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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Morning notes: Alexander the Great, A History of Technology.

Yesterday I finished chapter 17: 41 pages. That was my most difficult chapter yet, probably due more to my psychological issues than to its content. I found myself going down more than the usual number of research byways, partly because I hadn't researched much of this chapter's content yet, having deferred it to deal with more pressing things.

Today: chapter 18. I usually feel some resistance to starting a new chapter, even opening a Notes document for it. So I already set up Notes documents and draft-chapter blanks for all the remaining chapters of Part 2. I opened "18 - Notes" and found what I'd put in there back in March: the text from my short outline, followed by the text from my detailed outline. Sipping my grapefruit juice, I read through the outline text, short then detailed.

It seemed to me that quite a bit is supposed to happen in this chapter; that was one of the reasons I felt anxious about approaching it. There is significant action--and backstory--for both ex-soldier Marcus and young astrologer Alexander. I made Marcus the protagonist of the chapter. I wondered how I would deal with the issue of point of view in chapters that contained more than one of my main characters--that is, one of the four characters whom I narrate from a limited-omniscient point of view. If both Marcus and Alexander are in a scene, whose point of view do I choose?

I felt that this might be a difficult problem because if I let one character "trump" another in terms of point of view, then I'm creating a hierarchy of principal characters--which I don't want to do.

I decided to use the criterion of which character experiences the biggest "gap" in a chapter. I take this term from Robert McKee. The gap is the divide between expectation and result. A character sets out to do something, achieve something, and the world does not cooperate. It happens on large scales and small. It happens in our own lives; that's how we recognize it in a story. On a small scale, it can be something as simple as reaching for the keys to unlock your car, only to find that you don't have them. Gap: what do you do?

In everyday life, this might not be much of a problem. When it happened to me four years ago, I was able to phone Toyota, and they sent someone to get me into my car. I had to wait about 45 minutes. I was at my mother's place, so it was not inconvenient for me.

But in the hands of a storyteller, this gap can become a very serious inconvenience indeed. What if you're not in the city, but in the country? How about deep in the country? What if your child has just been bitten by a rattlesnake? Now what do you do?

A small gap has become big: life-changing, maybe. If we were following this in a story, our attention would elevate: it's not clear what the character can do about this; there are no good answers available. But the character will do something; he or she must. What?

The decision the character makes will reveal something of who he or she is. Does the character just collapse and blubber apologies to the poisoned child? Scream for help? Try to hotwire the car? Pick the child up and start running? Start sucking out poison? Cut off the kid's foot? What? What?

According to Robert McKee, to witness how characters deal with these gaps is the reason we read or watch stories. I agree. The storyteller's job is, above all, creating and managing these gaps. They are the storyteller's true working material, his building-blocks.

I realized that this criterion was the right one to decide which of two or more protagonists should carry a scene (or actually a chapter, since I keep the same point of view throughout a chapter). This way, I can narrate from the point of view of the character who's got the biggest problem right now--much better than narrating from the point of view of someone watching that character have his or her problem. It might not be dead simple deciding who has the biggest problem, biggest gap, in any one chapter, but I knew I could sort this out. And I can always change my mind.

So Marcus it is for chapter 18. And I only just now remembered why, since Alexander seems to experience bigger gaps. Yes, I remember.

So I started reading, I started typing notes, thoughts about what could happen. I started imagining ways I could combine the disparate events of the outline into one flow of action. That's another problem that I think makes a story more interesting--but maybe that can be another post.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Today: rain. Cool air, gray overcast, and rain on the homebound rush-hour traffic as I type this.

I've just opened a book that arrived in today's mail: Irony by Claire Colebrook. Very good-condition compact paperback from a used-book seller in Pennsylvania. I've entered the data in by Book Inventory in Excel.

I'm trying to remember now what triggered the decision to make this purchase. Someone was talking about irony somewhere--but where? Where, where, where. Was it me? Trying to explain it to someone--like Kimmie? And realizing there's more to it?

I forget. But I've long wanted to educate myself more on this important concept, and Claire Colebrook's book looks just the thing. Irony seems to be one of the main products of the intellectual industry called postmodernism. Since about the 1950s irony has been the flavor of every month, and sincerity in art has been mocked, ridiculed, or declared impossible. Everything's ironic. An artist who deliberately tried to say what he appeared to be saying would be thought naive, retrograde, fascist, or just plain dumb.

That anyway is my impression. It reminds me of the faux wordliness of the adolescent: someone who wants to appear more experienced than he or she is, so affects an attitude of knowingness and boredom.

But it is only that: an attitude, a pose. The ironic pose of the postmodernist is merely an intellectual fashion, one, I hope, that is in its last throes if it is not gone already. It might not be gone, just because, I believe, postmodernism is a syndrome of the Waste Land: the lifeless spiritual landscape of the contemporary world. A picture of the landscape by Joseph Campbell in his Creative Mythology:

In Christian Europe, already in the twelfth century, beliefs no longer universally held were universally enforced. The result was a dissociation of professed from actual existence and that consequent spiritual disaster which, in the imagery of the Grail legend, is symbolized in the Waste Land theme: a landscape of spiritual death, a world waiting, waiting--"Waiting for Godot!"--for the Desired Knight, who would restore its integrity to life and let stream again from infinite depths the lost, forgotten, living waters of the inexhaustible source.

Campbell summarizes the Waste Land as the spiritual location of one for whom there is no divinity either within or without. An aggregate of meaningless but nonetheless sentient atoms--oneself--treads a moonscape of other meaningless but nonsentient atoms. Whence come the atoms? Whence comes the sentience? No one knows. The cool water of such knowledge is nowhere to be found, its very flavor forgotten. From T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock

As the mind of 20th-century man shriveled from all far-reaching explanations and myths, it turned to postmodernism as a substitute: caressing the dry lifeless husks of ideas known to be unoriginal and useless.

Further in Creative Mythology, this summary by the American thinker John Dewey (1859-1952):

The shock and uncertainty so characteristic of the present marks the discovery that the older ideals themselves are undermined. Instead of science and technology giving us better means for bringing them to pass, they are shaking our confidence in all large and comprehensive beliefs and purposes.

It is psychologically natural that the outcome should be a collapse of faith in all fundamental organizing and directive ideas. Skepticism becomes the mark and even the pose of the educated mind. It is the more influential because it is no longer directed against this and that article of the older creeds but is rather a bias against any kind of far-reaching ideas, and a denial of systematic participation on the part of such ideas in the intelligent direction of affairs.

"Skepticism becomes the mark and even the pose of the educated mind." Those words were published in 1931. Postmodernism had already made a beachhead in the contemporary mind. But according to Campbell, the West had already started its descent into the Waste Land by the 12th century.

From the flap blurb of Claire Colebrook's book:

Irony is both a figure of speech--saying one thing and meaning another--and an attitude to existence, in which the ironic subject adopts a position of skepticism and mistrust in relation to everyday language.

There it is. It's a pose, but like the adolescent's pose, it's taken because people don't know what else to do. They're trying to find out what it feels like to be mature, to have genuine knowledge.

Well. At one level, irony is simply a figure of speech, and a tool of my trade. I look forward to knowing more about it. But I don't plan on striking any poses based on it.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

genesis of a historical novelist

When did I first realize I was interested in history?

Although I have never thought of myself as someone who was especially interested in history--the way I have always been interested in, say, science--I did feel a spark of fascination when I studied ancient history in grade 7 as part of the regular Social Studies curriculum. Our teacher, for history, was the school principal Mr. Thibodeau, a small, wiry, chain-smoking, velvet-voiced man who had what seemed to be a genuine passion for history, although it might have been just a passion for teaching. Either way, he got us--got me, anyway--thinking about history, and most especially about ancient history, for I have found that I am generally less excited by other kinds.

The grade 7 curriculum then (and I think still) introduces the student to history from the Stone Age all the way up to the Renaissance, which was the starting-point for grade 8. A lot of territory. We were taught social studies for most of the year by our home-room teacher Miss Wright, a six-foot-plus, barrel-shaped, no-nonsense woman from England. But when we got to the section on ancient Greece, Mr. Thibodeau took over.

I remember one class in which he was trying to get us to answer the question of who was the greatest enemy of the ancient Greeks. He made us guess. "Rome?" "Egypt?" "Mesopotamia?" No, no, no. At length, after surveying the class intently, expectantly, for a number of silent seconds, he blurted: "No! Their big enemy was the Persians!"

The Persians? I thought. I'd barely heard of the Persians, and I was the top-scoring student in that subject. What impressed me was that Mr. Thibodeau thought we would know this. He had paid the class this compliment, and also set the bar to a new place in my school experience up to that point: challenging us to think about and know things on our own account, beyond what we had learned in class.

