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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 31, 2005


We move into the last week of Kimmie's vacation. It's a rainy Halloween. It was 22 years ago today that Kim and I first met. We were both new trainees in a class of insurance-processing clerks at the Insurance Corporation of B.C. I was one of four men in the class of 14. It was my first white-collar job (I was 24) and I considered it to be the easiest working gig ever: sitting in a classroom, mainly full of young women, learning how to complete auto-insurance forms and such, and being paid a decent (union) wage for it.

Kim and I went out for the first time the following year, just after Mother's Day. I took her and her 3-year-old daughter Robin to the Vancouver Aquarium. Next I asked her retired mechanic father, Fred, to take a look at the disintegrating Mazda station wagon I'd bought. (His words to Kimmie: "I didn't want to tell him, but I think he's bought a lemon." Too right.)

More months passed, when we did not go out, but saw each other each night at work. In February 1985 Kim invited me and another (female) coworker to a curry dinner at her apartment, and that proved to be the date that cemented a relationship. She became my girlfriend. After some other adventures and misadventures, I suggested that we move in together, and Kimmie invited me to join her and Robin in their two-bedroom apartment in North Vancouver, a short walk from our work (I was living across the water in Vancouver at the time). In late September 1985 we became a household.

In 1987, while driving up the hill to Safeway to buy hotdog buns, we passed an "open house" sign outside a newly built townhouse building, and decided to look in. There was one three-bedroom unit left in the nine-suite woodframe building, palatial compared to our old creaky apartment down on 2nd Street. We had no money. I bought a book of mortgage tables, did some figuring, and we put in an offer on the place. We were accepted. We cobbled together financing from our credit union, my friend Harvey Burt, and a final $5,000 from Kim's dad, and became homeowners. The interest rate on the first mortgage was 11.5%.

In May 1989, while I was on a one-month group-meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies, it became clear to me that I wanted to marry Kimmie. Despite the warning of our retreat director not to make any life-decisions as a result of our meditation, I returned home and, in the parking-lot of The Cannery seafood restaurant in Vancouver, proposed. Kim accepted, and in August we were married at a festive wedding in our own house.

We're still living in the same townhouse, and we're still married. It has not always been smooth sailing, as any couple who's been together 20 years can no doubt attest. I'm not sure how much of the...unsmoothness has been due to my vocation of writing, but it must have been some. Certainly, the life of a writer is risky and strange, the more so if he leaves paying employment from time to time, as I have, to follow his avocation. We have fought about money from time to time over the years, although things are calm now, and we have owned our house since 2000.

The last real upset in our relationship was at the end of 2001, when I was making up my mind about whether to follow a longtime dream and spend some time at a Buddhist monastery. Not only would I not be earning, I would be absent--for a full year. Eventually Kim accepted my decision, and I left on Valentine's Day 2002 for Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton. In late July I ruptured my Achilles tendon in Sackville, New Brunswick, and had to return home early. The gods had sent back, I felt.

While I healed, I got to work on my opus. Afraid of its size and ambition, I found it hard to commit to it completely, and searched for other, easier things to work on at the same time. But gradually I dropped other ideas to focus only on this. I realized, as I did at that meditation retreat in 1989 about my relationship with Kimmie, that I was already married--I just hadn't acknowledged fully yet.

Now I have. For better or for worse.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

disturbed night

Awoke at about 2:45 this morning after a dream:

It ends with me hiking into a wilderness with a couple of companions, but then just one: a woman. But I am a woman too: we are very close, maybe lovers. We're in the mountains of B.C. and it's getting dark. Others, maybe Mike and Mara, have turned back or been left behind. We want to go on, want to go farther up this dark mountain valley below high snowy peaks and the night sky.

Are we returning to a camp we've already prepared? I don’t think so. Or do we disagree about the status of our camp? She is blonde, in her 30s or maybe 40-ish, and wears a blue vest over a white long-sleeved sweater. I am dark-haired. We press our bodies together, side by side, as we step forward into the increasing darkness, to show each other how we won't abandon each other, how much we really love each other. Where can we bed down for the night? What lies in this dark wilderness?

The darkness is total. We step ahead into complete blackness, seeing nothing.

As I noted in my journal, where I wrote the dream, I woke with feelings of fear and strangeness. What could this mean? I'm not sure whether I've ever dreamed of being a woman before, I think not. The utter blackness at the end of the dream was also new. It was frightening, and yet we had each other; whatever we faced, we faced together.

I lay awake a long time, becoming embroiled in emotional thoughts, worries; my heart felt agitated. I lay awake one hour, two. I expected to remain awake until 6:00, when I decided I would just get up. But I must have dozed off, because I had more dreams, culminating with this one:

I'm about to leave or go out with a woman, seemingly my girlfriend. She is an older woman, at least in her 60s, with long white hair. She is slim and very feminine, with dark eyes. I believe she's wearing a pale yellow sweater-vest, and white shirt and pants. She's concerned about getting going, maybe that we'll be late for something.

Maybe because I remind her of some detail, she hurries back to go past me. As she comes close I hear a sound, a wet sound--and wonder whether she has accidentally lost some bladder control. I feel a little mortified for her, so draw no attention to it. We embrace, maybe for a kiss, so I can distract her from looking down at herself. She scolds me a bit, but gently, for she does love me, for delaying us.

Now there is a much more pronounced sloshing sound--there's no ignoring it. It splatters through cloth onto the carpet. I look down and see that it is not her but me: I have some kind of illness that has liquefied my bowels. I can't even feel it, but a kind of stew of vegetable pieces has spewed from me to the floor, and now a larger mass bulges out of my backside, which I can somehow see--so large that I wonder whether I'm beingdisemboweledd. I obviously have a very serious, messy, and degrading illness.

When I woke from this I again felt fear and that same sense of strangeness. I had never dreamed anything like it before. Something new is happening, agitating my soul. Being transformed, transgendered,disemboweledd--these are strong images.

When I finally rose at 7:15 I decided to write out my dreams and make some notes on them rather than attempt working on my novel.

I have always paid attention to my dreams, the primal and natural form of storytelling. I have become quite good, I think, at interpreting them. But these are so jarringly new and strange I don't know what to make of them.

Now: a walk in the quiet, gray, damp afternoon.


Friday, October 28, 2005

how Frankenstein does it

A thick fluffy overcast eventually yielded rain. Rain falls steadily now in the dark of afternoon.

