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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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