Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Drilling Ahead

Les écrivains ont des fiertés. Ils ont aussi tendance à penser qu'ils ont foré leur propre puits de pétrole.
(Writers have their pride. They also tend to think that they have drilled their own oil wells.)

Stéphane Denis, Le Figaro, 24 July 2003.

I noted this quotation by French novelist Stéphane Denis from an article in Le Figaro not long after I arrived in Paris. It was from an article about the rivalry between Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald while they lived in France.

I like the idea of writers drilling their own oil wells. They are metaphorical oil wells, of course. It goes straight to the heart of what it is to be a writer and it appeals to me personally because of my interest in geology and the oil business.

As I remember it, the article was about the competition between these two great writers. Drilling oil wells is a competitive business, and was particularly competitive in those early days of mid-western oil exploration in the 1920s when all that really mattered was to hit pay-dirt before your neighbour who's rig was churning away only fifty yards down the road.

Why is drilling an oil well a good analogy for what the writer does? The fact is, when a writer starts out on his or her book, they are taking something of a gamble. They are going to invest a certain amount of time in the endeavour. They have prospected the ground, made a few surveys, carried out a few tests and they now think that down there, somewhere in the unknown darkness is what they are looking for.

Our petroleum geology lecturer at university (the famous 'Dry-hole Dick') used to tell us that those early mid-western prospectors had some strange ideas about finding oil. They used to get on their donkeys and ride for half a day sat on backwards, letting the donkey go where it wanted. Then, at a fixed hour, they'd take off their hat, close their eyes, and throw it as far as they could. Wherever it landed, that was where they'd spud the well. Sounds like the James Joyce school of prospecting to me. But as Dick pointed out, it didn't really matter where they threw their hats, there was oil everywhere.

These days, it's not so easy for petroleum geologists or writers. After a century of massive over-exploitation in both fields, increasing ingenuity is required to make a new discovery. The risk for exploration companies and writers has increased exponentially, mainly because of competition. With the development of national oil companies over the last thirty years, the global game has become increasingly competitive and complex for oil exploration. The same goes for writers who have a new found democracy of speech, but an ever decreasing market of readers prepared to buy their offerings.

Nonetheless, both groups must get down to the task of drilling. The writer sits down at a desk and scratches out the first sentence from the mud of memory. The drill bit skids around, tracing odd patterns on the paper, then it's away, quietly purring down, down for day after day. The writer is hardly aware of what he's doing. Now he's positioned himself, he's just got to keep going. He may be able to play a bit with the trajectory, turn a bit to the North or the South, but basically he's there for the duration, searching deeper and deeper towards whatever he's got in his sites.

The chances are he'll have a pretty good idea of what he wants to find. It's a "I'll know it when I see it" kind of thing. And he has a certain number of expectations on the way. Markers that he predicts he'll find. If they're there, he'll know he's on track. If they're not, it'll be time to pack up and kill the well. How often does he make a discovery? That depends how good he is. It's not the drilling itself that matters, you understand, although some drilling is certainly more elegant than others. No, it's where you drill and even, if you know you have a discovery.

And then there's the market. Every product must have a market. It's no good drilling a gas well in the middle of Mongolia and then wondering why there's no one around who wants to hook their central heating up to it. You must be able to get your product to market. Fortunately for writers these days, there are pipelines running everywhere. It's just a question of getting people to turn on the taps.

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