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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 28, 2006

you have to love it

An early post today, as I'm to head off to Mom's place for lunch--a near-weekly tradition now.

I returned to my desk at around 6:30 this morning, coffee mug in hand, and nudged myself back to my project after touring through some news stories online (I'm experimenting with Google News, getting fed up with distracting animated ads on CNN.com, as well as increasingly frivolous content).

Somehow I have become wrapped up in symbolism--delving into the symbolic aspects of my story, researching the meaning of different possible images. In a way I disapprove of myself as I do this, since it seems like intellectual footling and not really related to storytelling. And yet symbolism is at the heart of all storytelling, since, as Robert McKee declares, the cardinal rule of good storytelling is that nothing is as it appears.

Nothing is as it appears. This operates on many levels. On the level of imagery, it means that a boat is not a boat, a knife is not a knife. That is, a boat is not merely a boat; a knife is not merely a knife. Every story is like a dream, where meanings are expressed through images and through events. So the storyteller is confronted continuously with the questions, which images? which events?

The task is difficult, fussy, and uncertain. There are moments of illumination and inspiration--but much more questing and tinkering. I feel like a plumber down in the sub-basement of my story, digging and wrestling with rusted pipes in a cramped, dark space that is not intended for human occupancy. Just getting a rusted nut off can be a minor triumph. Minor, as well as private and useless in itself.

But I think of the last time a plumber was in my house, about five years ago, installing a new hot-water heater. Small, wiry, and enthusiastic, he liked nothing better than talking about his work. While he torched solder onto the new joins he talked about the many call-outs and late-night jobs he'd had. He was entirely cheerful about it.

"It's not enough to like this work," he said. "You have to love it."

I felt joy for him, as well as admiration. He loves plumbing. And if I'm honest with myself, I love poring through A Dictionary of Symbols and The White Goddess and the Dictionary of Word Origins, making discoveries and connecting meanings--finding a hidden network of order beneath the chaos of my incomplete work.

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