Essays

Burn after Reading: On Writerly Self-Immolation

By posted at 12:00 pm on July 5, 2016 5

Burning

Gerard Manley Hopkins burned all of his poems before becoming a priest. He called his act the “slaughter of the innocents.” Jesuits begin their study with a two-year novitiate period, during which Hopkins did not write a single line of verse — in fact, he would only write fragments for the next seven years.

Hopkins struggled with the divergent pulls of poetry and prayer. That tension coaxed his best and most unique material. A sensitive ascetic with a wild soul and progressive syntax, he praised God by finding the divine in all things. The burning of his verse was not the end of his poetic life, but a cleansing and rebirth by fire: the start of a long, imperfect struggle.

We burn old love letters and photographs to be reborn. The action of burning is often a process. Find a match or a lighter. Put the papers in a container or can or shove them in a fireplace. There are so many moments along the way when we can have second thoughts, when we can decide to put memories in a drawer rather than reduce them to ash, but it is so tempting and comforting to watch the flames swallow our pain.

covercovercoverHopkins is not the only writer to set fire to his creations. According to his biographers, Franz Kafka burned nearly 90 percent of his life’s work—and requested that more be burned upon his death (it wasn’t). Sylvia Beach, who later published Ulysses, claimed that James Joyce tried to burn his manuscript for Stephen Hero: “When the manuscript came back to its author, after the twentieth publisher had rejected it, he threw it in the fire, from which Mrs. Joyce, at the risk of burning her hands, rescued these pages.” The book would later become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus burns his poems because “they were romantic.”

Writers’ manuscripts have notoriously been burned by other people. Thomas Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution, and gave it to John Stuart Mill for comment. Mill’s maid had charred the manuscript by mistake — she thought it was wastepaper, which is quite the burn. Sir Richard Francis Burton’s wife Isabel torched over a thousand pages of his translation-in-progress of The Scented Garden. V.S. Pritchett’s father made him burn a partial novel that he’d written as a child and “mocked my use of pretentious words.” Lord Byron’s memoirs were burned a month after his death, never to be published for fear of what they would do to his already controversial reputation. Ted Hughes burned a journal that contained “the last months” of Sylvia Plath’s life so that her children would never find the pages. There are numerous examples of governments and institutions putting books into bonfires, but they are still actions of external protest and censure. When writers burn their own manuscripts, they are destroying their own words. Cathartic, but also a bit sadistic. Burning is a slow, ritualistic death. Why not simply throw away a manuscript?

coverWriters are nothing if not melodramatic. Nikolai Gogol asked Leo Tolstoy to hold his manuscript for the second Dead Souls, but Tolstoy refused. Gogol had already burned a copy of it in 1845, and ultimately burned the rest in 1852. Eudora Welty said she would “burn everything up” to stymie potential biographers—everything as in personal correspondence, not manuscripts. Daniel Alarcón would burn his diaries as well: “that’s the space where I criticize people and am totally inarticulate.” Kenzaburō Ōe said he wanted to burn all of his unfinished manuscripts before he died, but there is no sign that he burned finished ones.

Umberto Eco said “later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it.” Poet Karl Shapiro put all of his notebooks “in the furnace” when he was 23. Who among us doesn’t wish that we could incinerate some of our early publications? Ottessa Moshfegh was at her family’s summer home in Maine when she ran out of newspapers for a wood stove fire and burned some of her writing, “which put me in a dark philosophical place.”

I’ve only burned one manuscript — the first draft of my first attempt at a novel. I had kept the printed pages in a cardboard box in the garage, deluded that I might return to them years later and finally discover why agents weren’t interested. Instead the pages sat there and collected sawdust and grass clippings. When my wife and I bought a new house, I decided to get rid of the box. I took the first twenty or so pages to the fire pit in our backyard. That night we roasted hot dogs and their oils dripped on my first chapter.

That was years ago. Now, like so many writers, most of my manuscripts live exclusively on my computer screen. Burnt manuscripts seem outdated. They belong in the days of typewriters. Yet writers are no less wracked with self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration than they were in earlier generations. We might not tear our terrible pages out of the typewriter, but we are still often unhappy with what we create.

