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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 29, 2005

lover of wisdom

Yesterday a dense white overcast drew in around noon. It started to rain, slowly at first. It rained through the night and it's raining now, a residual pecking of heavy drops at boards, tarps, and leaves after the dark drenching of this morning.

I feel I want to talk about something, but I don't know how to express it. It has to do with thinking about life--one's own life. What are the core issues of my life? What are the values over which I experience my conflicts?

In 1982, when I was 23 and unemployed, working on a novel, and living with my mother and aunt after spending half a year abroad, I used to go each evening to a pub in False Creek called Stamp's Landing. Since I was broke, Mom would compassionately give me $5 which would buy me two pints and get me out of the house. I would drink alone at the amber-lit pub that looked out on the dark water, watching other people talking and laughing as though I were invisible or an alien, and only occasionally would get into a conversation with anyone. (Most memorable: an older man who had just been released from prison for robbing a bank. I astonished him by knowing the definition of floccinaucinihilipilification--the act of estimating as worthless--when he said none of the lawyers he had asked had known it. Since the word was in the Guinness Book of Records, where I'd learned it, I didn't think it was a big deal.)

One night I was sitting at the bar itself, drinking one of my two pints. The woman sitting next to me started talking.

"Is that what you'd call a leather jacket?" she said.

She was referring to my coat. She was small and wiry, wearing pants and a light sweater. Her hair was cut short to her head. Her eyes were very deep-set, her cheeks hollow, and her nose had a strong hook. She was drunk.

"Yes," I said, "I would."

"What makes that a leather jacket?" she said.

"Well, it's leather," I said, "and it's a jacket. So I call it a leather jacket."

She nodded. She turned toward me.

"Are you a philosopher?" she said.


"I'm a lawyer," she said. "You seem like a philosopher."

"Not really," I said.

I slipped away. When I told my mother the story she said, "That was very perceptive of her."

"Does it really take a philosopher to know that something that's leather and a jacket is a leather jacket?" I said.

Of course I was a philosopher--and still am. When I found out a few years later that the word philosophy itself was supposedly coined by Pythagoras to mean "lover of wisdom," I felt myself even more a philosopher. So are we all, to the extent that we ever wonder why things are the way they are.

Hence my remark above about the search for the core values of my life. What matters most to me? There was a long time in my life--from the age of 20 to as recently as 43--when I would have said "enlightenment", meaning it in the Buddhist sense of complete realization of the nature of existence. I suppose I've given up on enlightenment as a goal.

I had this thought as I strode into the rain this afternoon to dump the little plastic bucket of kitchen compost into the big black compost-barrel at the side of the house. I unscrewed the lid to see the usual sight of wet worms huddled together, little frenzied flies, glistening slugs curled under tabs of plastic: a profusion of life that will all soon be dead--as will I. The ambitions of youth crumble away, and one sees instead only a short length of trail leading to the door of permanent absence from life, this life anyway.

As I screwed the lid, glossy with rain, back on, I felt calm. In some way the burden of success is lifted from my shoulders. There's no use struggling. I should enjoy myself.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

writer: know thy world

Another (sunny) day of Kimmie off work. I offered to drive her to her 10:45 doctor's appointment in West Van. So again I skipped my usual note-keying first thing, and dove back in to chapter-19 note-making.

I remember why this chapter feels so much harder to prepare: I've taken the story to a new setting. Finally I arrive at Rome, and I now must go back to all those self-made encyclopedia entries and, first of all, read what's there. Then copy and paste the most relevant material into my chapter-19 notes document. For example, here's a neat paragraph from Rodolfo Lanciani's 19th-century Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries:

At the entrance of the Fabrician bridge (ponte quattro Capi), leading from the Campus Martius to the island, there were shops for the sale of ex-votos of every description, exactly as along the approaches to the great sanctuaries of Catholic countries. One of these shops contained anatomical specimens in painted terra-cotta, beautifully modelled from nature, and representing heads, ears, eyes, breasts, arms, hands, knees, legs feet, ex-votos to be offered by happy mothers, etc. The most interesting pieces are their life-size human trunks, cut open across the front, and showing the whole anatomical apparatus of the various organs, such as the lungs, liver, heart, bowels, etc.

Interesting, no? I get to learn things like this as part of creating my fictional world. Will I ever use it? Maybe not. But my knowledge of it will inform the way I depict my story-world; it will add to my authority.

I had lunch at the local Japanese restaurant Honjin with Greg, a fellow fiction-writer and former coworker at ICBC (former because I no longer work there; he still does). It's been a couple of years since I've seen him. I really enjoyed it; we talked about the projects we each currently have on the go. While tucking in to my teriyaki-chicken bento box, I pontificated on my idea of richness as it applies to fiction-writing: that fiction often--usually--suffers in comparison with narrative nonfiction when it comes to evoking the richness of the world being depicted.

Lately I've seen blog-posts by three different writers, all warning novelists against getting too involved with research and thus postponing the actual work of creative writing. Speaking for myself as a reader, I find that most novels are under-researched, and hence come across as thin, implausible, and, well, impoverished--the opposite of rich. Writers often appear to try to get by with the minimum amount of knowledge of their fictional world. The work, in my view, suffers for it.

Robert McKee, in his Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, tells writers that:

The world of a story must be small enough that the mind of a single artist can surround the fictional universe it creates and come to know it in the same depth and detail that God knows the one He created.... By the time you finish your last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world--from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September--than you couldn't answer instantly.

When reading a novel, you can immediately sense whether the writer has this level of knowledge. It's not common. I remember when I opened David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. I was immediately in the spell cast by Guterson due to the authority he showed over his fictional world: the San Juan islands of Washington State in 1954. Incidentally, Guterson also passed the first-sentence test handily with his opener:

The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table--the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.

I was willing to read on.

Anyway, speaking here as a reader, one who has a damned difficult time finding a novel he can enjoy, I would like to urge writers not to worry about doing too much research. There's no such thing as a writer who knows too much. But there are plenty who know too little.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

notes, illness, and bears

This morning, the slow, halting process of launching chapter 19. I opened the notes document and also a number of research documents: documents with titles like "Rome - 48 BC", "Rome - Jews", "Rome - Tiber Island", and "Festivals". I started reading through the material I've keyed, occasionally copying and pasting a germane section into my chapter-notes document.

Meanwhile, Kimmie took today off work, feeling unwell. She has lower-abdominal pain, and it hurts for her to walk. I made her schedule the next available appointment with her new doctor (tomorrow morning), and saw that she had an extra-warm blanket, heating pad, tea, and so on in bed where she has stayed most of the day. A chance for her to read the next Laurell Hamilton vampire book, and a number of magazines with Halloween baking and decorating ideas.

I scooted out to my mother's house on an errand, listening to the car radio, enjoying the brilliance of the sunshine and its contrast with the ever-darker blue of the shadows. It's bear country out there: a bear has been consistently raiding her garbage container and even tore into the outdoor freezer, robbing it of all its contents.

The bear issue here in North Vancouver is a growing one, with passionate feelings, most vocally expressed by those saying that the bears are a wonderful part of our local culture, and we should respect them because they were here first. My own view is that British Columbia is not deficient in wilderness habitat; we are a few people sprinkled on a vast wild landscape. The idea that bears are or should be part of our urban environment, the way crows or squirrels are, is to me clearly absurd. Local bears used to be wary of humans--but no more. I predict that the public tolerance for bear activity (that is, a ban on shooting them) will undergo a sea-change when the second or third child is mauled. As of now, only the odd dog has got it. The healthiest thing for everyone--bears included--is for them to start being afraid of us again.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

life quiet and beautiful

Keyed notes from A History of Technology, then spent some time preparing my folder for Part 3, where I will be after I draft chapter 19. I started setting up a "notes" document for each chapter in Part 3, and a document for each draft chapter. It's not all done, but I've decided I like to fill the folder with these blank documents, ready to go. Plus, copying and pasting the outline material at the top of each "notes" document reminds of the story ahead.

Kimmie, Robin, and I went walking together today. It was a sunny day with the same cool fresh breeze blowing that has been here most of the past week. We went first to Stanley Park to walk the seawall, only to find ourselves amid some kind of Walk for AIDS march. The seawall was jammed, and after three-quarters of an hour we decided to abandon that mission and drive over to Deer Lake Park in Burnaby instead. There we found some kind of public music event that featured live reggae thumping across the lawns, but there were not too many people, so we had our picnic lunch on a sunbaked bench on the duckboards at the lakeside. Then we walked the lovely trails, with trees yellowing and turning brick-colored and orange, squirrels and chickadees grabbing sunflower seeds that someone had left in handfuls on top of fenceposts, and Steller's jays yelling harshly at each other.

