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  • The Writerly Task and the Narrative: Making Art of the Quotidian
  • Amy Day Wilkinson (bio)

There’s a tradition of using what I call “writerly tasks” to make narrative art, dating back to the earliest novels, many of which, like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela, were epistolary. Long before the experiments of literary modernism, while the novel-as-genre stumbled into being, Richardson and others set their eyes on the writerly task of letter-writing as a way to tell their stories.

Moving forward almost a century, one could argue that Herman Melville used such writerly tasks as the underpinnings of Moby-Dick, with chapters that read like excerpts from whaling manuals and others that read like ships’ manifests.

And there are loads more modern and contemporary examples. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel told in part through a poem written by a fictitious poet and in part through the foreword and commentary framing the poem, written by the poet’s colleague: academic tasks. In a similar academic vein, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist is a novel that [End Page 189] results from the narrator’s failure to complete his task of composing an introduction to a poetry anthology. Likewise, Geoff Dyer’s memoir Out of Sheer Rage is a meditation on life and writing and D. H. Lawrence that results from Dyer’s failure to complete his writerly task of completing a “study of D. H. Lawrence.” A final example in this scattershot list is a book I keep on my cookbook shelf. Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast is a memoir about Altman’s childhood and food education and an adult relationship that throws all she knows into relief; but at its core is the writerly task of sharing recipes and cooking know-how. And, as is the case with many such narratives, Altman’s book accomplishes both things at once: it’s a vivid, moving memoir; it’s a cookbook with a recipe for miroton I use when I have leftover roast beef.

In sum, narrative fiction and nonfiction comprising pieces of what purport to be other kinds of writing have long been part of the literary canon, and big books composed of such pieces continue to flourish and to surprise readers.

The online literary magazine Memorious has a regular blog feature called “Big Loves” in which writers discuss books they love and why. The May 11, 2016, post was by fiction writer Katie Chase on Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping, a novel told in short chapters that relate the dreams of a young girl who just keeps sleeping as well as what’s happening in the world around her, a dreamscape of its own.

I liked Chase’s post because she grapples with a question of structure and form in novel writing. Chase writes, “I can’t be the only one constantly scouting for ways to cheat at novel-making: Do others have favorite novels that seem to have stumbled upon shortcuts to the finish?” Anyone who has tried to write a novel, to sustain momentum and narrative over all those pages, knows there’s no cheating in novel writing, like there’s no cheating in marathon running. That these things happen at all, let alone that they happen with regularity—a person sustains a story over hundreds of pages; a person runs 26.2 miles—is astonishing.

Madeleine is Sleeping
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Harvest Books, 276 pp., $13.95 (paper)

[End Page 190]

And yet with books like Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping, we look at the text and think we can see how Bynum did it. (“Think” being the operative word.) This false sense of comprehension comes largely from the illusion that the secret is in the short chapters: maybe writing a novel is easier if you do it in small pieces. Writing coaches routinely offer suggestions along these lines. In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book of writing advice, she talks about a one-inch picture frame that she keeps on her writing desk: “It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through...


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