500 words

Everything old is new again.

When did I first hear that Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day? Long before I thought I might try to emulate his multifaceted career:

Graham Greene had a reputation for prophecy; as early as 1955 he published “The Quiet American,” a book about the perils of American meddling in Vietnam. What seems like foresight actually came from his knack for cutting down to the heart of the matter — to appropriate the title of another of his novels, this one about Sierra Leone. It was less that he saw things coming than that he recognized the same scenarios of human foolishness and venality unfolding over and over again. If anything, his was a gift for timing, and it’s still in operation, even now, 13 years after his death. His centennial (Greene was born in 1904) arrives just as some of his most barbed political observations have acquired a brand new — and simultaneously all too familiar — relevance. Greene wrote steadily (500 words a day, every day) and as a result produced a large body of work: journalism, travel writing, novels and stories, plays, memoir, criticism. There are several fat veins in his fiction alone: the “Catholic” novels, thrillers, comic fiction like “Travels With My Aunt” and “Our Man in Havana” (also a spy novel); and harder to categorize works like “The Quiet American,” the book that more than any of his others has stamped itself upon the American imagination.

Those years ago, I mostly was impressed by his daily output — a quota I used steadily during the fiction writing days. Of course, back then I also fantasized about spending my days like Babbo: starting in a cafe, working from 11-5, and going to the theatre every night (if not, perhaps, the riotous drinking after, which ultimately killed him).

But lately, amid the press of Chelsea Now angst and other assorted disasters, that 500-words -a-day rhythm has felt impossible. Until this morning. Now I’m back where I began, albeit maybe a touch wiser (no more fantasies about some millionaire admiring my work so much that I needn’t ever work again). Just focusing on that number 500, setting it as a daily can’t miss,, as a way to amass the marble I need to get this book underway whatever happens.

Many thanks to yesterday’s commenters, who helped me acknowledge my terrified block, and reminded me how to end it. Meanwhile I’ll let myself stay inspired by Greene, who shared Joyce’s capacious Catholic sensibility if not his optimism.


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