What is the status of my project, my novel? I have certainly lost compression this past month, gripped by feelings of self-criticism and worry about my life-choices, and examining these to the best of my ability, in writing. I believe it was Nietzsche who said that someone who has a why to live can put up with almost any how. I feel similarly about writing: I need to know, in some sense, why I'm doing what I'm doing in order to maintain my motivation. So I'm wondering, what do I know, anyway? What have I got to offer?
Lately I've been letting my mind run. Like deep-sea fishing: a marlin takes the hook and you have to let it run; the fish is just too big and powerful to control at first. The line pays out at ferocious speed, whizzing off the great spool. In my case, my thoughts have turned from the astrological examination of my current situation, seeing this stage as part of my life story, to investigating the theme of my life story itself: what is its controlling idea to date? The term is from Robert McKee. He defines it thus in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:
A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.
An important strand, maybe the main strand, of my life is itself a search for meaning in the form of clear beliefs to hold and live by. This is the same as mythology, in Joseph Campbell's view. Put simply: a search for truth. And my life has gone through distinct stages, or "acts" in story terms, in the unfoldment of this search.
But what are my beliefs right now? And what is my stance toward the material I'm writing about--the world of belief as it existed in 48 BC, and as it set the agenda for belief over the coming 2,000 years? To some extent I simply trust the material of the story, trust that my creative and technical work in devising characters and events will reveal what needs to be revealed: that the meaning of the work is already latent within it, I just need to keep writing and letting stuff happen.
On the other hand, I don't feel that's quite so. I can't simply park my conscious mind, my reasoning mind, or assign it only to the technical task of executing my story; I must reach for the stars with my rational self too. I must do my utmost to become conscious of the meaning of what I'm doing, and not simply wait for that to come to me. In short, I must work at it.
So that's what I've been doing. Or, at least, that's what I've been telling myself that's what I'm doing. As I say, I have been letting my mind free-run, and whether its course is project-related or not I can't really tell. I have been making notes, thinking, checking books.
This morning the chase took me to my copy of The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade, a text I bought in May 1982, just after returning from my solo trip to Europe, Israel, and Africa. I was still on the track of trying to get to the ideas underlying my novel project of the time, More Things to Come, which, as I have mentioned before, was built around the beliefs of a fictitious millenarian cult. Fascinated by apocalypse, I wanted to understand the ideas--the belief-system of one who believes in a destination for history. The subtitle of Eliade's book, Cosmos and History, suggest more of what it's about, and it seemed right up my alley.
Indeed it was--and still is, for my current work, The Age of Pisces, is really about the same thing: the conflict between the ideas of the "eternal return"--the notion that all is cyclic, and there is nothing truly new under the sun--and history: the notion that there is actual change, novelty, in the world. This topic is even deeper than it appears. I must be closer to understanding it than I was in 1982, but I don't feel that way.
In broad terms, I suspect that the conflict, the dialogue, between the "cyclic world" (which always resolves back to its timeless truths, timeless gods) and the "historical world" (which tumbles forward painfully and possibly meaninglessly) amounts to the conflict between the ossified order of the "found truth"--the freezing of society that occurs when those in power want to keep a good thing going--and the spirit of adventure: the hero questing for the means to redeem himself and his society, to heal it of its sickness.
The two depend on each other. If the world does not languish ill, the hero has no task, no function. On the other hand, if there is no hero to redeem society, then that society continues to harden into a mask of itself, an inflexible shell, like Brocq's disease, in which one's skin turns into hard, barklike plates, so that eventually one cannot move at all without shattering and bleeding.
Anyway, this morning I was keying from The Myth of the Eternal Return, rereading the book again while I typed the highlighted portions, excited by the depth and perceptiveness of Eliade's observations. Among my source authors, only Campbell himself do I rate more highly. The titles of its four chapters give an idea of the content: "Archetypes and Repetition", "The Regeneration of Time", "Misfortune and History", and "The Terror of History".
Everyone in the world bases his or her actions on beliefs about how the world is. In general, these beliefs are vague, unconscious, or mistaken. The implications of this are enormous, beyond imagining. But if one is aware of the problem, and wants to address it, what does one do? Where does one turn? Whom does one ask? According to Campbell, the hero goes forth armed with trust in himself and his own experience of value. Seek, and ye shall find.
I'm seeking. I have found a lot, but I am not at a place of rest, of insight into my own message, the controlling idea of my work. I know I can't simply down tools while hunting for the ultimate answer for everything--and yet now is a time for reflection and search, and to allow the results of this to percolate into the work. The part of me that wants results--a big part--feels pain at the slowdown.
Labels: ideas, my life history, novel openings, research, Robert McKee, storytelling, the writing process, writing problems