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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

swallowing starfish

Another morning post. I'm at the tail-end of my second mug of coffee; it is only lukewarm. I have been keying notes from Hebrew Religion by Oesterley and Robinson and from Zoroastrians by Mary Boyce. I think I'm going at about the same speed I always have, but progress feels slow, like running in sand.

This blog is ostensibly aimed at recording the creation of a novel, The Mission, but there are difficulties and conflicts here. I don't want to reveal too much, either about the content and plot of the book or about its thematic issues. This makes it hard to talk about, in many ways. I'm reminded of a satirical e-mail I thought of years ago while working at the Insurance Corporation, the sort we might expect from senior management:

It has come to our attention that certain individuals have taken certain actions that have had certain consequences for certain other individuals.

The statement, as far as it goes, might be perfectly true. It is also the antithesis of anything that could be called communication.

I'm not quite in that boat, of course. This blog remains a document of one writer's effort to get a large and atypical project done. Artistically solitary, opinionated, and even cantankerous, I labor slowly and unsteadily (it feels like) at my oversize task. My various worries, problems, and distractions are of the essence of my journey, and most of those I can talk about freely--and have.

Here's one: fear of mediocrity. Having inveighed repeatedly against the sloppy efforts of other writers, I'm conscious of having to live up to a certain standard, if only for the sake of integrity. Usually I feel that I'm not likely to live up to it.

I'm technically not mediocre, of course, at least by my own definition. I feel that a truly mediocre writer is one whose very best efforts yield only average material. These people can be very successful commercially--and indeed might be among the most commercially successful of writers. (For the record: I think that the very most commercially successful, such as J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, are not mediocre.) My best efforts are above average. But there can be a disconnect between the level of quality one knows is attainable, and what one actually puts out. Even though it's counterproductive to think about this while writing a first draft, thoughts cannot be excluded deliberately from one's mind (only unconscious mechanisms of repression can do that).

Mediocrity in this sense can mean underachievement: that the product is not worthy of the effort and time lavished on it. This would probably by a symptom of overambition: biting off more than one can chew. This does send a chill through me. I feel like one of those gulls that Kimmie likes to point out when we're walking at Ambleside Beach: birds bored or unsuccessful in their search for regular food who eat starfish lying among the rocks. The starfish, alive, do not want to be swallowed and make strong efforts to avoid it. We've seen gulls with a starfish half ingested, trying to cope with the two or three muscular arms the creature still has wrapped around the gull's face. Usually the gull can eventually swallow its armor-plated prey, but one young gull we saw a week ago looked like it was choking, and, lacking hands to pull the thing out with, didn't know what to do.

That's what you get when you eat starfish. I do worry that I've got a very, very large, live starfish in my gullet.

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