We walked plenty, for us anyway. Kimmie felt some intestinal pain--another thing for her new doctor to look into, a young woman starting her practice at the medical office where Robin is an MOA. Now the women are out handling the grocery shopping, while the man blogs. Soon the man will make tea and do his afternoon research reading.

A quiet but beautiful life.

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

boy reader to man writer

When I was a kid, the two literary genres that appealed to me most were science-fiction and fantasy. At different times I wanted to write each of these.

First was science-fiction. I was reading this certainly by grade 4. (I remember reading a book called Assignment in Space the cover of which featured a two-man mini-spacecraft blowing up as it was hit by a hostile ray-gun, and being surprised when a classmate named Heather asked to borrow it from me.) But no, I was reading it earlier: grade 3. I remember taking a book out of the school library called Countdown at Woomera, and the red-haired librarian Miss Valentine making me read a passage out loud to prove I had enough reading skill to borrow it. (I did.) I was also reading sci-fi by Lester del Rey. I believe grade 3 is also when I first read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne--a book I'd wanted to read because my father had read it several times as a boy.

For me fantasy, other than children's-literature stories such as those by A.A. Milne or Hans Christian Andersen, began when, in grade 5, I finally gave in to my school friend Lee's urging to read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was a revelation. I'd been expecting a childish kiddie-story about cute little elfish creatures, and what I got was a kind of blood-and-guts epic, with real killing! I loved projecting myself into the imaginary world of the story, living a kind of movie of it in my mind. I had to admit to Lee that the book really was good.

Also back then I became drawn to the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The idea of an era of chivalry, existing in a magic kind of never- or always-land, stirred something deep in me. I wanted to bring majestic, magic worlds to life. I loved the idea of groups or teams of characters--knights having separate adventures, and occasionally reconnecting with each other. Especially the idea of a mission, in which a number of heroes fans out on separate parts of the overall task, each doing his bit to bring a larger vision into being. I really liked the show Mission: Impossible for this reason.

Exactly this inspiration has led to my current work, called The Mission, and featuring four protagonists, each of whom has his own story, his own heroic adventure, and yet each of whom provides a vital strand in a story that overshadows them all. I have dug down to what inspired me as a boy, when I was first learning what I really loved in storytelling, and am doing my best to serve up what that boy would want as an adult reader. I'm trusting that the mythic core of that inspiration is valid and true: that it is saying something to the current generation of readers, even if I can only guess at what that is.

Not a fantasy, but a vividly imagined past: an epic, fictionalized history. I hope to enjoy reading it, anyway.

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Friday, September 23, 2005

post-chapter interlude

That's it, another chapter bites the dust. I finished draft 1 of chapter 18 this morning. How happy am I with it? Very happy that it's complete. As for quality, I'm in no position to say. Whatever strengths it may have will be invisible to me now. The aspects of it that I take most for granted will be its best points when I read it over weeks or months from now. According to my own sensibilities, it's the story that counts most, and that's the part that is least visible to me right now.

I plugged the numbers into my spreadsheet; I'm now 38% of the way through draft 1. I'm starting to feel more like I can do this, finish it. Chapters don't feel like such a big deal anymore, as they did when I first launched my draft. They're kind of like months at my age: they whiz by.

As ever, I have a feeling of upliftedness and celebration on finishing a chapter. To boot, it's a Friday, so I'll take a bit of extra pleasure in having my glass of wine before (and during) dinner. A half-cord of firewood arrived today as well, so we're ready for the colder weather on its way. Right now it's still sunny, with a cool autumn breeze that chilled my shirtless body as I ran through the warm rays.

Next up: I suppose I could wash the dishes. But I might just pass Go and get on with tea and reading. Mostly I have been reading A History of Technology, volume 1 (I'm on page 510), Alexander the Great (page 255), and, for pleasure, Coal: A People's History (page 184). It's never assured that I will finish any book before the mix changes and a book drifts to the bottom of the stack, eventually to be shelved.

The weekend is here. The pilot-light of research will burn on.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005


The gorgeous weather of September in Vancouver: it's right out my office window. Glowing leaves stir in the cool air; a silver whirligig spins in a plant-pot on the brick patio.

I have kept journals for most of my life. The earliest ones I have are from when I was five years old, before I could write. Mom likes to tell the story of how I drove her nearly insane by pestering her for how to spell words. She tried to get me into school a year before schedule because I was so keen to learn how to read and write. As a January baby, I would have been only a month younger than the youngest kids allowed in. Indeed, my friend Gregory across the road was born on 31 December, just over three weeks before me, and he was sent off to school while I remained in kindergarten. The school wouldn't bend the rules for me, so I did year after year of kindergarten in church basements. If kindergartens granted degrees, I would have a PhD.

Here is page 1 of the journal (actually just a pocket-sized spiral-bound notepad) I started in the fall of grade 1, age 6, in 1965:

I have seen
Many Trees
hwath Leevs
Foln oFF.
Do you ReeMe-
mbr The
Time We e
Sowe The
Crash Up.

Need a translation?

I have seen many trees with leaves fallen off. Do you remember the time we saw the crash-up?

I think I wrote these pages to my mother. I don't remember now what the crash-up was that I was referring to.

My next journal was a bound "five-year diary" that I received, I think, in Christmas 1967. It had space for five entries on each page. I made a few entries in early 1968, then lapsed, and picked it up again for a few more in 1969.

I started another journal in August 1971, age 12, in a red spiral-bound notebook. But that lasted only a few days.

I tried again, I think as a New Year's resolution, on 1 January 1974, just before my 15th birthday. I used to make my entry in bed at night, with the black Duotang folder propped on my knees. That journal lasted into March before I left off. I started that journal with a lengthy dream description in point-form. Then this short entry for New Year's Day:

Today was dull, dull, dull! I slept till 11:00, after which I spent most of the day watching a Charlie Chaplin film festival on TV. Brad phoned in afternoon, saying he couldn't be here today to start the chess tourney with Gordon. After threats of forfeit, etc., it was agreed to be started tomorrow.

Another year, another resolution: I launched a journal again on 1 January 1975, and this one took. I have kept journals more or less continuously since then.

You're reading the latest one right now.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

arrival of books

The weather is perfect: sunny, crisp, with a fresh cool breeze ruffling the translucent leaves outside. It was the weather that made up my mind to go running. Today's run, shirtless in navy-blue gym shorts, was flatter than yesterday's errand-run, and much easier. The city was a great blue crystal of promise across the water, the sky a clear, rinsed blue. Back-to-school weather.

Today I was good for two pages. Even at that rate my project will eventually get done.

Yesterday, the coincidental arrival of two books: Emotion: the Science of Sentiment by Dylan Evans from Powell's in Oregon, and Salt: a World History by Mark Kurlansky from Amazon.com. The first I was put on to by a reference in the Grumpy Old Bookman. The second was sparked by my interest in commodities, recently reawakened by my reading of Coal: a People's History by Barbara Freese, which I am halfway through and very much enjoying. Salt of course was an important commodity in the period of my story.

As is my practice, I started both books during my afternoon tea, highlighter in hand. So far, I'm enjoying both. But the coffee-table stack is too tall; even I can see that. Time to chop it down to the eight or ten books I can realistically manage.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

pacing myself

My fantasy of productivity has me writing in the afternoon as well as in the morning. I don't think I could write more prose in the afternoon (assuming I wrote any in the morning), but I like to think that I could work on the notes for the next chapter. That way, in a perfect world, the next chapter would be ready to roll by the time I finished drafting the current chapter.

I think I have made this fantasy real on two or three occasions--that is, on two or three particular days. That's it. Does this mean I don't like having my fantasies realized? Maybe. Fantasies are potent because they're not realized, or should I say while they're not realized. But really, I don't like working that hard. I'll put up with it--hard work, that is--reluctantly, for pay. But when I'm doing what I enjoy, I want to enjoy it. As far as possible, I want my audience to read the product of a pleasurable undertaking.

As pleasurable as possible, that is. My role models as creators: the designer-builders of the Great Pyramid at Giza. How many times did they wake up facing serious problems? How many times did they wish they were doing something else with their lives? I'm guessing it was at least sometimes. No matter how advanced the civilization that raised that pyramid, it was a demanding, time-consuming task. The people doing it had to stay true to the vast vision that gave birth to the project. Perhaps some of them died while it was still in progress. At some point, early, in the beginning, they committed themselves to the vision, and more than likely they had to recommit themselves to it when the going got tough.

Or another image: running. I remember being coached by our grade 9 PE teacher Mr. O'Neill about running long distance (we were being sent out on the infamous "two-and-a-quarter": i.e., a two-and-a-quarter-mile jog over the mountainside of North Vancouver). You have to pace yourself at a speed you can maintain for the whole distance. No use burning yourself up in a sprint for half a mile; there's still plenty of hilly streets before you.