Still on vacation hours, I moseyed back into chapter 19 with my morning coffee, again made by Kimmie ("How many scoops?" "Five and a half"). Today I was back at the leading edge of the chapter, working mainly with description of my location. With description I need first of all to put myself in the right mood of sensing the world of my story. I know I have too much descriptive material; I prefer it that way. I prefer to trim away the excess later rather than come up with material to flesh out a skimpy section.

This is imaginative work. I draw on descriptions of the place in my research texts; I've made a few prose sketches based on digital pictures in my Pictorial Library of Bible Lands; and I have open digital images from that same Pictorial Library of a model of ancient Rome in the 2nd century BC. This is a bird's-eye view of the city, contour-modeled, at a date about 100 years before the time of my story. I find it evocative: bluffs, red-roofed temples, dense green copses of trees. I also draw on my own memories of being in Rome. My job is to package these strands into a semblance of living time and place.

All this, of course, in pursuit of my goal of verisimilitude. In a recent e-mail my friend Warren paid me the compliment of singling out my treatment of minor characters for praise. He felt that these are generally lifelike and contribute strongly to the effect of verisimilitude. To paraphrase him, in going about their business in 48 BC, they don't seem to realize that they're not alive anymore. He said that they appear to spring to life with ease (thanks Warren!).

If they spring to life, that's great; but it's not with ease. I put effort into the creation of all my characters, including the minor ones. Generally, anyone who's got a speaking role in my story gets cast as though for a movie. How?

First: I maintain file-folders of pictures of people, clipped from magazines. I have a folder each for men, women, and children. When I finish reading a magazine, I go through it in search of people I might want to cast. Some are celebrities, but most not. I clip the pictures and file them.

Next: when I need a character, I usually make use of a book by Roy Feinson called Animal Attraction, which I bought on a whim in 1999. This quirky, humorous, party-game kind of book is actually very perceptive and clearly the product of much work by its zoologist author. In it you complete a simple 9-question multiple-choice quiz to discover what species of "animal" you are (Feinson has categorized people into 45 different animal types, mostly mammalian with a few birds and a snake thrown in). For each animal he gives a two-page character profile, focusing specifically on the animal as a romantic partner and how it combines with each of the other animal types. Feinson is witty and fun, but his real achievement, to me as a creator, is that he has successfully conveyed a sense of the great differences between people--that two people can be as different as two species of animal. If I think of one person as being like a bat, and another as being like a bison, that gives me a vivid sense of how distinct they are from each other.

Usually I complete Feinson's quiz for a new character (questions like physical size, aggression, gregariousness, and so on). If I know some of these attributes I might use them, but sometimes I use a special random-number generator I created in Excel for the purpose. It gives me nine random numbers in the right ranges, and I get a random animal (actually usually a selection of two or three animals, the way Feinson has arranged his material). If I don't like the animal profile, I spin again. It's fun!

Once I know a character is, say, a mole (Feinson's quick list of mole traits: "observant, dogged, determined, quiet, introspective, unresponsive, indecisive, pessimistic, lonely"), I might start looking through my clipping file for a face to match the personality. I "cast" the character. It has to feel right. But it needs to be a face that I have on file, which limits my options. Sometimes this is good, in that it gives me a look for my character that is somewhat different from what I would expect for the character-type I have in mind.

Finally, a name. I usually know whether my character is Jewish, Greek, Roman, or something else. There are websites with lists of ancient names. I use one of these. Usually, by default, I'll look first under names starting with the same letter as the animal, but I don't necessarily choose one of those.

When I have all the elements, I write the name on the picture, and file it in the folder called "cast characters". I also write the character's name, animal type, list of traits, and anything else I know about him or her in the document called Characters, an alphabetical list of all the characters in my story.

Thus my methodology to create lifelike characters: people who feel real, like someone actually observed. Based on Warren's appreciation, I feel that it's working.

Oh: and what kind of animal am I? Glad you asked. I'm an owl: "contemplative, eloquent, sober, principled, sincere, verbose, preachy, sanctimonious, overly conservative". Sexy, no?

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

strolling through chapter 19 and my neighborhood

A somewhat troubled night. I rose at around 3:20 to fetch a whisky and drink it in the dark. Drifted off again at around 5:00. When I revived at about 7:00, Kimmie was getting up. She made the coffee this morning, and even brought me a mug down here in my office. Lovely! Now that's living.

I opened up chapter 19 and kept tinkering with the early part. No two chapters are alike in how they develop, how they're written. This one is challenging me to understand the real nature of Menahem's story. As I devise events to happen to him, I also need to discover the significance of these events, and how he interprets them relative to his life and beliefs. It's surprisingly hard. And I have to weave the results into the existing draft: adding, replacing, revising.

But we're in vacation mode, so I'm going easy on myself in terms of demanding productivity. If I get anything done, I treat it as a bonus. Feels good! I've got to page 17 of the chapter this way.

Kimmie and I went out into the morning sun, picking up Halloween materials at Michael's Crafts (fake black curly hair; colored color-flow icing), dropping the car at T. F. & T. Automotive for servicing, and walking up past the construction on Esplanade to Moodyville's Cafe for breakfast. Sun streamed in the large picture-window facing Lonsdale: the window was streaky, and someone had scratched crude graffiti letters into the glass. My pancakes were excellent.

Next: we walked up Chesterfield, passing more construction in the building-blitz of Lower Lonsdale, pausing at the bunkerlike decommissioned government liquor store on 2nd Street to look at an art mural on the blank cinderblock of its west wall: a copy of Dejeuner sur L'Herbe by Manet. The nude model had been clothed in a crude wetsuit of orange with black stripes. The wall-sized image had been created on a plastic material and then pasted to the building. I explained what I knew of the original painting to Kimmie, and we headed up to the North Vancouver Archives, which Kimmie would like to visit as part of her vacation itinerary. But small schoolchildren were being crammed into the place, so we skipped it and continued uphill to look at the progress of demolition of the old apartments at 6th and Chesterfield. Apparently built in the 1950s, with fireplaces and a central outdoor swimming pool, these two buildings finished their days as subsidized housing. Now the south building has been leveled to splinters. Workmen were going through the north building, ripping the aluminum frames out of the windows. The wrought-iron railings are already gone.

Then: home. Kimmie had icing witches to pipe and so on. Next up: my niece Chella is due to stop by to pick one of Kimmie's homemade Halloween costumes to wear to a party on Saturday. There are now quite a few to choose from: angel, harem girl, vampire, cowgirl, Playboy bunny, and a few more--all sexed-up. What will Chella choose?

