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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, May 31, 2007

the worldly artist

A quasi day off yesterday. Kimmie took the day off to celebrate Robin's birthday; we took her out to lunch at Milestones in Park Royal. It was a sunny day, like summer, and we dined outside on the wide, closed-in patio by the parking-lot. Robin is now 26, the age I was when I first formed a serious relationship with her mother. She is a self-composed independent adult; who knows how I might have changed in the same period?

I'm still looking to provide breathing-space for The Mission. For more than a week I have just been ticking over with my research reading. Yes, I need to work on how to balance my various responsibilities--any copywriting or other revenue-generating work I might have along with my artistic project. This has always been a challenge for anyone involved in the creative life. There is no simple way to solve it; it's a personal matter.

In my case, I'm relatively practical, hard-nosed, and bourgeois for a creative type. I'm attracted to business, science, and political affairs, especially public policy, and especially as this affects people on a global scale. Although I'm strange and eccentric and somewhat neurotic, I've never been an otherworldly aesthete who has no head for practical things or for figures or business. On the contrary, I'm generally a shrewd and inventive negotiator, and I positively enjoy putting together deals (although I'm not by nature a salesman or a trader in any sense). I like finding mutually beneficial arrangements bounded by clear agreements and rules. I like structure and clarity.

I'm interested by money and am very good at handling it. For a layman I have a solid grasp of capital markets, investing, and finance. I understand interest rates and compounding, and have a pretty good knowledge of the Canadian tax system. I hate wasting money (or anything else) but I'm not stingy; I like getting good value for money, and I can live on very little--indeed, I tend to be interested and stimulated by the problem of living within my means. I believe that the best value for money is a good charitable donation; when I was single I dedicated 10% of my earnings to CARE Canada to feed people who weren't eating enough--a cause that still haunts my heart and to which I still donate.

As a result of all this, although I'm an artist by nature, I own my own house and am debt-free. I can talk business with worldly people and enjoy it. In an important sense, I'm one of them.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

writing for dollars, reading for love

Except for my inner emotional tusslings, yesterday went normally. It was sunny and cloudy, and I beavered away on my copywriting work, not really affected by my previous sleeplessness. Kimmie is suffering soreness on her right side, so we did a low-powered walk through the neighborhood rather than a full-on power-walk. Both fatigued, we were in bed before 8:30 p.m., while it was still light out and a neighbor was still using a power saw. I took half a Sleep Aid and slept through till 4:11, feeling much better.

But I'm feeling a bit bad that I'm not pushing my book forward these past few days, after my recovery of enthusiasm or direction last week; it feels as though I'm kind of flunking a quiz. "Ah--you feel motivated? Let's test that motivation..."

But my research reading seems to be telling me that I'm on the right track; I'm learning new things that I believe will make a difference to my story, to the way I see its world and my own world. There is simply no denying that my discovery of the world of my story, and my discovery of its characters, is a slow, slow process. They have not sprung up fully formed. They are more like figures emerging slowly from a fog, or images appearing on photographic paper while it's being developed. Developing a photograph is a chemical process that can't be rushed. If you use developer that's too strong, in a hurry to get the image, you ruin it--you lose the subtlety and full detail of the image. Such is my memory of it, anyway, when I developed film and prints in the darkroom at high school. The image is there on the paper, latent. You need to be patient and just minister to the process.

As I do my reading, I feel my viewpoint changing, evolving, developing. Gradually I'm acquiring expertise. As I read, I witness the diversity of views among the experts, and gain a sense of the range of possibilities, and my own freedom from reliance on any one borrowed point of view. This freedom gives me the power of creative choice. Robert McKee talks about this in connection with the writer's research: knowledge of your world, that is, the world of your story, gives you choices. These choices become the possibilities of your story; the more you know about the world, the more of these you have. Depth of familiarity equals creative freedom.

All stories demand a suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader; we play the game of accepting the artifice of a story, the fact that it is not reality but an imaginary construct. But, having stepped through that magic doorway and suspended my disbelief, I want to believe. Within the imaginary world of the story I want to find credibility and consistency; I want to find truth. Whatever emotional and spiritual truths a story might offer will arise only among the hard granite and oak of its setting and the firm but yielding flesh of its characters. And the more fantastic the story, the more solid and real it needs to be.

On a labor of love, no amount of work is too much, of course. Is there such a thing as too much love?

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Monday, May 28, 2007

sound theories, absurd practices

Tired today after a mainly sleepless night. I woke at 12:30, and with various concerns pressing on my mind, I eventually decided to go downstairs and read. I'd had a mild headache since Kimmie and I got home from our outing yesterday (the annual New Westminster Heritage Tour of houses), but assumed that it was dehydration, since I hadn't had any water all day. So I drank lots of water, and also a couple of whiskies, while I sat reading The Golden Bough in the dead of night. The reading itself was very pleasant and interesting, and made me feel that the night was not a complete waste. Then I lay on the sofa under a couple of blankets, and whiled away the remaining hour or so until dawn. It was good to get up and start making the coffee and so on.

Since then I've made a journal entry, and keyed notes from A History of Israel, volume 2. But my plan is to spend most of today working on my writing-for-hire.

My reading in The Golden Bough was from chapters 49 and 50: "Ancient Deities of Vegetation as Animals" and "Eating the God". I picked it up at the final section of chapter 49, "Virbius and the Horse", and in the first paragraph read these words:

Myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten. The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice.

