Albert Camus’ novel The Plague follows the lives of several characters in an Algerian town affected by an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Despite the epidemic, Joseph Grand, one of Camus’ characters, continues in his struggle to write a novel. For Grand, the writing process is a tortuous one. Why? Because Grand gets hung up on one single sentence, the very first sentence of his book, about a lady riding her horse down the road. Camus is a master at providing a literary depiction of the curse of perfectionism that goes along with trying to write anything.
One of the first iterations of Grand’s sentence reads,
“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne” (104).
Later in the book, Grand confesses that he has replaced the word “elegant” with “slim” because it is “more concrete” (134). When Grand eventually gets the plague, he has Rieux, the doctor and protagonist of the novel, read his latest iteration:
“One fine morning in May, a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the avenues of the Bois, among the flowers …” (263).
Feverish and plague-stricken, Grand orders Rieux to burn all of his manuscripts, which contain nothing more than “the same sentence written again and again in small variants, simplifications or elaborations” (263).
What is the point of this grim tale? I suppose, among other things, it is this: If you want to be a writer, don’t be like Grand. As the saying goes, the only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.
Instead, you might begin by reflecting on the nature of the medium that you are writing in. The printed word calls out for perfection in a manner completely foreign to the spoken word. As the Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong tells us in his Orality and Literacy, when people used to make mistakes in speeches, they would simply move on or “gloss” over their mistakes. In fact, going back to fix a mistake in a speech could actually make it less persuasive. However, it pays to rectify errors in the printed word. Take heart in the fact that you can always edit.
In the old days of the printing press, people used to painstakingly set the types for books. Every letter had to take its place in the printing press. One small mistake could be repeated in a thousand printed copies. Today, however, the nature of the digital text on a website means that you can pretty much edit at will. You can set and reset the type simply by logging into your website. This doesn’t mean that you should publish without editing. By all means, spend time editing or find a good editor. It only means that you can always come back later to finish what you’ve started.
Looking for a good book to read? You might find Camus’ The Plague especially interesting given the current coronavirus situation. Looking for an editor or copywriter to help you get past your first sentence? Contact me here.
In-text citations come from the following edition: Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, 1948/1975. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.