Teatime. Off to read more of A History of Warfare.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

on writing what you want to read

Up early and out into the dark of morning to escort Kimmie to a medical appointment over town. Afterwards we went riding on the SkyTrain for the hell of it, to see the Millennium Line, which neither of us has ridden since its completion a couple of years ago. We walked along Columbia Street in New Westminster (near-deserted, blustery under the wet overcast), then rode on to Commercial Drive in Vancouver. We had a very good late breakfast there at the Cafe du Soleil, a dim spacious place of dark wood and an open kitchen area behind the heavy bar. We walked awhile through the narrow streets of old houses as the first microdroplets of rain blew from the sky.

So no writing today: I'm truly in the spirit of vacation.

I caught some interesting comments in my post of the other day about novel openings. Of course, my opinions on this, as on other aspects of fiction and fiction-writing, are my own. They have not been taught to me; they are based on my experience and reflection. I accept that I am an isolated case; I do not share the enthusiasm of most readers for most fictional works. When I look at works that others gush over, I usually do not see much to like. I am an outlier.

Still: I love good writing, and have long been an eager reader and buyer of books. I would be happy to buy probably 20 novels a year--as many as I could read--if I could find ones I liked. In 2005 I think I've bought only two: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Forty Signs of Rain. The first I finished, the second I didn't. Both, I felt, had more or less serious execution problems.

I'm not sure whether it's just that the publishing industry doesn't care about me--doesn't want the extra $200 or so each year from me--or that there really is not good stuff (by my definition) being written and submitted to publishers. Am I unique? Or am I a member of a new fiction market--one that's currently not being tapped, not being served? If the latter, how big is this new market? No one knows.

I'm writing the kind of book I want to read. When I prowl the fiction shelves--as a reader--this is what I hope to find. I understand that this was how Gone with the Wind came to be written. Margaret Mitchell, laid up with a broken leg or something, had her husband fetch books from the library for her. The day came when he couldn't find any more books of the type she wanted, so he gave her a pad of paper and a pen and told her to write her own.

Maybe it's apocryphal--but it's still true. You have to write something that you yourself would want to read. Although Gone with the Wind has some excellent qualities, it's not my kind of book. But it was Margaret Mitchell's--and she wasn't alone, as it turned out.

I don't think I'll be alone with mine either. But only time will tell.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

it's just my project

Kimmie still on vacation, still enjoying lying in bed in the morning reading and drinking the coffee I bring her. And in the dark of morning I work at pushing my narrative ahead. Still at chapter 19. I wrote a bit more Rome material, then gave in to my gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with my own understanding of the story of this chapter.

I feel confident about what will happen; it's the issue of the underlying feelings and motivations. This is the effort that I habitually avoid, habitually tell myself has already been done: the brute-force thinking-through of what formative thoughts and feelings have been going on in my character prior to the raising of the curtain on the action of the scene at hand. It's a lonely chore, one that makes me feel inadequate to my task.

It can feel mechanical, this inventory of the stages of a character's attitudes, but it's important, especially for a scene that is after a significant gap of story time. The reader needs to feel a continuity of thought and feeling with a character.

I came up with some OK ideas and scrolled to the beginning of the chapter to rejig the material, cramming in the new ideas. I don't enjoy this, adding new or different ideas into recently written first draft. My writing usually has its own logical flow, and shoehorning in a different slant does violence to it. I don't like tinkering with first draft in any case (although I do it fairly often). But if I feel I've seriously missed an important idea or quality, I can't rest with what's there; I must fix it.

I still worry about this project. At odd times of the day, something will remind me of a problem I have with it. The vagueness and possibly underpowering of Menahem's motivation in this chapter was one such. I will gasp, or grab my head and utter something like "Ach!" Kimmie, alarmed, will ask what's the matter.

"It's just my project," I say.

Kimmie says "aw," and pats my arm.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

don't grab people

Last night I decided to push on with Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, but after 12 more pages I pulled the plug at the end of chapter 3. I had waded through a 12-page dinner-party scene which again had no discernible story purpose, except perhaps the communication by the character Charlie Quibler to his Tibetan dinner guests that they should contact a lobbyist friend of his about their flooding-island problem. Other than that, it was beers, pasta, and watching children's dinner antics. Enough already, I'm moving on. This book will be a candidate for the next shelf-clearing. And this is why I rarely sign novels, unlike my nonfiction book purchases, which I sign and date upon acquisition: they're probably headed for a used-book store.

My perennial dissatisfaction with fiction gets me thinking. My mind travels down many avenues as I try to sort out where the problem lies. Is it me? Am I just too fussy? Or is all fiction, published and unpublished, junk? If I am too fussy, how did I get that way? I never used to be. And if all fiction is junk, why is it all junk? Is the novel as a form simply used up?

My fussiness is certainly related to my literary education, which has consisted mainly of reading both fiction and all the other works which relate to the art of fiction, such as works on mythology, psychology, and religion. I'm looking for writers who can speak to me as an equal, who have something genuine to say. This is difficult to find. I'm easily put off by what appear to me to be cheap tricks.

For example, this morning while Kimmie was doing her hair I picked up a new book we'd bought for her at our last trip to the bookstore: Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison. I flipped it open to page 1. Here's what I found:

I stood in the shadows of a deserted shop front across from The Blood and Brew Pub, trying not to be obvious as I tugged my black leather pants back up where they belonged. This is pathetic, I thought, eyeing the rain-emptied street. I was way too good for this.

That's paragraph 1. Granted, it's a genre book about witches and such--a genre in which I have no interest. Nonetheless, I don't really care about genres; I'll read a book in any genre if it's good. My problem with the opening is just that it's symptomatic of the trend to have a "grabber" opener. The idea is to hit the road running, in the middle of the action, and preferably with an attention-getting opening sentence intended to pique the reader's curiosity and tempt him or her to keep going. It's intended to evoke a certain "Huh? What's going on?" response.

That "grabber" approach, advocated by agents and editors, tires me. It's formulaic and artificial. It stresses the ungenuineness of the writer's relationship to the reader. It's like those personal sidewalk encounters that begin with "Hi honey--need some company tonight?" The presumption is that the reader suffers from attention-deficit disorder. I do not like being treated with that presumption, so I give short shrift to novels that strain so hard to "grab" me. What do you do when people grab you in real life? Kick, scream, struggle, and try to get the hell away.