Mr. Thibodeau lit the fire of enthusiasm in me for ancient history. He took a special interest in me, of course, as the top student, but what he really demonstrated was that it's ok to have passion for a subject that seems, to most people, obscure and useless. Learning and understanding are ends in themselves, apart from the subject-matter being examined.

By the end of that course, end of that year, I was reading the textbook The Ancient and Medieval World on my own account. As I looked at maps of the ancient world, and read about how people lived: the technologies they used, the dwellings they lived in, I saw the history unfolding before me as images, as narrative. I felt a kind of glow in my body as I visualized scenes, feeling almost like a superhuman, a ghost who could visit the different times, stopping to experience the richness of each world, each era, before moving on. I pictured movielike scenes of village life: the scrape of tools in dry soil, the flap of awnings in the breeze, the smell of woodsmoke. It was rich and intense. I wound up keeping the textbook at the end of grade 7 (theft) so that I could finish reading it, letting the movie of time roll on.

My passion for history subsided to a lower level in the following years, marginalized by all the other things in life and my other interests. It returned powerfully in 1984 when I conceived the idea of writing about Pythagoras, as I've described in an earlier post. It hasn't really left me since. It's one passion among others, for I'm still probably more future-oriented than past-oriented, in most ways, but it is still strong. My interest in origins, in root causes, takes me back, back: how did things start? Why, deep down, are things the way they are?

Ancient history is, for me, part of the answer. With The Mission I have resumed my old passion: unspooling the movie of the deep past.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

blogger, slogger

Another day, another post. Many other bloggers, I notice, post only on weekdays. This makes a certain amount of sense. Everyone needs a break, and one can be more reliable for five days a week instead of trying to cover the full seven. I didn't put too much thought into the decision to try to post every day. I suppose my feeling was, and is, that creating a work of art is not a 9-to-5 job. The artistic work, whether I actually advance it or not on any given day, suffuses my life, pervades it. And so I thought I would try to post every day.

One of my thoughts was that on most weekdays I could talk about the actual work of writing, for it's true that I generally only write Monday to Friday (need a rest), while on the weekends I could be more free to venture into related topics, things like the thematic content of what I'm doing, or its history.

In practice, it's not clear what I might actually write about on any day, whether week or weekend. My usual approach is to sit down and just think about my project in relation to my day. What has happened, what have I thought or felt, that relates to it? Sometimes it's not even that: something seemingly unrelated hijacks my thoughts. I just accept all this. It's the world of the writer, germane or not.

Lately I've had a strong feeling of slogging. Sometimes it's enjoyable slogging, but it's slogging. I look with dissatisfaction at my own slowness. This morning I keyed notes from Robin Lane Fox's Alexander the Great (recently saw a new edition of it in the bookstore, now with favorable blurb by Oliver Stone, director of the flopped cinematic epic about Alexander's life--good: Fox deserves to sell all the copies he can). I've keyed up to page 196 (of 498). I often feel that I should have got this done already; why haven't I already read this book and keyed notes from it? This kind of pointless self-nagging haunts me from somewhere early in life. I enjoy keying notes from my research books; it's a puttering clerical job that I find pleasant, with easily measurable productivity. I can move my project forward (so I think) without creative effort. That pleases me. But creeping my way through this large book feels slow--a slog--even though many other research books have already melted before the onslaught of the tortoise.

And I do get feelings of synchronicity: the just-in-time delivery of what I need. For example, last night I arrived at chapter 14 of Alexander the Great, in which Alexander enters Egypt after conquering the city of Gaza. Fox discusses aspects of Ptolemaic Egyptian culture that I haven't encountered in my other sources, in particular the relations between the priesthood and the pharaohs--just as I arrive in chapter 17 at the place where I will need this knowledge. Such synchronicities are very encouraging, and help me sweep aside my worries about the sense and salability of what I'm doing. But it takes presence of mind and confidence to remain strong in the belief that one is always at the right place at the right time.

Nonwriting activities? Today Kimmie and I went strolling in the East End neighborhood of Strathcona: a resplendent day at the climax of summer, with a warm breeze pushing through the quiet streets, rustling the leaves of plane-trees and oaks and maples. Little hundred-year-old rowhouses huddle at the sidewalks, painted cheerfully, with fig-trees and planters made of cast-iron bathtubs and little plank catwalks leading from the sidewalk to their narrow, shady front doors. Up the street, the near-windowless blocks of project housing: masses of pale brick, empty-looking as a school closed for summer.

Friday, August 26, 2005

the writer and his vocabulary

Kimmie took today off, so a chance to sleep in--till 7:30, in my case. But K was up first and had made the coffee--a treat! Downstairs to key notes: Alexander the Great, A History of Technology.

I've just gone to fetch one of my "finished" bookmarks. Since the age of about 21, I've made bookmarks by cutting plain white bond paper into 8" x 2" strips. In my reading, if I come across a word that is not in my active vocabulary--that is, a word that I don't feel confident about using exactly, whether I recognize it or not--I interrupt my reading to write the word on the bookmark, look it up, and write the definition next to the word. By both looking the word up and writing down the definition, I seek to remember the word better than if I had just looked it up.

Because I always have several books on the go at any one time, and sometimes return unfinished books to shelves with their bookmarks still in them as a cue to where to start reading from again, when I get back to them (often several years later), there are many of these bookmark-slips in circulation. I keep several partly finished ones on a shelf in the living-room, and several more on a shelf here in my office. Therefore, each bookmark usually bears the traces of reading in many different books, with interesting juxtapositions of vocabulary. And when I pull out a partly used bookmark to slip it in a new book, I can review the words already recorded on it, as a reminder.

Words have always been important to me, and I've always had a large vocabulary compared to other people around me. I was already known for it in grade 4. Often I remember exactly where and when I first learned a word. For example, I know the term aa-aa lava from a dictionary of science that was owned by my roommate Keith back in 1980. It was the first entry. Somehow, Keith, Brad, and I got into one of our satirical or goofy interludes, maybe with a decision to memorize every term in the (very large and heavy) dictionary. We would have opened it to the first page and uttered the word, and then the definition, which I remember: "a lava which is blocky, scoriaceous, and exceedingly rough". I remember laughing a lot with Keith and Brad over that definition--maybe it was the "exceedingly rough" part.

I learned the word lachrymose from my late friend Harvey Burt at the dinner table one night. This too was in the early 80s, when Mara and I invited Harvey and his wife Dorothy over for dinner while Mom and Jackie were away traveling. The conversation was about levels of difficulty of vocabulary--why there are seemingly different words for the same thing, of different levels of difficulty (I remember using the examples stubborn, obstinate, and obdurate.) So for me the word lachrymose will always be tinged with the memory of Harvey, his teaching (he was an English teacher by profession), and that evening back at our co-op townhouse in Sitka Square.

So words, for me, have whole networks of association, not unlike (although not so strong as) the associations linked to music, or smells.

Sometimes I relearn a word in the course of using it. In about 1985 I finished a short story called "A Tourist Visa" based on an unexpected visit I paid on my long-lost grandfather in Latvia in 1982 (I'd started writing the story while I was still in Latvia in his apartment). In the story my character, getting shaken down by the Soviet Intourist officials (that was true), leaves the official with an index card on which he has printed the English word extortion. His intent was that she would look up the word in an English dictionary. Of course, I looked it up myself to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. First I had to check extort. Here's what I found:

to obtain from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or illegal power: wring

Good. And extortion:

the act or practice of extorting esp. money or other property; esp: the offense committed by an official engaging in such a practice

Bull's-eye! When deciding on the word, I hadn't even been consciously aware of its special reference to officials engaging in the practice--and yet that is exactly the shade I required. I find that this often happens: I reach for a word, and exactly the right meaning is attached. I write a word, then look it up to check its meaning, and discover that its meaning is exactly what I intend--perhaps even better than what I'd thought.

I believe this is partly the result of my lifetime pursuit of vocabulary-building. I look words up not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes to get them into my active vocabulary. Often I meet a word I've looked up several times before, but if its exact meaning is not clearly in my mind, I look it up again, and write down the definition. I can't stand the idea that any word is beyond my ability to use exactly and with confidence.

When reading, if I encounter a word I don't know, I feel a little qualm of inadequacy. I feel vocabularicly inferior: this writer knew that word, and I don't; I could not have written that sentence because I lack the vocabulary. This spur of inadequacy drives me back to the dictionary. As often happens, feelings of inferiority lead to superior achievement.

Which is not to say I don't enjoy learning words; I do. I like the scrupulousness of pausing to look up a word and write down its definition. I feel a bit disappointed with a book that does not require me to do this.

When I finish a bookmark? I review the words on it, see if I can remember the definitions, then send it into the recycling bag. Since I have so many in circulation, it doesn't happen that often.

The last word I entered on a bookmark? The final entry on this bookmark was hominy. I knew the word hominy and thought I had a good idea of what it meant. But I didn't know exactly what it meant.

