“Twenty lines a day, genius or not.”

Who’s this guy? What? You don’t know? It’s Stendhal! Who decided at one time or another that he would write “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” If that isn’t genius, I don’t know what is.

Some time later, Dalkey Archive author Harry Mathews followed in Stendhal’s footsteps and also decided that he would write “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” And he got a book out of it.

From his Preface:

“Like many writers, I often find starting the working day a discouraging prospect, one that I spend much energy avoiding. Four years ago I was reminded of an injunction Stendhal gave himself early in life: Vingt lignes par jour, genie ou pas (Twenty lines a day, genius or not). Stendhal was thinking about getting a book done. I deliberately mistook his words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page. Even for a dubious, wary writer, twenty lines seemed a reassuringly obtainable objective, especially if they had no connection with a ‘serious’ project like a novel or an essay. For the next year or so I began many writing days with a stint of at least twenty lines, written about whatever came into my head on a pad reserved for that purpose.

“As a background to these intermittent annotations of my life, I should mention that at the time I wrote them I was established in Lans-en-Vercors, a French mountain village half an hour outside Grenoble; that I had been living there since 1976 with the writer Marie Chaix and her two daughters, Emilie and Leonore; that I spent considerable time in or near New York, visiting my mother and teaching at Columbia College; that I made frequent short trips to Paris. In addition to family life, two concerns preoccupied me: the completion of my fourth novel, Cigarettes, begun in 1978, and the death in 1982 of my closest friend, the French novelist Georges Perec.”

So, for the month of November, I invite you to join me in the goal of writing at least “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Perhaps even think about what two concerns are preoccupying you now (besides your family life), and use the month to reflect and write on those.

I was even thinking it could become a regular thing, every November. I was also thinking, Hey, let’s get really goofy about it and see how many people will sign on to write at the same time every day! I know: that’s goofy. Still, if you like, join me and Lily as we write every morning at 8 a.m. or join me and Rose every evening at midnight. It’ll be a spiritual meeting of the minds. I’ll even say a little prayer for you before we begin.

 

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5 thoughts on ““Twenty lines a day, genius or not.”

  1. Great idea, Molly — I’ll be going to a conference next month for Oulipo’s 50th anniversary, so this is quite fitting! I’m in…though I may have to stretch the definition of “writing.”

  2. I’m actually a part of a group on Facebook with some friends who all use 750words.com, which is similar to this–the idea of coming to the blank page everyday to crank out something new of at least specific length. The awesome part about 750words is it has a stats page that tracks wpm, point of view, sensory usage, subject matter, distractions, so on, and you can get a link to share this (but not your words). Each of us post our stats page everyday on the FB group and if we miss, we give each other hell for it. It’s served to be a really great way to get me to the page each day.

  3. Molly, I’m up for this. Count me in, and thanks for the suggestion.

    Do we want to post our lines somewhere, or should we keep them between us and our gods?

    BTW, I really like that Mathews book. The first time I picked it up, I thought it was going to be fluff, or something pretty random, exercise-y, gimmicky, whatever. (This despite my liking Mathews’s other fiction.) But I was very moved, as I read it, about how it was so much a meditation on the death of Mathews’s friend, Georges Perec. I found it powerful to see how Mathews’s thoughts kept turning time and again toward that subject, and how he kept writing about it, over and over again.

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