I like a consensual relationship in which neither party talks down to the other. The attention-deficit-disorder approach is condescending.

For contrast, let me show you the opening of the introduction to John Keegan's A History of Warfare. It's a work of nonfiction, which you might think would be a disadvantage in drawing in a would-be fiction reader. But imagine this as the opening of a novel:

I was not fated to be a warrior. A childhood illness left me lame for life in 1948 and I have limped now for forty-five years. When, in 1952, I reported for my medical examination for compulsory military service, the doctor who examined legs--he was, inevitably, the last doctor to examine me that morning--shook his head, wrote something on my form and told me that I was free to go. Some weeks later an official letter arrived to inform me that I had been classified permanently unfit for duty in any of the armed forces.

What do you think? I think it's very good. The opening sentence was even, I thought, when I first read it, suspiciously too "grabber"-ish, but the rest of the paragraph builds upon it nicely. This writer, and his work, do not suffer from low self-esteem. He is not trying to ingratiate himself with me. He has something to say. His awareness of having something to say, something worthwhile and important, makes his writing effective and interesting. The writing is unhurried, and yet portrays a whole life in just a few words. The narrator has a strong point of view, but does not need to shout it. Because he is genuine and self-assured about what he has to say, these qualities shine through his writing without his resorting to tricks.

In my opinion, this is the correct way to write. It's the correct way to open your novel (or nonfiction book), the correct way to continue it, the correct way to end it. If you do that, I'll read you, beginning to end.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

robot fiction

Early sunlight outside, although the area between our building and the ones next door is still plunged in shade, except for two spots of sun on a high wall.

Was awakened early this morning by the sound of a car alarm outside--the repetition of attention-getting siren noises made by a car that thinks it's been violated somehow. I have never personally known of any car alarm to be genuine--that is, to be a result of actual violation of an automobile. Presumably those occur, but all the car alarms that I've ever personally witnessed have been from cars simply parked somewhere, untouched. Maybe they're just lonely.

So, awakened at 5:00, I finally rose at 6:00. I made coffee and served it to Kimmie in bed, who propped herself on pillows to start reading the new novel she got yesterday from the library, Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris, the latest in her Southern Vampire series. I came down here, opened chapter 19, and nudged it ahead by 2 pages, having to take time in the midst of writing to read my research notes about the Occupation of the Promised Land--a biblical event being reenacted by the Essenes in the period of my story.

Last night, during reading time, I decided to push on with Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, the global-warming epic I bought a few days ago. I have read to page 100. My impression of this novel is much the same as my impression of his Red Mars: I both admire and dislike aspects of Robinson's writing, and read on, in a sense, under protest.

What I admire is his depth of knowledge of his subject matter and the verisimilitude he can create with it. When Robinson describes the work and attitudes inside a California biotech lab, I believe it. His portrait of scientists feels authentic, based on my own experience with real scientists. He likes the nuts and bolts of how things are actually done, and clearly enjoys describing these things in detail.

But this can be a problem. In comic art, a guy who liked to cram his panels with visual detail used to be known as a "rivet" because every rivet of a piece of machinery would appear. Robinson is a rivet. It is as though he has an inability or at least a disinclination to summarize. Thus we read many pages of exactly how Charlie Quibler spends the day with his infant son Joe. The material itself is well-observed and reasonably lifelike, but it's also irrelevant. If the aim is to give a strong impression of a stay-at-home dad and his unusual life in Washington, DC, this could be done with a few telling details. It should be done with a few telling details, for the reader is trying to get to the next plot-point. The reader of a story wants to know what happens next, more specifically what happens next of significance for the story.

And that's another problem: what is the story here? At page 100 I don't know any more than I did when I read the blurb on the back cover. While there are some mumblings about climate and weather in the book, what I've been shown mainly is people dealing with the hassles of their workday. I venture to say that I'm much more receptive to and interested in that type of thing than most readers, but even I need a bit of story thrown my way as a reward. We need a clearly defined problem confronting a specific character, and that character's formation of a clear intent to do something about it. That my friends is a story, and at page 100 of 393, we're not there.

This was one of my problems with Red Mars: stuff happened, even some dramatic and exciting-seeming stuff, but it wasn't a story. It was just stuff happening. Robinson's writing has a journalistic flavor; he delights (if that's the word, since his tone tends to be rather heavy and serious) in depicting situations that have much of the banality as well as interest of life, but that do not have strong underlying feeling of purpose, or going anywhere--just as in life, we usually don't have such a feeling. One day at the office is much like another.

The banality becomes most marked in the dialogue. This I feel is a distinct weakness for Robinson. He writes dialogue as though forced to, not from any conviction of its interest or utility. Many exchanges of dialogue are more banal than real-life dialogue, not less so, as they should be. Good dialogue-writing is hard, but adequate dialogue can result from having characters with strong, specific, and conflicting objectives in a scene. That dialogue will be interesting, even if it's not brilliant. Robinson's dialogue often has the quality of being mere padding in a scene; it's simply more of what happens as a day floats by. Stuff happens, including some spoken stuff.

There is no sense of an underlying myth to his story. There is something mechanical about the storytelling, as though it were composed by software, which was in turn written by very intelligent programmers who were, nonetheless, programmers. The verisimilitude is that of computer animation: strikingly real appearances that are nonetheless mere appearances. There is no depth dimension--nothing to be discovered about human nature or the spiritual condition of man beyond what can be said about these things using the concepts and vocabulary of materialistic science. There is no poetry.

But there should be. It's a work of creative writing. It's a pity, because Robinson's knowledge and ideas are much better than most writers', in my view. For that reason, so far, I'm hanging in with a fairly real-feeling world, even though that world is not going anywhere.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

buyer's remorse

No writing on this rainy day. My mind was on...other things.

This evening, after the dishes, and while Kimmie and Robin were out at dinner with Ev, I poured myself a scotch and sat down for my second reading session of Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, his science-fiction opus about global warming. I've tunneled to page 52. My thoughts?

I remember now my beef with Red Mars: Robinson amasses detail that has no story purpose. Indeed, where is the story, 52 pages in?

Admittedly, the opening sentence of chapter 1 was unprepossessing:

Weekdays always begin the same.