Do you?


Thursday, August 25, 2005

one man's trash

Getting a bit patchy in my blog-posts, here. Yesterday it was the delayed arrival of Bruce, the handyman from Homepro Handyman Service. At 3:30, two and a half hours after schedule (not bad by trades standards), he arrived: tall, friendly, talkative. We headed out back to look at our garbage-box, and developed a plan for proofing it against animal and human incursion (mainly surrounding its insides with half-inch wire mesh). Then, while he whisked away to pick up materials, I set about clearing the inside of the hot, dusty, garbage-impregnated, enclosed box. I emerged an hour and a half later, while Bruce was setting to work (he wouldn't call it quits until dark).

That's my excuse for yesterday.

Now: here it is 3:30 p.m. again, and I'm busy at my blog-post for my few but devoted and highly discerning fans.

After my morning notes (Alexander the Great, A History of Technology), I spent some time browsing the handful of blogs I keep tabs on. First up: the Grumpy Old Bookman, regular as clockwork every weekday with well-crafted, well-informed prose on the state of publishing in Britain. Today's post was a long entry in praise of a book called The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey, which evidently vilifies the British literary intelligentsia of 1880-1939, accusing them of inventing intellectual literature as a means of isolating themselves from and keeping themselves above the "masses"--people of the middle and lower classes who could now, mostly, read.

Today the Grumpy One lived up to his handle, vehemently supporting Carey's thesis, and getting quite a few licks in of his own for good measure against the hypocritical, parasitic, narcissistic, racist, sexist, wife-beating crew responsible for English high-brow literature of that and subsequent periods. The Grumpy One has never made any secret of where he stands on the issue of "literary" fiction: it is fiction at its most obscure, least readable, and least enjoyable. Its small share of the market is well earned, and would be smaller if its sales were not artificially boosted by the efforts of self-serving eggheads to promote it. He has no use for it.

I found myself experiencing mixed feelings as I read the post. While I have little doubt that the evidence presented in the book is true (Nietzsche was not a very pleasant person; H.G. Wells worried about a world overwhelmed by dark-colored races; George Gissing whacked his wives with stair-rods), I wasn't persuaded of the truth of the underlying thesis: that high-brow fiction was invented by these people specifically to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, as a kind of circle-the-wagons gesture--a laager of intellectuals trying to stay above the barely literate. I haven't read Carey's book, but if this is what it's saying, then I think it's probably just too reductionistic for me.

The key question is about quality. What is a good piece of writing? What makes it good? Who says so?

The GOB takes the view that a regular reader's enjoyment of a good mystery or romance novel is in no way inferior to or less than that of an academic reading a "difficult" work of literature. By whose decree is one better than the other? Whose enjoyment is of higher quality?

I would agree that there's no way of measuring this. Indeed, quality by definition is that which cannot be measured: it refers to the nonmeasurable aspects of something, which in their turn fall under the label of quantity. There is no way to make a case that one work is absolutely better than another.

But what about relatively? Is Crime and Punishment no better than, say, Valley of the Dolls? Many would say not: they can read Valley of the Dolls, but not Crime and Punishment, because the latter is too boring, is set in a faraway place, has no sex scenes. But I mention it for a reason: that, as I've said before in this blog, when I first read Crime and Punishment at age 13, I was aware that I was reading a new and higher, better type of literature. I didn't enjoy it less than the science-fiction that had been the staple of my reading diet thitherto, I enjoyed it more. At 13 I was not a university-educated egghead; I was an elementary-school-educated boy living with his single working-class mother. I was a member of the masses. I wasn't trying to "better" myself or fit in with a higher-class set; reading this book was a private experience of communion between my mind and Dostoyevsky's. It's not an overstatement to say that it changed me.

Crime and Punishment was a step in my literary education. I didn't accept that it was good because somebody told me so; its quality was part of my direct experience--an experience, I realized, that had been shared by many before me.

We accept as natural that the tastes of a 40-year-old will usually be different from those of a nine-year-old. Education and life experience cause us to change our view of things. An important part of the difference is that the 40-year-old has already had the nine-year-old's point of view, while the nine-year-old has yet to arrive at the 40-year-old's. They are not merely different; one is a more evolved view than the other.

Literature (and I use this term in contrast with the different idea of "literary fiction") is that more evolved point of view as it applies to writing. As we mature, we engage with life on a deeper, more subtle level. As our understanding and appreciation of life deepens, we will need writing that speaks to that deeper understanding--indeed that helps us go further with it.

And what of "literary fiction"--the highfalutin stuff that is the real target of GOB's wrath? Here I emphatically agree with him. To me, the whole deconstructionist/postmodernist project of the 2nd half of the 20th century is a dead loss. But I'm not sure that even this product of frenetic academic inbreeding was the result of a desire to elevate its producers above the "masses". I suspect it has more to do with power struggles within academia, in which certain factions ("women", "minorities") got their hands on new weapons with which to attack their supposed oppressors. (The GOB does engage in some politically correct white-male cringing.) Harold Bloom in The Western Canon and other works describes how the "politics of resentment" has infiltrated and rotted the literary academic world in the U.S. I've never visited literary academia--and I don't want to. But the product of such an establishment, with such a program, can only be dreck.

In sum: my impression is that while there may be some substance to the idea of a coterie of turn-of-the-20th-century eggheads inventing an abstruse literature to keep themselves apart from and above the unwashed masses, the idea that this was a prime mover in non-pulp literature seems far-fetched and, dare I say it, cynical. Even popular writers can be not very nice (how about Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, reputed to beat blacks more harshly than he beat Jews, who in turn got rougher treatment than fellow WASPS?). And Malcolm Lowry, living in a squatter's shack only a few miles from where I sit, idealized the common man while writing Under the Volcano, one of the most difficult literary novels of the 20th century--and one of the best.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, A History of Technology.

On Sunday I meant to talk about Paul's Rom-Com Festival. Screening 5 on Saturday night was Tootsie, released in 1982, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, directed by Sydney Pollack. (The first four--all in chronological order--were It Happened One Night, Born Yesterday, The Apartment, and Annie Hall.) The writing credit, as it appears in the film itself, is as follows: "story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal". Tootsie, to me, is an example of something that is most disturbing about film (and also TV) production: excellent shows can result from chaotic and even conflict-ridden production processes.

As I recall the story from Larry Gelbart's book Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things, the project began sometime in the early 1970s with actor Don McGuire, who had an idea about an actor posing as a woman. It was shopped around, optioned, with various people working on it by the time Larry Gelbart got to it, I believe in the late 70s. (Barry Levinson and Elaine May are often listed among its "uncredited" writers.) The director Sydney Pollack became attached, but the project picked up steam when Dustin Hoffman became interested in--nay, passionate about--doing the movie (the title "Tootsie" was Hoffman's mother's pet name for him). Gelbart had completely reworked the script, and had gone to a retreat in New England to work on it with Pollack and Hoffman. But at some point Hoffman wanted to bring in his own writer (Schisgal), and Gelbart was off. It hurt, since he had taken the show so far (and I'm sure I hear his zinging dialogue at various places in the script--compare early scripts of the TV series M*A*S*H). The script garnered Gelbart and Schisgal an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay--and if they'd won, they would probably have met for the first time at the award podium.

This is not unusual for movie production. What is striking, to me, is that such a haphazard process can produce anything worthwhile. It's mysterious, ironic. I've had the experience firsthand, doing my own TV show under conditions that varied between surreal, tortuous, hostile, and bleak (sometimes fun).

It gets me wondering. Gelbart still flinches when he sees certain scenes from Tootsie, where there is a, to him, jarring discontinuity in the flow or dialogue. But to most audiences, the movie flows by smoothly and very enjoyably. It has much of value to say (largely due to Gelbart's efforts). In short, the audience was served by it.

What if something similar were done with fiction-writing? There are currently packagers of novel series, things of the Tom Clancy variety, where freelance writers are hired to write ideas by the book producers. Such projects could easily be rewritten or reassigned, as movie scripts are. What of the product? Does art need to be some one person's personal vision?

I don't know. I find it disquieting. Even the best have their weaknesses. Should we all be rewritten--for the benefit of the audience?

Monday, August 22, 2005

why page-counts don't advance

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, A History of Technology.

The sky had clouded over; it felt warm and damp under the puffy, low overcast.

"I've gotta water out here," said Kimmie as she walked past the flower-bed under our holly-tree. "Bye." She waved and was off down the sidewalk: another day, another week.

I made my own way to my office, and picked up the trail with chapter 17. Where was I? I opened my Notes document. I reviewed my notes from Friday, which ended with these sentences:

Hm. So if Cleopatra regarded herself as Isis incarnate, and Caesarion perhaps as her Horus, that would make Caesar Osiris.

Why the marker for the Age of Pisces in the temple of Hathor?