That's how I feel about The Mission. No use burning myself up sprinting for a portion of the way. A book that's even 90% finished is no good. According to my spreadsheet I'm 36% of the way through. It's good--but I've still got most of it in front of me.

I just went out running my errands: mailing three letters and buying stamps. The first part of the run was all uphill to 15th Street. I'd eaten too much for lunch (leftover beef-rib cassoulet--yum!), and so felt I was carrying a loaded newspaper-sack on my front: the dead weight of my meal. Run, you greedy pig! I thought. Move your sessile, overfed carcass up this hill!

How awful. And yet, as I lurched, panting, on to 15th Street, I felt some sense of psychological accomplishment, even though physically I felt tired and heavy and out of breath. I dropped off a letter at a lawyer's office, and continued my jog to Lonsdale, now on level ground, and felt much better--enjoyed the cool afternoon sun, enjoyed weaving among the pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The run home was a pleasure.

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

spider dream

Feeling annoyed. I finished this post, then my browser locked up ("performed an illegal operation"--why are browsers permitted to attempt this?). I was forced to close it, and there is no trace of the post at Blogger.com. Nothing for it; start again.

I woke at about 5:20 and lay in the dark of morning (personal rule: no getting up on weekends before 6:00). I rose, took coffee to Kimmie in bed, and came down to key notes from A History of Technology. Then I remembered I'd had a dream, and keyed that instead, along with interpretive notes:

Sat 17 September 2005

7:00 a.m. I woke a few times in the night, partly from dehydration after the lack of water (I supposed) when I attended Kimmie's work barbecue at Tyler and Charito's. One dream:

I'm in the ensuite bathroom, maybe brushing my teeth, and I notice a little spider in the sink scrambling to escape the rushing water. I try to help the spider along without hurting it, maybe trying to move it with a piece of paper or cardboard, but the spider is quick, and gets itself into more trouble.

The water does hit it, and I quickly am able to push it (toward me) to a dry place in the sink. Is it drowned? No: it quickly springs to life and scrambles up out of the sink.

Somehow it gets itself on me, and I try to get it away from me by moving my hand and arm so that its defensive thread of silk drops away from me, sending the spider to the floor. But it is much faster than I can react to, and I hear its minute legs tapping on the counter as it scuttles quickly, trying to defend itself. I don't want to accidentally crush the thing after all this effort in saving it, and I feel irritated that its defensive instincts are what stand in the way of its rescue, since I mean it no harm. I also feel the fear of having a bug on my body, when I don't know where it is--will it bite me? Is it actually dangerous?

I think I manage to ensure it's off my body.

What might this mean?

in the ensuite bathroom: Bathroom: place of privacy, cleansing, hidden from the world. Ensuite, connected. I've told people that a big attraction of this house was its master-bedroom suite, with the generous ensuite bathroom and walk-in closet. A sense of inner sanctum: so almost a citadel or home within the home. This is where even guests to our house do not come: so truly our "inner world". So: my inner world?

brushing my teeth: Water, cleaning. I've read recently about the power of water to wash away sin: baptism. Brushing teeth: cleansing the mouth, what I eat and speak with. Teeth are for chewing: crushing food for digestion. Hygiene = health.

a little spider scrambling to escape the water: As I've seen lately--is it there, in the ensuite? Or in the kitchen? There is somewhere here in the house where I've been noticing a tiny spider hanging around (on the kitchen counter? or maybe it is in the bathroom), and think about what a scientist said in a documentary: wherever you are on earth, you're probably no more than one meter from a spider. Their surprising ubiquity struck me. The dream-spider is not so tiny as the one I've seen lately: this one was about the size of maybe a ladybug. (I also recently--yesterday?--found a bunch of cottonlike fiber stuffed in the channel in which the bedroom window slides, which I took to be some kind of spider-made egg-yarn, or something, apparently empty.) Spiders are attracted to sinks and tubs to drink, and then find they can't get out. Trapped. I recently wrote in my blog about the Waste Land, and the desiccation described in Eliot's poem: so water as life, including spiritual life. From Cirlot:

Spider The spider is a symbol with three distinct, sometimes overlapping, meanings: (i) the creative power of the spider, as exemplified in the weaving of its web; (ii) the spider's aggressiveness; and (iii) the spider's web as a spiral net converging toward a central point. The spider sitting in its web is a symbol of the center of the world, and is hence regarded in India as Maya, the eternal weaver of the web of illusion. The spider's destructive powers are connected with its significance as a symbol of the world of phenomena. Spiders, in their ceaseless weaving and killing--building and destroying--symbolize the ceaseless alternation of forces on which the stability of the universe depends. For this reason, the symbolism of the spider goes deep, signifying that "continuous sacrifice" which is the means of man's continual transmutation throughout the course of his life. Even death merely winds up the thread of an old life in order to spin a new one. The spider is a lunar animal because the moon is related to the world of phenomena, and, on the psychic level, to the imagination. Thus the moon, since it holds sway over the whole phenomenal world (for all phenomenal forms are subject to growth and death), waves the thread of each man's destiny. Accordingly, the moon is depicted as a gigantic spider in many myths.

Ah: continuous sacrifice which is the means of man's continual transmutation throughout the course of his life. I see an echo of the symbolism of the tattoos on the girl the other night [another dream]. The eight-leggedness of the spider can't be an unimportant part of its symbolism. From Serpent in the Sky:

Thoth (Hermes to the Greeks, Mercury to the Romans) is Master of the City of Eight. Thoth, the messenger of the gods, is the Neter of writing, of language, of knowledge of magic; Thoth gives man access to the mysteries of the manifested world, which is symbolized by Eight.

Eight corresponds to the physical world as we experience it. But the physical world as we comprehend it is still more complex. The interacting functions up to Eight do not permit of pattern or plan--of the ordering of phenomena. Nor will an eight-term system account for the source of order or pattern--for the pattern-maker, as it were.

What is a web but a pattern? The spider is indeed the "pattern-maker", using its eight legs, among other things, to weave its web.

Here in the dream, the spider has no web: the web-spinner is something that I suddenly notice as being affected, endangered by my so far unconscious focus on my own oral hygiene. The small living thing comes into consciousness. It is scrambling to avoid being drowned. I think of "drowned out": a signal or message that is overpowered by surrounding noise. It has come to my attention just because I am unconsciously endangering it by my actions. What does this describe? The "pattern-maker" in my life? My "acorn"?

I try to help without hurting it: I don't want it to drown, to be the accidental author of its death. This requires delicacy, for the spider is vulnerable. I need to be skillful and gentle, and to act quickly. Time is of the essence here. The moment is now.

try to move it with a piece of paper: Not sure whether I remember this correctly. If so, paper is for writing. I'm trying to get it on paper: write it down. Capture the intangible through writing. Something that's alive and in danger of being lost.

but the spider gets itself into more trouble: My effort fails, or partly fails. It can't be caught that way--does this mean I can't achieve this "rescue" via writing? It's too "quick", —i.e., alive? I mean well: my conscious intentions are good, but my method is not effective for what needs to be done. Suggests that writing is not the answer for this? It's more existential than that? The situation in the dream was dynamic, fast-moving: like a real rescue. Every moment counted. Some part of me would have thought too, Is this worth it? Is this little spider worth all this trouble?

water does hit it: The water of life paradoxically seems to kill the living spider. Water a paradox like the spider: life and death. Also paradoxically, this gives me the opportunity to save its life, by slowing it down. Just as the little web-weaver is knocked out of commission, I can (consciously) move it to safety.

it quickly springs to life and out of the sink: Surprises me again: it's got more vitality than I bargained on. It's alive all right--and coming right at me!

it gets itself on me: Although it isn't "trying" to get me, its instincts have sent it straight at me, right on me. It sees me as the way to save itself. Is it my Self? The acorn--that which "spins" my life, my thread--my story? We were separate, but now we're united--and I find it frightening. The non-frightening spider has become frightening by coming into contact with me. (Last night at the barbecue a wasp hovered near me while a woman looked on. I stood calmly, an example of how not to panic around wasps.) It can't really harm me, I don't think, and yet I feel icked-out and alarmed. Maybe it can bite me--again not because I wish it harm, but because it doesn't know better.

it drops away on its silk: I use my knowledge of how spiders like to escape to try to get it away from me. Now it is spinning: doing its spider-job. I'm relating with the spider skillfully, not in panic.

it is much faster than I can react to: I'm simply too slow for it. It's not at my mercy; it moves quickly under its own power. Autonomous.

I hear its minute legs tapping: I don't expect to be able to hear the spider--but I do. Again from Cirlot:

Sound In India, the sound of Krishna's flute is the magical cause of the birth of the world. The pre-Hellenic maternal goddesses are depicted holding lyres, and with the same significance. There are traditional doctrines which hold that sound was the first of all things to be created, and that which gave rise to all others, commencing with light, or, alternatively, with air and fire.

