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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I woke myself last night by knocking the plastic cup of water off my bedside table. It's quite a feat, since I deliberately set the cup as far from the mattress as I can, nestled between the lamp and a metal fold-out picture-frame containing two photos of Kimmie. Somehow I can take out the cup, dumping water all over the carpet in the dark, while leaving the rest of the table standing.

I believe it happens when I unfold my left arm, tucked behind my head when I get hot. The arm sweeps down, clearing the cup from the table. It's the second time I've done it in two weeks. I used to keep my bedside water in a squeeze-bottle on the floor, which did not spill if knocked over, but found out from Robin that many kinds of plastic, but especially plastic number 5, have been found to be strongly carcinogenic. So I switched to a cup (still of plastic, but not number 5).

Now I have a spill problem. It wouldn't matter, except for two things: the water soaks the new magazines I keep stacked on the floor by the bed; and I have to get up to refill the cup.

Last night when I returned to bed I found myself lying awake a long time, maybe a couple of hours, and then sleeping only intermittently. I felt myself returning to a condition of darkness, dissatisfaction, and concern for my project and my life. Usually the best short-term antidote to such thoughts and feelings is action: do something, rather than brood on one's inertia. But in the dead of night one lies there, hoping for sleep to overtake one.

I find that there is a definite change of psychology when the sun sets. One's solar psychology sinks with it, and one's "night self" or lunar psychology rises. For some people this may be reversed. I've read that those born under Cancer often have a hard time with the sun--they're the pale ones blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight, or wearing dark shades and ball-cap. They are more at home in the rays reflected from the Moon.

I used to work graveyard shifts, both at Vancouver General Hospital and later (briefly) as a laborer at Sauder Plastics in Richmond. I was intrigued to have the experience, but it took me months to get used to sleeping in the day and working at night. As 11 p.m. approached I would walk up Willow Street from False Creek where we lived, toting a Tupperware bowl full of my "lunch"--often some leftovers from dinner. I remember passing one of the old houses on Willow one night, where an old man sat out on the porch in the dark.

"Headin' up to work?" he said one night. I could barely see him.


"Glad it's you and not me!"

We both got a chuckle out of it. I actually felt buoyed up to have the unpleasantness of my shift acknowledged by a stranger.

I remembered when I'd worked in the evenings (my main former shift: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.) riding an elevator in the hospital somewhere, maybe it was Fairview Pavilion, and finding only a single line of graffiti written on the steel walls: "I hate graveyard." Later I came to understand the sentiment.

One of the lowest moments of my life happened on a graveyard shift at VGH. My job was the employee locker rooms, located at tunnel level under Heather Pavilion. In the dead of night these fluorescent-lit caverns were deserted and silent. The men's locker room was more "intimate", with only a few aisles and maybe a few hundred lockers in it. But the women's lockers were in a vast space, over two floors: the nurses' lockers upstairs, at ground level, and the rest down below.

For whatever reason, the female lockers were messier than the men's (which were not neat, mind you): paper caps, hairnets, discarded pantyhose, and lots of coat-hangers. The first step in cleaning the place was to clear off the roofs of the banks of lockers, sweeping their contents onto the floor. People often discarded things up on the roof of the lockers--out of sight, out of mind. The technique was to run a wide dust-mop along the roof (which I could not actually see without jumping up), angling the mop to sweep debris to the linoleum-tiled floor. But since the most common leaving up there was coat-hangers (all our uniforms were laundered on-site, and returned to us on coat-hangers when we picked them up), the method was to keep the mop-handle extended across the aisle so that its end ran along the tops of the opposite bank of lockers. This made for a horizontal, supported mop-handle, which became a moving rack for coat-hangers. As I came upon them I would untangle them and hang them neatly from the mop-handle overhead. When the handle became too weighed down with hangers, I would take them to the great steel racks on which they were stacked for morning pickup by transportation crew.