I was struck, for this was already the conclusion I had formed from reading the book so far, and have been thinking about for the past few weeks. Based on Frazer's evidence, I thought that the definition of superstition ought to be, simply, "a new explanation for an old practice"; and here Frazer himself was dishing up basically the same thought, summarizing what he has been presenting over the past 625 pages (much more in the original work, of course). Those six words, "Myth changes while custom remains constant", portend vast things for our human condition.

Recently too I read a definition of myth that I had not heard before, quoted by Neil Forsyth in his The Old Enemy:

Myths are the stories we believe.

Plugging that idea into Frazer's observation, myth is the believable story we tell to account for a practice we're already doing. The practice itself is a cultural habit, and like all habits, is very difficult to break, even if one wants to, and generally we don't want to break our cultural habits. Why should we? They've always been there; they're part of our identity, part of who "we" are.

This is a rich topic, but I'm afraid I don't have the mental power right now to explore it further. Maybe tomorrow!

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Friday, May 25, 2007

the artist: pregnant, worried, normal

Still involved mainly with copywriting. Due to the short timeline it's taking most of my days this week, and no doubt on into next week. I'm afraid my own creative project sits in neutral except for a bit of note-typing in the early morning, my research reading in the afternoon, and of course some worrying in the dead of night.

In fairness to my project, a goodly chunk of that worry is devoted to the fact that I'm not really working on it at the moment. The worry takes the form of, How will it ever get finished if I don't work on it? Since the answer to that question is straightforward and undeniable, worry ensues.

I have to accept that worry is a normal part of the process--normal for me, anyway. I've been thinking about the relationship of creators to their work, and how a creative work is indeed much like a child. One of the similarities is that once it is made (born), it becomes its own person with its own career, independent of oneself. It might be loved by others, hated, or largely ignored, the exact reaction being hard to predict in any individual case.

No doubt there are countless examples of creative works--like children--for whom great things are predicted by their creators, but who never achieve any conspicuous success. But there are the interesting opposite cases too, of created works for which their creators foresaw only a modest career, but which went on to fame and fortune. I think of the little book Man's Search for Meaning by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, essentially a memoir of his experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz. He expected the book to have a certain limited appeal to his fellow psychiatrists, but not beyond that, and he wrote the main draft in nine days. When it was eventually published it became an international bestseller (and deservedly so), to his own astonishment.

Another book that shocked its own creator with its success, as I recall, was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974. This odd book, a mix of philosophy, autobiography, and I think fiction, became an immense bestseller for Robert Pirsig, its author. It represented a discontinuity, not part of the smooth stream of things being produced and published at the time, not part of the pack.

As I think about it now, I like both of these books partly because they are not frivolous. The authors take life seriously and have something important to say about it. I feel heartened that there is (or was) an audience--a large one--for that type of work, for when I look at what is being published as fiction today, and produced in film and TV, I see a great tide of frivolity. Contrast this observation by Thomas Pynchon in the introduction to his collection of stories called Slow Learner:

When we speak of "seriousness" in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death--how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate. Everybody knows this, but the subject is hardly ever brought up with younger writers, possibly because given to anyone at the apprentice age, such advice is widely felt to be effort wasted.

To me, frivolity arises from pretending there is no such thing as death. Our society as a whole tends to indulge in this neurotic fantasy, so perhaps it's no surprise that so many of our cultural and artistic products reflect it.

Anyway, I set out to say that, given the parallel between a created work and a child, I'm now still at the gestating-mother stage. As far as I know, it's normal for mothers-to-be, especially first-time ones, to worry, at least sometimes. "What if that hamburger I ate has a negative effect on junior?", etc. The worries themselves probably do not have any positive effect on the developing baby, but they probably don't have much negative effect either. Nature takes its course, and the result is an unexpected creature--often one that has certain distressing similarities to one's own parents...

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

tricks for getting out of bed

Just as in personal finance the advice is, "pay yourself first," meaning that whenever you have income, you should set aside a predetermined amount for your own savings before you start paying your bills, so in my own writing life: first thing each day I like to do something to push ahead my own project, even if I have work for others to do. Among other things, this sends the right message to one's unconscious, or one's guardian angel, or one's "acorn", and to anyone else who may be concerned: it's an acknowledgment that you understand what your mission is, and you are putting it first.

Plus, it makes it easier to get out of bed at some unreasonable time in order to get at it. For me, this morning, I rolled out just after 6:00, having woken at 3:38 and lain awake for the following hour and a half or so. By 5:30 I was asleep, but that's when the alarm goes off, and it's showtime.

I have considered trying to push ahead my actual writing--the prose itself--in my early-morning block, over coffee, but have so far been too scared and not up for it. In the past I have managed that a few times. But that too might make it hard to get out of bed. Instead, I lure myself off the mattress and down the stairs with the thought of easing into my day by keying research notes--easy, fairly interesting work (for awhile) that creates a definite sense of productivity. As a typist (as opposed to as a writer) you have a nice, steady, measurable output, which is also a gratifying message to send oneself.

But now my second mug of coffee is almost drained. Soon, soon it will be time to pick up tools and press forward with paid work. In fact, I might as well get at it. I've got lots to do, and the weekend is racing toward me...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

from magic to religion

Time to type in a quick blog-post. I'm pushing the pace a bit so I can get to a current copywriting task that has a close deadline. Although very few deadlines in life are "real", as an independent contractor it's well to meet them if possible.