Yes: even in the Bible light is created because God says "Let there be light". Sight is the sense of reason, consciousness, but hearing is a way of sensing the remote but invisible. Hearing lets us position things in space all around us. In the dream I found it unsettling to hear the spider; it made it so much more real and immediate. From Cirlot, it seems sound is connected with phenomena as the spider is: they go together, even though spiders are usually silent. I remember years ago Jackie talking about how she could hear spiders crossing her bedroom floor in the basement at St. Georges. So I hear the action of its eight legs. I'm involved with the spider via sight, touch, and hearing now. It's here and now.

I feel irritation and fear: Emotions, negative ones, after my attempted positive actions. I was only trying to do a good deed—which I thought I could do without risk. But I was wrong: there is a risk: I get "involved". This little thing that almost died turns out to be a big deal. Will it wind up killing me?

I think I manage to ensure it's off my body: The crisis has passed, but the spider is invisible again. Where is it? I don't know. It might be on my body after all--a disquieting, uncomfortable thought, but one I might have to get used to. Have we merged in some sense? (I seem to be in pajamas in the dream--which I don't wear, haven't done since childhood.) Have I take my acorn on board?

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Friday, September 16, 2005

the dead hand

Coming down a bit early today to do my post. Rain drips down from a drenched cotton-batting sky. Kimmie's office is having a barbecue at a coworker's house. I'll be heading up in due course, so I wanted to take care of this, and also get some afternoon reading in before attending the gathering.

I've been meaning to do a post based on the powerful and chilling term dead hand. Here is my faithful Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition:

dead hand 2: the oppressive influence of the past

The term swam up into my mind when I was writing something a few weeks ago. When I looked it up I was surprised at its strength. The oppressive influence of the past is a vast topic, and, phrased that way, also chilling.

It feels very relevant to the writer of historical fiction. One question I sometimes ask myself is, Why write (or read) historical fiction? Robert McKee's answer (in his storytelling text Story):

Many contemporary antagonisms are so distressing or loaded with controversy that it's difficult to dramatize them in a present-day setting without alienating the audience. Such dilemmas are often best viewed at a safe distance in time.

He of course is talking about screenwriting, and how to justify the tremendous added production expense of setting a story in a past period, but I believe the argument translates to fiction-writing as well.

While I'm sure there's something to that, I don't believe McKee's explanation gets to the heart of the matter. I'm thinking that historical stories have, for one thing, a quality of "once upon a time"--they evoke the mythical realm of the fairytale. Closely related to that is that they show people of remote times to be the same as we are now, merely with different fashions, social codes, language, and technology (which in turn reveals all these things to be incidental to the human condition). The problem of life, of how to live, was ever the same. The human condition has an eternal quality, which points to questions of meaning, of the spiritual.

At the same time, those very differences call attention to the corresponding aspects of life in our own time: we are thereby made aware of our own existence by seeing it through the eyes of another time, so to speak. We may notice afresh, and appreciate--or question--the social structures and things in our world that we usually take for granted.

And now: the dead hand of the past. In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I'm sure many neurons have fired in the effort to unpack his meaning. Mircea Eliade, in his The Myth of the Eternal Return, says that for archaic man,

neither the objects of the external world nor human acts...have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them.... [H]uman acts...are repeated because they were consecrated in the beginning...by gods, ancestors, or heroes.

Later on he says:

[I]nterest in the "irreversible" and the "new" in history is a recent discovery in the life of humanity. On the contrary, archaic humanity...defended itself, to the utmost of its powers, against all the novelty and irreversibility which history entails.

For archaic man--who, after all, is us under our Calvin Klein briefs--historical acts, that is, acts that were not performed originally by a god or hero or ancestor, are necessarily imperfect and in fact sinful. It is the accumulation of these sinful, profane acts that is wiped out each year with the ancient New Year festival--a rite we still practice with our saturnalian New Year's party and list of resolutions. In the ancient world, much more than now, life started afresh after the New Year. History was erased like an Etch-a-Sketch and everyone was reborn.

What I seem to be creeping toward, here, is the idea that the dead hand is the accumulated dead weight of profane history--the irreversible events that have piled one on another since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, or since the Big Bang, depending on your view. The dead hand makes its way into spiritual thinking as the doctrine of original sin, or as karma: what was done in the past, by people we no longer identify with as ourselves, catches up with us.

The dead hand says that past and present are connected, not only in obvious ways, but in a deep mysterious way that affects each of us like a powerful current we usually don't even know we're swimming in--or drowning in.

I'm not quite sure, but I think I'm suggesting that historical fiction, historical drama, brings us closer to this reality by showing us the relativity of time. The past is now if we know how to look.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

literary vs. genre

Again it's the Grumpy Old Bookman who has provided the starting-point for today's post, on the topic of genre vs. literary fiction--a topic of some interest to me.

I don't profess to be an expert (and I would be skeptical of most of those who do so profess), but I did draft most of the (current) text for the Wikipedia article on genre fiction. I used it as an opportunity to try to sort out the main threads in the topic (the article does not necessarily represent my own point of view, which is still in formation). GOB strongly dislikes so-called literary fiction, and has never found an adequate explanation as to why it should be regarded as better than so-called genre fiction (sci-fi, romance, Westerns, and the like). He finds all enjoyable fiction to belong to the latter categories, and none to the former.

I mostly agree. That is, I too feel that fiction touted as "literary" is almost never something that I would enjoy reading. A more appropriate label for this class would generally be "pretentious".

I also don't feel that "genre" works are necessarily bad or inferior. I do, however, feel that they almost always are. Not inferior to the so-called literary fiction--they're usually no worse than that--but inferior to what I'll call, for want of a better term, a good book.

Everyone regards what they enjoy as good (except maybe those unfortunate guilty souls who feel bad about certain reading pleasures); I'm no exception. I suffer from fiction-reading anhedonia: I find myself able to enjoy fewer and fewer fictional works. But I know this: I'm no longer the fan of any particular genre. I don't enjoy a science-fiction book merely because it's science-fiction, or a mystery merely because it's a mystery. I have no taste for genres in that sense. My attitude is: you pick the genre, just give me a good story.

I'm perfectly willing to accept that any decent created work belongs to some genre or other. From Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:

Genres are not static or rigid, but evolving and flexible, yet firm and stable enough to be identified and worked with.... Each writer's homework is first to identify his genre, then research its governing practices. And there's no escaping these tasks. We're all genre writers.

And further:

Genre conventions are the rhyme scheme of a storyteller's "poem." They do not inhibit creativity, they inspire it. The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliche.... With mastery of genre we can guide audiences through rich, creative variations on convention to reshape and exceed expectations by giving the audience not only what it had hoped for but, if we're very good, more than it could have imagined.

He speaks of screenwriting, but I don't think there's any real difference with fiction-writing. As McKee points out, no written work is so jarringly original that it doesn't resemble anything that's ever been done before. After all, writers learn to write by reading; that is, writers are first of all readers, and our teachers are those who have written before us and inspired us with their work. Indeed, the task of any writer who wishes to create something original is to get out from under the influence of the other creative writers who have been one's teachers--a condition that Harold Bloom called The Anxiety of Influence.

Genres are not static; they mutate, divide, and die. They're kept alive by the interest of readers, which is also the interest of writers. When reader interest in a genre wanes, it is faced with the Darwinian choice of adapt or die.

My suggestion is that self-consciously literary works are those that seek to defy genre conventions, and in so doing they more or less repel the audience. For defying the conventions is not the same as changing them or updating them. Defiance comes from disrespect; but changing the conventions, while still essentially staying within them, is a sign of respect. I remember in the late 1970s a novel called The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing became a bestseller. It was a romance, but it was set in the old West--so borrowed some of the qualities of the Western genre. As far as I know, this might have been the first Western romance--certainly it was the first one I was aware of. Now there is a whole Western subgenre within the romance field: an example of the division and crossbreeding of genres.

So I accept that all works are (or should be) genre works. What's my beef? I'm disappointed with the level of storytelling, even from those alleged to be great storytellers. Maybe more than that, the experience I truly seek is communion with the writer's mind: the intimacy of an honest sharing of experience. In my case, the benchmark experience is still A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. In terms of genre, this is a coming-of-age story. But the point of view, the telling, the honesty and depth of penetration of the author, and the powerful effects of his language, make it a classic. They make it literary, in the sense of providing a rewarding (enjoyable) aesthetic experience.