But when I read the rest of paragraph 1 (having skipped over the 1-page italicized prologue) in the bookstore, I felt pretty good. Here it is:

The alarm goes off and you are startled out of dreams that you immediately forget. Predawn light in a dim room. Stagger into a hot shower and try to wake up all the way. Feel the scalding hot water on the back of your neck, ah, the best part of the day, already passing with the inexorable clock. Fragment of a dream, you were deep in some problem set now escaping you, just as you tried to escape it in the dream. Duck down the halls of memory--gone. Dreams don't want to be remembered.

Prosaic, yes, but I had a sense of the start to someone's day, the feeling of a fairly honest look at the internal world of a character (turns out to be Anna Quibler, NSF administrator). The rest of the chapter narrates Anna Quibler's morning routine in Washington DC as she goes to work at the National Science Foundation. Street names, subway stops, her daily experience of Starbucks. She gets to the office building where she works, learns that a storefront in its atrium is being let out to the embassy of a new island nation of Tibetan Buddhists, and hands a grant-application file related to genetic research to a colleague. There goes 10 pages.

When I described chapter 1 to Kimmie, I tried to express my dissatisfaction.

"It's just this woman going to work. There's no goal for her--no problem she's trying to solve. She should be mentally occupied with an upcoming meeting or something--worried about how to respond to a criticism from her boss. When she looks out at the streets of Washington, it should be threaded through a story problem in motion. It shouldn't just be a description of a typical day in the life."

Chapter 2, part of which I read tonight, takes us to another character going to work in California, and finding that his boss has sent out a troublesome press release, then switches to Anna Quibler's husband in DC as he goes through his day, being Mr. Mom to two young sons. The action with the infant boys is well observed, but has no story value. Get on with it! I thought as I read. Give me a plot-point here! But no, no plot-point in sight.

In short: I'm already running out of steam. I've extended this book 52 pages of credit, and as I flip ahead, it looks like another 10 pages of infant antics until the scene changes back to Anna Quibler. Will I be able to pick it up again? I don't know. But I know I shouldn't have to be struggling with the decision. I shouldn't be influenced by the fact that I've plunked down $11.99 for the book and want to get value out of it.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

producing fiction, consuming fiction

A day of steady rainfall.

Since Kimmie is on vacation I'm ditching the morning-notes routine in favor of using my coffee-drinking time to work right on the story. Yesterday I had a mini-breakthrough (so I felt), feeling my way through the main beats of chapter 19. I think I know what's going to happen. But that's not enough. I still need to have a strong enough sense of my characters and my place--the location.

My story has moved to Rome, so for the last two days I've had BiblePlaces.com's Pictorial Library of Bible Lands: Greece & Rome picture CD out, looking at images of the city and making prose sketches for possible use. Here's one:

From Arch of Titus, 18 Jan 2001 (8/20): Glum gray day, flare of bright light behind the white screen of the sky, wreathed in pearl-gray masses of low soft cloud. Only a suggestion of shadows: dusty-gray olive-trees, splayed wider than they are tall. Tall sober cypresses, soldierly, or like poor people standing silent in queue for food: all different heights. Lush wet-looking grass. Stone structures of different colors: the Colosseum faced with white, but buff inside. Nearby building all buff, darker at the top as though wet-stained. Nearby: dark matrix filled with white stone.

I had a separate session of my picture-viewer, Irfanview, open at an image of a model of Rome in the 2nd century BC. This gives me a sense of the topography that I need. I'm writing of a time 100 years or so later, when Rome was much more developed, so I will have to furnish those improvements in my mind.

My main concern in the Notes document today was point of attack: where exactly do I start the action of this chapter, and what exactly is going through my character's mind?

Kimmie and I just came in from an afternoon of shopping. We wound up at Chapters-Indigo, looking for a Laurell Hamilton book for Kimmie (found it). I also decided to take the plunge and picked up a copy of Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, a science-fiction novel about the effects of global warming, set in the near future. I felt drawn to Robinson back when I saw his Green Mars trilogy about the conquest and terraforming of Mars. I borrowed Red Mars from the library and read pretty much the whole thing, as I recall. I was disappointed with it as a novel--Robinson is not a storyteller--but was impressed with his command of the subject-matter and his attention to verisimilitude.

I first saw this novel, Forty Signs, in the bookstore as a hardback last year. I was actually kind of excited by it: glad to see that someone had taken on this topic--climatic effects of global warming--and woven it into an epic. But I'm not a buyer of hardbacks generally (expensive, bulky), and am not enough of a fan of Robinson to spring for it. The mass-market paperback, though: yes. In a big-box bookstore with a large fiction section full of books that mainly made me feel tired, bored, and heavy, I was intrigued enough by this one to shell out Cdn $11.99 (+ GST) for it.

Perhaps I'll report back on my rare fiction foray.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

memes, genes, and joy

Yesterday I happened to look in on The Lost Fort, a blog by Gabriele Campbell, a German writer of historical fiction in English, who has been kind enough to link to this blog in her list of blogs worth visiting. I was surprised to see my name in a list with four others that Gabriele was assigning a task: to participate in a "meme" called The Search for Joy, in which a blogger is asked to search his own blog for the word joy, link to the associated post, and write a bit to expand on the experience of joy mentioned.

Gabriele, I'll accommodate you. But a couple of thoughts have arisen for me in the process.

First, I had not heard of the word meme in the context of blogging. I gather that these memes are simple instructions or tasks that bloggers send to selected other bloggers to execute and pass on, rather like a chain letter. A chain letter, when it contains a financial component ("send $1 to each of the people on this list, then add your own name to the bottom..."), is known as a Ponzi scheme, a swindle in which early entrants are paid by later ones, the last entrants being only payers and never payees. In developing countries, whole banking systems have been set up as Ponzi schemes. Mathematically, every Ponzi scheme must collapse sooner or later. A "successful" one is one in which its initiators get rich--and out of the country--before that happens.

In chain letters I've more often seen "luck" as the thing being multiplied, rather than cash. I have no idea how that's supposed to work. In practice, the further such a scheme goes the more resources it ties up, both with snail mail, where thousands and then millions of "good luck" letters are being sent, and with e-mail, where a "successful" chain letter can clog the whole Internet.

