While writing War and Peace, Tolstoy spared a few words for his diary: ‘I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.’ Patricia Highsmith wrote every day as well, first bribing herself with sugary coffee, cigarettes and a doughnut, and then in her later years slugging vodka upon waking to take the edge off the morning. Her biographer Andrew Wilson suggested that, ‘she had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible’. Auden’s routine wasn’t dissimilar: Benzedrine in the morning, Seconal at night, with plenty of writing (and a few cocktails) in between. Many such examples can be found in Mason Currey’s fascinating collection Daily Rituals, How Artists Work. As he notes in his introduction, there’s a superficial quality to our obsession with such routines: ‘It’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.’
Perhaps we believe that if we mimic the routine, some of the inspiration will rub off. The sanctity of the daily writing practice is emphasised on many creative writing courses, but we know it isn’t the whole story; whenever my students ask visiting speakers – often authors with numerous books or collections to their name – whether they write every day, their answers fall into two categories. The first is the slightly shamefaced admission (usually from those who also teach creative writing) that while it would probably be a good idea to write every day, it just doesn’t work out like that. The second answer is unequivocal: why on earth would you force yourself to write if you don’t have anything to say? Marilynne Robinson told the Paris Review, ‘I write when something makes a strong claim on me . . . but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate.’ Mason Currey also quotes David Foster Wallace in a radio interview: ‘Things are either going well or they’re not going well . . . the times I’m trying to build a routine are the times that the writing just seems futile or flagellating.’
Most writers would agree. But what if you were not only setting the routine, but committing to writing something completely new every day? And not just making a start, or even hitting a target word count, but finishing a story? This is the experiment that James Robertson conducted in 2013: to see if he could write a complete short story every single day for a year, thus producing 365 stories, with the additional constraint that each one would be 365 words long. Impressively, and despite ‘some anxious moments on days which seemed reluctant to reveal and release their stories,’ he succeeded. The results were published on the Five Dials website and are now collected in a volume called, unsurprisingly, 365 Stories.
There are fairytales, ghost stories, political satires and reworked ballads. Memories and dreams are recounted, along with anecdotes and points of interest. Sequences emerge and various characters recur. Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack, and we meet him time and again, seeking his fortune, looking for love, attempting to trick death. Death himself appears, on one occasion going to his doctor to complain of ‘constant lethargy, stress and an overwhelming sense of doom’. Amongst tales with the timeless quality of myth and postmodern metafictions, we find the topical concerns of the year – the Rana Plaza disaster, the bedroom tax – and stories in memoriam of friends now gone, such as Iain Banks. There is even an Oulipian experiment, albeit an easy one: following the N + 7 formula, all the nouns in the previous story are replaced with the noun seven words down in an English-Gaelic dictionary, to hilarious effect.
Many of the strongest stories share a sense of the narrator apprehending something that comes close to numinous – a roe deer, a white hind – and letting time slow and quieten so that she or he may, ‘sit and watch for as long as it takes to sit and watch’. Even the potentially sleazy, a drunken hand clasp with a colleague on an office night out, has the potential to be transformative, to reveal something about the possibility or impossibility of human connection: ‘You know that it means something, but what? . . . Neither of you will ever feel this again.’ Such pieces show Robertson’s mastery of the form, and make us think beyond the confines of the story itself. In one, the fictional extinction of elephants leads to documentaries akin to ‘wildlife porn’ on the internet, viewed until, ‘You wished you didn’t recognise what you were watching. You wished you didn’t know that such a creature as an elephant had ever existed.’
A first person narrator drifts in and out of 365 Stories, spending time with his ageing father. We meet the father first in ‘The Executioner’, in which the narrator takes him – once ‘an outdoors man’, now unable to walk to the paper shop ‘without running out of breath or falling’ – to the beach in a wheelchair. Once there, the father watches the ‘joyous energy’ of children and dogs ‘for a long time’. Later we see the narrator watching the father painstakingly, agonisingly, picking up dropped keys and coins only for them to fall again. These stories work individually and as a series, provoking the greatest emotional resonance of the collection. On Christmas Eve, just when we think the ending is inevitable, we hear the father’s voice as he rages against the dying of the light as well as the carol service from King’s College, Cambridge: ‘One of those traditions I hate. I’ve always hated it. And I still can.’
In other stories the tone is harder to grasp. ‘One of Our Contemporary Geniuses’ shows an interview with author Wullie Wheenge, ‘foremost creative thinker’, in which he digresses and peppers his answers with barks, trumpets and ‘noises reminiscent of various birds native to the tropical rainforest’, while complaining that his breakthrough novel didn’t make him any money (‘without which of course the artist is, ah, condemned to starvation and madness’) and conceding that the world has allowed him ‘a remarkably long leash.’ Wheenge bears a striking resemblance to a certain much-loved Glasgow author and a look at the date of the story seems to confirm this; 16th August 2013, a day or two after Alasdair Gray appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival saying that those who appointed non cots to high up cultural jobs in Scotland were ‘Scotophobic’ and thus reviving controversy over his ‘colonists and settlers’ essay. Perhaps the implication is that Gray’s words risked tarnishing the independence debate, rather than that Lanark and its author are hugely overrated.
Robertson might, of course, just be poking fun. There is plenty of irreverent, self-deprecating humour in 365 Stories. ‘Census’ quotes Professor Ranald Fowlis Wester’s call on the Scottish Government to acknowledge a minority language by giving it official status so that it may be taught in schools, colleges and universities and achieve a quota for broadcast on the BBC. The language in question? Pish. Damningly, while ‘sixty-five percent [of Scots] said that they could immediately identify Pish when they heard it, a mere twenty-one percent admitted to being able to understand Pish spoken or written by others.’ Similarly, ‘Scottish nationalist heedrumhodrumists’ come in for gentle ribbing alongside all those who attended the reception for Contemporary British Poetry at Buckingham Palace. Their hypocrisy, along with that of all the other radicals, anarchists and ‘post-colonial explosionists’ who went along, is revealed. ‘How lovely it was to see everyone!’ the narrator remarks, assuring us that ‘if I had been “commanded” to attend I certainly would have boycotted the event.’
Flaubert wrote that style was an emanation of the author’s personality. The temptation to read 365 Stories as an exposition of a central consciousness is huge, even when one of the author characters reminds his wife (and us) that, ‘You have to forget the idea that the narrator and the author are the same person, and then the stories can be about anyone and anything at all’. The collection as a whole represents as thorough an overview of the writing life as any timetable of a daily routine or inventory of cocktails drunk and pills swallowed. Writing on the Penguin blog (in, naturally, 365 words) Robertson says that one of the questions posed by the experiment is, ‘How much can be said, what of life examined, in so few words?’ As it turns out, quite a lot. In the penultimate story, ‘The Search Party’, the narrator tells us, ‘We were seeking something. That was the whole reason for going out. The path might lead us to whatever it was. But what seems to have happened is that after a while the path began, as it were, to follow us: it went where we went, rather than the other way round. And now I am not sure it was a path at all.’ Such is the experience of reading 365 Stories; we follow the fundamental questions of life along myriad pathways. A few are dead ends, others pleasurable diversions, and the best of all lead to glimpses of things, like the white hind, that are ‘rare and special’.
Penguin, £12.99, ISBN 978 0241146866, PP397