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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Man Thinking (not Man Writing)

Back at my station after some days of unusual things, one being my birthday (yesterday). I spent it quietly at home but received some nice e-mails and phone calls. In the evening Kimmie, Robin, and I went down to Pasparos Restaurant for a Greek dinner to celebrate, then came home to settle down in front of two hours of American Idol, which has launched its fifth season. (As I said to a friend in an e-mail, if cringing is an exercise then I'm on my way to getting in shape.) Kimmie had given me a bottle of The Balvenie "DoubleWood" 12-year-old single-malt scotch whisky, a dark, honeyish, flavorful drink. I sipped a couple of those while watching young Americans strive to become celebrities.

I struggle on with resistance to my project. I'm working on notes for chapter 21. "Is there no end of studying for this thing?" I ask myself. "Could anything possibly be worth it?" As each chapter, through my own design mind you, forces me to push my investigations into new areas (in this case, the political setup surrounding the still-new Roman province of Syria), I feel an inertia, an unwillingness to pick up cudgels to open up a new area of inquiry. Some part of my inner crew is either on sit-down strike or is threatening it (it's hard to tell which at my level of output).

It's also anxiety about how to proceed. That never leaves me, it seems. When I sit down and open up my notes document, I'm faced with the fact that I'm not sure what exactly to do, where to start. I find this anxiety vaguely embarrassing, as though I should have this problem licked by now. I've written a lot of words in my day, and quite a few large projects. At times like these it doesn't seem to help me.

One of my latest tricks is to go through my previous day's notes with Word's built-in highlighter, highlighting usable material--things I expect will make it into the chapter. Highlighting forces me to concentrate, and feels good whether there is lots of highlighted material or not, since the highlights mean I have good "keeper" ideas, and sections without highlights is stuff I can ignore from now on. My last day of notes, from Monday, I had to highlight heavily, which felt good. An example--this was my first paragraph of notes from Monday:

Caesar's unexpected early, solo arrival would spur us to action ahead of schedule, catching us off-guard. Not bad. Caesar is already a step ahead of us.

I highlighted it all except for the interpolated comment "not bad".

A recent birthday survivor, I went easy on myself. My desire for quality, to get things--everything--right, is uncompromising. This is a trait of what James Hillman calls the "acorn"--the inborn seed of our nature that invariably and continuously seeks expression in our lives. The acorn doesn't play politics with the real world. It demands maximum expression of itself, come what may. If that leads to a life of penury, misery, and ridicule, so be it.

But I wanted to share something else. I have been making various complaints along these lines to Warren, and as part of his birthday greeting yesterday he sent me this extract from a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was called "The American Scholar", and was given to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837, when Emerson was 34. This was the section Warren sent:

I have now spoken of the education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action. It remains to say somewhat of his duties.

They are such as become Man Thinking. They may all be comprised in self-trust. The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. Flamsteed and Herschel, in their glazed observatories, may catalogue the stars with the praise of all men, and, the results being splendid and useful, honor is sure. But he, in his private observatory, cataloguing obscure and nebulous stars of the human mind, which as yet no man has thought of as such,--watching days and months, sometimes, for a few facts; correcting still his old records;--must relinquish display and immediate fame. In the long period of his preparation, he must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept--how often!--poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society, and especially to educated society. For all this loss and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart....

I felt much cheered by reading this. It heartens me and lights the way awhile as I get ready to spend another year, one of the few coins of life we each receive at birth.

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