Last Tuesday, Janice Law broadcast her take on writing as a reality television event, (which the French l’Oulipo actually does). As I was starting to comment, I recalled Monty Python ran a radio skit of Thomas Hardy writing as a spectator sport.
You can listen to Monty Python's sketch 'Novel Writing' and follow along with the transcript.
(Eric Idle) And now it’s time for novel-writing, which today comes from the West Country from Dorset.
(Michael Palin) Hello, and welcome to Dorchester, where a very good crowd has turned out to watch local boy Thomas Hardy write his new novel The Return of the Native on this very pleasant July morning. This will be his eleventh novel and the fifth of the very popular Wessex novels; and here he comes, here comes Hardy walking out toward his desk. He looks confident, he looks relaxed, very much the man in form as he acknowledges this very good-natured bank holiday crowd. And the crowd goes quiet now as Hardy settles himself down at his desk, body straight, shoulders relaxed, pen held lightly but firmly in the right hand. He dips the pen in the ink and he’s off! It’s the first word, but it’s not a word. Oh no, it’s a doodle way up on the left-hand margin. It’s a piece of meaningless scribble and he’s signed his name underneath. Oh dear, what a disappointing start! But he’s off again and here he goes, the first word of Thomas Hardy’s first novel at 10.35 on this very lovely morning. It’s three letters, it’s the definite article and it’s “the”, Dennis.
(Graham Chapman) Well, this is true to form, no surprises there. He’s started five of his eleven novels to date with the definite article. We’ve had two of them with “it”, there’s been one “but”, two “at”s, one “and”, and a “Dolores”. Oh, that, of course, was never published.
(Michael Palin) I’m sorry to interrupt you there, Dennis, but he’s crossed it out! Thomas Hardy here on the first day of his new novel has crossed out the only word he’s written so far, and he’s gazing off into space. Oh dear, he’s signed his name again.
(Graham Chapman) It looks like Tess of the D’Urbervilles all over again.
(Michael Palin) But he’s, no he’s down again and writing, Dennis. He’s written “the” again and he’s written “a” and there’s a second word coming up and it’s “sat”. “A sat …”, doesn’t make sense, “a satur …”, “a Saturday”, it’s “a Saturday”, and the crowd are loving it. They are really enjoying this novel. And “this afternoon”, “this Saturday afternoon in … in … in know … knowvember”, November is spelled wrong, but he’s not going back. It looks as if he’s going for a sentence and it’s the first verb coming up, the first verb of the novel and it’s “was”, and the crowd are going wild. “A Saturday afternoon in November was” – and a long word here – “appro … appro …” Is it “approval”? No, it’s “approaching, approaching…” “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching,” and he’s done the definite article “the” again, and he’s writing fluently, easily with flowing strokes of the pen as he comes up to the middle of this first sentence. And with his eleventh novel well under way and the prospects of a good day’s writing ahead, back to the studio.
(Eric Idle) Wasp Club, introduced as usual by Ronny Thompson.
(Terry Jones) Hello, and welcome to Wasp Club where we…
(Eric Idle) We interrupt the sketch to take you straight back to novel-writing from Dorchester and the latest news about that opening sentence.
(Michael Palin) Well, the noise you can hear is because Hardy has just completed his first sentence and it’s a real cracker, just listen to this: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment,” and that after only three hours of writing. What a Hardyesque cracker.