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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, November 21, 2005

dialogue on the purpose of life

I rose with good intentions before 6:00 to get to work right away on continuing to draft chapter 19. Wet gray fog continued to swirl in the darkness outside. I opened my chapter documents, but couldn't resist also opening the file in which I'm investigating my own life: "The Hero with a Thousand Faces--annotated" file. In this I have been going through the turning-points of my own life, looking on it as a story: my myth.

Five years ago, under the influence of my mother who was embarking on writing a memoir, I bought a book called Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer, a TV-writer-producer-turned-writing-teacher. This is a good book, and I was immediately excited by it. Rainer, like me, was a TV writer, but she specialized in made-for-TV movies, and particularly in those that told the life-stories of real people. She had learned to use her training as a scriptwriter to discover the dramatic structure of true stories, and when she branched out into teaching "lifewriting" to others, this was a large part of what she taught others--those who wanted to write about their own lives--to do.

I had a headstart, since I had already received similar training in creating dramatic structure, so I leaped in, doing the exercises in her book and inventorying the events of my life as dramatic turning-points. Excitedly I created Word files, listing events and arranging and rearranging them. I became passionate about learning more about my parents' lives, how their lives had led to mine and influenced it from before the time I was born. (I believe my enthusiasm for this infected my father and influenced him in a "roots" exploration of his own which eventually resulted in a memoir of his early life, from his birth in Riga, Latvia, in 1934, through his experiences in refugee camps with his mother in Germany during the war and in Red Cross "DP" camps afterward--a document which he shared with his children and which I treasure.)

I was excited by the idea of getting away from fiction-writing with its limitations (as I have written about before in this blog), and turning to nonfiction with its potentially greater inherent richness. The material was already there to be written; I just had to structure the events into a dramatic line.

I made several attempts. I wrote a number of vignettes of my earliest memories--looking for images, clues that might offer a ray of light into my story. I divided the events of my life into groups according to different storylines: the search for truth, my vocation as an artist, the search for love, and so on. But, as ever, I found the dramatic shaping of the events, even when the events were already given to me, as these were, difficult. If I were structuring a fictional work, I would be asking, "What is the main story? Which is the A-line?" Which was the A-line?

That question is tantamount to: what is your life about? What is the theme of your life? Or, starkly: Why were you born?

I thought I knew. Then I didn't know. Then I thought I knew again. Then I didn't again. I fiddled, I rearranged. I created new documents and rearranged the beads yet again, paring them down, relabeling them. I didn't feel I "had" it. My own story was eluding me.

I put it away. Or rather it drifted away from me, as things do: more days would stretch by without my working on it. I had made a few tries, written a number of pages about a couple of sections of my life (and my prelife), but these were only guesses. I didn't know what my story was, even though I knew all the events in it. A peculiar and in its way instructive experience.

Developing and sustaining the will to finish my current project, this book, is calling for all of my powers of concentration and commitment. The project itself is asking the question: What is your life about? Or: "You're burning up your life to write me, so I must be saying something that you very badly want to say."

This morning as I burrowed deeper into my investigative document I keyed some material from Liz Greene's excellent book The Astrological Neptune:

When Neptune aspects the Sun in the birth chart, the need for individual self-expression and the longing for the formlessness of prebirth are forced into dialogue. The subject of the conversation, conscious or unconscious, is the purpose of one's life.... Because the Sun symbolizes those values and goals which develop fully at midlife, forming the bedrock of the individual's sense of personal destiny, the Sun-Neptune individual needs to include the Neptunian world in his or her chosen path in life. Otherwise, nagging discontent, disillusionment, and apathy may undermine everything one tries to do.

Yes! For I am that Neptunian individual--in spades. Neptune in the 1st house, where it is inherently strong and dominant, and square my Sun: a strong, stressful aspect. There it is: the dialogue on the purpose of my life, and the advice that this purpose may clarify only at midlife--where I am now. The need to include "the Neptunian world" in my chosen path--the world of redemption.

Here's more:

Sun-Neptune may signify the musician, the actor, the composer, the playwright, the writer of poetry and fiction.... Neptune's empathy with human suffering and longing marks the Sun-Neptune individual's creative endeavors with a quality of universality. These forms of expression are solar as well as oceanic; they have body, although they are fluid; they necessitate conscious effort, dedication, individual choice, sensual contact and imagery. Neptune makes the Sun-ego porous, open to the waters of the unseen world.

And finally this:

Enormous imaginative and creative potential is reflected in Sun-Neptune contacts. But if one is to express that potential, one must build a strong vessel to contain the sacred wine.

As I reread this material, I started to feel better again about my project. It does indeed bear the theme of my life in some way, is the message I am bringing back from the mythological journey of my life so far.

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  • Ah, so your family is from Latvia. I had wondered if the name Vitols came from that country.

    In case you wonder, I have some rudimentary Latvian and a very nice book with Latvian folk songs. It came with studying Comparative Linguistics in Germany. Besides Latin (which I learned at school) and Sanskrit, you had to pick the basics of three more Indoeuropean languages, and since I covered Russian at school, I decided for Latvian and Ancient Greek. I'd have liked to learn a Celtic language, too, but there was no decent Celtic department. We had to pick two non-Indoeuropean languages as well, that's why I can say Hello in Finnish and fight my way through a paragraph in the Hebrew bible if I want. ;-)

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at November 24, 2005 12:01 PM  

  • Holy smokes, Gabriele. Well, it's a shoo-in you know more Latvian than I do. When I once asked my father to teach it to me, he counseled me to learn "something useful" instead--like French or German. So I speak some French and much less German.

    By Blogger paulv, at November 24, 2005 2:54 PM  

  • If I can find some better books to learn from, I might even take it up again. I like the language, and I want to visit Latvia - Riga especially, together with the other Baltic Hansa towns, but I'd like to see some of the landscape as well.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at November 24, 2005 3:00 PM  

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