Ah yes. I'd typed that material on Hathor from Oriental Mythology. I still need to synthesize it, come up with the character motivations and actions it leads to. I typed today's dateline, then just started in with the first things that came to mind:

Where does this leave me? If the temple of Hathor at Dendera (Tentyris) really was a marker of the Age of Pisces, then what? When was it built, in the main? When were its ceiling zodiacs designed and added? What was Cleopatra's role in its construction?

The heavy, not particularlly well-oiled cogs of my mind lurched slowly into motion. I started piecing together what I knew, summarizing, putting facts together that I hadn't laid side by side before...

Ptolemy XV was grown (somewhat) by the time his image was added with Cleopatra's to the south wall of the temple. So that may not have happened till near her death, in early 30s BC. Thus the temple was still being worked on at that point.

So what does that imply?

Depending on how long it would take to build, then maybe it isn't started by story time in 48 BC. Sosigenes could be commissioned to design its astronomical setup, so that architects can build it in the coming years as a monument to Cleopatra (and Caesar?) as rulers of the Age of Pisces, in the ancient Egyptian tradition. Egypt is the map of heaven, and its rulers are also heavenly rulers--always were.

Thus I typed. I liked what I was typing. I felt I was cutting through to the characters' own time and attitude. The trick is to get inside the period and look at it the way people at the time would have seen it--without the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight deadens history and makes it banal. When Cleopatra was seducing Caesar and trying as hard as she could, I feel sure, to conceive a child by him, she did not know what the future would bring. She had feelings, hopes, ambitions--all of which are lost to history. The main task of the historical storyteller, I think, is to free his characters from the roboticism of seeming to execute a history that has already happened. "History," the series of outcomes of people's actions, has been pretty much a surprise to everyone. I have to capture that sense of surprise for my own characters, some of whom are historical characters.

My method: to give them desires and goals, and then surprise them. Everyone is responding to a situation out of control--just as in life.

Having worked out some motivation for Cleopatra, I need something more specific: her objectives for the scene I'm doing. What is she trying to make happen right now? Hm. More thinking.

More digging. If the temple of Hathor was built overtop a dismantled previous temple, what was that temple? I hypothesize that it represented the Age of Aries. So maybe not the temple of Hathor--but of whom? Hm, Egyptian ram-god...what's-his-name.... There's Amon, I think, but also another one...

Back to the bookshelves. Eventually I found myself absorbed in Her-Bak: Egyptian Initiate by Isha Schwaller de Lubicz. Argh, guess I'll set up a Word document for this. More librarian-clerical work. It's easy and fairly pleasant--but is it merely an escape from writing?

I decided just to go with what I felt like doing. I read and typed some material on ram-symbolism in Egypt (interesting), and then more material on Egyptian astrology. How helpful was it, how necessary? I don't know. I felt like doing it, so I did it.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

serendipity and destiny

A family-oriented day, with Kim's sister Dale coming over, along with Dale's granddaughter Lynn and her fiance Jason. Mission: to plan the cake for the wedding next June, which Kimmie is to bake and decorate. I had a chance beforehand to work on my morning notes (From Eden to Exile, A History of Technology) before being drawn upstairs to join in the lunch of of fresh sandwiches made by Kimmie.

While the women repaired to the living-room to look at pictures of Lynn's planned wedding dress, I fell to talking with Jason. He's 27, tall, slim, blue-eyed, friendly, and enthusiastic. He's also the survivor of a severe car-crash three years ago, and is still undergoing therapy for it. While riding beside a friend who was driving impaired, he shattered his face, broke his back, broke many other bones, and experienced a lot of other internal damage. He has had several reconstructive operations on his face, and had five lumbar vertebrae fused into a single unit. But he's fully ambulatory and mobile, and shows hardly any outward sign of having undergone such a trauma.

"Other guys I'm at the gym with," he said, "who've been in car-crashes, they have such a negative attitude. They're saying, oh, I'm in pain, ICBC is ripping me off, this is taking forever, I can't get my job back. But I think, I want to live a happy, normal life. I don't want to say I'm more disabled that I am just to try to get a bigger check. I want to have a normal job and be successful. I want to live my life."

I was impressed with his attitude. As we talked he went on to say that he felt that now, as he's considering going back to school to become a real-estate appraiser, the crash may have been a turning-point in his life, causing him to go in a better direction than what he was going before. I told him one of my favorite stories, about the famous Canadian cartographer David Thompson.

"He was a 19-year-old fur-trader for the Hudson Bay Company. One night he was heading home to his cabin and his dog-sled crashed. He broke his thigh. He was laid up in the cabin for a couple of months, and his cabin-mate, an older trapper, had to take care of him. During that time the older trapper taught Thompson mathematics. Thompson became excited and enthusiastic about this, so that when he got better he learned more about math and astronomy and became a cartographer instead of a trader. He went on to map much of western Canada. The Thompson River's named after him."

"Wow," said Jason, his bright-blue eyes wide, smiling with reconstructive braces on his teeth (they come off at the end of next month). "So you have to ask, was it an accident? Or was that meant to happen?"

"You have to ask," I said.

Meanwhile, I got an e-mail from my sister Mara, excitedly describing her own feelings of meaningful coincidence in encountering several articles in different magazines, all within a couple of days, reinforcing the message of how to find and relate with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, including interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks, and mention of James Hillman and his "acorn" theory of our seed nature that will out. It was as though Mara, through this serendipitous collection of writings (back-issues of magazines picked up at the thrift store, and so on), had been given a personally selected reading-list tailored to her current interest in investigating the purpose of her life.

It is exciting.

One of my thoughts is about the responsibility (if I can put it that way) of the storyteller to capture something of this dimension of life: the serendipitous-turned-significant. A good story proceeds by causality, the chain of cause and effect creating a sense of inexorableness. And yet that's not enough. If a story is merely an inexorable chain of cause and effect, it lacks the richness, the depth, the hidden dimension of life. I suspect a good story must contain some meaningful coincidence--the modern equivalent of magic--to give it its full sense of relevance. For cause and effect operate in life, but the hallmark of life is its unexpectedness: that things take a sudden turn for reasons outside our ken or control. These things lead on to our destiny.

Things are not as they appear. This perhaps is the storyteller's deepest message, and most powerful tool.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

easy, pleasant success

Slept quite well, after continuing to burn through the library's copies of The Sopranos last night. We're in season 3. Grim, violent; overall, very good--provocative.

After some wakeful time in the night, I lay heavy as a sack of earth when I woke this morning at 7:15. I had an attack of worry about my project. If I had to name one thing that worries me the most, it's the length. Agent 007, in a recent blog-post, says that she tends to pass on projects with six-figure word-counts; I'm sure that's not an uncommon attitude. In the dark of the early morning I feel queasy and unhappy about deliberately producing something that is difficult to sell. Why walk knowingly into the box-canyon of unhappiness?

And yet I've tried (sort of) to write "for the market"--with the lack of success that attends any effort that is halfhearted. In the stronger daylight hours, flooded by the clear, energizing light of the sun and not the cool, ambiguous light of the moon, I realize that, even leaving all marketing considerations aside, it's useless and self-defeating to write anything but what one really wants. I'm writing what I can't myself find in a bookstore: something I want to read. There's a market for my book: me. Me, and people like me, however many of those there are.

How many like me are out there? Literate people with money, who like reading and are willing to buy books, but who are not happy with the fare offered in bookstores right now? I believe that they may not even know that they're not happy. They may feel, as I have, that there's something wrong with them. I believe that this group of people, defined by these characteristics, is of unknown but possibly large size, and constitutes a new market for fiction: the disaffected fiction-reader. Yes. I hereby bestow an initialism on my group: DFR, sign of legitimacy.

A few years from now, in 2009-10, I (and eveyone else of my approximate age) will undergo the astrological transit of Pluto conjunct Saturn in early Capricorn. The meaning of this transit, by itself, is generally a period of maximum testing of one's endurance and tenacity: "great change after considerable difficulty." Here is some text from Robert Hand's Planets in Transit:

A typical situation is one in which you are forced to hold on to something for dear life or to persist in some task or project in the face of energies that are trying to make you give up.... [A] positive aspect of this transit is that it considerably increases your persistence and tenacity, but unfortunately it also creates the need for these characteristics. In the face of this pressure it is often better to surrender than to take a hard line and hold on....

Things may be taken away from you, such as money or other possessions, relationships or something else that you value perhaps too much. During this transit you must learn to get along with as little as possible.

So I was thinking about that as I lay in bed. Admittedly that transit is four to five years off, but the schedule for the completion and publication of this work, The Mission, looks uncomfortably synchronized with it.

