I came across a quote today by Italo Calvino that is so wonderfully illustrative of the problem writers often face in constructing a story, that I’d like to share it with you. It occurs in a lecture he prepared for delivery at Harvard shortly before his death. (He only wrote five of the six lectures he’d been asked to deliver for, alas, he died before he could complete them.) I encountered this quote in a terrific piece on Calvino by Martha Cooley in the May/Summer issue of the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle. In a lecture he called “Exactitude”, Calvino says:

“This talk is refusing to be led in the direction I set myself. I began by speaking of exactitude . . . I wanted to tell you of my fondness for geometrical forms. For symmetries, for numerical series, for all that is combinatory . . . But perhaps it is precisely this idea of forms that evokes the idea of the endless . . . Sometimes I try to concentrate on the story I would like to write, and I realize that what interests me is something else entirely or, rather, not anything precise but everything that does not fit in with what I ought to write . . . This is a devouring and destructive obsession, which is enough to render writing impossible. In order to combat it, I try to limit the field of what I have to say, divide it into still more limited fields, then subdivide these again, and so on and on. Then another kind of vertigo seizes me, that of the detail of the detail of the detail, and I am drawn into the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, just as I was previously lost in the infinitely vast.”

I’ll bet everyone who writes has encountered that problem. But it’s not just a problem; it’s a joy as well.

Why a joy? Well, Pascal said something similar a couple of centuries earlier, but he was talking not about stories and language but about the universe itself and its infinitude in either direction, looking up at the cosmos or down at one’s self: the infinite expandability, the infinite divisibility. And however much I, as a writer, struggle with the question of what to include and what to exclude, that hovering notion of the infinity from which I draw my choices stirs my juices in a very invigorating way. Bewildering, perhaps, but pleasing at the same time.

After all, says Calvino, stories are “enchantments that act on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.”

Surely, one can take some pleasure in that.

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