One night in 1980, probably in the fall after I had dropped out of UBC, I had completed the roof-sweep portion of the female lockers and was dust-mopping the floor, pushing a growing pile of caps, pantyhose, and bobby pins down one of the long aisles of cream-colored steel lockers. It was the dead of night, with no sound but the swish of debris and the faint 60-hertz buzz of the fluorescent ballasts overhead. I knew I had another year ahead of me at VGH, at least. Gradually I became overcome with a sense of loneliness and entrapment in the job. I stopped pushing my mop. The junk-filled aisles of the locker-room seemed to be an image of my life: canyons of other people's mess, other people's daytime lives. They were all home asleep. The aisles had to be got through, the year had to be got through. In despair I sank down the bank of lockers to the floor, and sat there awhile, contemplating my fate.

How the hell did I get into this? I wondered. How the hell can I get out?

I knew there was only one way: keep sweeping. After my moment of private theatrics, I would still have to get up and keep pushing that mop. That's all there was to it. With a sense of heaviness and futility, I got back up and resumed sweeping.

My mood improved, both that evening and about my situation in general. I was a hospital janitor, but that was part of the adventure of my life--an adventure that I was increasingly coming to choose for myself. And at the end of cleaning a locker-room, when I had swept and washed the floor, I felt good. The employees would arrive at a clean locker-room, and perhaps feel a bit uplifted as they started their day, making meals, washing linen, cleaning wards.

But the dead of night is when life's lows are reached: that's my testimony.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

my people

Forward progress on The Mission has slowed lately. On the one hand I have copywriting to do--and therewith the earning of (some of) my keep. On the other I have problems with my story, and with the world of my story, that I'm still working out. These things combined have brought the course of my stream, which has never been a torrent, to the stillness of a lake. Now I'm just poling the raft along, searching for the outlet so I can resume my journey to the sea.

Last night on CBC's Sunday Night was a segment on monasticism among young women in Canada and around the world. I watched with much interest, since I was myself, briefly, an ordained Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton. The segment specifically focused on the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary in Michigan, whose convent was founded 10 years ago. According to the report, the average age of a Canadian nun is 74, but this convent is filled with young women who have turned to a life of poverty and chastity in order to commune with God.

Kimmie and I were both impressed with the convent and with the girls. As I recall, the convent houses about 90 nuns, of which nine are from Canada. All the ones that appeared on the show were young, and it was clear that the convent was not a dumping-ground for unmarriageable Catholic daughters, but a destination of choice for thinking and spiritually aware girls who had many other options open to them.

I found myself identifying with these girls as they talked about wanting to do something meaningful with their lives, and enter into the question of why they were born and why they are here. Some of them had given up athletic and political ambitions, and all of course are giving up aspirations of having a family of their own--as well as personal possessions.

I recognized the "feel" and the attitude among the nuns, for I venture to say that the monastic experience is probably not too different between the different spiritual traditions. When the girls get up to pray to God, it's not so different from the morning gathering of the Buddhist monks and nuns to chant and meditate before breakfast. Each person there has made a definite, conscious decision to orient his or her life around a spiritual discipline, and has implemented that decision fully. It's an extraordinarily powerful basis for a community. While Buddhists don't refer to their ultimate reality as God, they share with the Catholics an intent to live in accord with ultimate reality, and their discipline and their behavior are probably not very different. They lead spare, unadorned, mutually supporting lives.

The girls interviewed were in no way sanctimonious or zealous. Their speech had a soft, heartfelt, and candid quality that I recognized from my own monastic experience. These are not people who "can't cut it" in secular life, but rather people who have perceived the emptiness and unfulfillingness of many worldly goals, and who have decided to do something about it. The Buddhist monastics I knew included bond traders, zoo-keepers, scientists, athletes, and nurses.

While I don't think that monastic life is for everyone, I had a strong feeling while watching the segment that the world needs people who have had monastic discipline--as many of them as it can get. We need selfless people who take a long, deep view of things and speak from the heart. We need spiritual people as much now as we ever have, and maybe more.

Yes, as I watched these young novices and nuns I had the feeling that I was again among "my people".

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Friday, July 27, 2007

bones, muscles, skin: the anatomy of story

Yesterday I was talking about the idea of using the technique of writing a "story treatment"--a document once routinely used in screenwriting--for novels. I mused about perhaps drafting a sample section of story treatment for an existing novel, and I haven't forgotten that; I'd like to try it.