Still, over morning coffee (and I'm still on my second mug) I like to type in some research notes. Today it was from Frazer's classic The Golden Bough, chapters 44 and 45, about "Demeter and Persephone" and "The Corn-mother and the Corn-maiden in Northern Europe", respectively.

Obscure, you say? Maybe. Personally I'm finding Frazer's book, first published in 1922, even more fascinating on this read-through than I did when I first read (most of) it in 1978-79 on my trip to Europe with Tim. I remember back then picking up the hefty paperback with a sense almost of obligation, as something I should read, but usually finding myself more drawn in than I expected. The Golden Bough bogs down only in amassing examples of Frazer's various points, which amassing he did in order to show the truly worldwide scope of his theory, as well as to offer maximum support for an argument that he expected to be resisted by the reader.

For Frazer looked into a great many of the strange, even baffling, customs, rites, and superstitions of the world, on every inhabited continent, and saw order and purpose. We receive traditions, our culture, and act out things as it were automatically, in the same way that our body performs things by habit. Thus, in the same way that we put up and decorate Christmas trees and hide Easter eggs and dress our kids in costumes to go trick-or-treating, other people dance around maypoles or call the last sheaf of harvested wheat the Old Woman or give up their children to be roasted alive in a bronze bull.

Frazer's project, which took him decades, had him tracking the gradual evolution of magic into religion--for he contends that magic is the more ancient view of the world, what he regards as a primitive form of science. In his view, an animistic view of the world, in which every object had its own life and soul, not unlike the way we regard the world as young children, evolves into a world in which invisible but anonymous spirits animate things, able to flit from one to another, until eventually these spirits become identified as individuals--as gods, with names and biographies. Ultimately, in Frazer's rationalistic eyes, this view becomes superseded by a scientific outlook, in which the forces of nature are seen in their most objective and also effective way. No doubt in deference to his readers, he pays lip service to the validity of Christian belief, but it seems unlikely that Frazer, having examined so much world mythology, and having described so many beliefs and rites that are essentially the same as the Christian myth, personally bought into any religion as more valid than the others.

Reading The Golden Bough is still an eye-opener for me. Our whole rationalistic, scientific worldview is like a thin shim of ice on an ocean of beliefs and feelings that are alien to it. I'm relatively unsuperstitious, but it's still there within me, a vague fear sometimes of not doing things a certain way, of not following the "proven" path. Even my father used to wear a special pair of red socks to do video-editing, because they made the equipment work. It was a joke, of course--and yet I'm pretty sure he wore the socks. Frazer would understand that immediately as an instance of "contagious magic": probably Dad once wore these unusual socks, which may have been noticed by colleagues, and on that day the editing equipment happened to perform better than usual. The coincidence of two unusual events links them causally in the "savage" (that is, our) mind. Thereafter, if Dad had failed to wear the socks, and the equipment had failed to work properly, he would have had only himself to blame. Who knows, maybe his colleagues would have sacrificed him to the god of video-editing.

I was planning to read only a little into The Golden Bough this time, since I felt I'd never have the oomph to make it through all 934 pages. But I'm on page 610, and still absorbed...

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

the artist's wandering mind

I'm a distractable person. I'm not sure whether I'm more or less so than other people, but my attention seems to wander.

I venture to guess that most people would say I'm the opposite: I have good apparent powers of concentration. If I recall correctly, in graphoanalysis concentration shows in the smallness of one's handwriting; my handwriting--what little of that there is nowadays--is fairly small, and has definitely grown smaller over the decades of my adulthood.

So what do I mean. I do tend to have an active or hyperactive mind. In my meditation career I had to get used to the busyness of my mind. In general one does not seek to control mental busyness in meditation, since efforts to do so tend only to produce more thoughts, more mental churning. It's like telling someone to relax: it tends to make them more tense. In meditation, the main way to settle the busyness of one's mind is simply to meditate more. This is one of the major benefits of a longer, more intensive meditation program or retreat: one meditates much more than usual, and the mind gradually exhausts itself. You get bored with your thoughts and kind of give up. The present moment becomes much more interesting and stimulating, and you become more anchored in it. I think of a crystal paperweight: the mind becomes clear but also heavy, in the sense that it isn't easily pushed around or jostled away from where it is. It seems to sit down, just as your body sits down on a meditation cushion.

But if you don't have six or more hours a day to meditate, there are some tricks that can be used to tone down the hyperactivity of a restless mind in meditation. One such trick is to think about your own death and the deaths of your loved ones. These thoughts, if entertained seriously, tend to have a depressing effect on the mind, which is the same as saying that its busyness is dampened. When I was a monk at Gampo Abbey, even though there was a fair amount of meditation every day, I found there was not enough sustained meditation to really get my mind to sit down, so I found myself resorting to some of those tricks, with mixed results, I found.

While I could never prove it, I believe that I am more inclined than most people to "dial out" of reality and entertain myself with my own thoughts and fantasies. Indeed, this may be one reason that I am a creator: I have a vivid imagination, and I use it. Or rather, mostly I do not use it, in the sense of harnessing it to productive purpose; but rather I kind of hang out in it. I get bored with what's going on around me, and vanish into my own thoughts. I do this with an ease that I myself find sometimes distressing (because I like to think of myself as a well socialized person). It can also be irritating for others, since they sometimes--not all that often, to be sure--might ask for my agreement or opinion on something, and I have to admit, "Sorry--I wasn't listening."

