Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Unfinished Work

No one will be surprised to hear that I've bought more books. My latest acquisitions include The Other Landscape by Neil Gunn, George MacKay Brown: The Life by Maggie Fergusson, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman, Scots: The Mither Tongue by Billy Kay, and The Story of Loch Ness by Katharine Stewart.

I've begun with the Robert Louis Stevenson biography as I wanted to read about his early years in Edinburgh while on site. I'm a third of the way in now and it's proving a most interesting read.

When I quoted RLS several posts ago on the trouble with writing a novel ("it's the length that kills"), I hadn't realized that he was known for having difficulty finishing what he started. Apparently he was given to finishing off stories with the words "to be continued" then putting them aside and never returning to them. This is a running theme in the biography, at least in relation to his early writing career:

Stevenson loved to run ahead and gloat over possible future achievements. The only problem was that having done the gloating, he often found that he had exhausted his enthusiasm for a project. His notebooks and letters are full of lists of chapters for books he never so much as planned out or wrote a line of. The lists, the naming, the brave idea of a title page, were often enough in themselves -- or enough to convince himself that further work would be wasted. In his Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, Roger Swearingen lists 393 items, only twenty-seven of which are published, principal works. Even granted that many of the pieces listed are essays and stories which were gathered up into collections later, there are still scores of unfinished essays, unstarted stories, grand schemes, false starts: enough to have furnished two or three doppelganger careers. With a little push this way or that, Stevenson might not have been known as the author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but as the playwright of The King's Rubies, or the biographer of Viscount Dundee.

Perhaps I'm responding defensively here (being myself in possession of several notebooks full of novel and story ideas that I have not yet seriously pursued), but isn't this just normal for a writer? I can see why it's worrying early in a career before one has published much of consequence to have so many starts and so few finishes. But if one is able to build up the quantity and quality of RLS's body of published work over one short lifetime (1850-1894), surely there's no need to assign undue significance to the quantity of unfinished work that remains? It seems to me that the long list of ideas and beginnings without endings simply signal either insufficient time to bring it all to fruition, or a series of sensible decisions about which of his many ideas were worth pursuing and which weren't. What strikes me as noteworthy about Swearingen's thorough inventory of RLS's finished and unfinshed works is that it indicates what an extraordinarily prolific imagination he had.


Jordan said...

I haven't bought new books in, like, a week. I think I'm going through withdrawal.

Julie said...

I don't know, Kate. I'm like that in many areas of my life. I think of all my knitting projects abandoned as soon as I figured out the stitch pattern, the planned but never planted gardens, the recipes read but never cooked... Does it indicate great imagination? Or just the inability to persevere?