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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

the work behind the work

In the long march to the beginning of this project (the novel series I'm calling The Age of Pisces) I spent some time in the 1990s trying to develop my ideas, my beliefs, in the form of pencil notes on a long roll of paper I got, I think, at Ikea. I used to clear off the pine coffee-table (also from Ikea), set the roll on the floor next to it, and unroll the paper across the tabletop. I would then kneel at the table with my pencil, working on my notes. My cowriter Warren dubbed this thing The Scroll, and I still have it: now a bit yellowed with age, it stands against the blue wall of my office next to my wicker wastebasket.

Unrolling the first few inches on the table next to me, I see that I labeled it "Literary Mandala", and it's dated 4 Nov 1994. The idea of the scroll was to set down all my various thoughts and ideas in different areas, and then link them with lines and arrows. I used sketches and diagrams as well--anything that might express my thoughts.

Under the title of the scroll I wrote the heading "Factors or Realities to Relate", and made a bulleted list down the end of the paper (about 24 inches high--the whole roll was maybe, I don't know, 50 feet long):

  • God, Satan, angelology/demonology
  • mathematical-geometric dimensions
  • "science": physics
  • prophetic history: the Great Pyramid & the messianic mission
  • the gyre of astrological history: the precessional ages of man
  • extraterrestrial species & ufology
  • gnosis: salvation thru knowledge (Gnosticism)
  • Hermetism (alchemy): keys to gnosis?
  • Vajrayana: ultimate reality & enlightened society
  • spiritualism & channeling
  • scientific revolution; paradigm-shift
  • personal mythologies, projected mandalas
  • Tarot journey
  • the Holy Grail
  • sacred alphabets
Then I listed a few book titles, and then started writing notes along the paper, mainly in printed majuscules, often putting them in boxes. As I got a few feet in, it started to look a bit like a flowchart.

Out of curiosity, I've just unrolled the scroll on my office floor. I was surprised to discover that I actually made it most of the way through the roll of paper, maybe 40 feet in, all marked up with small penciled notes. Toward the end there is more white space around the notes, and I mainly was drawing radiant diagrams of central concepts such as "the Holy Grail" surrounded by associated ideas (things like "coincidence of opposites", "symbol of supreme value", "transcendence of any single system of symbolism or imagery"), all connected by wandering strands of pencil-lead.

The scroll was a crude paper website. After I got a Windows computer in 1998 (jeepers, the same one I'm using right now) I got myself Microsoft FrontPage so I could build websites for my work. I made some progress with that, but gave up on it when I felt that I was spending too much time learning how to build and maintain the web and not enough actually thinking through my ideas, especially since the web was only for my personal use and not intended to be made public. I could progress faster, I thought, just by keeping my notes in Word documents on the PC.

"Faster" is a relative term, of course. Here it is AD 2007. But I do believe there is something special, and especially intriguing and authoritative, about works of art that have a great depth of preparation underlying them. Da Vinci's "Last Supper" was not something he just sketched out quickly; it was the product of much preliminary work and reflection.

I remember too watching a TV documentary about Canadian painters, back in the 1970s. I'm pretty sure the painter in question was Christopher Pratt. He was working on a painting of a boy and a girl picking apples in an orchard. He did many sketches, and came to represent the scene as having the boy putting red apples into the girl's skirt, the hem of which she held up to form a carrying-bag. The painter narrated the progression of his work. Eventually he came to feel that the boy was redundant. The finished picture showed the girl, facing the viewer, holding up the hem of her skirt, which was full of red apples--an intimate moment of sharing.

"Now the viewer is the boy," said the painter.

I found this to be striking and moving, and it deepened my appreciation of pictures and how a good artist works. The originality and specificness of the finished picture derives from the developmental process the artist went through to arrive at it; the picture is rich with its own history. It's fully evolved and complete.

A work that is thoroughly prepared always has more polish and authority than one that isn't. It also has more originality and personality. These are qualities that I'm seeking for my own work, and I'm willing to devote the time--a great deal of it--to do the preliminary work.


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