I'm thinking now of the preceding stage: the "step-outline", in which you develop the bare bones of the story, perhaps on index-cards. I had already used index-cards as a way of helping myself plot stories for many years by 1990, when I first came upon a set of notes of one of Robert McKee's storytelling workshops. (A workshop student, typing furiously on a laptop, had taken excellent notes, a copy of which had been obtained by a CBC executive who had also attended the workshop. I was a struggling writer with two mortgages and couldn't afford the workshop. She took pity on me and let me have a copy of the bootlegged notes--I was after all trying to write a series for them. And Robert, if you're reading this, don't worry: I have since bought a hardcover copy of your book, and was delighted to do so!) They were a revelation. How eagerly I read through the photocopied pages of typed notes.

McKee's method changed my approach to using index-cards, and I immediately put his ideas to work in drafting a novel I had been working on called Truth of the Python, about a Vancouver hypnotherapist who inadvertently regresses a bed-wetting client to a past life--as the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Mckee's methodology made this a much more purposeful exercise: I isolated my main plot and subplots, and gave each an act structure.

I still have those index-cards (or most of them)--I just pulled them from a file in my cabinet. I see I developed three separate stacks. One is a "master stack" of 4 x 6" cards that contain only the act turning-points of the plot and each subplot, of which I had five. The plots are labeled A through F, and each act has a number--so A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.

Then there is a stack of 3 x 5" index cards containing the individual scenes (this stack appears to be incomplete, alas), filling in the steps between the major turning-points on the 4 x 6 cards.

Finally, I have another, separate stack of 3 x 5 cards devoted to "thematic" developments in the story. These cards represent the idea-content or the significance of the story developments to my protagonist, Philip Dozier. I can't quite tell now exactly how I used these "theme" cards. Each one contains some assertions written longhand in pencil, along with a page-reference at the bottom-left corner (I think these are references to my binder of notes), and a sequential number in red pencil in the bottom-right corner. There are 37 of these cards.

For example, card 5 contains the story question for the book as a whole--the A-line question, which I phrased as "Will Philip find meaning in his life?" The card goes on to discuss the implications of the "inciting incident", or the scene that kicks off the story. (In this scene, Philip regresses his client, Greg Brodie, to a distant past life as Pythagoras, but also discovers that he, Philip, apparently had a role in that remote time as well, and the whole session is crowned with the appearance, through Greg, of an apparently all-knowing "discarnate" entity that calls itself Khepra.) Card 6 makes the comment, "Phil thinks he wants 'meaning', but in truth he seeks life: the sustenance of the heart."

Weird? Perhaps. My aim was to take my ethereal, spiritual idea, and turn it into a dramatic story, with a proper act-structure and cliff-hanging turning-points. It pretty much worked, and indeed I was able to get representation for this book at A P Watt, a prestigious London agency. The "index-card" approach had stood me in good stead.

I developed the method further with my next effort: a novel called Observer that I started writing in 1994. This was a space-age murder mystery, also set in Vancouver, that had my protagonist, a financially independent loner named Connell Smith, investigating the killing of a local software entrepreneur. In this work I prepared the drafting by writing the whole story on index-cards first, winding up with a stack of 90 4 x 6 cards, which I have in front of me now.

I recall crafting and recrafting this stack, moving between it and my notes binder. As I developed the story, I would draft cards, changing them, throwing them out, inserting new ones as I went. As the stack developed, I would periodically sit down with it and go through the stack sequentially, visualizing the story unfolding. As I turned each card, I would feel a sense of "yes!" and move on to the next card. As soon as I hit a problem, a feeling that what I was reading did not really flow, or push the action to a new level, I would get to work on identifying the problem and solving it. Rejig some cards, add one or two, and start again.

While plotting this story, because it was a mystery, I also developed another set of cards, yellow 3 x 5 ones, on which I recorded the protagonist's evolving theory of the murder. This way I, the author, who knew who did it and why, could keep track of the working theory in the mind of the protagonist and of the reader. Each new story event would cause that evolving theory to change.