At the same time, those of us born in and around 1959 will experience transiting Pluto trine natal Pluto: an aspect of relative flow and power, with Pluto, signifier of the most profound forces of change in life, in harmonious relationship with itself. From that point of view, the conjunction of Pluto and natal Saturn in 2009-10 might be the climax of the potential of the relationship of these two planets at birth (quite powerful: the ability to achieve much in the world and have a powerful effect; astrologer Alan Oken called this configuration "The Magnate"). So. We'll have to see.

And of course, just because things are difficult doesn't mean they're not worthwhile or shouldn't be done; it's almost a truism that it's the reverse: worthwhile things are achieved only with difficulty, even great difficulty. The question is: how much faith do I have? In myself? My project? Life? It feels that that quantity is not a constant; my faith wavers. In the wee hours, it's at slack tide. The weak consciousness lying on his damp mattress does not feel equal to the demands being made.

All I'm asking for is easy, pleasant success. Is that too much?

Friday, August 19, 2005

when reading is writing

Today: a blog post. It's hot again. I've just been for a run and I feel sweat actually trickling down my bare torso--ticklish. Through the open window: the rumble of a small front-end loader on Keith Road, which has been blocked off to enable the loader to ferry manured dirt up the block. Translucent green leaves sparkle across the brick patio. The large flat windows of the neighbors' cubic townhouse are plunged in inscrutable shade.

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, A History of Technology.

On to the main course. I opened up chapter 17, which I keep thinking wishfully is almost done. And so it is, I think--in terms of length. But conceptually I'm not there yet.

My musings on the precessional ages had come to focus more specifically on the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in Egypt. This was the site of the famous Zodiac of Dendera, a circular ceiling-plaque depicting constellations, planets, and the so-called decans (ruling symbols of each of the 36 10-day ancient-Egyptian weeks--one for each nome, or administrative district). The original plaque was carried off in 1820 by Sebastien Saulnierin and now resides at the Louvre in Paris. A reproduction has been installed in the temple. John Anthony West, following R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz and some others, believes that the temple, which was built over a much more ancient temple site in the 1st century BC, was intended, in part, to mark the beginning of the Age of Pisces.

When I first came across a reference to the temple and its zodiac a year or two ago, I filed away the information, just in case it might come in handy. I didn't have any existing story plans for it, and it wasn't anywhere near what I was working on at the time, so I just parked it mentally somewhere in the back, in the dark. But, as noted in a recent post, the Age of Pisces is my project, so I knew I'd have to look into it more at some point.

Today I realized I was at that point. I could not progress with my current scene without knowing more about this temple. So: I opened a Word document I had made based on the text in a very good web-page I'd found on the temple at Dendera, and started reading. I sighed. Reading, not writing.

Pretty darned interesting reading, though. I revisited the web-page. There are images of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV, carved on the rear wall of the temple. Hmm. Starting to feel very relevant. What does this mean? I enjoyed the feeling of folding this information into my brain, like, say, eggs into pancake batter. Something is cooking, and I don't know how it's going to play out. I read all that material, including a very good article by a certain Joanne Conman (can I trust that name?), who seems well versed in the astrology of the period.

Then I got wondering: who exactly was Hathor? I knew she was an Egyptian goddess of women, fertility, and childbirth--but what else? I went to my floor-to-ceiling office bookshelves. Where to look... I pulled out Middle Eastern Mythology by S. H. Hooke--couple of mentions but nothing much. Life in Ancient Egypt by Adolf Erman--some stuff, mainly quoting ancient texts. Grimal's History of Ancient Egypt...a few mentions but the focus of the book is wrong. I tried The Great Mother by Erich Neumann...fair amount of material, but wrong orientation--psychological. Nothing in The Golden Bough. How about Joseph Campbell? Does he talk about Hathor? Must. I pulled out Oriental Mythology, the volume of The Masks of God in which I knew he deals with Egyptian mythology. To the index: yes! Pages 52-53, 54ff, 75f, 90-91, 93, 100, 111, 128.

I opened my good old Penguin paperback (bought in December 1980) to page 52 and found myself in the middle of Campbell's discussion of the Narmer palette, an especially ancient (2850 BC) two-sided palette depicting a King "Narmer" (= Scorpion, thought by many to be the legendary Menes) conquering the Northern Kingdom and thus uniting Egypt into a single state under himself. I felt a little burst of excitement, because I remembered being especially impressed with his discussion of the Narmer palette last time I'd read the book, maybe three or four years ago.

Since the text was already highlighted, I went back to the previous subheading, The Hieratic State, and started keying. Yes, I thought with pleasure as I typed--jackpot. Here is a partial extract:

On both sides of the Narmer palette there appear two heavily horned heads of the cow-goddess Hathor in the top panels, presiding at the corners. Four is the number of the quarters of the sky, and the goddess, thus pictured four times, was to be conceived as bounding the horizon. She was known as Hathor of the Horizon, and her animal was the cow--not the domestic cow, but the wild cow living in the marshes. The neolithic cosmic goddess Cow. Hathor stood upon the earth in such a way that her four legs were the pillars of the four quarters. Her belly was the firmament. Moreover, the sun, the golden solar falcon, the god Horus, flying east to west, entered her mouth each evening, to be born again the next dawn. Horus, thus, was the "bull of his mother," his own father. And the cosmic goddess, whose name, hat-hor, means the "house of Horus," accordingly was both the consort and the mother of this self-begetting god, who in one aspect was a bird of prey. In the aspect of father, the mighty bull, this god was Osiris and identified with the dead father of the living pharaoh; but in the aspect of son, the falcon, Horus, he was the living pharaoh now enthroned. Substantially, however, these two, the living pharaoh and the dead, Horus and Osiris, were the same.

The "house of Horus," the cow-goddess Hathor, was not only the frame of the universe, but also the land of Egypt, the royal palace, and the mother of the living pharaoh, while, as we have just seen, he, the dweller in the house, self-begotten, was not only himself but also his own father.

Hathor--the "house of Horus"--was the frame of the universe, and simultaneously the land of Egypt, which was considered the earthly reflection of the night sky. Hmm. Cleopatra regarded herself as an incarnation of Isis, the mother of Horus. That would be Ptolemy XV. Which would make his father, Osiris, Julius Caesar. Hmm...

These thoughts tumbled through the space of my mind, not really alighting anywhere, but feeling suggestive, provocative, while I typed and typed from Campbell's book. I typed till I was fed up with it, and then some. Finally I broke for lunch.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

distracted by ancient questions--again

Last night, just as it got dark, an unusual sound from outside: raindrops. By the time we went to bed there was the rush of cooling rain beyond the bedroom blinds. Today no rain, but there was an overcast that dimmed the air, and the earth was still damp as I went for a run. Now, an hour and a half and a few errands later, I'm still damp.

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile.

Still dragging through chapter 17. I opened my Notes document to review what I wrote there on Monday: quite a lot--about two pages in Word, though that includes a few paragraphs I pasted in from Caesar Against Rome, about Caesar's actions at the start of the Alexandrian War. I felt good about what I came up with on Monday, and I still do. I opened the draft and pressed on from where I'd left off.

The flow was OK--not fast, but steady. I eked out three pages, then found I'd hit yet another research question. Leave it? Solve it? The topic: how the ancient Egyptians brought in the new astrological ages when they arrived.

I turned to my floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and pulled Serpent in the Sky down from the top shelf, because that's where I'd first encountered this idea. John Anthony West reports the findings of Schwaller de Lubicz that Egyptian temples were not always demolished, as is usually thought by Egyptologists, but sometimes dismantled, as though according to a plan. Schwaller proposed that these dismantlings--and rebuildings--happened at the turn of astrological ages, notably at the turn from the Age of Gemini to the Age of Taurus in about 4200 BC and from the Age of Taurus to the Age of Aries in about 2100 BC. At the latter change, the symbolism of the bull-god Mentu found in the earlier temples was destroyed and replaced by the imagery of the ram-god Ammon. Needless to say, this would have required a knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes millennia before it is now thought to have been discovered (circa 125 BC by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus).

The historian of science Giorgio de Santillana has long argued that the precession, and many other astronomical phenomena, were discovered in what we call the Stone Age, and that the heritage of world mythology, whatever else it might be, is an encyclopedia of astronomical lore, which can be decoded if we know how to look. This was the thesis behind his culminating work (with Herthe von Dechend), Hamlet's Mill, one of my key sourcebooks for this work. Their argument, to me, is persuasive, especially when taken together with other evidence of sophisticated scientific knowledge that existed in remote times, as embodied in, notably, the Great Pyramid and Sphinx of Giza.

There seems to be a systematic denigration of the knowledge and capabilities of our forebears, which reminds me of a famous line by Mark Twain. I don't have the exact wording, but, paraphrased, it goes: "When I was eighteen, I thought my father was the stupidest man alive. By the time I turned twenty-one, I was amazed at how much he'd learned." I think we're still in the 18-year-old phase of appreciating our ancient predecessors.

