Sometimes I get a great notion

T. C. Boyle (or as the old New Yorker cartoon had him, T. Whatsisname Boyle) was on Forum today on KQED and I called in to ask him a question. I wanted to mention how much I liked Sorry Fugu, which I think I read originally in a Best American Short Stories anthology in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and I was thinking of his use of the title If the River was Whisky for one of his story collection, an allusion to one of those universal blues quatrains:

If the river was whisky
And I was a diving duck (x 3)
I’d swim to the bottom
And never come up

or, as some have it, “I’d drink my way up.” I’ve heard Bonnie Raitt belt this out, and I remember James Booker using it in his version of Goodnight, Irene. It may in fact be a standard verse in Goodnight, Irene. Ken Kesey quoted that song too with his Sometimes a Great Notion:

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live way back in town
Sometimes I get a great notion, yes I do
To jump in the water and drown

Booker would usually extend this verse with some of his Freudian vocal scattings, going from “please don’t let me drown” eventually to “I kinda wanna, wanna drown.”

But what I asked Boyle about was how to write about great themes and motifs without falling into the role Nabokov abhorred and Shaw welcomed, that of pamphleteer or polemicist. How do you let story and humanity take over from didacticism. I forget his answer but it was good. He’s one confident, cocky son of a bitch.

He is also the second person I’ve encountered in the last year to advocate writing a single draft, perfecting it as you go, instead of iterating endless drafts. The first was Luke Menand, writing I think in the New Yorker, who claimed that writing teaching based on the idea of getting anything down on paper and then revising subsequent drafts is bankrupt and that the correct way to write is to think things through and not go to the next sentence until the current sentence is just right.

Still, what do you do when the story changes in retrospect? If, as Boyle says, the plot emerges through the writing, doesn’t it ever get to a point where some formerly perfect earlier paragraph now needs to be rethought or rewritten to blend in with the new insights? Maybe there’s still something I’m not getting, but something tells me I should try writing something this way. Lord knows I’ve tried enough other methods and in fact have a half-a-dozen different experiments going on the front or back burners. Don’t let anyone ever tell you there’s a middle burner for writing. Doesn’t exist.

After I rung off, T.C. mentioned both Sorry Fugu and If the River was Whisky, which momentarily made me wish I had dropped their names into my brief fillibuster.