Card 1 (theory 1), for example, is "sabotage/revenge by a disgruntled employee". (The victim, Rick Matthews, was found shot to death in his office in Richmond, B.C.) Card 2 is "sabotage by competitors". Card 3 is "sabotage by vencaps/investors in order to grab more of Mattrix (Rick's company) cheaply". And so on, until the climax of the story, when the full truth comes out. I found this method very helpful, for I could always, when working on any given part of the book, check to see what the current theory of the killing was. (Plus, of course, I had to come up with all these different theories of the murder--whew!)

I divided the story into chapters, and gave each chapter its own header-card, with the chapter number, as well as a word signifying its key event, and a phrase expressing the significance of the event. For example, the header-card for chapter 1 has the word "murder", and the phrase, "the trauma of loss"--the significance of the event for my hero, who was heavily invested in the victim's company. Chapter 2 is labeled "conspiracy" and "Connell decides to sleuth the crime for himself".

My story, as always, was weird--but it did flow. I do believe in and recommend the method.

Sometime over the past day, maybe in the dead of night again (although I did not spend much time awake last night), I thought of the story-development documents in terms of the parts of the body. The step-outline is the skeleton. The treatment is the organs and muscles. The actual draft is the skin and hair.

Note that in order to live, we need all of those things. And just because the skin and hair is all you see as an end-user, it doesn't mean that you can do without the other, structural elements. The skin and hair, of course, lie over them.

So, yes, maybe a story treatment for my next novel.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

a story treatment for novels?

Yesterday I spent more time working at making explicit the ideas in chapter 30 of my work. As I mentioned two days ago, I see this as the basic activity of writing: turning implicit or latent knowledge and experience into explicit, named concepts: words.

In my case, this means a lot of writing before I get to my "writing"--actually drafting the chapter. My hope is that all this prewriting forms a rich compost from which the garden of the eventual prose can grow.

Robert McKee, in his screenwriting textbook Story, teaches an approach to writing in which you start with a step-outline, which is the bare outline of the plot. I used to do this on index cards; now I try to achieve it on the PC (the index cards may still be the better method). McKee's description:

If, hypothetically and optimistically, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last draft in six months, these writers typically spend the first four of those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for each act--three, four, perhaps more.

There: four out of six months of writing time should be devoted to the step-outline, fully two-thirds of the storytelling effort. In my opinion, it should probably be the same in fiction-writing. One difficulty is that a novel, which is longer than a screenplay, requires a correspondingly longer period on the step-outline phase, and it is a test of the writer's commitment and nerve to see whether he or she can sit facing only a stack of index cards for a year or so. I did with this book--longer than a year, more like two--and I still think I moved on hastily, afraid of spending any more time outlining. But you pay later for any haste at this stage: first of all in a more difficult writing task, and finally in a weaker end-product--a stiff penalty for wanting to force the pace.

The next phase in McKee's method is to draft the story treatment: a prose version of the step-outline in which each scene is described. The term treatment is used in filmmaking to describe a variety of documents that range from a story synopsis to a narrative 30 or 40 pages long. As far as I know, they're not often written anymore except as a sales document to help pitch a movie idea. They're not used as writing tools by the writers themselves.

But McKee sees a story treatment as a key step in the writing process, whether or not the treatment is ever seen by anyone but the writer. At the treatment stage the writer works out logistical and motivational problems with the story. You discover things that don't work the way you'd thought. More particularly, I've found that in expanding on a terse line for a scene there are often difficult problems that I was more or less avoiding, semiconsciously.

One of the most important purposes of the treatment is to work out the subtext of each scene: what each character's true feelings and motives are. These are made explicit in the treatment. And, very importantly, the treatment contains no dialogue. It's tempting for any writer, but especially a screenwriter, to move on to the fun part of writing dialogue, but until the scene-work is complete you do not know your characters or their motives well enough to write dialogue. Only when the treatment has been fully worked out is the writer in a position to write a draft of the screenplay.

What I'm wondering is whether there's a place for story treatments in fiction-writing. I'm not sure, because a novel is not so deliberately spare and dialogue-intensive as a screenplay. And yet the imortant points still apply: knowing your characters and the subtext of each scene. A treatment for a novel would be a strange document, and long. It would be a "talking about" the story, again with no dialogue, and with some provision for filling in the sections of "telling", in which the writer talks about things instead of showing them directly with action. It would make, in effect, a particularly weird first draft.