Anyway. I pulled down Serpent in the Sky. I pulled out A History of Ancient Egypt by Nicolas Grimal, and Legend and From Eden to Exile by David Rohl. Which pharaohs were around when? And again: does it matter? Who cares? The perennial problem. For better or for worse, I do.

I decided on a reduced portion of information I could use in my chapter, wrote a bit further, but by then it was more than time for lunch.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Truth of the Python

Hot and dark in the old bedroom at night. Time to appreciate it while lying there from 3:10 till the alarm went off at 5:30. It's easy to drop off after the alarm sounds, I think because then there's no pressure to sleep. You can relax. You just don't have time to sleep now.

The current work, The Mission, is not my first attempt at a historical novel. By late 1984, in my spiritual readings, I had come across material on the ancient philosopher Pythagoras, in particular in Jacob Needleman's book The Heart of Philosophy. In Needleman's view, Pythagoras was a pivotal figure in the development of our modern outlook, as opposed to worldviews that were truly ancient. Supposedly the creator of the terms philosopher and cosmos, Pythagoras sought to know truth apart from dogma, and thus could be termed the first scientist. At the same time, he understood truth as something higher than mere concepts; profound truth was intrinsically spiritual. In a sense, then, Pythagoras was a kind of primordial scientist of the spirit--and it was this about him that excited and fascinated me.

So I began to work on a biographical story about Pythagoras's life, which, shrouded in legend, is thought to have been in the 6th century BC. I was hoping to capture a kind of junction-point in Western history, when the possibility of a truly new and holistic way of understanding life was born in the spiritual colony (possibly the world's first monastery--earlier than the one founded by the Buddha in India) founded by Pythagoras in southern Italy at Croton. According to legend, the townspeople eventually razed the colony for alleged immorality (Pythagoras admitted women as full members--something that was not to happen in Buddhism for many centuries, and not in mixed monastic communities until it came to North America in the 20th century). Pythagoras was killed, and with him, I speculated, perhaps a chance for the growth of a more sane, balanced approach to the search for truth than what eventually came to pass here in the West.

But somehow the idea of just writing a biographical novel was not working for me. How do you write a life story, as fiction, in a way that has story power? I didn't know. I fussed and fiddled; mainly I researched, buying and reading books on ancient Greece. I read the Pelican edition of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves in summer 1985, and was spellbound. I would stand at the bus-stop downtown after work, reading in the hot sun, unable to pull myself away from Graves's fascinating and erudite explication of the myths. People have to know about this, I thought. But the story would not jell.

Then my mother lent (or maybe gave) me another book: Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss, about a psychiatrist who, using hypnosis, accidentally regresses a young woman to previous lives. Not only that, the voice of a discarnate spirit-guide speaks through the woman, about the evolution of her soul--and of Weiss's evolution--in the series of lives in which they have known each other. Weiss, a mainstream psychiatrist, was transformed by the experience and changed his career.

I was electrified. And I had my story idea: a contemporary hypnotherapist, right here in Vancouver, helping a young male client cure his bedwetting, would accidentally regress the client to a previous life--one in which he, the client, was the philosopher Pythagoras, and in which the therapist himself also had a part, as another shadowy quasi-historical character, the shaman Abaris. Unfinished issues from that remote time would be played out here and now, in contemporary Vancouver. The link between ancient and modern, which I had been seeking, would be made directly. Yes! I was so excited that I couldn't help myself: I had to start writing it immediately, to vent the creative energy. I remember sitting at ICBC, where I worked, in December 1985, furtively writing the first few paragraphs longhand on a ruled office notepad. I knew I had to back off and write an outline, but I just couldn't stop myself. When I learned one theory of the meaning of Pythagoras's name, I had my working title: Truth of the Python.

Like everything that excites me, it was ambitious. I had already arranged to quit my job so that Warren and I could make a stab at writing scripts full-time. I left ICBC in February 1986 and Warren and I used a spare room at my mother's townhouse in False Creek to write each day. Before he arrived I would work on Truth of the Python, mainly reading and notes. It would be years before I finished that project. But maybe more about that in a future post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

hot Sunday

Hot night; took half a Sleep Aid. This morning: keyed notes from From Eden to Exile and A History of Technology, volume 1 (how Paleolithic man made stone axes--not strictly related to my work, but I'm always interested in the foundations and beginnings of anything; I feel I may need to know this early stuff to fully appreciate how later things arose).

Kimmie's nephew Chris was coming over to spend the day; I invited myself to Mom's place for breakfast. I had boiled eggs and toast with her and Jackie at the dining-table, and we sat talking as the day slowly made the room and the house hotter.

Now I'm home again. Bought gas for the Corolla at $1.066 per liter, the most I've ever paid. I'm all for high gas prices; the market is finally moving in the direction that governments should already have been going, in my view. But now we'll be caught reacting to an externally imposed situation, instead of preparing for a planned one. Much the way life happens generally.

The house was empty when I came in. A newly iced chocolate cake rests on the kitchen table, presumably a project that Kimmie and Chris are working on together. Maybe they've popped out to get some more ingredients or supplies. I came down here to my office where it's cool. The sliding window, open a crack, allows a steady stream of cool air to flow past my damp, hot skin. There is a Sunday quiet: very little sound of traffic. Just the faint whine of an airplane and the hum of the PC.

A sense of summer heat, summer lassitude. The feeling of vacancy, the world in siesta. I remember standing on the sundeck as a child, looking out through the bright sun at trees dusty and dark green, the empty gravel lane, the sight of no people anywhere. People are on vacation. Solitude, and a vague feeling of unease, of having a duty to enjoy oneself and not knowing how, or with whom. So standing on the sundeck, looking out.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Every once in a while, during my daily life, my project, both this current book and the whole overarching series, enters my mind: its vastness, its ambition, and I gasp--yes, gasp. I have an experience like vertigo: an unpleasant dizziness, a lack of anchoring. I feel the crushing burden of unwritten pages, unwritten scenes. So many. So many creative ideas yet to have.

It's all right, I tell myself, nothing's changed. Just keep your eye on what you're doing now.

If I wake in the night (and I almost always wake in the night), it might hit me there. It did last night--that is, early this morning. I sensed the vastness of what I'm attempting, and felt a kind of crushing feeling, suffocation, like being buried alive.

It's the same with anything big, that you try to see all at once. When I was at Gampo Abbey, I had arranged to stay there a year. That meant leaving Kimmie and my comfy home-life for 12 months, four seasons. Sometimes I would look out a window at, say, the naked trees and the snow on the cocoa-colored hillside, and think, I'll have to see all the seasons go by before I go home again. It felt long, hard, and terribly lonely. I knew I must, like a prisoner, focus on the concerns of the day. To "be in present time," as Mom reminds me, passing on the advice of Caroline Myss.

When I have one of these attacks of project vertigo, I try to reassure myself that it's natural and normal to have such attacks. Only a fool would try to pretend that he had such a massive thing under control. It would be a sign that he didn't know what he was doing.

I've got little option but to accept project vertigo. Last night, in bed, I felt the dead gray sense of anxiety lurking just past the lamplight of consciousness. I rose naked to pour myself a scotch, and lay in bed again, drinking it and feeling better.

A hot sunny day. Kimmie and I went out and did a few errands, walked at Ambleside. A prose sketch:

SAT 13 AUG 2005 1:30 p.m. AMBLESIDE BEACH

Another beach: K & I on a slatted wooden bench. Strong sun, fresh wind, warm and vaguely ice-cream-scented. Crows squawk behind us. The view: horizontal vista: dull dented sand.

"Are all ships that deep?" says Kimmie, pointing across the water to a dark, hulking freighter motoring swiftly toward port, past the pleasure boats poking along offshore. I squint out at it.

"No. It's not deep. About half its height is containers stacked on its deck."

And sure enough, as it chugs by closer, sharpened out of the haze, you can make out the dark battlements of its containers, with the flat white tower of the superstructure rising in a cleared canyon among them.

Kimmie giggles at the antics of little dogs, like the frolicking spaniel, chocolate-blotched, trotting by on its leash.

"...Yes, people don't think you're being quizzical if you just say, 'How is she?'..."

Dialogue between two passing elderly women.

And now the booming honks of the freighter about to run under the bridge. Across the water: Point Gray, long flat blue form, almost featureless in the summer haze. A float-plane growls over the water, its noise fading. Sexy girls walk by, buff guys. Three dark-skinned Chinese guys, talking their own language.

More freighters ride at anchor on the gray-blue horizon, sitting at all angles. The haze looks like something in the Mediterranean: North Africa. A tropical heaviness.

Now: teatime. I plan to read From Eden to Exile and advance a little in A History of Technology, volume 1. Later: night 4 of Paul's Rom-Com Festival: Annie Hall.

Friday, August 12, 2005

planning and fiction

The heat is back; I'm warm even down here in my shady office.

