his desk and began: “Let me begin at the beginning…” he wrote, then stopped. Frowning, he read and reread this short passage. What would Flaubert do? His face pale with concentration and an unhappy turn to his lips, Alphonso hesitated, then crossed out the last phrase, thus: “Let me begin XX XXX XXXXXXXXX…”

Alphonso never became a writer. Creating a great work that moved all who read it was impossible. Everything he thought of he had to reject as unsuitable. Even the good bits weren’t good enough. Perhaps he had in mind Samuel Johnson’s advice: “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out!”. Perhaps he wasn’t aware this was advice that Johnson himself didn’t follow, and that he also wrote: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. At his death Alphonso’s relatives found among his papers this same sheet, yellowed with age. There was one further addition. The novel now read: “XXX XX begin XX XXX XXXXXXXXX…”

Was this the end? Had Alphonso written a deconstructionist masterpiece which contained all possibilities, a blank canvas on which readers could project what they wished? The critics will decide Alphonso’s reputation. At least he hadn’t earned Johnson’s famous critique of a would-be writer’s work: “Sir, I find your work to be both good, and original. However, where it is good, it is not original; and where it is original – it is not good!

The moral
Alas, poor Alphonso. He never seemed to be aware that writers are of necessity schizophrenic: every writer contains two writers that make up his normal personality (or her normal personality). There’s a “self” that may want to be a writer, strive to be a successful one, know something about markets and publishers, be aware of trends. Lurking in the background is another writer which I’ll call a “you” because there’s no word for this aspect of personality. This “you” comes and goes when it pleases, has a furious energy, knows far more than the “self” knows and seems in touch with something ‘out there’ and even may know mysterious supernatural powers. When the “you” starts to work, a good writer knows they have to just get the “self” out of its way. The “self” by all means can come in and help when the “you” has finished. The “self” knows all about style, grammar, vocabulary, characters. In fact the “self” has all it takes to be a writer except one thing. And that one thing does what Alphonso wanted, and moves readers, sometimes centuries after the author has died. So a good writer is literally immortal, as a part of them still speaks to readers. They’re still there, every time a reader is moved by what they have written. (Something that students, who have to read so-called ‘classics’, should remember).

Perhaps if Alphonso had published a blog he might have fared better. Though as blogs are impromptu they are not likely to produce writing that will move other people, uhm?

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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