Sunday, November 12, 2006

Shop talk: Twenty Lines a Day

Among the ancient papers disinterred from my former office is a legal pad from 1998, of which only 16 pages were used. The cardboard binding at the top reads, in faint pen, "T.L.A.D."

Twenty Lines a Day! Here was my attempt to follow the writing exercise set by the great Harry Mathews in his book of the same name—hewing to Stendahl's decree: "Twenty lines a day, genius or no."

The first page of my pad is blank save for three sets of those four-lines-plus-slash bundles that prisoners use to keep track of the passage of time. So: I finished fifteen days of twenty lines a day, skipping just a couple days (made up for by doubling-up on other days). Though Mathews doesn't insist on any continuity of narrative, I was trying to create a single story, albeit starting from a slightly/radically different perspective each day. These little jumps in voice would give the thing vigor.

(I don't know why I stopped after fifteen—I wish I'd at least gone to twenty days.)

Now it's 2006. Once I realized what I had—whimsical stabs at a narrative, written by a writer I barely recognized—I decided to type them into the computer, one entry per day. I didn't read the entries, so that each day would be like discovering a brand-new text. I have only vague memories of most of these amusing scribblings. In some cases I applied Oulipian treatments, most notably, the "n+7" method, in which you replace words with whatever comes seven places from it in the dictionary. (Thus I call the whole thing "Twig Lineaments, a Daydream.")

I bring this up because today, as I was typing in another entry, I hit the phrase "this mild November day." I looked at the date on the corner of the sheet—November 12, 1998! This chronometric coincidence seemed too juicy to go unremarked, and so I'm pasting the entry, more "no" than genius, but so what? My eight-years-younger self demands recognition. ("Edmond Boisgilbert" is a very old writer whom the narrator has lately become obsessed with; it was the novelistic pen-name of Ignatius Donnelly, author of Atlantis, but in my little narrative he is another writer entirely, still alive and living in Italy.)

Was Edmond Boisgilbert ever, as he claimed, a Surrealist? I can find no record, in their [sic] or his archives, proving any association. Maybe he just wanted to be one. They [sic] were notoriously exclusionary and fickle. It is unlikely that he was admitted into their circle, then purged—and every mention of him eliminated. I am just stating the way it appears to me on this mild November day. I confess I am unusually tired as I write this. The medication is kicking in. My life in this room consists of eating, writing, starving, eating, sleeping. [...] Since establishing myself here—with my unfinished Atlantis manuscript, my collection of Boisgilbertiana, and my confusing notes—I have gained weight, lost weight, remained roughly the same; I have developed a new style of handwriting (which I refer to in my diaries as my ‘genius script’); and I have alienated myself from virtually all my friends. Q. drops a line now and again, which is good of her. She lives in Molucca with her husband, her daughters, and a quantity of birds resembling geese—which are not, in fact, geese. I never write back.


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