This morning, keyed only a few notes from From Eden to Exile. I had to chair a strata council meeting upstairs after that, so no writing today.

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. That in itself--the fact that I finished it--speaks well for it. Most novels I do not bother to finish. But I could have stopped reading this book somewhere before the end and not missed it. For although Smith has done many things right in creating the novel, I feel he's not really a storyteller, at least, not for a book-length work.

There is no strong central story in the book, only a collection of episodes. What's needed is a main story question that is interesting and urgent. The novel had a collection of smaller questions--the answers to the little mysteries that Mma Ramotswe was solving--but these were mostly dealt with in a single chapter each. The question of the survival of the heroine's new agency--the first and only of its kind in Botswana, so therefore of special interest--was vaguely present, but the author did not capitalize on this or turn it into a pressing question on which to anchor the book.

Another obvious route to go would be to have a large mystery anchor the book--in the mold of the traditional mystery novel. The biggest and darkest mystery in the book had to do with witchcraft and a connection with the Botswana government. Perfect! This to me cried out to be made into the main plot. But no such luck. It was just another day on the job for Precious Ramotswe. The writer dropped the ball here, voluntarily making his book less exciting, less captivating, less powerful than he could have.

In all, I'd say that I read the last third of the book more or less as a favor to the author, a show of respect. Reader goodwill pulled me through the last 70 pages or so. That's not the way it should be.

This problem is general in fiction-writing. The basic skill of storytelling is underdeveloped. It's taught to screenwriters (who master it only to a degree, depending on how seriously they take its importance and how well they understand it), but not to fiction-writers, as far as I know.

Some writers--many--are proud of the fact that they don't work from an outline. And yet few indeed are the human activities that do not benefit from planning, and writing extended works of any kind, fiction or nonfiction, is not among them. It's right in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: the importance of having a plan before you write. You'd never build a house without a plan. But somehow it seems to be thought that planning a work of fiction is uncreative.

It's not uncreative; it's intelligent, and respectful of those you're asking to read your work.

Was The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency planned? I don't know. It doesn't particularly seem so. And the result was a relatively low level of involvement from this reader, despite the many good things the book had going for it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

solving motivation problems

Argh. I just wrote almost a whole post, then lost it--actually while I was trying to save it in draft form on blogger.com. I'll try to reconstruct it from memory.

Today is warmer, sunny. I've just come in from a run. I'm in my shorts, sucking on a water bottle.

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, Alexander the Great.

I had a better writing day today, and was surprised to find myself closing in on the end of this chapter. I have a hard time estimating chapter lengths sometimes. I write dozens of pages of notes, then find that the chapter comes in light.

One of the main causes of resistance to writing, for me, is fear that I won't be able to solve my problems. In a certain sense, any work of writing is just a long list of problems to be solved. For me this fear is especially strong when starting a new scene, and I face the problem of figuring out what a character's motives and objectives are. It looks like it should be simple, but it's not.

It's not simple even in life. Often, when I look back on things that I've done, I have a hard time saying exactly why I did each thing. Quite often the answer is, "because I felt like it." That's fine for life, where you (usually) don't have to account for your actions, but it's not OK for storytelling. When a character's motives or objectives are fuzzy, the story suffers. And the more complex and lifelike your characters are, the harder the question becomes--the more like answering for your own decisions.

Stories are about people who try to achieve things. In life, people's focus is often vague; we drift into jobs, into relationships, into old age. Only where our intentions crystallize into something definite do we become characters in a story sense. When you wake up one morning and realize that you intend to become a member of that golf club, even though it won't have someone like you as a member, you're now a character, in story terms. You've become interesting. Someone looking at you wonders, How are you going to pull that off?

A storyteller would pile up obstacles for you, if you were his character. The club's restricted, and you're a Jew, or it's male-only, and you're a woman. Or it's only for certain founding families, of which you're not a member--yet.

And so on. Each scene in the story needs to have that same quality, of a tension between intent and reality. You try to take another step toward your goal, and the world makes it difficult for you. How do you meet these challenges? Your decisions reveal who you are--they reveal your character.

Well, figuring that stuff out is hard. The lazier you are about it, the crummier your finished product. If you respect your characters, then you want to do them justice. Readers need to be able to look at them and seem themselves mirrored. Whether the character is doing something noble or base, wise or foolish, impulsive or planned, it needs to resemble the way we see ourselves.

How'd I do? Not bad. I discovered a simple motive for my character that worked for me, and also that let me revise the ending of the previous scene to make it stronger and lead into my next scene. I was pleased.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

turning-point: 1986

The weather has turned cooler, clouded-over. I was awake by just after 4:00, rose before 5:30.

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile.

Yesterday I talked a bit more about the origin of this project. I have meant to do that along the way while writing this blog, but have got sidetracked. It might be partly for the reason I gave yesterday, of spilling too much before the work is actually created. But who knows.

A turning-point came in my life in 1986. Maybe several: it was a year of change for me, as had been the previous year. Two of the major events were:

  • the decision to take up Buddhist meditation, somehow, somewhere--any which way I could

  • reading Life After Life by Raymond Moody
Both were epochal experiences in my spiritual development. Moody's little book, a collection of anecdotes about people with near-death experiences (NDEs), with his conclusions, sent a shockwave through me. By the time I'd finished it I had no serious doubt that consciousness persists after death. I was convinced. And, that being the case, I realized my life would have to be reorganized around that fact (or belief). Just about every survivor of an NDE said the same thing: when you revive from clinical death, your perspective changes; you realize you are responsible for the other people in the world.

I'm pretty sure now that reading that book was a key factor in my decision to take up meditation--something I had pretty much abandoned back in 1980 because of what I assumed was the lack of authentic teachings nearby. As it turned out, that assumption was mistaken. By late November or early December 1986, I first attended an open house at what was then known as the Vancouver Dharmadhatu, a meditation center established as part of an international organization by the Tibetan guru Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, then in the last months of his life. I became a fellow traveler of the Buddhists there, all of whom were local Westerners, and eventually a member and then even a teacher at the center. It would be impossible to overstate the value of the teachings offered there, or the impact they have had on my life.

At that point, whatever lingering allegiance I may have still felt (not much) for my old would-be novel, More Things to Come, conceived in 1979, died. As late as October 1986 I was still thinking about trying to finish it, for part of a trip to Europe that Kimmie and I made that month featured research trips for that project (notably my excursion to CERN in Geneva). But by the end of the year, that project was dead and I dimly knew that I would have to have different projects to reflect my changing spiritual condition.

There have been twists and turns since then, but this work, The Mission, is partly the child or grandchild of the changes and thoughts that flowed from the decisions I made that year.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

cosmology and art

I felt better this morning. Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, Alexander the Great.

I took my time. I lingered over my cereal bowl long enough to finish the article in the August Discover magazine that I was reading, "Testing String Theory" by Michio Kaku. I've been keeping tabs on string theory (a cosmological theory that seeks to explain all physical phenomena in terms of ultramicroscopic 1-dimensional "strings" that vibrate in up to 11 dimensions, including our 4 dimensions of space and time) since 1990, when I first heard about it. (I heard of it during the one brief conversation I had while doing a 10-day solitary meditation retreat on Salt Spring Island. A resident monk on the land stopped by to say hello, and we got talking about cosmology, among other things.) String theorists are seeking to "derive" all of physical reality, including all its particles, forces, and constants, from a single set of related mathematical equations. The ultimate set of rules to the game called our universe would have been discovered--or so they hope.

So I read that. I liked Kaku's writing and his outlook. I should read the book of his I bought back in 1994, Hyperspace: a scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension, when I was flush with TV cash and a member of a scientific book club. Its time will come.

I bought that book, actually, as part of my research for what eventually evolved into the project I'm working on now. At that time I was preparing a science-fiction novel about a radically altered future Earth, but starting in the near future with actual astronomers. I had given it the working title Ears, because my main guys were radio astronomers (a discipline I once thought I'd like to get into), and I was thinking of setting the action at a radio observatory such as the one at White Lake in B.C.'s Okanagan valley. My characters were involved in the search for "dark matter", the mysterious invisible source of most of the gravity in the universe, at that time a new and hot topic in astronomy. (It's still hot, just not so new.) The nature of the dark matter, and the more recently discovered "dark energy", is still unknown.

How did my story about radio astronomers evolve into a historical epic about the throne of Israel? Easy. The dark matter for me was (and is) a symbol of the spiritual: an invisible reality interpenetrated with and influencing the visible world we think we live in. My current project is The Age of Pisces, the precessional ages that reflect the largest cosmological view available to the period of my story. And we are still living in the spiritual fallout of the issues surrounding the monarchy of ancient Israel.

There's more to it, of course, but in a way I feel I've already said too much. It's better for the artist not to be too explicit about his intentions. Such is the balance that I must seek with this blog: how much of what kinds of things to say. Ideally I'd like to generate interest in my work, rather than satisfying any curiosity in advance.