But it may very well be worth it: a kind of technical first draft, not unlike a technical dress rehearsal for a stage production, in which the technical aspects of the show are worked out and finalized. Since any decent work of writing goes through multiple drafts anyway, it might be just the thing.

Maybe I'll try drafting a sample piece of treatment for an exising novel, to see what this would look like.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the sure-footed writer

Yesterday afternoon I decided to round out the "medium-power-walk" that Kimmie and I had done by jogging around the last couple of blocks. Near the end of the short jog in the glorious afternoon sun, I tripped over an elevated square of sidewalk on 6th Street and plunged to the concrete, hitting it hard. I lay there a few moments, hoping I hadn't broken anything. A guy who was working on his motorcycle nearby got up to ask whether I was okay.

"Yeah, I think so," I said, picking myself up. "Just some road rash."

I had abraded my right knee and right palm. I also had very minor abrasions of right elbow, left knee, and left palm--the places you'd expect. I jogged the remaining block home, where Kimmie helped me clean the wounds. Only a small amount of blood was running from them, so I decided not to dress them until bedtime, when we put gauze on my knee.

Interestingly, I felt very little pain throughout the experience. As I said to Kimmie when she asked about me before dinner, the scrape on my knee rated about a 1 out of 10 on the pain scale. It reminded me of when I ruptured my left Achilles tendon in 2002. Then too I felt almost no pain--indeed, less than I did yesterday. The wound did not become sore until after surgery, when it was the incision that throbbed. Now my right thumb is weak and tender, and it does hurt when I try to use it. But it's fully mobile, and indeed I'm using it now to type, which does not bother it.

When I woke at 3:30 this morning and lay in the dark, my thoughts churning as they often do in the dead of night, the phrase came to me, "the sure-footed writer." Usually I am sure-footed and not prone to tripping or falling. In the dark this quality seemed to be significant from a writing standpoint.

I remembered watching a nature documentary recently, which featured some footage of ibexes--a wild goat of the Middle East and Africa. They seem to be preternaturally sure-footed, living largely on cliff faces. There they tuck themselves and their young into caves that are inaccessible to predators. There is some attrition among the ibexes due to falling, especially when they're young. A certain number do plunge to their death each year. But most don't, and the insouciance with which they negotiate impossible-looking rock faces is astounding. One ibex picked his way up a cliff face, zigging and zagging as though he were going up flights of stairs, when the ledges he was stepping on were no bigger than his little hooves. He seemed to be simply walking up a vertical rock-face.

The ibexes are confident. Step by step they pick their spot and go: pick and go, pick and go. Most of the steps are not secure enough for them to pause on; they have to keep moving, picking the next step and going. It's a vertical version of using stepping-stones to cross a stream: the stones may or may not be stable, but if you keep moving you can make it. Each move is a commitment. You're heading somewhere, and there is no room for doubt or second-guessing.

In writing terms, I take this to mean trusting one's instincts. Trust what comes up, use it--the image, the idea, the word--and keep moving.

And don't forget to lift your feet.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

why writing is hard

To my own surprise (since I didn't see it coming), yesterday was a good writing day. After rising rather late (6:00) and tired, I keyed notes from A Study of History, vol.1, wrote what I thought was a pretty meaty blog post, and moved on to a rare day of insights and ideas into my chapter and my story generally. My typing could barely keep up with my thoughts--and I type fast.

What happens is that after a lot of research into a topic, a mist clears and I am able to see the wide picture. In writing terms, I'm able to sum things up to my own satisfaction. It is the intellectual equivalent of reaching a mountain peak--or at least a mountain pass--and the exhilaration, as well as the fatigue, is comparable.

It's strange, because the result of much research, much travel through jungles of complexity, is to arrive at simplicity. I think of the old slogan: you don't really know something until you can teach it. Teaching requires that knowledge be explicit and active: you know and understand the concepts clearly, and can bring them to mind at will.

For most of us, relatively little knowledge exists in this form. Recently when I was explaining some political thing to Kimmie (she'd asked--don't worry!), I mentioned the word republic, and Kimmie asked what exactly a republic is. I fumbled.