As I say, I suspect I am more "tuned out" than most people. Most of the time it doesn't seem to make too much difference. Indeed, I'm alone much of each day, so I don't really need to be socialized too much better than Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away. (I don't have a volleyball to talk to, but there are some cushions, glassware, and in fact any inanimate object that can do in a pinch.) But I worry that my distracted state puts me at a disadvantage with regard to my writing projects. The very imagination that makes creative writing possible also pulls me away from the task at hand, and has me chasing other rainbows all the time. Indeed, as evidence I can point to a host of abandoned projects lying rusting at the side of the road of my life. I start things, then, in the slowness of my execution, lose interest in them and start something else. This is entertaining and stimulating for me, but fatal careerwise.

When I was in my early 20s, working as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital, before I ever took up meditation, and knew I had a reputation as a "thinker" because I often seemed to be absorbed in my own thoughts, I became interested in what I was thinking about. I recall sitting in a chair in the ultrasound department one evening, making a mental inventory of the kinds of things that occupied my mind. In truth, I found that "thinking", in the sense of working through problems and so forth, played a very small part. Mostly I was in reveries: memories or fantasies of one kind or another. Mainly I was just trying to enjoy my mind.

The artist's task is to leave off enjoying his own mind--at least for a little--and to get its products out there for other people to enjoy. Can I stay on track enough to achieve that?

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Friday, May 18, 2007

cheered up for the epic

After my "fake it till you make it" self-advice in yesterday's post, I did have a good (for me) writing day, pushing a few pages ahead in the morning, then coming back in the afternoon to start setting up notes for my next chapter. This is pretty much my fantasy of productivity: writing prose in the morning, then, in the afternoon when I'm feeling less creative, tinkering with administration and notes for the coming chapters. Yesterday was an instance of that, and I felt good. I actually cheered myself up!

Partly as a result of that, I think, I slept better last night. I dreamed that I was stuck in a massive traffic-jam on a convoluted freeway system, but that I found a way through, to skip past the worst of the jam to get where I was going. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

We'll see how today goes, but yesterday I felt a distinct shift in my attitude.

Meanwhile, in my afternoon reading, I was very pleased to come across, in Toynbee's A Study of History, a brief reference to the development of the epic genre. Here is an extract:

The Saga and the Epic arise in response to a new mental need, a new awareness of strong individual personalities and of momentous public events. "That lay is praised of men the most which ringeth newest in their ears," Homer declares. Yet there is one thing in an epic lay more highly prized than its novelty, and that is the intrinsic human interest of the story. The interest in the present predominates just so long as the storm and stress of the Heroic Age continues; but the social paroxysm is transitory; as the storm abates, the lovers of Epic and Saga come to feel that life in their time has grown relatively tame. They cease to prefer new lays to old, and the latter-day minstrel, responding to his hearers' change of mood, repeats and embellishes the tales of the older generation. In this later age the art of Epic and Saga attained its literary zenith. "Drama...develops in the home country, Epic among migrating peoples."

I regard my own work as an epic, but I want to find out more--all I can--about what exactly an epic is. I need to know my genre.

Here is an extract from N. G. L. Hammond's A History of Greece to 322 BC:

The comparative study of heroic ages has shed light also upon the genesis and development of epic poetry. It appears to originate under the troubled conditions of a heroic age as oral poetry, composed and transmitted by minstrels, even though the art of writing survived from an earlier civilization. The earlier epic lays are usually short and deal with the exploits of one or more heroes. The later lays develop in length and in technique, are recited as court poetry, and deal with leaders of the princely class both male and female. In this later stage the interest of the poet tends to shift from the exploits of the heroes to the study of heroic character, and nonheroic themes such as religion or manticism or matters of general rather than personal scope may begin to intrude.

As I see it, epic is the genre par excellence of heroes. While every fictional work has a hero or heroine, epic is the genre that deals with the hero as such. It is therefore the antithesis of modern works dealing with antiheroes. (I recall hearing the movie star Gregory Peck more than once deploring the rise of the antihero in Hollywood moviemaking, which he felt made for insipid and uninspiring movies. Peck himself of course was the perfect Hollywood heroic actor, by nature unsuited to antiheroic roles.)

And what is a hero? Nowadays that question has been best addressed by Joseph Campbell. The hero is he or she who, taking courage, journeys to the seed-source of universal creation--a place within--to find the new forms that will energize and give new life to his or her society. Societies age and die, as ours is aging and perhaps dying. New life is found only by those few who have the courage, vision, and independence to make the hazardous journey to find it. These are the heroes.

Those, anyway, are some of my thoughts on it. It's not that epic is a larger type of story, it's that other types of stories are little pieces of epic.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

instructor, instruct thyself

Another night of too little sleep. When I wake my mind is crowded with gloomy, disturbing thoughts. I finally rose at 3:10 to pour myself a whisky, and sitting up in the dark allowed the fire-water to remind me of a more carefree way of looking at things. The mind becomes too inefficient to trouble itself.

You need to show signs of believing in yourself. Interestingly, that's not exactly the same as actually believing in yourself. Based on my observations, people, in developing an opinion of or an attitude toward you, take their lead from you. For example, if you see yourself as being attractive and interesting, most people will probably go along with that. In general we all have difficulty forming independent opinions about anything--it's a lot of work, and it exposes us to risk ("What? You're nuts!"). It's easier to take cues from others around us, and just work with those unless they cause us serious difficulty.