I've come to a distinction between "literary" fiction--works intended to be elevated, arty, intellectual, avant-garde--and "literature"--works by talented artists seeking to use narrative to express their truth, and in so doing create strong effects in the audience. If a writer can do this, the issue of genre dissolves. Whether a book is in or out of a genre becomes irrelevant. The "coming-of-age"-ness of A Portrait of the Artist is perhaps its least relevant feature. It's the narrative category to which it happens to belong. It's who is coming of age, and when, and how, and what that means for society and even for humanity as a whole, that matters here. The question becomes, how deeply does the writer understand the meaning of his or her story, and how skillful is the writer in telling it?

I think there's much more to say about this, but I'll stop here for now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

will it come to life?

Back at it. Morning notes: A History of Technology, The Grail Legend.

On to the main course: I got back to chapter 18, boldly opening up my draft and notes documents, and, after a bit of review, started typing. I nudged it ahead to page 10, and credited myself with a four-page day. Good for me, especially lately.

Sometimes I can have glimmers of how the finished product might feel: the emotions that could, potentially (and of course legitimately--see my post of five days ago), arise in the reader. Could people actually feel things for my characters? This is what is hardest to gauge, and easiest to lose sight of, while writing. The writing of my opus feels like a nonstop conveyor-belt of technical problems. The idea that something lifelike might arise from it seems remote, possibly uncanny.

I think back to working in TV. Sometimes, in fact quite often, it worked--in spite of the process, which was not only technically demanding but also fraught with emotional and political awfulness of various kinds. Amazingly, scenes would play, story would flow. I remember watching the finished episode called "A Place Called Nowhere", in which our hero Jay visits a vacant, dreamlike, haunted version of his own house--the place he is trying to return to but can't remember in his coma. It's familiar, and yet... Then he finds a weirdly vacant version of his own mother in the kitchen, baking a cake. She talks with him, and then, suddenly, fades out of sight--vanishes. Even though I cowrote this scene myself, I found it powerful viewing; I got chills.

You can't buy that. It was all worth it.

I have to trust that there is that kind of seismic power latent under the workaday surface of my current project. That the triumphs and failures I planned for my characters, these not-yet-existent phantoms, whose lives I only dimly felt at the outline stage, will somehow be realized and have their potential actualized. This is the real alchemy of storytelling, and it can't be taken for granted. There's no way of knowing for sure whether it will work. Only finishing it will reveal its true power.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Joyce vs. Vitols

I suppose a writer's blog could get boring (assuming it didn't start out that way). What would Sisyphus's blog look like? "Pushed boulder another 4 meters. Hellish." Or just as likely: "Today, zero meters. Dug in my heels and propped the thing against my back. Screw it."

There is a repetitiveness to the writing life, no getting around it. When it comes right down to it, day in, day out, just how interesting is someone sitting at a desk typing things?

Of course there's more to it than that. Indeed, I've generally had little trouble coming up with material for these blog-posts. Familiarity can breed contempt regardless of one's occupation. Even SWAT teams and bounty hunters probably start to feel it's a grind at some point.

Yesterday another book arrived, one I'd forgotten I'd bought (online): The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires. (This book too I got on recommendation of the Grumpy Old Bookman.) I've read Joyce's Ulysses twice through, and have made several more starts on it from time to time. I've always wanted to get a commentary on the book (I did buy one in 2003, an idiosyncratic-looking, apparently self-published, text called Finding Joy in Joyce: A Readers [sic] Guide to Ulysses by John P. Anderson--haven't started that yet), so, with GOB's recommendation in front of me, I decided to go for it.

The book arrived from, I believe, New Jersey in new condition. I followed my usual practice of leaving my current reading off to try out my new book. I read the front matter and chapter 1 of the book, which summarizes the opening "Telemachus" chapter of Ulysses. Recalling chapter 1 of Ulysses as vividly as I do, I really enjoyed reading even a six-page summary of the chapter--and Blamires' view of it, of course, is especially well informed. My awe of Joyce and his achievement deepened further.

The question of excellence in writing is important to me; indeed, I have decided to make it all-important. That is, my aim now is simply to write the best thing that I can, to do my best, regardless of any other consideration, such as wealth, fame, practicality, or anything else. When I embarked on this book, The Mission, I seriously adopted the slogan "Quality is job one" (thank you Ford Motor Co.). I wanted to find out what would happen if I simply did my best--best in my own terms, by my own standards.

I haven't yet found out. Joyce has been a major influence on my writing and on my life. I've written before about how reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was 18 changed my direction in life: it's not too much to say that it turned me into an artist. And when I was that age I thought that I might actually have talent at that level--James Joyce's level. I don't think that anymore, but I have long thought, and sometimes believed, that there must be some unique excellence that I can achieve--I alone, something that not even James Joyce could do, just by virtue of the fact that he's not me. I remember having that specific thought as I sat in my grandfather's apartment in Riga, Latvia, in March 1982 (three months after first reading Ulysses), when I felt such creative desire, and yet did not have an outlet, an idea for it. My life since then has been, in a sense, a quest to find that unique excellence that I can produce.

My hope is that my current work will be that thing. That is how I'm treating it. Hence my worry, the feeling of my life at stake. It won't be Joycean--far from it. Other influences have come in. The ground he farmed he farmed intensively; what could I add there? No: part of my passion is to revive the wonder of storytelling at a literary level. In some sense I feel that there lies the meaning of my journey into filmmaking and screenwriting, and my zeal for myth.

It's about excellence. But that can be hard to accept when I open a document and look at what's actually there. "So this is what's supposed to be excellent, huh."

Pain of mediocrity. Fear of wasted life.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Morning notes: A History of Technology, The Grail Legend.

Then, in the morning writing session, after only a little post-weekend procrastination, I opened my draft and notes documents for chapter 18 and got to it.

It. The vague anxiety I feel about what to do when I open my project documents I remedy by reading my most recent notes (I prefer not to read any more of the draft than I have to; often I feel queasy at what I see). Right. I scrolled all the way back to my notes for Tuesday 6 September. Got to remind myself of what's supposed to be going on in this chapter. I've got Marcus and Alexander at the Egyptian naval base. Right, I knew that. But what's their specific conflict? Hm. Still not really resolved.

Under today's dateline I keyed some notes to recap my decisions on a few details that were hanging over from Thursday (took Friday off, since K took the day off). Right, sounds good. In fiction-writing, problems really are opportunities in disguise. A nagging problem for the writer is often a nagging problem for a character, and the writer's eventual solution will become the character's. What's more, the writer's sense of difficulty, irritation, and struggle with the problem can then be convincingly written for the character. The result can be characters doing ingenious things.

This is another reason I put such emphasis on verisimilitude. Real, lifelike problems create real, lifelike characters, and much greater participation by the reader. I think back to the 1990s when Robin was a passionate fan of the TV series Beverly Hills 90210. The early episodes, written by Darren Star (the creator), were pretty good. But as the seasons went on, the show became a (tremendously successful) soap, and even more captivating to young fans like Robin. I, however, could not watch it. Disgusted with her love of the show, I tried to point out why it was no good. I failed.

My mother tried watching the show once or twice, and was also disgusted.

"That's not how life is in an office," she said. "Have these people ever even been in an office?"

"A production office, maybe," I said.

But a production office would not be very recognizable to people who spent their lives in real offices.

I think of a quote I once read from Ingmar Bergman, who was talking about the popularity of the soap Dallas in Sweden--even in his own house, for he watched the show too. He said something like this: "The show is badly written, badly acted, badly directed, and badly shot. But people watch it because of its tremendous cynicism."

Likewise Beverly Hills 90210 and the other soaps: their appeal lies in their cynicism. If we're tuning in only to watch good-looking people be vicious to each other, any stage-set will do. The props are just something to do with their hands, like a cigarette.

But even in non-soaps verisimilitude is often violated in order to serve the author's needs. Hence, cabs show up on cue for heroes, a character can accurately use a gun he's never seen before, and there are convenient man-sized air-conditioning ducts plumbed through many a building that people need to escape through. All these things damage my involvement in a story. I become uninvolved. I become ever more aware that I'm merely watching mediocre actors spout bad dialogue--and who needs that?

The cure? Verisimilitude. Give the characters lifelike problems. If the character needs quick transport, don't leave an unlocked bicycle nearby. If I had to flee someone, I just know I wouldn't be able to find one of those. The writer has chosen a lazy way out. The writer needed to think harder, and couldn't be bothered. That's the truth of it.

So: my chapter. I had become sidetracked by a seemingly detailed problem about how my characters would gain access to this facility. I had solved it one way, but that didn't seem to square with the historical situation that was on the ground. So I read more, thought about it, and came up with a different way for them to approach it. Maybe the average reader would never notice the difference, but my insistence on staying as authentic as I can makes me more authoritative in what I write--and that finally is the author's only asset: authority.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

stuck in the middle passage

Again this morning I spent coffee-time keying an entry in my journal rather than keying project notes. The entry was about the time I spent awake last night--between about 2:30 and 4:30--thinking, as usual, about my life. The specific thoughts were again too personal for this blog, but they partly ranged along issues of mortality, perhaps sparked by attending Fred's memorial.