I wrote only 2 pages today--mainly interpolated material earlier in the scene I'm working on. But I felt good about it. It is a work of art. I'm not embarrassed to say it. It is a work of art and as such deserves its own rules of creation, which might not be convenient even for its creator.

Monday, August 08, 2005

dreams, drudgery, and astrology

Another long lie in the dark: woke at 2:50, was still awake when the alarm went off at 5:30. Then I dozed for half an hour and had dreams. The last one:

of being in an underground passage, painted white or cream. Is it an emergency? I'm at a junction with a passage leading up to the left, or down to the right. Someone is coming up from the right. Even though the left passage leads back to the surface, I decide to go right, to see what's down there, where the tunnel goes.

I hurry down the ever-turning little tunnel, which is well lit, but deserted. Through arches, down little sets of stairs. I'm flying like a wraith, moving quickly. Down, down, and no end in sight. I realize I'm in a dream. There are some mounds of white powder--bodies buried in lime? Down I go--will I wind up in some evil place, like hell? Will I be trapped down here? Is there any way out? Even though it's a dream, can I choose simply to float up through the solid rock? It doesn’t feel like it--I feel as bound to this place as though it were real. But then it loses its grip, and I'm awake.

Up. I made coffee for three, since Robin is back home, but Robin overslept and had to rush out without drinking any.

I keyed notes from From Eden to Exile. I'm in chapter 13: Saul and the Hebrew Revolt. Rohl's book has moved into a period of great relevance for me, since the Essenes looked back to the origin of Israel's monarchy to predict how and when it would be restored. The biblical Saul--Hebrew Shaul, "asked for", referring to the fact that a king was asked for by the Israelite tribal chiefs in the 11th century BC--was the coronation name of a man named Labaya ("great lion [of Yah]"). Likewise his usurper-successor Elhanan ("El shows favor"), who was given the coronation title Dud or Dwd ("beloved" of Yahweh), known to us as David.

Fascinating, and first I've heard of these things. I'm sure this information will be folded into the mix.

On to my writing day. I did have one: I wrote 3 pages, after some nervous fussing. I can't say my heart was in it; perhaps I didn't give my heart a chance to get in it. I'm suffering the terrible writer's problem of hearing a mantra muttered continuously in my head as I work: "this is dumb this is dumb this is dumb this is dumb..." It's not helpful, I don't even think it's true.

A testing time. How will I meet the challenge of eroded motivation and growing doubt? I know what the right thing to do is: soldier on, keep writing, and get it done. The question: will I be able to make myself?

Transiting Saturn, just entered Leo, is moving into an opposition to my natal Sun. All Saturn transits are tests, this one more severe than many: a test of my core self. Typically this transit is accompanied by feelings of low energy, blockage, and world-weariness. At the same time, this month I will also be experiencing two transits of Jupiter: first its sextile to my natal Uranus, which tends to bring new ideas, changes of routine, and solutions to problems; followed immediately by its transit over my Ascendant in Libra, which tends to create feelings of wellbeing, optimism, and to bring helpful people and circumstances into one's life.

Let's see what happens.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

family politics

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile; Alexander the Great.

Then a morning call from Ev, Kimmie's widowed sister-in-law, set off a discussion or argument about family politics. I just looked up the word dysfunction in my Webster's. Here's what I found:

impaired or abnormal functioning

I believe that Kim's family, in general, qualifies to be categorized as, technically, dysfunctional (this term is now widely and jokingly used, but it still has a technical, clinical meaning, I believe). If we take the term abnormal and consider how it is used in the term abnormal psychology (according to my Harpercollins College Outline text Abnormal Psychology by Timothy W. Costello and Joseph T. Costello), it applies to people whose behavior is more or less maladaptive. This in turn is defined by the presence of 4 kinds of maladaptive behavior:
  1. long periods of subjective discomfort
  2. impaired functioning
  3. bizarre behavior
  4. disruptive behavior
Well, if we look either at the family as a whole, or at individuals within it, I think we see these things aplenty (not in every case, of course).

"It's all the scheming," I said. "You guys are addicted to scheming."

Ev's daughter Lisa had told Ev about certain things said and done by her husband Paul. Ev called Kim to ask her to talk with Paul, and persuade him not to do those things, or at least to influence him in some way. Look how many links are in that chain!

"It's like some kind of trick pool shot," I said. "You want to bank this ball off that ball to pot that other ball over there. Freaking Rube Goldberg setup."

It's politics. People seeking to control other people through indirect or even covert means; forming coalitions; creating "sides".

"I know," said Kimmie, "it's awful. I hate it. I wish it would just not be here."

Without going into the details, it's all fallout from the events around Freddie's death in February. There is a lot of neurotic family agitation, much as there was when their father Fred died in 1992. The inability of the family to cope sanely with the death of its members (at least its senior male members) is itself a sign of dysfunction, I think.

This afternoon we finally decided to go to English Bay downtown, and walk along the shore as we did a couple of weeks ago when we went to see the tall ships. It was glorious to feel the salty breeze blowing in from the green sea, with the blue mountains in the distance.

Maybe I'll close out with the prose sketch I made there:

SUN. 7 AUG. 2005 2:50 pm ENGLISH BAY

We're on a sundrenched bench. The old pavement walk in front of us is uneven, cracked. Smells: frying, garbage, marijuana. The busy urban beach: tanned: concerted high-pitched screaming from the water as kids run in the waves. A heron flaps heavily by (K. just pointed it out--she's ever alert for birds). Couples: Germans; a bulked-up black guy with his darkly tanned but white girlfriend (saw him shirtless earlier on: has a verse of the Koran tattooed across his back); gray-haired pairs; white guys with their Chinese girlfriends; braces of gay men.

Pale-blue sky over all, with faint clouds laid like feathers along the southern horizon, over the flat mass of the West Side--just a fine-toothed jaggedness of trees. Sloops nod by. Motors rumble hollowly. Exposed wet sand, painted over with green weed around tidal puddles and streams.

Asian families, barechested guys, loners striding purposefully, canebound old men, stoned hedonists, phone chatters, a pot-bellied guy with a headset.

But Kimmie was quiet, unhappily turning over her conversation with Ev and thoughts about her family.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

errands and fiction

The sun is hot. Kimmie trundles barefoot between kitchen and balcony with her plastic watering-can, giving drinks to the petunias and lobelia out back.

We're home from our Saturday errands: breakfast at the Corner Cafe with Robin (who's back home after 2 weeks of housesitting for her cousin Lisa in Lynn Valley); then to Park Royal in search of something to help us fix our dryer vent-pipe, which was plumbed in vertically behind the machine, but attached with duct tape, which keeps pulling apart under the forces of heat and gravity; to Shoppers Drug Mart so Kimmie could get eyedrops (her eyes turn a ghastly pink unless she puts drops in them: some combination of reaction to eye makeup and, I believe, drinking); I stopped in at Coles Books (nothing of interest, as usual); then to Mark's Work Wearhouse so I could buy some "wifebeaters" (singlets); to the butcher to buy marinated chicken breasts for tonight's dinner; to the library to pick up the video selection for tonight, night 3 of Paul's Rom-Com Festival, The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine; to Winners where we decided to fork over $80 for a new set of stainless flatware; refreshed ourselves with a can of grapefruit pop (Kim) and Jamaican-style ginger beer (me); Super7 lottery ticket for Kimmie; 2 pairs of new thongs (or flip-flops, as they are now called, presumably to avoid confusion with the panties of the same name) for Kimmie; green beans for dinner; and 3 bottles of red Chilean wine to put in our "cellar" (the little unfinished supply room down here in the basement).

Thus do we spend our time on a Saturday. Yes, I did key some morning notes from From Eden to Exile.

And how am I doing with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency? Still reading, still enjoying. I'm now at page 122 of 235, so over halfway. My thoughts: The book is episodic; there is still not a clearly focused main story. Personally, I think that's a liability since it makes the book less interesting than it could and should be. Also, the book sometimes feels like it's written for children, with its simple language and sometimes very short chapters. Chapter 6 was 6 pages. Chapter 7 also 6 pages. Chapter 8 also 6 pages. Chapter 9: 29 pages. Chapter 10: 2 pages. I find these erratic page-counts a bit distracting, and the shortness of the chapters makes it harder, for me, to get involved. We've barely started narrating something, and we're already done.

These are relatively minor complaints. To its great credit, this book does not dish up cliches. The author knows the world of his story, so it comes across as authentic and fresh--the opposite of cliche. Most novels rely more or less heavily on cliches, betraying the ignorance or indifference of their authors. Alexander McCall Smith, in this book, does not. The characters and situations come across as real: things that the writer has observed. That feature puts this book automatically in the higher class of fiction.

Think I'll go read some now.