It's the same for any major speculative endeavor, such as writing a long work of fiction. I believe one's own attitude toward it is key to forming others' attitudes toward it. This was one of the thoughts pressing in on me last night: my own nagging and seemingly incurable doubts may be poisoning my very prospects for success. You need to become that fanatical, obsessed crackpot who has unshakable faith that his Thing is going to be a huge success, no matter how objectively unlikely that seems. I'm not sure that such an attitude actually will make the Thing successful, but I believe the attitude will help you finish the Thing.

I think back to when I was a practicing meditation instructor. A student once expressed doubts that she could ever experience a more confident, awake way of being. I told her that from my own observations over a couple of years, the meditation practice had already had a big effect on her--but she didn't believe me, since she didn't see it herself.

So I suggested that she "fake it till you make it."

She nodded. "Fake it till you make it," she said.

Of course, "faking it" is the antithesis of a Buddhist approach to life. I was trying to suggest that her nervous self-criticism and self-doubt were actually the sham; they were the act that she couldn't give up. By "pretending" that she had already "made it", she could give herself permission to take a vacation from that sham, and perhaps see that it was unnecessary. Indeed, her behavior was already more confident and awake; her self-doubt was based only on a habitual way of seeing herself.

My student really liked that advice. She didn't have to wait until some ironclad, unmistakable proof of her realization came along; she could experiment with acting like a realized person. In some sense the difference between acting confident and being confident is just a slight adjustment of viewpoint. There's no practical difference between the two. The real point of my advice was: "relax."

Now I need to let my erstwhile student reach out and teach me.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

the darkening age

Jeepers, still coming up dry as I sit down here to write a post. Maybe it is time to go back to jotting down ideas for blog-posts as they come to me during the day; for they do come to me. Sometime after I publish each post I usually have the thought, "Oh yeah, that's what I've been wanting to write about!"

Well, today I'm quite underslept (late to bed, early wakeup) and I don't feel up to much in terms of anything to say. I've dutifully typed some notes into the PC, from Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History (volume 1 of the abridged version) and from The Golden Bough (also an abridged version--where did people ever find the time to read 12-volume works?).

I'm finding Toynbee's writing a bit pompous, but also powerful, bold, and provocative--in other words, very good. I love his field of inquiry: how civilizations arise, flourish, and decline. He's plowing ground similar to that covered by Oswald Spengler in his The Decline of the West, the book that so inspired the young Joseph Campbell. I got that out of the library a couple of years ago, but found it quite heavy going. I would need to get my own copy that I could highlight at will (I'm a destroyer of books--ruining them for others while making them more useful and valuable for myself).

Toynbee has identified 21 civilizations (or "civilizing societies") that have existed since humanity first took up agriculture. The one in which I'm sitting and writing right now he dubbed Western Christendom. By his reckoning, every civilization evolves along the same broad lines, prospering for awhile under the impetus of an initial creative and spiritual energy, gradually settling into a universal state run by a dominant minority. Along with the dominant minority grows a church, a religion within the universal state, and a proletariat of people excluded from the dominant minority. Eventually, as the state ossifies into a more or less oppressive structure, it cracks and is overthrown by forces within and without. In general, the church that grew within the shelter of the universal state becomes the spiritual germ of another civilization, as the Christian Church became the germ of Western (and also Eastern) Christendom after the demise of the Roman Empire. In the meantime there is an interregnum or "heroic age" in which barbarians contend for the scraps of empire--what in our history we refer to as the Dark Ages.

Fascinating. I can't help but wonder: what is the "church" of our society now? The notion of "Christendom" has become weak and anachronistic, even though there are still many Christians in our society. But in Canada, as in Europe, the churches are filled--well, partly filled--mainly with old people; their congregations are dying off. The U.S. is more aggressively "Christian", but the society itself is violent and uncivil, with "Christianity" apparently doing little but attempting to put the brakes on certain aspects of science, such as evolutionary biology and biotechnology.

Western society is certainly aging. Who would deny that we're moving closer to senescence in our aggressive, materialistic culture, in which fewer and fewer people vote, and which is gradually coming to be steered by unpopular people who, as Toynbee puts it, rule rather than lead. There is disaffection within and also resentment without--ingredients leading toward the dissolution of the society and the lapse into a new "heroic age" of barbarism and warlords. Right now, it's not easy to pick which spiritual tradition or idea might form the nucleus of a new society, something creative to arise from the corpse of our own.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

keeping the jury out

For the past months, or even years, I have written this blog by simply sitting down at the keyboard and starting to type. When I first launched the blog I used to worry about what I was going to write about. I kept a separate Word document with ideas for blog-posts. I've long since given up that idea; usually I never went back to it to look. The blog is too informal and too unpaid for me to worry much about its content. I have a few regular readers, a larger circle of occasional readers, and a still larger circle of people who visit the site after making a search for some item of information, such as "writer's lifestyle" or "Mumbai mafia".

I hope that at least some of these people find what they want--or at least something that interests them. I feel a certain sense of responsibility (and guilt) that people might be looking to this blog as a source of accurate factual information. I can say that at least some of the information offered here as factual is also accurate--but that's about all I can say.

I began this post with the vague sense that I'm hitting a dry patch, or at least maybe running out of fresh ideas for blog-posts. Yesterday I was talking with my brother-in-law Mike, who had come down to Vancouver from the Okanagan as part of a Mothers Day get-together with my mother. He has enrolled in a truck-driving course for the summer, and as part of his research into the world of trucking has read a number of truckers' blogs, of which I understand there are quite a few. The process of reading each of these blogs came to the same end: he saw what the attitude of the writer/trucker was, and the posts then simply continued in the same vein.