It's not that death is usually far from my thoughts; I think about it often. But I have felt myself over the midlife crisis since, probably, 2002, when I came home from Gampo Abbey. I had entered it in my late 30s, which is to say the late 1990s. The psychologist James Hollis, in his excellent little book The Middle Passage, defines midlife crisis briefly as the crisis in life when we become aware that our previous methods of coping with self-doubt (tactics such as getting another promotion at work, having another child, buying a bigger house) aren't working, and will never work again. It has no specific time of onset: some people might start encountering it in their late 20s, others won't feel it until they're 60 (or maybe not at all). It's the crisis of mortality: first sensing, then consciously recognizing that death is personal--it will happen to me personally. Typically, one is dogged by feelings of failure and inadequacy: one's youthful dreams and projects, the great confidence that one won't make the same mistakes as one's parents, are mostly dashed. The successes are tinged with an ironic awareness of their hollowness.

What I got out of Hollis's book was that the successful navigation of the "middle passage", as he prefers to call it, means arriving at one's own true self. From childhood on through adolescence and early adulthood we adopt ideas, goals, and behaviors that are not truly our own; we absorb them from others because we haven't fully found our own identity. The sense of fleeting time that accompanies the middle passage is due, in part, to the recognition that we have been wasting time, in so far as we have been doing things that are not of ourselves, but that merely reflect our various roles as children, spouses, employees, parents, and so on. Time is wasted that is not spent being our own genuine selves.

Well. Feelings of failure and self-questioning, self-doubt had haunted me for several years up to 2002. In a sense it was midlife crisis that drove me to the abbey: I did not want to live any longer without taking the most decisive step I could to engage with the teachings that had meant so much to me over the previous 15 years. And my premature departure therefrom was joyous: I felt I was stepping into my true self, fully and at last.

Now, in the dark of night, ruled by the moon, I'm not sure. My mind races between familiar stations, wondering how I've become shackled to a project that may in the end drag me to Davy Jones's locker and oblivion. Was it for this that you were born?

There are other things, personal things. Plenty to chew on over a stiffish glass of whisky by a 46-year-old sitting naked on his mattress in near-total darkness. (Some sodium-colored light feathers in around the felt blackout on the window.) Yes, plenty to chew on.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

subtext and rites of passage

Morning notes: A History of Technology. But I left off keying those to type up another dream (I also spent time yesterday morning typing a dream I'd had). I was thinking of extracting one of them, but on reading them over I think they're too personal for this non-anonymous blog.

I'm feeling my way along as to what level of intimacy to bring to this public document. In the nature of things it can't be as nakedly honest as I aspire to be with my own journal, since such a document is useless (to a writer anyway) unless it is honest. It can be difficult to commit one's true thoughts to writing, since these often are things which may not be spoken to anyone. One of the important features of fiction-writing is just this possibility of depicting characters' inner world honestly--the thoughts we actually think, feelings we actually feel. It is a rare nonfiction work that achieves such a level of honesty--maybe only certain memoirs.

In drama, this sense of the unspoken exists as subtext. Kimmie and I were watching a TV show recently, the British miniseries Island at War, about the Channel Islands under German occupation in World War Two, and I pointed out to her the lack of subtext in most of the dialogue.

"What is subtext?" she said.

I tried to think of a new way to define it (for we've talked about it before).

"If a character is just saying what he's thinking," I said, "there's no subtext. If you get a sense the character is not saying what's really on his mind--that's subtext."

"Ohh," said Kimmie.

"Good drama always has it," I said. "Bad drama almost never does. Bad drama is where characters just report what they're thinking and feeling. It's not like life."

We watched awhile longer, and there was a scene between the two leaders: the German commandant who was running the occupied island, and the island's secular administrator. They were playing a kind of verbal chess with each other.

"In this scene you can't tell exactly what they're thinking," said Kimmie.

"Yes," I said. "That's subtext. And it's much better, notice."

Good writing delivers insights to the reader: things the reader himself or herself figures out or realizes on the basis of what the writer has said. These are much sweeter than any nuggets of information merely handed out by the writer, plain on the dish. It takes skill to orchestrate insights for a reader.

Two rites of passage marked today: This morning Robin was up early to drive up to Whistler to attend the wedding of a former coworker. Kimmie bustled to prepare the wedding-cake she finished yesterday (three torted layers covered with white fondant, like three smoothly upholstered cushions) for transport; I loaded the cake-stages into the trunk of Robin's 1989 Corolla.

This afternoon: memorial for Fred, my friend Tim's father. He died last month at age 98, having been active up until the last days of his life. Tim, in his dark suit, gave the main speech to the large group assembled in the meeting-hall of the little church near here: affectionate but unsentimental. The crowd, mainly elderly, were nonetheless youngsters compared to Fred. I think back to a couple of relatives of Tim's that we visited on our Europe tour of 1978: in rural England a 108-year-old woman lived with her 70-something son in a house. And they, I believe, would have been on Tim's mother's side.

It was an uplifted event; I saw people I hadn't seen in 25 years or more. I appreciated the opportunity too to put on dress pants, shirt, tie, and a nice plushy navy sport coat--don't often take the opportunity to dress properly these days. I trust I wasn't overdressed for Fred, builder and socialist that he was.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

thoughts about feelings

Hot sun in the afternoon, after a morning of coolness in the dark-stenciled September shade. I'm in from my errands (main one: getting a 6-inch-to-4-inch reducer for our dryer hose, available only at a warehouse in Burnaby). Life is far from bad. What are my thoughts?

This morning I checked in again with the Grumpy Old Bookman, whose post mentioned a book called Emotion: The Science of Sentiment by Dylan Evans (how Welsh can you get?). (The GOB's post was mostly devoted to Placebo, another book by Evans.) I felt intrigued enough, and encouraged enough by GOB's recommendation, to actually buy myself a copy (used, through Abebooks.com).

My spiritual training, such as it is, has been in the Buddhist tradition known as Vajrayana, the late-developing branch of Buddhism practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, and now, thanks to refugee Tibetan teachers, in many places in the West. The teachings in this tradition are profound and difficult to realize. And they, like all the Buddhist teachings, have much to say about emotion.

I'm trying to sort out my thoughts about this--and my feelings. GOB remarks in passing that anyone "even remotely involved in writing and publishing fiction" should read Evans's book. It's known that emotions are what involve people in a story. In TV I remember executives and story editors invoking the word emotions.

My suspicion is that in storytelling--page or screen--it's counterproductive to make a goal of evoking emotional responses in the audience. Yes, it's necessary and desirable to get that response, but, like happiness, it is elusive if one makes it the object of one's quest. The thought I seem to be heading toward here is that the deliberate attempt to evoke emotions in the audience is essentially what is called sentimentality.

My Webster's gives this definition of sentimentality:

the quality or state of being sentimental esp. to excess or in affectation

And to be sentimental?

1 a: marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism; 2: having an excess of sentiment or sensibility

There: excess, affectation. My own definition of sentimentality: "unearned emotion". To my way of thinking, this applies to tear-jerkers, but also to fear-jerkers or lust-jerkers, among others. The writer (publisher, producer) seeks to hit emotive buttons with the minimum of buildup: storytelling economy.

This approach is, I believe, disrespectful of the audience. It is the equivalent, at a slightly more elevated level, of trying to ingratiate yourself with someone by putting your hand down their pants. It's crude, and it only works on a certain segment of the population.

Yes, storytelling should be an emotional experience--very much so. But the writer who is focused on evoking emotions is, I think, taking the wrong approach. Emotions flow naturally from events that are significant to a character--that have meaning. I think that emotions are honestly evoked by the writer who engages seriously with his or her work at the level of meaning. Genuine emotions are evoked by writers who have something genuine to say. Honest emotion arises in response to a writer who speaks from the heart. Sentiment arises in response to a writer who simply kills off a young mother's baby.

So: I'm not trying to make you cry; I'm telling you my inmost truth, directly and simply. I'll leave your emotional response up to you. This is a respectful approach--one from which real feeling can arise.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

notes on Petra

Last night, after dinner, when Kimmie was repairing to the kitchen to work on a wedding cake for this weekend, she suggested that I watch one of the research videos I got from the library a week ago.

"But--" I said, "but I don't...work at night."

"You watch your video," she said, patting my knee.

"Hm. Well. All right."

I loaded the VHS cassette of A&E's Ancient Mysteries' "The Hidden City of Petra", narrated by Leonard Nimoy, fetched my "sketchbook" (the leather-bound journal given to me by my coworkers at ICBC on my departure in December 2001), hunched over the coffee-table with my juice-glass of neat scotch (not full!), and started watching.