The other thought had to do with the word meme itself. I recognized it from where I first learned it, reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins sometime in the 1980s. Dawkins was and is famous as a fierce proponent of rigorous Darwinism (a recent Discover magazine feature called him "Darwin's Rottweiler"). His central thesis in The Selfish Gene was that the true actor of natural selection is not the individual organism but the individual gene--a cohesive biological unit carrying a single package of hereditary traits. Organisms--like you and me--exist for the purpose of transmitting genes. All of our other activities--eating, finding shelter, fighting predators, shaking off disease--serve purely to get us to the point where we can transmit our genes. According to this view, in a fundamental sense, our bodies and minds are simply delivery systems for genes; we are a complex mass of molecules purpose-built to propagate a set of simpler molecules. The concept of meme he threw out at the end of the book as a kind of image to suggest how knowledge and ideas propagate. These too would have "survival value" and generate behaviors and structures to ensure their propagation. The theory of evolution itself would presumably be such a meme.

At least, that's my memory of it. But even when I read The Selfish Gene I found Dawkins too authoritarian, too fanatical. He seems to be more about browbeating opponents into silence and submission than about winning hearts and minds. The concept of the meme I took to be more of a poetic idea than a scientific one. I didn't get the feeling he was seriously proposing it as a scientific concept on a footing with that of the gene.

Nonetheless, meme seems to have taken off in pop culture. It means, I suppose, something like "an idea with survival value", but it appears to have morphed, in the blogosphere anyway, into something akin to a virus--a thought or idea you can't get rid of, even if you want to. Something infectious and annoyingly persistent. A thing that spreads, Ponzi-style, from blog to blog until the next one comes along.

So here we are: a blog-meme.

I searched my whole blog for the word joy. It crops up almost exclusively in variants of the word enjoy, which, I found out, I use a lot. It's closely related to joy, of course. Sense 2 in my Webster's says, simply, "to take pleasure or satisfaction in", which is the sense in which I use it. So I scanned back, looking at each instance for a use that most reflected what is being sought in the meme: a genuine expression of joy in one's life. I decided to use this instance in the post titled writer: know thy world. It crops up thus:

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.

There: "I really enjoyed it". In the Buddhist training I received, much of the spiritual practice was devoted to being aware of the present moment, whatever that moment is. Ordinarily our minds leap forward and back, going everywhere but the present moment. When we're having fun, however, or experiencing true joy, we're naturally in the present moment. We're paying attention to what's going on right now, and happily so. This was the quality of the lunch with my friend Greg. I am a writer, but a solitary one: I don't usually fraternize with other writers. But as a result I often have no real opportunity to talk about writing with someone who understands. Greg is an exception: he is a writer, and more than willing to talk (or listen to me talk!) about writing. There is no time when you're absorbed in the present, so before we knew it, it was time to pay the tab and part ways. So that sense of enjoyment of a good meal, companionship, and a brief window of time in which we could commune about shared experience and interest, were certainly an experience of joy as meant by this meme.

I hope that satisfies Gabriele. I understand her mother died recently, so she is looking perhaps for reminders of the good things in life. This was one of mine.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Paul's Rom-Com Festival

Rose at 6:38 in the dark of morning. Rain pattered invisibly outside. I tried opening my Notes document for chapter 19, but did not get far. Other things supervened.

Tonight: program 11 of Paul's Rom-Com Festival. It's the 1990 movie Pretty Woman with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. It's another in the top drawer of the genre. There are many things to like about the movie, but next time you see it, pay attention to how the character of the hotel manager is portrayed. He is the only character, apart from the two lead roles, who undergoes a character-change in the course of the story. This makes his subplot--the change from disdain for hooker Vivian Ward to acceptance and even respect and love--an important one for the meaning of the movie.

For the record, here are the films of Paul's Rom-Com Festival so far, in chronological order of release (and viewing):

  • It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Story by Samuel Hopkins Adams; screenplay by Robert Riskin. Directed by Frank Capra.
  • Born Yesterday (1950) starring William Holden and Judy Holliday. Screenplay by Albert Mannheimer based on the play by Garson Kanin. Directed by George Cukor.
  • The Apartment (1960) starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder. Directed by Billy Wilder.
  • Annie Hall (1977) starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Directed by Woody Allen.
  • Tootsie (1982) starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange. Story by Larry Gelbart and Don McGuire; screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (and other uncredited writers, including Barry Levinson and Elaine May). Directed by Sydney Pollack.
  • Splash (1984) starring Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah. Screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell. Directed by Ron Howard.
  • Baby Boom (1987) starring Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard. Screenplay by Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer. Directed by Charles Shyer.
  • Moonstruck (1987) starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Norman Jewison.
  • Working Girl (1988) starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford. Screenplay by Kevin Wade. Directed by Mike Nichols.
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989) starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Screenplay by Nora Ephron. Directed by Rob Reiner.
  • Pretty Woman (1990) starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Screenplay by J.F. Lawton. Directed by Garry Marshall.

I'll update the list as we move forward with the festival.

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Friday, October 14, 2005

the first reader

On into the wet, mild vacation. Kimmie was off to day 2 of a seminar in Richmond on corporate purchasing and contract management, right smack in the middle of her vacation. I drove her through the dark and meager rain to the SeaBus so she could take transit to the hotel.

Morning notes: back to A History of Technology--smelting and casting of copper and bronze, and the tools made with them.

I was delighted to receive an e-mail from Warren in Chicago after some weeks' silence. He'd read chapter 17 and had some comments and questions. He's enthusiastic, as am I, about exploring the meaning of fiction, of a story. Meaning is the highest level of story creation, and the level at which most writers fail (even assuming they haven't failed at other levels). Some stories which are otherwise excellent fail at the level of meaning, or theme, and thereby disappoint even more than other, lesser works that fail on more levels.

An example of this, for me, was the same Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson that I pointed to in a previous post as an example of excellence in the author's knowledge of his world (as well as strong first sentence). The novel began as a murder mystery--an exceptionally well-told one--but did not end as one. The hero's climactic dilemma, about whether to come forward with evidence that will clear an innocent man of a murder charge and save him from execution, or to sit on it so he can get together with the accused's about-to-be widow, is not one that I could even remotely identify with. What are the issues involved? It's not even about justice, the usual thematic value for a murder mystery; it's about the conflict between saving someone's life and satisfying one's mating urge. The hero does the right thing, but it was sort of the minimum expectation I had of him. How often will any of us be presented with the dilemma of saving someone's life, and happy mating?

The hero's choice could be the beginning of a story: a man lets a friend die in order to make it with the widow. If he's a human being, guilt will set in, and now an interesting story begins. The theme here--the level of meaning in the story--will have to do with guilt and atonement. That is a very relevant theme for all of us: a universal meaning. How will the hero resolve his conflict? How will the writer? That's what we read for.