When I pressed Mike to explain what he meant, he said that each trucker tended to have either a positive or a negative outlook on his or her experience, and then, whatever happened, each event would be seen and interpreted in light of that outlook. A "positive" trucker would see an event in a positive light, as confirming his or her viewpoint on life; a "negative" one would see it in a negative light, also confirming his or her view.

"When I got to that point I would just stop reading," said Mike.

Of course my first thought was: Uh-oh, what about my blog? What category am I in? Am in a category?

My next thought was: What would have to be different about those blogs to have encouraged Mike to keep reading?

Clearly what would keep him reading would be some kind of freshness, unpredictability. He was implying that for each of these blogs there was no need to keep reading. He had already got the "message" of the blog, the message of the writer, and all the rest of the material was simply further examples of that message. I'm guessing that had Mike found a blog whose writer had not already made up his or her mind that life was positive or negative, but who was still investigating the issue, weighing new evidence each day, as it were, he would have stuck with the blog a lot longer. As readers we don't want to leave the courtroom, so to speak, while the jury is still out.

I get the feeling that there is something very important here, not just for writing but for all of life. The writer--or the person--who has made up his or her mind about life, about experience, has ceased to become interesting, in a sense; he or she is now selling a product. Just as I don't need to watch another commercial to learn that Colgate regards oral hygiene as important, and that the best way to promote it is to use their product, I don't need to hear anything more from someone whose view of life has already been reduced to a few set ideas or slogans. All future experience will simply be further evidence of that. And interestingly, in the case of the "positive" and "negative" truckers, the same experience will serve as evidence of opposite conclusions, depending on who has it.

The interesting writer then, or the writer who continues to be interesting, is the open-minded one, the one for whom the jury is still out.

In terms of a single work, the interesting one is the one whose outcome you can't foresee. You don't know which value is going to triumph in the end. It looks like it could go either way, so you stay tuned to find out.

Have I "branded" myself? Have people figured me out? How many visitors to this blog have moved on, thinking, Oh yeah, I see where this guy's coming from?

Right, Paul: open-minded it is.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

bold ideas

Back to my regular morning notes today, after a detour yesterday into some administrative things and preparing some notes for a possible copywriting assignment. Today back to the oppressive stack of texts bearing down on me.

This morning I started keying notes from the two-volume abridged version of Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History that I received last week. Apparently an American historian, D. C. Somervell, passionate about Toynbee's monumental work, took it upon himself, for his own interest and amusement, to create a compressed version of it (a man after my own heart!). He wrote to Toynbee telling him about his work, and it turned into a publication project in its own right, coming out in 1947. I have the two-volume mass-market paperback edition, used, which came in its original slip-case. My copies were printed in 1971, and so I have the extra pleasure of reading a book from that period, that looks and feels like the paperbacks I handled when I first started reading seriously for myself.

I'm drawn to large, comprehensive systems of thought, so Toynbee is just the ticket with his theory of how civilizations come and go. I've only just started reading volume 1, but already I'm enjoying Toynbee's bold way of comparing the unfolding of history in different civilizations around the world (and am of course impressed with the erudition that allows him to make these comparisons--he seems to know all aspects of world history from antiquity on). There is something exciting about reading new, bold ideas, well thought out. Most books do not contain these. Most writers are not in a position to think of them, or to support them properly if they do think of them. Most nonfiction books present more or less "modest proposals" in a reasonable, conservative way. They're fine and valuable--but they're not the stuff of real intellectual excitement.

I admire a writer and thinker who takes the bull by the horns. A tough, thorny, intractable problem? That's okay--they jump in and go for it.

On a smaller scale I similarly enjoyed Morphology of the Folktale by the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp, which I recently finished reading. Writing in 1928, Propp was confronting the, to him, unsatisfactory state of knowledge of the fairy tale (for his work was really about fairy tales, not folktales). Fairy tales and folktales had been intensively collected and studied for close to 100 years when he took up the task, but there was as yet no generally agreed system of classifying them or analyzing their features. So he took the bull by the horns and came up with a structural analysis of the Russian fairy tale.

He made some amazing discoveries. One was that when a fairy tale is broken down into a series of what he called functions, or character actions, there is a fundamental unity of structure to all Russian fairy tales (and therefore, possibly, to all other kinds of fairy tale and stories in general). Despite a great seeming variety, the fairy tales present the same functions in the same order. In 1928 Propp had discovered a regularity to story structure that foreshadowed the idea of the "monomyth" presented by Joseph Campbell 20 years later in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It behooves storytellers to be aware of these things.

Propp did what amounts to a genre analysis of the fairy tale--of the type recommended by Robert McKee for screenwriters (and storytellers generally). A genre is a structurally stable form that has been proven to work. Presumably it works because of some deep affinity with human experience and the human mind--some conformity with the way reality is. Propp says that a fairy tale commences with one of two possible situations: lack or villainy. Either someone does something hurtful or unjust to someone, or the hero becomes aware of a deficiency in his life, and sets out to rectify it.

So yes: bold ideas, bold thinking--keep 'em coming.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

doubt and inquiry

I've been keying my morning notes from A History of Israel, volume 2, and The Golden Bough. Endless reading, endless notes. One idea leads to another, one book leads to another--but are they all leading anywhere in particular, to a conclusion? Or is this like one of my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh episodes, "Where the Woozle Wasn't", in which Pooh and Piglet take to tracking the elusive woozle in the snow, following its footprints, which keep getting more and more numerous. They eventually discover (or it probably is pointed out to them by the all-wise Christopher Robin) that they have been tracking their way around a shrub, and have been following their own footprints.