My practice when watching research videos is to roll some tape, and when I see something I want to record, I hit Pause and scribble in my sketchbook. My main interest is to grab descriptive sketches, only secondarily to record factual information (that is usually better got from books). This was my first entry, made while I paused the tape right in the opening credits:

Curving hogback of clay-red stone: jagged; flattish uplands on the horizon, and a whitish-gray watery sky.

That description might possibly wind up in my book somewhere.

Petra (Greek for stone), now a red limestone necropolis carved in the cliffs of southwest Jordan, was the capital city of the Nabatean Arabs in the period of my story. The Nabateans, a wealthy trading nation, were major players in the Eastern Mediterranean. They have a close connection to my story for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Herod's mother was Nabatean. In more ancient times Petra was known as Moserah: the place where Esau is said to have settled and fathered the people called Edomites (edom = "red"), and where Moses is said to have kept the 12 tribes of Israel for 37 years while he wrote the books of Genesis and Exodus. So Petra was an important staging-post on the journey to take the Promised Land.

The city itself is a magical wonder: hidden in the rugged dry mountains, it can be reached only through a narrow canyon that in places is barely wide enough for a single camel to pass through. There are still more than 800 tombs cut into the sandstone of the city, which was destroyed by earthquake in AD 363. A secret known for centuries only to the local tribesmen, it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer in 1842 when, disguised as an Arab, he was led to it by his guides. Today its excavation has barely begun.

It felt like a push taking notes as weariness came over me, but I was glad to get it done. If nothing else, this book will have taken me far and wide in my search for knowledge.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Morning notes: A History of Technology, The Grail Legend.

Back at the notes for chapter 18, about which I'm feeling better and better. In some ways, this is the real fiction-making step. In the Notes document I speculate about who is doing what and why, and how they feel. And at the same time I draw in my research, reading through articles in my homemade encyclopedia.

Today I was wondering what the crew positions were on ancient warships. Did I have that somewhere? Would it be under Weapons? No. Hm. How about...Rome - Army? I opened it and did a couple of searches. A few mentions of "navy", but not many. Where's all that stuff about warships?

I looked further in the R-S folder of my encyclopedia, and found Rome - Navy. Ah! I'd forgotten. Opened it up and sure enough, I'd pasted in material here from Caesar Against Rome by Ramon Jimenez and from A Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins--both excellent resources. Mm-hm, I thought I remembered that: a breakdown of the known crew of the typical Roman warship in the Adkinses' book. I copied a few paragraphs and pasted them into my Notes document for chapter 18. Detailed factual information gets the creative juices flowing. (Robert McKee offers this as a tonic for writer's block: library research. He maintains that the cause of writer's block is lack of knowledge. We can write when we know enough about our subject, whether fact or fiction. In my experience this is borne out.) Not just a ship, but a specific type of ship. Not just an officer, but a specific rank of officer, with a specific job.

While I typed ideas for the scene, other things flashed into my head: reasons for my character Marcus's behavior in this scene and chapter. I simply typed these thoughts as they occurred, dropping them in their own paragraphs in the stream of notes, surrounded by parentheses. Yes, I thought, that's it!

This is my strange, backward approach. I have already developed the story in outline; I spent many months doing it. When it comes time to write chapters and scenes, I have the problem of fleshing out the story, and not making it easy for the characters. Almost every story event or turning-point should be a surprise or upset for the characters concerned, meaning that events develop seemingly unexpectedly, despite their intentions. My way of making this happen is to take the event that has already been ordained (by me) and work back from it, looking for ways to set characters' objectives in disharmony with what's about to happen.

It's not really such a linear process, of course. The outline itself was created so as to produce surprises. But part of the creative work--and worry--of outlining the detail of a chapter or scene is this problem of how to get the characters motivated, and motivated strongly and plausibly, toward a goal that, in some way, is usually going to dance sideways on them somehow. It's like fashioning decoys, one after another.

Having bulked up my preparatory notes, I ran out of steam, feeling the anxiety of losing interest in my situation and the story. My story-work was done for today.

Monday, September 05, 2005


I've never been a bohemian. My Webster's Collegiate 10th Edition gives the following definition of bohemian (sense 2b):

a person (as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life usu. in a colony with others

As I was saying to my friend Chris the other day when we were talking at a coffee-bar table on the sidewalk of Lonsdale, the closest I ever came to being a bohemian was when I lived with Brad and Keith in a duplex at 12th and Clark in Vancouver. It was then a fully ethnic neighborhood--our landlord downstairs was Chinese--of East Vancouver, and Commercial Drive, where we walked to do our laundry and have coffee, was a full-on Italian district, not the bohemian-lesbian place it is today. I was working on a book, and my roommate-friends were also artistic-intellectual types.

"But I also worked at a union job at the hospital," I told Chris. My rent was low, but I was earning decent dollars and saving a lot of my pay for a planned trip abroad.

I was attracted by the idea of bohemia, just like the suburban kids who migrate to Commercial Drive now to be artistic and intellectual, but my problem was that I didn't like the idea of belonging to a group, or in any way identifying myself as an "artist" by conforming to a bohemian dress code, as used to be (seemingly) required on Commercial Drive (I don't know if it is now). In the 1990s it was basic black, Doc Martens, maybe some leathers, a bit of post-punk hair color and spiking, and deathly urban pallor.

My writing partner Warren was more attracted to "the drive" and indeed lived on it, but even he had his limits. One day while we walked up the drive we passed a coffee bar behind the front window of which a young man typed at a laptop on a table (it was not so common a sight back then). I don't recall if we could see the screen, but we got the impression that he was writing a play or something. This disgusted Warren.

"The need to be seen doing it," he said. He shuddered.

To him this was taking bohemianism too far: to turn oneself into a mannequin of artistic creativity, turning your "poser" knob right up to 10. It didn't bother me so much. What's the difference? I thought. The whole place is a bohemian theme park anyway.

I remember specific inputs to my ideal of bohemianism in late adolescence. They were, first of all, underground comics, especially Rand Holmes's Harold Hedd ("anus-clenching adventure"), which was set right in Vancouver, and then the play Hosanna by Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay, about a drag queen. The stage-set was of the run-down room where Hosanna lived with his lover, and a purple neon sign flashed in through the window. Stir in some Grateful Dead, The People's Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz, Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins, and an increasing exploration of the Downtown East Side in search of new, cheap eating and drinking venues, especially the Green Door Chinese restaurant in a brick-paved alley off Columbia Street, and you have the makings of some bohemian yearnings in a young suburban artist.

I tried, a little bit, to live bohemianly: late nights editing film at Brad's mother's house, bumping into acquaintances on late-night Vancouver streets to be swept up in their late-hours socializing, attending actors' get-togethers. But it wasn't really me: I was never into making a "scene". To me, art was about talent, passion, commitment, and ideas, and often these things seemed to be in short supply in the bohemian worlds I glimpsed, at least as far as I could tell. I'd rather be a nonbohemian, live comfortably, and commune with the world of ideas in my own way.

Warren and I have had this conversation many times, questioning the definition and value of bohemianism. Once he said, "The true nonconformist is hard to spot." This, I think, is true. True nonconformity--and with it artistic freedom--is a matter of one's deep character, not something one can put on like Doc Martens or a retro dress. It's certainly not achieved by conforming to a "nonconformist" group.

The artist's lifestyle, to me, is the least interesting thing about him.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

book logjam

A logjam is developing in my book-processing system. It happens due to the erratic way I tend to accumulate books.

A couple of weeks ago, while Kimmie was shopping at Fabricland, I stopped in at Coles Books in Park Royal to pass the time. I found it mainly depressing looking at the fiction section, but the history section of that store is always quite good--the best thing there. I decided to buy a book I'd been looking at for awhile: Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese, a small trade paperback on the history of coal. I like books on environmental topics, and also books about commodities, so this was a natural. I wavered quite a while, because it was $21 for a 250-page book, but I hadn't bought a book in so long that I decided to go for it. Usually, if I want a book, I don't deny myself: I feel that the urge comes from something within me that knows there is important information in the book.

So I bought it. I'd only just started reading it when Kimmie and I, doing the weekly grocery shopping down at Save-On Foods, meandered into their book section. It's small, but quite good at certain things, especially finding unusual and interesting books to pile on their bargain tables. Kimmie pointed to one she'd spotted: Born to Buy by Juliet B. Schor, subtitled The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. It's about how contemporary American children are being taught to consume right from the cradle, creating the most materialistic, consumerist generation that the earth has ever known. Kimmie and I have talked about this topic, and related subjects such as parenting and family lifestyles, quite a lot. I flipped through the book: it looked good, and although a hardback it was priced at only $5.99. I tossed it in the cart.

