The Siren Call: What Edith Wharton resisted when writing Ethan Frome

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

While Edith Wharton was writing Ethan Frome, she had to resist the siren call of other work. We know what that is: the novel we have undertaken has lost its lustre; it may not be any good. The first flush of heady creation is long past. We have an idea for another story—altogether more vivid than the one we are writing. We are tempted to start it immediately.

Ideas for the new novel burgeon. This novel will almost write itself. We won’t have any difficulty with the ‘first person narrative’ because we will write a ‘third person narrative’ which, of course, is much easier. We don’t want to be confined in one person’s head any longer. We have been writing the wrong novel, so we abandon it.

Unwritten novels glow in our mind, and tantalise us with their unrealised potential. But once we have plunged ourselves into a new novel, we experience the same problems. We run out of steam; momentum is lost. Scenes, that promised so much in their inchoate state, are flat and incomplete when written out. They are no better than the dull scenes of the abandoned novel.

We now have another draft novel that needs a lot of work. This draft is even worse than the one we cast aside. Whatever else, we mustn’t start a third novel. We have ideas for one, and they are irresistible. But we must remain deaf to those siren calls. We have to stay the course for the long voyage that is the novel, or we will have another wreck on our hands.

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