Nowadays I tend to hold my ideas provisionally, and not accept anything as true unless it has lots of support in the world of fact, and also resonates within my own being as true. I seek to be both open-minded and skeptical--mental qualities I admire (and which I noted William James as possessing in high degree in my review on Amazon.com of his Principles of Psychology); or anyway, I admire them in conjunction with each other.

The issue is that of belief; what do you hold to be true? James covers this topic in the chapter entitled "The Perception of Reality". Here is an extract:

In its inner nature, belief, or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than to anything else. Mr. Bagehot calls it the "emotion" of conviction. It resembles more than anything what in the psychology of volition we know as consent. Consent is recognized by all to be a manifestation of our active nature. It would naturally be described by such terms as "willingness." What characterizes both consent and belief is the cessation of theoretic agitation, through the advent of an idea which is inwardly stable, and fills the mind solidly to the exclusion of contradictory ideas. When this is the case, motor effects are apt to follow. Hence the states of consent and belief, characterized by repose on the purely intellectual side, are both intimately connected with subsequent practical activity. This inward stability of the mind's content is as characteristic of disbelief as of belief. But we never disbelieve anything except for the reason that we believe something else which contradicts the first thing. Disbelief is thus an incidental complication to belief, and need not be considered by itself.

Almost by definition, then, a belief is exactly that thought which impels us to action. I was most intrigued to learn that James did not regard disbelief as the opposite of belief. Rather, he says:

The true opposites of belief, psychologically considered, are doubt and inquiry, not disbelief. In these states the content of our mind is in unrest, and the emotion engendered is, like the emotion of belief itself, perfectly distinct, but indescribable. Both sorts of emotion may be pathologically exalted. In nitrous oxide intoxication, a man’s very soul will sweat with conviction, and he be all the while unable to tell what he is convinced of at all. The pathological state opposed to this solidity and deepening has been called the questioning mania. It consists in the inability to rest in any conception, and the need of having it confirmed and explained.

Doubt and inquiry: yes, that about sums it up for me. I doubt, I inquire. And while doubt does not lead to action, but rather tends to inhibit action, inquiry does lead to action--or rather is an action. Sitting in a chair, reading a book, all appearances aside, is an activity. It's doing something: running one's eyes across the page, processing the meaning of the marks, relating the concepts that arise to one's memories.

The pursuit of knowledge: concepts that feel solid enough to base one's actions on.

One of the points that James makes is that the period of relatively open-minded inquiry in one's life is generally confined to one's youth. When we gain a profession, knowledge tends to be focused in that specific area, and one does not go back to review what one has learned about all the other subjects under the sun. He makes the point, essentially (wish I could find the passage, but have searched and can't), that what we think of, in school, as being the beginning of our learning, is in fact actually the end of it, for the most part. By age 25 or so we've learned enough to meet the practical needs of the day, and therefore go no further.

Well, that's not me, anyway. I still seem to be taking a full range of subjects, and there still is no final exam in sight. I'm still in the classroom, and next to me, along with my book-satchel and lunchbox, is my coffin.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

leaving the trail

Another week launches, and our household has leapt up from our sickbeds. I speak metaphorically. The long, clinging cold that infected both Kimmie and me two weeks ago seemed to break on Friday sometime, so this week we are back to business as usual. The gray morning is wet with freshly fallen rain; I have discharged my weekly duty of unlocking the wooden garbage-box at the back of our property for today's pickup; Kimmie prepares herself for the 12-minute walk to work.

In all, I don't know whether I would recommend being a writer. I think I would say it's a bad choice, if you have real alternatives. That is, if you have other abilities or interests that might provide you with as much satisfaction, then you should pursue those, for the satisfactions of being a writer are quite intangible and, often, quite infrequent.

It is isolating to be a writer. For, in spite of a certain glamor and romanticism attaching to the writer's lifestyle, a writer's real value lies in an independent view of things, which means that the writer cannot simply mouth the words "me too" at whatever cliches are being uttered at the backyard barbecue. There's always something artificial about a writer "joining in" with a group, even a group of writers--it's not much different from a conclave of hermits. At least, speaking for myself, I usually find that what divides me from other writers is much greater than whatever might unite us, whatever we might have in common. To the extent that writing is an art form, the writer's value lies exactly in his honesty and integrity in expressing his solitary point of view. Solitude is not just an accident of the writer's lifestyle, it's of the essence of his vocation.

To the writer as an artist, this is the supreme value; all other issues--matters of technique, productivity, earnings, fame--fall in behind it somewhere.

The ideal of the writer is of someone who has freedom and integrity, one who uses these in the service of creative expression. The old idea of people wanting to write the great American novel was always a cry for a life that was less sold-out, less subordinated to others' wishes and demands (although the idea that one might toss aside one's life as a corporate lawyer to write the great American novel seems as unlikely as tossing it aside to design a great public building or to compose a great symphony). Yes: a life in service of beauty and truth. But how much do beauty and truth matter to you?

And how much confidence do you have in yourself and your vision? How steady is that confidence? What seemed like beauty and truth at first might stop looking that way after awhile. Then what?