Stalking around the same bargain table, I came across a stack of copies of The New New Thing by Michael Lewis, priced at $1.49.

"Whoa," I said,"this guy's very good. I really liked his book Liar's Poker."

Which I did. Liar's Poker, about Lewis's career as a bond-trader at a major New York investment house, was an astonishing and riveting read. Lewis impressed himself in my mind as a writer I respected and wanted to read more of. I'd made a mental note before to check out The New New Thing (about Silicon Valley business--another topic of interest to me), and now here it was at a buck and a half. Into the cart it went.

Generally, I make a ritual of starting to read a new book the same day I get it: a treat for myself, putting aside whatever else I have on the go to dip into my new acquisition. That day I had two. I decided to open up Born to Buy and get that under way. It looked pretty solid: lots of social-science facts and figures, and Schor comes across as a concerned parent and a keen investigator.

Before I could much further with that (weaving it into the other books I've got going, especially my research reading for The Mission), Irony by Claire Colebrook arrived in the mail. Woop, gotta start that now--which I did. It looked promising (although soon started weaving into queasy territory, asserting that the interpretation of literary works is inherently a "political" activity--a position I find questionable at best).

Within a day or two I'd received Blog On by Todd Stauffer, and wanted to give it its inaugural first opening. (Now I'm on chapter 2, and it's looking excellent: authoritative, concise, user-friendly, complete.)

And today: we were back at Save-On, and again Kimmie led us into the book section, this time in search of a copy of This Old House magazine. Now they'd laid out a discount table, one of those tables with walls in which books are racked spine-up. These were discount computer books--a category of book that normally they don't stock, or don't stock very many of. Many of these books were chopped down to $4.99 from their lofty preprinted prices of $35 or $48. I browsed. I don't really need any computer books now, but in the end I couldn't resist picking up Perl: Core Language by Steven Holzner, a book on the Little Black Book series, for $14.99 (cover price: $43.99). The self-confident opening sentence of the Introduction:

This book is designed to give you all that you need to become a Perl programmer, and that's saying a lot.

Excellent. I don't plan to become a Perl programmer, but I do want to become as knowledgeable as I can about Web programming and design. I have worked on a website for myself off and on for the past several years, never getting far enough to actually launch it. Some part of me stirs with excitement and possibility at computer programming, which I took in high school and in first-year university. If I didn't have other strong interests, I might have become a computer geek. As it is, I like to try to keep my head above water with developments in computing. Who knows--maybe I'll try my hand at some Perl programming.

So another book. I probably won't start it today (it's already 5 p.m., and I still need to wash some dishes). I have a logjam of recent arrivals (some of them were bought awhile ago), and this is one of the causes of unfinished-book syndrome for me. There's too much reading, and too little me.


Saturday, September 03, 2005

ancient beer, ancient politics, and a moment in New West

What can I tell you. Morning notes: A History of Technology and The Ruling Class of Judaea. What kinds of things am I keying when I do my research notes? Here is a section of compressed text from A History of Technology, volume 1, edited by Charles Singer et al.:

When farinaceous grains germinate, an enzyme, diastase, converts part of the starch into the sugar maltose or malt-sugar. Malting is the reproduction of this natural process under controlled conditions. Malting is older than the baking of loaves of bread: it was intended to make cereals and other seeds or fruits more palatable. Such foodstuffs can be made pleasanter and more digestible by the germination induced on prolonged soaking in water, to which salt or lye may be added. The nutritional value of farinaceous grains thus germinated is greatly improved. The product could be preserved after drying, ground into groats or flour, and subsequently made into dough for baking. Germination could also be effected by sprinkling the grain with water and leaving it to stand, protected from direct sunlight. The cakes made in this way are a kind of "durable bread," which was anciently used among other travel-provisions such as groats and dried bread.

Interesting, no? I'm glad to have found this series on the history of technology, for technology does strongly give a feeling of time and sometimes place. I'm happy to read about technologies that are much older than the period of my story, for they will still have been current, somewhere, at the time I'm writing about--just as Stone Age technologies are in use today in various parts of the world. And I didn't know that malting grains--sprouting them and then arresting their germination--made them more nutritious to eat.

As for The Ruling Class of Judaea, this book by Martin Goodman traces the sociopolitical origins of the Jewish revolt against Rome of AD 66-70. Here's a representative (compressed) paragraph from chapter 6, "Reactions to Failure AD 6-66":

The supporters and opponents of one of the most powerful factions, that of the reigning High Priest Ishmael b. Phiabi, are hard to trace. The main public issue over which Ishmael fell out with one at least of his fellow Jewish leaders was the building of a tower by Agrippa II to enable him to see into the Temple and watch the priests performing their sacrifices, but the complaint by Ishmael was probably only an excuse for a quarrel.

This chapter sifts through the factional infighting in Judea in the decades leading up to the great revolt against Rome. The style of politics will still be relevant to my look at what was going on in the country 100 years earlier.

Kimmie and I went out to IHOP in New Westminster for breakfast (damn--overate again; should have split an omelette; learning disability), then walked the streets, as we so enjoy. I'll close out with a prose sketch:


K & I have decided to sit on the dry lawn of the park overlooking the busy traffic of Royal Ave. K wanted to sit here so she can look across the carless ribbon of Park Row at English Corners, the great cocoa-icing mansion tucked behind its half-screen of trees. Two trucks and a car are parked on the indefinite ground in front of the tucked-away porch.

There is a triangle of public lawn extending to the acute point where Park Row joins Royal. Four mature trees blanket it in shade. A lone bench stands empty at the center of the triangle.

The sun comes and goes as patches of high cumulus migrate across the sky. When the sun shines it's warm; the shadow of my pen and hand on this cream paper is sharp and dark. Breeze swishes through the leaves of the nearby trees.

Across Royal: the distant prospect of Surrey across the river: stands and chains of fir-trees interspersed with patches of pastel-roofed houses and open spaces of commerce.

Kimmie has sauntered off to check the name of the street on the blue sign off to the left. It's actually Park Row, not 1st.

Ready to move on.

Friday, September 02, 2005

old friends

Late to the game: it's 6 p.m., usually well past the time I write my post. Indeed, 6 p.m. is wine time in our household: time to uncork a 1.15-L bottle of Frontera Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend and start the drinking portion of the day. Instead, I'm just now having my first cup of tea, and I thought I'd write my post like a good lad; I've been missing too many lately.

This morning I was keying more notes for chapter 18 when I got a call from my friend Chris, a friend I've known since high school but who now lives as a successful Euro-executive with a Canada-based high-tech firm in Munich. He's in Vancouver with his family, and suggested he stop by for a visit. I invited him over.

While his wife and two daughters spent the day cycling in Vancouver, Chris and I talked. He's tall and still athletic, with close-cropped dark hair and his characteristic soft voice. We walked down to the Honjin, a Japanese restaurant, and each had a bento box with teriyaki chicken.

Among many other things, we talked about having friends from as far back as high school or earlier.

"I really like having friends from that time," I said. "People know you from a time before you've taken on your adult roles."

I related a story that our mutual school friend Tim told me a couple of years ago when he was up visiting from Seattle. He was a partner in an automotive engineering firm, and drove, I believe, a BMW of some kind. But, in order to get his business house in order, he decided to drive a less expensive vehicle and bought a Ford of some kind. He said that some of neighbors felt bad for him, as though he had come down in the world because he no longer was driving the more luxurious car. It struck me at the time that this was partly because his neighbors knew him only as an engineer-entrepreneur, his social role, in a sense, and did not know him as someone who could make a non-duress decision to downgrade his transportation for rational business reasons. I've known Tim since age 10, so to me he is only incidentally an engineer or an entrepreneur.

"So here you are," I said to Chris, "a successful Euro-executive, lives in a certain area, has a certain lifestyle. People who've known you only a short time associate you with those external things. But in a few years, who knows, you could be in the dumpster. They might not be able to process that. But to those who've known you from way back, we've seen success and failure, happy times and sad. You're not just a collection of roles."

Chris agreed there is a difference between old friends and people you've known only four or five years.

"You feel you can be yourself," he said. "You don't have to try to impress anyone."

Yes, I have few friends now--mainly just those I've known for decades. I think about a Seinfeld routine in which he said, "You get into your 30s and you don't make new friends. You might as well put out a sign: 'Sorry: we're not hiring'." I've found that to be true. As I told Chris, I currently have the social life of one in solitary confinement. My childhood and school friends have almost all emigrated: Brad the ecologist to Tucson, Chris the accountant to Munich, Tim the mechanical engineer to Seattle and Tucson, Warren my writing-partner to Chicago, and now our friend Russ the telecoms marketer to Seattle to remarry.

There's been a brain drain away from Canada. Uh-oh: why am I still here?