"Well, it's a country that has a constitution...it's, uh, usually democratic...."

I didn't know exactly what a republic was. (Do you?) I'd read Plato's Republic, and have read a couple of texts on political science in the past year. I know that I've read what a republic is, but I couldn't bring it to mind on demand when asked. My knowledge was not explicit and not active.

If writing is any one thing, it is just this: making things explicit. This doesn't mean that writing is all superficial and on-the-nose (although too much of it is). It means that all writing involves turning implicit, inchoate, and undifferentiated ideas and experiences and feelings into precise concepts, and arranging these in a meaningful order. This, in my opinion, is what constitutes the labor of writing--why it is hard work. It's not hard like coal-mining, but it's hard in the sense of requiring a continuous, demanding effort of attention--like learning your lines in a play, or studying for an exam. It doesn't happen automatically; you can't coast. If you're laying bricks--or mining coal--you can get into a rhythm and your mind can go elsewhere for a time while the work is still being done. Not so with writing. If your mind is not there, no writing is occurring. Every inattentive moment is downtime.

The difficulty that even experts have in explaining what they do or what they know shows how difficult it is to make knowledge explicit and active. You can probably be the world's best brain surgeon without being able to explain exactly what it is you do.

Yesterday I felt that I reached a milestone in my understanding of what I'm writing about--my knowledge became explicit and active. I also found more exact views and tasks for three of my characters, a rich haul for any dramatic writer. I moved a step closer to being able to teach the world of my story to an audience.

republic 1 a : (1) a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usu. a president b : (1) a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

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Monday, July 23, 2007

fanciful fairy tales, realistic myths

Warm rain patters outside, a slow tom-tom beat thudding from a heavy rhythmic drip on an overturned plastic watering-can. The humorless swish of traffic forms a backdrop sound: the Monday-morning rush. Garbage collectors and other municipal workers have gone on strike in Vancouver and in the District of North Vancouver, but I heard no mention of the City of North Vancouver on the radio as I lay groggy in bed, so I have taken out our recycling and unlocked the building's garbage-box out back. A raindrop still lies at the lower edge of the right lens of my eyeglasses; I haven't bothered to wipe it away.

In a certain sense I feel that I've given up the struggle against my own method. I'm still preparing to draft chapter 30, digging into my existing notes and creating new ones, all in the name of research.

Over the weekend the seventh and final Harry Potter book was published, with the surrounding media and consumer frenzy that has become standard for this series--incredible, looking on as a writer. I've thought about the adulation of the books' millions of fans, and about the comparative ease of writing fantasy (if you have the imagination for it)--the only "research" really needed is the creative research of working out your world--and wondered what the hell I'm trying to prove with my heavily researched work.

I do speak from experience, since The Odyssey was itself a fantasy show. The only part of the show requiring actual real-world research was in creating the "upworld" of waking reality, in which our character Jay was lying comatose and undergoing therapy. As it turned out, we need not have bothered even with that, since we could not really get any of the therapy ideas into the shows, as the network had strong, fixed (and, we thought, corny) ideas about what they wanted to see there. A political accommodation was reached in which the network got to "own" the upworld, while Warren and I, the writer-creators, "owned" the downworld. We still had to write the upworld material, of course, but we were kept on a much shorter leash since this was the part of the show that the network executives thought they knew. They didn't--but we conceded the point, since the upworld was only a small part of the show. We had nearly untrammeled freedom over the rest--the important part, the part that people tuned in to watch.

As I suspect often happens in television, our research was really for naught. The network actually wanted the familiar, the phony, and the saccharine. In defense of a better-researched approach, I offer The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. There is a place for such shows, to say the least.

But in light of the overpowering success of Harry Potter, why bother with research? When you can have adoring fans impatient to dive into your imagined world and live there as much as they can, why fool around learning about boring so-called reality, where people don't even like being?

The answer, I think, has to do with the level and type of authority that the created work has in the eyes of its audience. While reading The Old Enemy by Neil Forsyth I came across a great definition of myth:

Myths are the stories that we believe.