Here on the North Shore an ongoing problem and debate is what, if anything, to do about the many people who like to hike or snowboard in the nearby mountains, and who, looking for adventure, insist on leaving the marked trails. Time and again our volunteer rescuers head into the bush to search for people woefully underexperienced and underequipped to face the wilderness. Thanks to the skill of the rescuers, most of them are saved. Some though die out in the woods, their thinly clad, ill-shod bodies discovered days or weeks later at the feet of cliffs or huddled in hollows where they died of exposure. They went looking for adventure, and they found it.

The life of a true writer is off the marked trail. For those who stay on the trail, the idea of heading into the bush is a seductive fantasy--but not one they usually want to risk their lives for. Some do decide to risk their lives, but mostly they are dilettantes who don't even know they are doing so; they are fools. I think the true writer has left the trail, accepted the risk, and has only his inner qualities to rely on for his survival in the wilderness. There may have been a thrill at the actual moment of leaving the trail, but after that it's all a matter of life and death, with no guarantee whatever that you won't die cold and alone in a forest that never asked you to come in.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

a night in the sickhouse

This time the echinacea-therapy has failed. Both Kimmie and I have full-blown colds: strong, slow-motion infections rolling over our house. Kimmie has taken today off work.

Last night, after waking at 1:30, I eventually found I could not sleep, so I came downstairs at 3:00, poured myself a couple of whiskies, and sat reading The Golden Bough. By that time the traffic has died down, so all is quiet. The scotch was fiery on its way down--excellent. My state of mind lifted from dark and anxious to cheerful and optimistic--this is why liquor has survived as a human institution. The problem being that if you go back to that well too often, it stops working and starts becoming a disease.

At about 4:30 I switched off the light and lay down on the sofa, huddling under the wool blanket we keep there to await the dawn.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Stand By Me

The cold symptoms are deepening, but still have not reached the depth of which I know they're capable. My mind is still mostly sharp, and my nose is running only very slightly. Want me to keep you posted on my symptoms and secretions?

I got three pages written yesterday, limping a bit further through the desert of chapter 28. I was trying to rush, trying to go fast--to write with the same careless aplomb with which I knock out these blog-posts. A little bit of Stephen King in my gas-tank.

And speaking of whom, last Saturday's show in Paul's 80s Festival was the 1986 movie Stand By Me, the Rob Reiner film based on King's novella The Body. It was the third or fourth time I'd seen it, and, as with all superior films, it was even better on this viewing than on the previous ones. The genre is actually adventure: in small-town Oregon in 1959, a band of four young heroes sets out on a quest to find the corpse of a boy their own age (12) who has been killed in the woods, hit by a train. By fibbing to their parents, they manage to embark on the quest secretly and unsupervised, and must face their adventure with only their kid-smarts, along with a few cigarettes and a handgun boosted from one of their dads.

(Looking at the film on Saturday, I was surprised to see how strong its correspondence was to my own TV show The Odyssey, complete with a treefort club at the beginning--this must have been an unconscious influence on us as we set up our own story in 1989-91. Warren and I always felt our main debts were to The Wizard of Oz and Star Trek--now I would have to stir Stand By Me into the mix as well.)

The hero, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), who narrates the story as an adult (Richard Dreyfuss) in 1985, has recently experienced the loss of an older brother (John Cusack), whom his parents loved more than they love him. The story is Gordie's journey to come to grips with his brother's death, and life and death in general. (In this sense the movie covers
--much more powerfully--territory similar to that of the 1981 movie Ordinary People.)

This time I was struck by how much the movie centers around death, since the story itself and its young heroes are so full of life. The story itself is launched by the adult Gordie reading that his boyhood friend Chris has just been killed trying to foil a robbery in a fast-food restaurant, catapulting Gordie back in his mind to 1959 and their journey together to find the other boy's body. Gordie is not alone in struggling with family issues: two of his companions also have hard relationships with their fathers. At some deep level, their journey into the woods is a trek to father-atonement (another link with The Odyssey).

Although they are trekking into the forest, they follow train tracks, so there is a sense of path, as in The Wizard of Oz with its Yellow Brick Road. The symbolism of the path is different from the symbolism of hacking one's way into wild bush, as the Grail heroes did: this road has been built, but built by adults--by fathers. It's not a footpath or road, though: it's for trains--big, impersonal, masculine machines. They're powerful and get you where you're going, but they're also deadly if you get in their way. They don't stop for children.

Trains are one image-system in the movie; another is bridges. When the boys first set out, they cross a little rail-bridge: the threshold of adventure. Their most dangerous adventure en route is when they decide, after argument, to cross another rail-bridge: much longer and much, much higher. What is a bridge? It's a way to cross what is otherwise uncrossable--it carries you to a place where you could not go without it. From childhood to adulthood perhaps, or from one's everyday consciousness to the deeper zone of the unconscious forces within. I think of the Chinvat Bridge in Zoroastrianism: a narrow bridge in the afterlife that each soul must cross, but which only the good can reach the far side of, the bad plunging to the abyss. In this adventure, the two image-systems come together: a train shows up on the bridge, chasing them from behind, terrifying them and almost killing them. The boys have taken their lives in their own hands, and are branded as worthy for the rest of the adventure by surviving this brush with death--the same death that claimed their quarry.

It's a true heroic quest: the boys are up against forces that are bigger than they are, both within and without; they have to dig within themselves to meet the challenges, with no guarantee of survival. It's not a playground, it's real life.

This is a really well-written and well-produced show. It's got a permanent spot in Paul's 80s Festival.

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