In a recent interview, Stephen Dixon mentions something that encapsulates both the rigor of his formal experimentation and the propulsive casualness of the ways in which his experiments appear and read on the page. This snippet of conversation is a little unnerving to me:
You’ve said that you write many versions of the same page. I find this interesting, because a lot of your work has this sprawling and rich, yet effortless quality to it. You allow your sentences and paragraphs to run on and on. A lot of people might think you just knock one thing out and move on to the next.
No, it’s all under control. I work at that effortlessness that you speak about. That’s why I redo a page sometimes forty to fifty times, the same page. By the end of it I’ve memorized it. I once lost a page, and I was able to reproduce it probably word for word.
I dumped it accidentally and it went out with my papers. I searched and searched and couldn’t find it, so I just said, “Sit down. Maybe it’ll come back,” and it did. I really work at that effortlessness until it just rolls out, until it seems to fit, until it’s clean. You know, to me, every line has to connect with the previous line and the line that follows it, and it has to be done in a way that just seems as natural as possible. Sometimes I have to work out the kinks to get it to do that. I don’t think I’ve ever re-read a page without changing it, but there comes a time when you have to just stop writing that page because it’s as good as it can possibly get—at least it seems so—and you’ve got to go on. Most of my pages take twenty to forty to fifty runs—complete runs—through the typewriter before it feels right and good enough for me to go on to the next page.
I’ve been trying to think of anything that I’ve written so intensely and lived with to such a degree that I could recreate it from scratch, or that I would imagine rewriting, sentence by sentence, any piece I wrote over 40 times. Nope, can’t do it. I don’t think Dixon is bragging—in fact, it’s the offhand nature of his observations that impresses me the most—but it’s staggering all the same.
(By the way, his brand-new novel Meyer is wonderful, and probably the funniest book I’ve read by him.)