Every story is about something: every story has some assertion to make about life, reality, the human condition. The writer must be in command of this, not at the outset of a work, but by the end of writing. The writer may be as surprised as anyone by what he's really saying, what he truly believes. He may be shocked--indeed, it's probably best if he is.

I'm not there yet with my own work. I do not know what its final assertion will be. I don't expect to know until I actually draft the climax, and that is some time away. I know what the outline says about the climax, what's going to happen. But I'm learning a lot about my characters, my world, as I go, so it's too soon to say. I'm the first reader of my own story, wondering how the characters--and the writer--will resolve the conflicts.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

the bridge

I'm back. Today is dark and rainy, but Summerland was mainly sunny, with yellow leaves blowing along roads and through the clear sky.

Kimmie is on vacation for four weeks, so my routine is also on vacation. I don't want to stop writing, so I'll have to find a way to accommodate that objective with the more relaxed nonschedule of the coming days.

Today I thought I'd reproduce a journal entry I made on 21 September 2004:

7:21 a.m. I lay awake last night, from about 2:15 till maybe 4:40. I had a glass of whisky in the dark. Kimmie had got up earlier to have a glass of milk for her hurting esophagus.

Just before I woke I had this dream: I'm driving (with Kimmie?) toward what seems like the Grantham Bridge. There is construction here, roadwork with heavy machines that block the way, so traffic is backed up and being directed around it. Impatient drivers want to butt in and get around the woman directing the traffic. I feel good about the fact that I stay in line and make it onto the bridge.

I realize I'm all alone on the bridge, which has hardly any deck, just a couple of beams with cross-beams, like a railway bridge. Other traffic apparently has gone around, on separate improvised trails leading down under the bridge. It seems I misunderstood the directions being given. Now I come to the end of the bridge: it just stops, pointing into space, a huge, deep valley. There is no possible way we can get off the end of this bridge; we can only go back.

When I woke I didn't feel good about this dream. It seemed to echo my worries in the night that my project, The Mission and The Age of Pisces, is a hopeless one. A bridge is something positive, it takes you across the uncrossable. But this one is out; it's just being built, or rebuilt. Is it the novel?

The Grantham Bridge was notable because it was a one-way bridge: traffic could go only one way at a time: like life. The arrow of time. Others are trying to butt in: I perceive others as getting unfairly ahead of me, or trying to. But it turns out not to be an issue: they're not actually going the same way I am at all; there is no actual competition. They're taking an easier, marked (and possible!) way, the collective path. I'm on this big project, but it's not finished, in fact it's scarcely begun. And I feel disheartened that I've come the wrong way. Those butter-inners are ahead of me, if I want to go the marked way.

Since I made this entry I have come to see this dream as positive. The bridge is under construction, and I'm the one building it. My work, the bridge, is still unfinished. And, like a bridge, it is no use until it is finished. That cannot put off the builders of bridges. They--we--must be sustained by a vision. Once the bridge is built, the traffic rolls across, now oblivious of the rugged, impassable terrain that existed there before. Someone had to have the vision and patience to make it possible for everyone to cross to the yonder shore.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

interruption of service

A quick post to let you know I'm going away for the (Canadian) Thanksgiving long weekend--visiting sister Mara and family in Summerland, B.C. I should be back on duty for Wednesday 12 October or thereabouts.

Me? Today? Low productivity. I did manage a few notes this morning. Otherwise, I'm taking some days off from my project to commune with the quiet and autumnal, fruit-tree air of the Okanagan valley.


Thursday, October 06, 2005

knowledge and creative choices

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

Then: more chapter-prep. I can feel when I know enough to start drafting a chapter, or a scene. Sometimes it takes me by surprise: I might be expecting a couple of more days' preparation, and suddenly I'm typing in the chapter document. It's the same with endings: I might feel the end of the chapter is another day's or two days' work away, then suddenly I'm there--this page, this paragraph. I might sit awhile thinking about what to type next, and suddenly realize I don't need to. It's over. Feelings of pleasure mixed with suspicion and even guilt arise. But I file away the chapter and move on.

Today was still preparation. I treat each chapter as a story in its own right. I like each one to have its own drama, its own turning-points. The basic purpose of the chapter is already established in my outline. I have both the short version and expanded version of the outline text pasted at the top of my notes document. The challenge now is how to achieve that purpose: how to make it happen dramatically, unexpectedly, as the result of forces and pressures acting on my characters.

Creative ideas come from knowledge. I've said it before, but it bears repeating. For one thing, I need to remind myself of this as I pore through seemingly endless research material. I feel a mixture of enjoyment and fretting as I open research file after research file. What would Ostia, the port at the mouth of the Tiber, be like at that time? Hm. I have a file on Ostia--clever me. These prepared files are making the pre-chapter research flow ever more smoothly. Ah. It's still republican Rome; the big port complex was not yet built. The Romans didn't bother with engineering their way around the exposed mouth of the river, or dealing with the sandbars created by the huge volume of silt deposited there each year. Warships, with their shallow draft, simply rowed over them; heavy freighters were partly unloaded onto barges before being towed the rest of the way in.

Will I use that information? Not necessarily. I'm constructing my character's trip, my character's day. In this case the character is Menahem, the magician turned Essene monk. He's never been to Rome, so he will be barraged with new impressions--impressions that will also be the reader's. I need to find those impressions, but more importantly I need to find the factors in that environment that are going to make his day challenging. The forces pushing at your characters should always seem bigger than they are; it should always be a little in doubt that they will be equal to the demands being made of them. Fiction, like life, should offer no guarantees--only insecurity, but with great moments of success and failure, joy and distress.

I wound up reading and highlighting more material in Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Lesley and Roy A. Adkins (indispensable for researching this period), and keying it into various research documents, copying and pasting certain sections into my ever-growing chapter-notes document. I know more. I feel my range of creative choices growing. Soon I will have enough to create life, to show living people moving through a bewildering but completely real world.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

integrity vs. success

An abbreviated writing morning since I was driving Kimmie up to another ultrasound appointment at 11:00. I skipped research notes and went straight to story notes over my coffee.

When I got back I checked Agent 007's blog-post of yesterday. In it, she tells a story of two assistant editors faced with the same problem: that their further advance up the corporate ladder depends on sucking up to department heads in the company. One assistant could not swallow this, and left the industry altogether. The other (007 herself--or her narrator) immediately decided to embark on the "Great Sucking-Up Campaign", "put 110% into it", and went on to publishing-industry success.

