ESSAY Eluned Gramich

NWR Issue 113

The Accidental Thread

In writing, as with any creative activity, there will always be a gap between what you intended to produce and the final result. The finished piece is not necessarily any worse or better than what was originally planned, just different.Often this difference adds something new, an element of the unexpected. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was originally the story of Andy Aberant: a character who ‘twice failed to make the cut’. Hundreds of pages about Andy were put to one side in favour of his family, the Lamberts, who ‘kept getting larger and larger’. Was it Franzen’s intention to write about the Lamberts? No. In some ways, The Corrections was not what he intended at all; and yet by writing about Andy, Franzen found his subject, following the narrative like Theseus follows the thread out of the labyrinth.

For me, the most pleasurable stage of writing is the ‘thinking time’. This is the best part, because in my mind the novel is, needless to say, brilliant. When I start writing, I quickly realise that thoughts are not the same as words; dreams are not chapters, and sentences are never as obedient as I would have liked. Most unruly and finicky of all are the characters. Like Franzen’s Andy, the characters do what they want.

I’ve noticed that one of the common tics writers have is to talk about their characters as if they are real people. You might hear them say, ‘She just popped into my head and started talking to me!’ for instance. Before Notes from the Other Room, the only novel I’ve ever finished, I’d always regarded this spiel as a little fake, a bit of put-on eccentricity. Characters don’t speak, they’re not real, I thought. In any case, I never believed in this mystical side of writing. Writing is hard work.

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previous essay: Power in the Land?
next essay: Looking for Dorothy Edwards


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