Strange Methods: César Aira's "Flight Forward"

A look at Aira's "no revision" novel-writing method

[Part II in a series on different novel-writing methods. Part I on Michael Moorcock’s three-day novel here.]

By far the most common writing advice out there—which you see in almost every MFA program, craft essay, NaNoWriMo post, or Twitter #amwriting thread—goes like this: vomit out your first draft as quickly as possible without thinking. Then revise, revise, revise, until it’s done.

There’s nothing wrong with that method. Plenty of great authors use it. But the advice is so ubiquitous that I sometimes fear it might be damaging to authors who don’t work that way. Who actually work better by writing more slowly, thinking things through and editing as they go rather than rushing out a draft. For writers who maybe aren’t as keen on the “vomit first, revise later” technique, you might want to try César Aira’s process. It’s the 180° opposite method: “write carefully and never revise.”

If you’re not familiar with César Aira, the Argentinian is one of Latin America’s most prolific authors. It’s hard to know exactly how many books he’s written, especially since only a fraction are currently translated into English, but he allegedly writes one to three (typically very short) novels a year. Aira’s works span a wide range of styles and genres, although they often are tinged with surrealism. What unites them is his method, which he calls “la fuga hacia adelante” (translated variously as “escape forward” or “flying forward” or “constant flight forward”). The gist of the method is that Aira writes carefully, a few pages a day, but never goes back to revise. He pushes forward until the book is done, writes the date of completion at the end of the manuscript, and then moves onto the next project.

Here’s how Heather Cleary describes the “flight forward” method in a Words Without Borders review:

Aira is perhaps best known for his aleatory narrative style, the product of a technique he calls the "flight forward," which allows for no backward glances, no revision; only a dizzying accumulation of characters and plot twists that brings to mind an image of the author stumbling across an idea, dusting it off, and adding it to the motley strand of his narrative. Paradoxically, yet perhaps necessarily, these baroque storylines are typically expressed in a spare, precise prose that skates between the colloquial and the theoretical.

The first novella of Aira’s I ever read was The Literary Conference, which is perhaps the perfect demonstration of his technique. The book opens with the narrator, Aira, solving a puzzle that unearths hidden pirate treasure. It then skips forward in time to Aira as a wealthy supervillain of sorts who decides to clone Carlos Fuentes (as he attends the titular literary conference). The book ends with gigantic worm monsters destroying the town. I love this novella. It’s a true romp of a read and full of surprising twists and turns that one can’t help think rise from his method. When Aira is stuck, he just moves to a new section and—in this novella at least—keeps jumping forward in time.

While Aira has a reputation as a surrealist, it’s worth noting that Aira’s method doesn’t necessitate the surreal leaps of The Literary Conference. Many of his books such as Ghosts or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (another favorite) have more contained and sometimes even conventional narratives. The core of Aira’s method is not wild, absurdist leaps, but rather pulling new material out of what is already on the page and (mostly) marching ever forward.

Aira talks about his method a lot, although often more poetically than practically. Here he is in The Paris Review:

The novel requires an accumulation of time, a succession of different days: without that, it isn’t a novel. What has been written one day must be affirmed the next, not by going back to correct it (which is futile) but by pressing on, supplying the sense that was lacking by advancing resolutely. This seems magical, but in fact it’s how everything works; living, for a start. In this respect, which is fundamental, the novel defeats the law of diminishing returns, reformulating it and turning it to advantage.

Since Aira writes only a few pages a day and spends a lot of time and pulls his materials out of what is already written, he doesn’t fit into the old “pantser vs planner” binary. Aira is both planning and flying-by-the-seat of his pants simultaneously. As with every method, there are benefits and drawbacks. The Aira method is unlikely to produce a long, complex, and carefully-honed tome. But it is great at producing strange and surprising novellas. His method provides an inherent unpredictability to his novels that is refreshing in an age when so many books seem to telegraph their plots from page one.

Aira’s method might be ideal for the kind of writer who is paralyzed by the infinite choices in front of them. Every text has infinite paths and if you don’t close some down, they continue to branch off forever. As a creative writing professor, I’ve often talked to students who are paralyzed by the different ways their manuscript can go. Should they switch from first person to third? Second person? Should they add a magical realist element? Have multiple narrators? Add in a frame? Delete a frame? Etc. They might revise their opening pages dozens of times while never getting beyond them.

Aira’s method could be ideal for such writers. You make your initial decisions and stick by them, drawing only from what is already on the page. If you want to try the Aira method, I think you could certainly attempt it with less rigidness. You could (mostly) never revise or use his method to get out a first draft and then feel free to revise and polish. If you’re a writer who is constantly getting stuck in your books, perhaps give this method a try.

Here is Aira in his introduction to The Literary Conference:

In my case nothing returns, everything races forward, savagely being pushed from behind by what keeps coming through that accursed valve. This image, brought to its peak of maturation in my vertiginous reflections, revealed to me the path of the solution, which I forcefully put into practice whenever I have time and feel like it. The solution is none other than the greatly overused (by me) "escape forward.” Since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! Running, flying, gliding, using up all the possibilities, the conquest of tranquility through the din of the battlefield. The vehicle is language. What else? Because the valve is language.

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