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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, April 05, 2007

write when ready

Yesterday the train lurched slowly from the station one more time: I started writing chapter 28.

There comes a point where I feel ready, or anyway, ready enough. It happens when I develop enough knowledge of what the chapter is to contain, what it's about, and when I feel a certain excitement or enthusiasm about it. This, at its own small scale, I understand to be the "intoxication" that Nietzsche said must precede the creation of any work of art. The word enthusiasm itself, which I just used, from the Greek enthous, "possessed, inspired", originally meant to be possessed or inspired by a god. No doubt this is also the same as what the poet seeks in turning to his muse, as John Milton did right in the text itself of Paradise Lost.

Many times in the past, impatient to get going, I have launched into writing before the material was ready. It never works out. I start out with the thought, "I'll fix it up in the next draft", but this is hopeless. What happens is that I wind up struggling with the wrong problems at the wrong stage of the process, and therefore in the wrong way and with the wrong results. I don't know enough to be able to write well, and so struggle with the material, feeling blocked. Indeed, as I've said before, I think "writer's block" is just simply insufficient knowledge of one's subject. It's not that the writing is blocked, it's that there's nothing to write.

So I'm learning to be patient. I get worried and depressed when I'm not turning out prose for my work, yet experience has taught me that there's no use writing scenes whose purpose and content I don't yet understand, at least provisionally. I take that worry and direct it at my research--"research" including the thinking-through of the world of my story, including its fictional, made-up aspects. To do this I must make decision after decision, which is hard. But once a decision is made, I feel a sense of solidification and definiteness, as though I had just added more concrete to the foundation of my story.

That definiteness, specificness, seems to be the essence of good writing. The whole process of a work of writing, including "creative" writing, seems to be one of taking a vague but inspiring feeling and gradually shaping it into a definite, intricate, detailed form. A weak piece of writing shows signs of lingering vagueness. The writer contents himself with "he put on a hat", instead of visualizing the scene definitely enough, and knowing his character well enough, to write "he put on his tweed motoring cap". Notice the difference?

The vagueness of course can run right through a project, all the way up to its thematic level--its heart. These will be the weakest works of all--those in which the writer is unsure of what he or she is trying to say at all. When you're not sure of what you're trying to say, you don't know what belongs in your story or what belongs out.

You can't start out sure of what you're trying to say. You might think you know, but if you don't discover anything new in the writing, you are merely a lecturer. This is why nothing can be any good after only one draft. I think only the most rudimentary and uncreative stories can be written that way.

No doubt there are lots of exceptions to these rules. It may well be that a great work can be written without the writer knowing consciously exactly what it means, what its deepest message is--it will be unconscious knowledge. But I believe that the ideal process for writing a creative work is one in which you work your way through a first draft as best you can, then read it over and discover what you're really writing about, that is, become conscious of it, and then go on to write the subsequent drafts in that conscious knowledge. Now you can throw out scenes that don't belong, and do this with a sure hand. And you can beef up scenes that are not strong enough, because you know why they're necessary.

Yes, I'm trying to convince myself that it's okay to tinker so much with my material before writing each chapter. But it is okay, dammit. It is.


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