The title of the post is "A Word About Advice for People Who Don't Want to Take It". I was glad that 007 posted on this topic, for it is close to my heart. She closes the tale with this moral: "You may not like the truth, but that doesn't make it untrue".

After reading the post, I did not feel that this was the true moral of the story. The moral I would have drawn would be more like: "Integrity is the price of success in publishing".

Of course, it's not just about publishing. Any time there are worldly prizes being striven for, competed for, the question arises: what are we are prepared to do to attain them? I arrived in television at a similar situation: I was told that I must not question the creative decisions of certain network executives, but simply do as instructed. My fate was more like that of assistant editor 1: I was cashiered from a hit show that I had created and written.

Was I outraged? Yes. Did I regret my decision? No. Not then (1993), not now. I regret not fighting harder to make the show even better than it was; I regret whatever ground I may have given that I didn't need to.

No one can corrupt us; the decision is ours alone to make. They can show me the buttocks, they can tell me to kiss them, they can tell me what they'll do to me if I don't kiss them, but the decision to kiss is mine. Industries become corrupt because people who sacrifice their integrity for career success do not like to see people rise who have not made the same sacrifice. Would you? The ego-defense mechanism called rationalization kicks in and you develop a myth to justify your decision and the subsequent ones which are easier to make. Now, for the sake of your own self-esteem, you serve the myth of Necessity: the myth that checking your integrity at the door--kissing ass--is the price of doing business. Someone who doesn't do that isn't One Of Us and has to go. They're guilty of "pride"--the first Deadly Sin.

Of course, kissing ass might be the price of doing business. It was on my show. If so, it's not a business I want to be in. I'd rather be a voice in the wilderness than have success on those terms. In television my allegiance was to my audience, not to power-drunk honchos, not even to my own "career". My allegiance is still to my audience. I'm placing my trust in, betting all my chips on, the conviction that the power of whatever I can create will arc through the insulating wall of ass-kissing careerists to find its audience. I might even find like-minded people who live by the creed that quality really is job one. If I fail, I will have failed by putting my best effort into something I believe in. If I must fail for any reason, let it be that.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

mirror of the past

Steady rain falls through colder air.

Morning notes: A History of Technology and Alexander the Great. From the former I'm now learning about early metallurgy. The specific subheadings this morning were "Beginnings of Metal-Working" and "Gold", both by R. J. Forbes, professor of pure and applied sciences in antiquity at the University of Amsterdam. From the latter I'm now learning about the culture and administration of the Persian empire that Alexander, its soon-to-be conqueror, is taking on. The Persians, tolerant of and open-minded about the cultures they absorbed into their empire, freely intermarried with their new subjects and appointed them to high administrative positions. From their new subjects they absorbed ideas about religion, statecraft, and even how to structure their own royal court.

Alexander, a man in his 20s, in his turn found it advantageous to adopt the methods of the Persians, installing many of his vanquished enemies as satraps and administrators over the territories he was putting under his control. This ecumenical approach was to become the hallmark and defining characteristic of the succeeding Hellenistic age, when Greek-educated Macedonian kings would rule over Oriental domains. It was the first great melting-pot of East and West, and for that reason I see it as a mirror of our own global village.

The imposition of Greek-style political and social systems on nations that had never known these, as far east as Afghanistan, triggered a kind of answering wave from the East, the vital power of Asian religion and mysticism, which washed over the Western societies of Greece and Rome before they realized what had hit them. Gradually, then increasingly, citizens of these seemingly supreme conquering civilizations became converts to religions of the East, which promised direct personal experience of contact with the divine, the absolute--a far cry from the dry, habitual relics that were the state cults of the West. From the East came the idea of the immortal soul and its status, and Western women and men--mainly in that order--discovered a thirst for salvation.

The Western cults had little to say to seekers of salvation; the Eastern had plenty to say. The cult that became known as Christianity was one of these, and for a number of reasons it would triumph in the spiritual marketplace that was Rome and, later, Europe.

Little by little, piece by piece, I put the puzzle together in my mind. The ancient world is a mirror of our own. My very fascination with it is the surest evidence that this is so. I see myself reflected back there, and therefore I see us all.

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Saturday, October 01, 2005

watching shows, finishing books

When I sat down to compose my post yesterday, I received a notice from Blogger.com that the site would be down for an hour. I retreated to post another day.

Sunshine has returned. I just walked down to Blockbuster Video at Park & Tilford shopping center to pick up disc 1 in the DVD series for season 2 of The West Wing, a show Kimmie and I are watching and enjoying--much more than we thought we would. As I watched all 22 episodes of season 1 I was astonished to see that they were almost all written by the show's creator Aaron Sorkin. As a TV series writer-creator myself, I have some idea of what that entails--and I (co)wrote only 13 half-hours for all of our season 1. His days must have been grueling. And with that many episodes in a season, you don't get much of a breather before the next year--perhaps none, since the more prepared you are as you go in, the fewer guns you have pointing at your temple as the season wears on.

Anyway, I find myself inspired by the show, which is how one should be affected by a work of art. It should provoke your mind and your heart with questions about what is important, about how to live life.

A couple of days ago I finished reading a book (not that common for me): Coal: A People's History by Barbara Freese. I thought it was very good. Freese, an assistant attorney general of Minnesota, is also an environmentalist, but I believe she treated her subject fairly, and has delivered a well-written and engaging introduction to this important commodity. I bought the book partly because of my own environmentalist leanings, and partly out of an interest in economic commodities. As I am also learning from A History of Technology, history is shaped to an even greater extent than we might think by technological change. Coal, the first fossil fuel to be widely exploited, essentially launched Britain's career as an industrial and political leader of the world.

I also am retiring one of my vocabulary-building bookmarks: it's covered on both sides with words and their definitions written in my small, cartoonist's majuscules. The first word on the bookmark: enjambment (running-over of a sentence from one verse or couplet into another so that closely related words fall in different lines). I don't remember now what book I was reading when I looked up that word. It might have been years ago. The last word on side 2: pintle (a usually upright pivot pin on which another part turns). I believe this word was from David Rohl's From Eden to Exile.

I'll review the words and their definitions, trying to impress them on my memory, then drop the bookmark in the recycling bag. I have no need for a full bookmark.

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