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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

story as training for life

"How's the iceberg?" said my chiropractor Terry Dickson as he ran his thumb, hard, up the muscle beside my spine. "No--not iceberg. What was it?"

"Glacier," I said into the leather cleft of the face-pad on his treatment table. He was asking about my writing, referring to an image I gave of myself in an earlier visit.

"Oh yeah--glacier."

"Okay," I said. "Even I have a hard time telling whether I've stopped or not."

Terry laughed.

"Maybe iceberg's better," I said. "Glaciers are disappearing."

"Not this glacier I hope!"

The weather has warmed since Sunday, melting all the snow. Maybe it has also caused this glacier to lurch back into motion, since I have returned to writing these past two days. At the end of last week I solved most of the remaining structural problems with chapter 19, and now I'm typing easily, breezing it. It's all in knowing what you're writing about.

I wanted to say a bit more about what I said in yesterday's post, that stories teach us about life and how to live it. By this I don't mean that stories should self-consciously give "life lessons" to readers; that is a ghastly approach to storytelling. Rather, I mean that stories intrinsically, by virtue of what they are, teach us about life.

Every story is about something, at the level of meaning. It is the meaning level of the story that attracts both the writer and the reader to it. Usually unconsciously, a writer wants to address some particular aspect of life through a story, some theme. Murder mysteries, for example, are almost always about justice. This is usually the value at stake in a story about murder (the term is from Robert McKee and his key work Story); will the protagonist catch the killer, or not--and how? The meaning of the work will be contained in whether the protagonist catches the killer, by what means, and at what cost. The killer will represent a different, competing value, like greed, or revenge. The story then is (among other things) a mythical contest between these values.

The issue of justice affects us all. Every single one of us relates with justice in our lives, in different ways, different arenas, at different levels of intensity. It is relevant to my life and to yours. A story in which justice is at stake therefore has meaning to us; it matters. We can learn from it. The same is true for the thematic conflicts Kate mentioned in her comment: the abuse of power, integrity vs. practicality, and so on. These affect us all; every adult has experienced them directly in his or her own life. These things don't distance me from Robert the Bruce; they identify me with him. We are one. Every life contains all the emotions. This means that every well-told story has the power to touch us, the power to show us life.

Nonetheless, some issues are more important to each of us than others. Therefore certain types of stories appeal to me more than others. I mentioned Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave yesterday as my pick for a good historical novel. I've read this three or four times all the way through, first in the mid-1970s. The last time I read it was late 2001. I was at a decision-point, even crisis-point (yes--another one!) in my life. I was working for the Insurance Corporation, feeling restless, dissatisfied, and wanting to move on with my life. I wasn't sure how. Stewart's story of the young Merlin, struggling to know of his parentage and to discover his destiny, struck a deep chord in me: it spoke to me. He followed his inner promptings, and learned to recognize signs in his world, symbols of the gods speaking to him. This led him on to his true vocation and destiny--what he had been born to do. It was not easy, and it was dangerous. But it was his own truth.

It would not be too much to say that The Crystal Cave played a role in my decision to leave the company and journey to Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton to become a monk and study the Buddhist teachings. I did those things, and am very glad I did. Mary Stewart, wherever you are: you showed me how to live, a little bit. I appreciate it.

I of course don't mean to say that stories are meant to present protagonists that we are supposed to emulate directly in our lives. I don't want to be Dirty Harry in any way. But the issue of justice vs. injustice, in particular how institutions set up to promote and enforce justice can actually create its opposite, is still of keen interest, and I want to see how these values play out dramatically.

In short: it is a "high hurdle", as Kate observed--but the hurdle is not due to my fussy tastes; it is built in to storytelling itself. This is the hurdle the writer agrees to jump in taking on the artistic task of storytelling. Let's not kid ourselves about how difficult it is to do well. And all the more praise for those who succeed: I thank you all.

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  • You may be interested in the following piece on Dara Horn at 'Grumpy Old Bookman'
    John C

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 12, 2005 12:38 AM  

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