Franz Kafka: Physical Writing Process
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
Quartered Onionskin Paper & My Own Blue Notebooks
There’s an episode fairly late in Kafka’s life, September 1917 to April 1918, when his tuberculosis manifested and he took sick leave from his office job to rest in the countryside at his sister’s rural house in Zurau. While staying there, Kafka began to write The Castle (one of my favorite novels) and he also composed a tiny book that no one saw until after he died. We now know that book as The Zurau Aphorisms (although Max Brod called it Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way, which caused Robert Calasso in his afterward to write that Brod “could lend a touch of kitsch to anything.”), a collection of short writings that fall somewhere between philosophy and poetry.
Evidently Kafka needed each of his aphorisms to have a page of its own, and he accomplished this by taking thin, pale sheets of onionskin paper and cutting them into fours. Kafka’s original collection has no title, and he kept these small pages loose, but numbered each of them. His small writings vary in length and topic. 93, for example, is simply, “No psychology ever again!” And while Kafka kept this piece of writing with the others, he crossed it out (A handful of them were crossed out and Michael Hofmann puts an asterisk after the entries that Kafka had put a line though). In contrast to 93, 104 is a five paragraph discourse of Kafka’s varying beliefs on free will: “…this is the triple nature of free will, but being simultaneous, it is also single, and is in fact so utterly singe that it has no room for a will at all, whether free or unfree.” I enjoy reflecting on the content of his aphorisms, but I also like knowing the physical way in which they were created. I was unable to find any images of the originals online (or in any of the Kafka books I’ve seen), so if anyone comes across some, please feel free to share.
The End... For Now
This takes us to the end of this series for now, although if I come across more tales in this vein, I may have the urge to run a second series. However, before I go, I thought it might be fun to share what I’ve been using to write my own fiction recently - although perhaps more fun for me than for you.
During my daily travels I carry a small notebook and a pen in my pocket at all times (this has the unfortunate side effect of leading to inkstained pants) so that I can write down any passing idea or outline in the moment it comes to me, and it can also lead to me writing complete stories or excerpts of novels I am working in the small notebook.
I also have a standard size composition notebook that I will use if I have it, which is more comfortable for writing down complete reflections on events or first drafts of short stories.
Both of these notebooks only have a few blank pages left in them, so I’ll be moving onto this nice new matching set that my girlfriend gave me for Valentine’s Day. I think I would like to include some sort of decoration on the cover of each, although I haven’t thought of what yet.
As mentioned earlier, I tend to write my novels in GoogleDocs, which is usually done on my netbook computer. You may have noticed that the covers of both my new and old larger-sized notebooks are blue. Well, the first one is blue by serendipity, but the second one continues the trend of being blue for a specific reason – there have been some amazing works written in blue notebooks. We were just talking about Kafka, and one of the collections of his writing that is available is called The Blue Octavo Notebooks because they were originally written in, well, blueoctavo notebooks. The story that is often considered Daniil Kharms’ magnum opus is simply titled, “Blue Notebook #10” because it was the tenth entry in his blue notebook. These are the two that make me smile whenever I see a blue notebook, but I hear there are others, as Nathaniel Otting of HTMLGiant adds to this list Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Benson's Blue Book, Gass' On Being Blue, and Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks (an album that features readings from Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks along with readings from Czeslaw Milosz).
So you’ve considered the physical processes and materials that others have used to write, but how about yourself? I’d love to hear what everyone out there utilizes to facilitate their own writing. Are computers the most common these days? Do you use special word-processing programs to keep yourself focused, or maybe the best way to write a first draft is a good old fashioned pen and paper? Maybe you don’t want to get personal, but you know the process of a famous writer that I’ve missed and you’d be willing to share it with us. Thanks for reading and I'd be happy to see feedback if you have it.
---Other Entries in this Series--- The Physical Writing Process: Octavia Butler - Inspiring OneselfThe Physical Writing Process: Jack Kerouac – Typewritten ScrollsThe Physical Writing Process: William Gibson – Hemingway’s TypewriterThe Physical Writing Process: Neal Stephenson – Fountain Pen and Malfunctioning TypewriterThe Physical Writing Process: Jonathan Franzen – Destroy the InternetThe Physical Writing Process: James Joyce & Jorge Luis Borges – Writing with Eye Trouble The Physical Writing Process: Donna Tartt - Multicolored Pencils, Polychrome Paper The Physical Writing Process: Writing in the Bathtub - The Duality of Dalton Trumbo as Screenwriter and Novelist