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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

research and values

I'm doing research again. Or maybe I should express it like the old joke: "Are you drinking again?" "No--still."

I'm still researching.

So what is research? It's the more or less systematic process of discovering knowledge. As I've said many times here, without knowledge, the writer has nothing to write. Knowledge forms the stock of writable material; research builds up that stock.

In my mind I divide my research into two kinds: subject-matter research about history, technology, dress, customs, and so on; and thematic research about the meaning-content of my story. I enjoy both but my real preference is for thematic research. With subject-matter research I sometimes feel there is indeed such a thing as doing too much--learning too many things that I will never be able to, or even want to, use. Time spent doing that does indeed eat into the time one might be spending actually writing one's story.

I don't feel the same way about thematic research. Here, as far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing as too much. This is research to learn about the why of my story: why am I telling this story? why does it matter?

According to Robert McKee, in his book Story:

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?

Ultimately each of us has only a single asset: time. Each of us has an unknown but finite and ever-dwindling allotment of days, hours, minutes, and seconds on Earth. Each moment we spend this resource. Mine grows smaller as I type this; yours grows smaller as you read it. What's the best way to spend it? What's the right way to spend it? Like shoppers in a cosmic mall, we're surrounded by come-ons and inducements to spend--to give our time here or there in the quest for love or career attainments or religious purity. Which should we choose, and why, and how?

This question, I believe, is finally about values. Just as the decision to spend money on something is made on the basis of valuing that thing, so is the decision to spend time. Indeed, money is time, inasmuch as it represents our labor, our time, in earning it. But money can come and go. Our stock of time remains fixed, and only decreases. So time is the real money, and what induces us to spend it here or there is a question of values. What we value most highly is where we spend most of our time--or at least, that's where we want to spend it. Often we spend time doing things that we would rather not be doing, such as going to an unfulfilling job each day--and yet this too expresses a value. We work in order to survive, and we avoid reaching out for something more fulfilling out of fear of failure or lack, thus expressing a preference for the value of safety or security.

Stories are about values, or, more specifically, about conflicts of values. When we weigh the values of fulfillment vs. safety in our own lives, for example, we experience a conflict of values. We make a choice and live with the result. In a story we get to see characters going through this same process, which is the process of living, of spending our sole asset of time. Different characters carry different values, including different conflicting values, and the landscape of the story is designed to put these values to the test.

We respond most to those characters whose value-problems resemble our own. An important character for me has been Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It might not be easy to express exactly what the values are, but I feel them. They have to do with finding one's own integrity as an artist and as a person, and having the courage to live in that integrity, despite pressures on all sides to abandon it and conform with one or another group, all of whom seem to have claims on one's allegiance. This unlikely hero--a weak, nearsighted little bookworm--turns out to have greater integrity and greater courage than the swaggering athletes and pious churchmen and nationalist firebrands around him. He reaches within himself, almost unaided, to find the courage to walk a solitary path to an unknown destiny. One way of expressing what Joyce was saying in this novel is that time spent in discovering and living one's own personal destiny is not wasted, even though the struggle to do so is often far from pleasant.

Values are ideas. They are represented by specific thoughts, which can be expressed. Thematic research, for me, is the investigation of the idea content, the values content, of my story. To be honest, I still don't really know what it is; that's why I'm researching. Not knowing this is anxiety-causing. There's a feeling of taking a flier here on an unknown--much like life itself.


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