The Surprising 1/3 of Your Novel
While I was reading American Short Story Masterpieces: A Rich Selection of Recent Fiction from America's Best Modern Writers, I encountered a hilarious short story about writing. It was titled “1/3, 1/3, 1/3” by Richard Brautigan.
The story starts this way:
“It was all to be done in thirds. I was to get 1/3 for doing the typing, and she was to get 1/3 for doing the editing, and he was to get 1/3 for writing the novel. We were going to divide the royalties three ways….I was made a 1/3 partner because I had the typewriter.”
You might feel a little bit strange: How could typing be as important as the writing? After so many years of writing, I firmly believe that writing is the most important and difficult part that calls for creativity and originality.
Let’s hold our judgement and read along.
“She” has no name in the story. She lives across the street and lives on Welfare checks. “The word ‘check’ is the one religious word in their lives, so they always manage to use it at least three or four times in every conversation. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about.”
Obviously, she wanted to make some money.
“He” has no name either. He is someone who she knows, but “I” don’t know.
“He was writing the novel because he wanted to tell a story that had happened to him years before when he was working in the woods. He also wanted to make some money: 1/3.”
It was the second time the “1/3” caught my attention. The first time “1/3” appeared, I just took in the information: “1/3” as the way to split the money. The second time, I realized that the fraction meant nothing since there wasn’t an amount to distribute. “1/3” then sounds funny in a crazy way.
The business is proposed by her since she is the person who knows the rest of the two.
“She” didn’t know “me” very well though, which is suggested by the dialogue:
“You have a typewriter, don’t you?” she said. “I’ve walked by your shack and heard you typing. You type a lot at night.”
Who types a lot at night? Obviously, “I” am a writer, a struggling one, because “I” live in a poor part of the town where the streets aren’t paved. I need to make money too, so I agree to the business proposal, earning “1/3” of something, anything.
So, she leads “me” to meet the novelist who lives in a trailer.
“We walked over to the highway and down the highway past mud puddles and sawmill ponds and fields flooded with rain…”
“One look at that trailer showed that it was never going anywhere again…”
The novelist steps out and welcomes them.
“He’s the kid with the typewriter,” she said. “He’ll get 1/3 for typing it.”
“Sounds fair,” he said. “We need somebody to type it.”
It was the third time that I encountered the number “1/3.” Suddenly, it sounds fair to me too. Given the economic situation of the three, to have a typewriter is as big an asset as to have the ability to edit and write.
“I” finally get hold of the manuscript.
“There were about twenty-five or thirty pages of writing in the notebook….It was a story about a young logger falling in love with a waitress. The novel began in 1935 in a café in North Bend, Oregon.”
Here is one line from the manuscript:
“Ill mak sur you get plenti of gravi!”
Suddenly, the rain starts to come down and the story ends there.
But what she says toward the end of the story resonates in my mind.
“You’ll type it. I’ll edit it. He’ll write it,” she said.
Does it sound strange to you? Wouldn’t the correct order be: “He’ll write it. I’ll edit it. You’ll type it?”
But after reading the manuscript, you probably feel that if you describe the writing process as “He’ll write it. I’ll edit it. You’ll type it”, the novel would never materialize. Instead, “You’ll type it. I’ll edit it. He’ll write it” sounds more promising. I’ve already owned a typewriter and I have the ability to type a lot in the night. “1/3” of a zero-sum is still “1/3” of something.
“1/3, 1/3, 1/3” is a lighthearted satire on writing itself. For somebody, in the old days, the biggest obstacle in writing was to own a typewriter. But nowadays, I don’t know a single person, writer or no writer, who literally writes. Everyone owns a computer. Everyone has already achieved “1/3” of their writing goals. So, what are we waiting for?
Let’s start typing, all the way to the last line of our great novels!