The emotions that have led writers to burn manuscripts will never disappear. All that has changed is our medium. When I hate a story that I’ve written, I move it to a folder labeled “Writing” on my desktop. Then I drag it to a subfolder labeled “Old Work,” and let it sit there. Grow digital moss. Become forgotten. Yet that action is like stuffing old sneakers into a closet rather than throwing them in the trash. Part of me hopes that the story will be recycled; that a character or even a sentence will migrate into some later work.

If you burn your only copy of a manuscript, you are making a statement: it’s over. There’s simply not as much drama moving a file to the trash bin of your computer as there is watching a conflagration smother your words. So here’s my advice to contemporary writers. Print a copy of that story you hate. Drag the file to the trash bin and make sure the file is permanently deleted. Then take that printed manuscript to a fireplace, or better yet, a bonfire. Set it aflame. Watch the paper blacken and wrinkle. Sometimes we need to burn our pasts, literary or not, to move forward. Trust that your words and secrets are safe, clouded in smoke, soon to become part of the sky.





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5 Responses to “Burn after Reading: On Writerly Self-Immolation”

  1. Charles
    at 2:27 pm on July 5, 2016

    Between this and the earlier post on “Fighting and Writing,” The Millions is really digging its knuckle into a bruise today.

    Since I officially gave up on it two months ago, I’ve contemplated dragging a 700+ page manuscript into the trash folder and burning the only printed copy in the backyard. I’ve never before had the urge to do that with a piece of writing, but I feel like it may be the only way I could ever let it go. For fear of regret I will probably never do it, but damn it would feel good.

  2. il'ja
    at 4:03 pm on July 5, 2016

    I read Marilynne Robinson somewhere talking about how, once she had gotten it into her head to journal. At first, she enjoyed it, jotting down these keen insights and pithy observations that popped into her brainpan throughout the day. Then, maybe three days later, she went back to look at her scribblings in all their profundity and thought to herself: “Idiot.” I don’t remember if she burned the offending document, I just know she had better sense than to publish it.

    Facebook should incorporate an “immolate” feature.

    A good read, Nick, but not even a grudging nod of the head Bulgakov’s way? The man pulled off one of the greatest feat of meta-textuality ever managed. Bulgakov burns his real draft of “Master and Margarita” in the stove, and then rewrites the book from memory, adding bits, like the part where he appears as a writer who lets the Devil know that he’d love to show him his book, but he can’t: he’s gone and burned it in the stove. And we end up seemingly admonished by the idea that “manuscipts don’t burn.

    At least the really good ones don’t; for the bad, no fire is hot enough.

  3. Moe Murph
    at 6:05 pm on July 9, 2016

    @Nick Immolation is such a juicy word! Spent one July obsessively reading a collection of the poet Rimbaud’s letters to friends and family (Title: “I Promise To Be Good”) Many were written to his sister Isabelle, and touched on the practicalities and hardships of his life as a trader in Africa, long after he had quit writing poetry. I remembered hearing that he had stuffed all his poems in a sack and asked that they be burned, but the person he asked refused. The image of his long wandering through Africa, and (purely subjective) musings on why he might have been taken with the idea of “immolation” inspired some song lyrics which I am scribbling below, in case they suit. I sing this song in a French cabaret style, and imagine an accordion tune wafting through the dusty air of an old Marseilles port café, with afternoon sun touching the orange and red curtains…. : )

    RIMBAUD / SISTER ISABELLE

    Ice poems, melting in the sun
    Metal dust, scattering of bone
    Iron bed, pillow made of stone

    Sister

    Time is an endless caravan
    Sound flies on hot sirocco wind
    Your beating heart leads me home again

    Sister

    I was an arrow shot, a violin at play
    Abracadabric ship that sailed a silver bay
    Burn my words, they just get in the way

    Sister (reprise)

  4. Susan Tepper
    at 9:46 am on July 11, 2016

    The concept of burning your work is put forth here in a gentle way, treating this subject matter and the world of writers most respectfully. It is a hard grind to be a writer. Thank you Nick for this excellent and thought-provoking piece.

  5. divorce
    at 2:44 pm on October 15, 2016

    Not very eco-friendly by physically burning. Just delete it and be done with it.

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