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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 15, 2005


I've entered the nasal-drip phase of a full-on headcold. The symptoms (raw, gluey throat; "bowling-ball head" syndrome) grew over me in the night. I mainly lay awake thinking about things.

So I took it easy on this clear, bright day with the sun riding not far above the building-tops of Vancouver across the harbor. "Took it easy" means that I did my usual things, but with no sense of push or demand for output. Perhaps not coincidentally, my output was not bad. No actual prose-writing, since I'm still in the planning stages of chapter 20, but walking through research material, pasting the odd research paragraph into my notes document, and making new notes of my own under today's dateline.

I do everything slowly (except, perhaps, eat--according to some). For example, for a bookish type I don't read very fast. I think when I was a kid I tested on the high side of average, but was not in the top 10% or 20%, as I was academically. I can't stand to rush. I find skimming material and speed-reading stressful and unpleasant--something I would do for work-related documents where the writing was dreadful anyway. To me, speed-reading says "work", not "pleasure".

Likewise with writing: I can write quite well, quickly. But in general I prefer not to, for that too feels like work, not pleasure. When The Odyssey went into production Warren and I had to put out a lot of material quickly, under ever-harsher deadlines (and with plenty of adventitious problems unrelated to the actual writing). This was a definite stressor: high-stakes writing ($430,000 per episode, churning through the mill every two weeks) to inflexible deadlines. Warren and I were both pushed far from our natural working methods, forcing ourselves to churn out "creative" material on demand. It was fun only at certain times: when we finished a draft, and were pretty happy with it (we wouldn't turn it in otherwise); and then toward the end of season 1, when our troublesome "boss" had been fired off the show and we realized that we were going to make it. Furthermore, the last couple of episodes were directed by Rex Bromfield, who was relaxed and really "got" the show (other directors did as well!). The last couple-three episodes felt more like coasting, and there was the relaxation on everyone's part that a really good season was in the bag--not a given by any means when you're starting out.

When the last episode was finished and we'd written all the voiceover stuff for the sound-edit, I spent a week at KDOL (initialism for a Tibetan name) on Salt Spring Island near Vancouver, a Buddhist retreat center in a deep rural setting (no electricity). I meditated most of every day and joined the few residents at mealtimes. I cooled my hot mind.

So: slow as she goes. Every once in a while I think back to a Mad magazine piece (probably in the late 1960s) that offered a paean to pets in the form of new lyrics to familiar songs. One of these was a song to a pet turtle, "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Pace" (to the tune, naturally, of "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face"). Since I didn't know the original, I had to get Mom to sing it for me. Now I only remember the title. But the sentiment sticks with me. I would like to grow accustomed to my own pace. I still haven't, but maybe this headcold is here to help me out.

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