To read a Harry Potter novel requires the classic suspension of disbelief: you set aside your skepticism about the possibility of what you're reading in order to enter into the world of adventure. It's a game of make-believe which you eagerly join, but which you would never confuse with reality (although you might passionately wish the world were more like the world of Harry Potter).

This means that the Harry Potter books are, in a strict sense, fairy tales: stories of wonder and enchantment that are frankly fabricated, happening in a never-never land at the far end of an impossible train-ride. To read one of those books is to ride that train into the imagination.

A story set in the "real world" is, at least potentially, saying something about that world--our world, the world we live in. I'm going to go further and say that a work of historical fiction, if it's about a part of the world that has had a definite influence on our own, can give an impression of providing a plausible explanation for how we got to where we are--for some of the causes at work in our world. It does not demand that we suspend our disbelief, but, if it's good, actually commands our belief--at least in a sense.

And to the extent that it's a story that we believe, it is not a fairy tale, but a myth--part of the software we use in dealing with reality. In other words, to the extent that we find it to be believable, we find it to be true, because it is about the "real world". The real world may be boring compared to the realm of imaginary adventure, but it's also very important to us.

This, I think, is why we need "real" stories as well as fantasies, and why it's worth the artist's time to spend months and years researching the "real world". As Aristotle says, art imitates life, and only careful study can produce a lifelike imitation.

So: back to the books.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

another week, another novel opening

Yesterday, another lunch at my mother's place, and another "novel opener" contest among six books chosen at semi-random from her shelves: I chose three, and she chose three.

The six novels were: Hatter's Castle by A. J. Cronin; The Black Moon by Winston Graham; A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway; The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck; Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; and Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. I would read the opening sentence of each out loud, and we would give our reactions. Then I'd read the rest of the first paragraph or two to see how the opening progressed.

We agreed that Hatter's Castle, A Farewell to Arms, and The Winter of Our Discontent all had relatively weak openings--that is, openings that, if we were simply perusing the book in a store or library, would not encourage us to buy or borrow the book to read further. The other three were all stronger, with the best being the openings of Kidnapped and Vanity Fair. Between these it was a tough call, but we agreed that the palm should probably go to Kidnapped. Here is the opening sentence:

I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house.

Nice. The narrator's tone is serious, sober, and unhurried, and yet he finishes his rather leisurely sentence with a simple act that has a strong feeling of being a major turning-point in his life. Has his father died? Has he just wrapped up the estate? We don't know, but the images of a key, a door, and "my father's house" all have symbolic depth and resonance.

The paragraph finishes thus:

The sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills as I went down the road; and by the time I had come as far as the manse, the blackbirds were whistling in the garden lilacs, and the mist that hung around the valley in the time of the dawn was beginning to arise and die away.

Again, nice. This sentence is pure scene-setting description, the type of thing that opens many novels. But by placing it after the opening sentence, when our interest is already engaged with the importance of the moment, Stevenson has charged the beauty of that June morning in 1751 with a feeling of nostalgia and portent such as the narrator himself seems to have felt. He has chosen vivid details, and expressed himself in poetic language ("the sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills..."). He has set a scene that is lovely, quiet, and pregnant with adventure.

What the heck, let's look at Vanity Fair as well. My practice is to skip introductions and prologues and go straight to the top of chapter 1, to keep the playing field as level as possible. Chapter 1 of this 1848 novel is entitled "Chiswick Mall". Here is the first sentence:

While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour.

Another sunny June morning! It's a beginning that feels like a beginning: a coach is arriving at an academy for young ladies, suggesting that a novel-load of consequences will result from the transaction. Thackeray starts with people in action, which is always engaging, and his tone, like Stevenson's, is unhurried--the mark of the narrator who is confident of the importance of what he has to say. He combines an eye for detail with a comic tone ("fat horses", "fat coachman", "four miles an hour"), giving us a strong sense of the narrator's attitude. What else will this sharp and amused eye show us? Here is the rest of the paragraph:

A black servant, who reposed on the box beside the fat coachman, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew up opposite Miss Pinkerton's shining brass plate, and as he pulled the bell, at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the stately old brick house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognized the little red nose of good-natured Miss Jemima Pinkerton herself, rising over some geranium-pots in the window of that lady's own drawing-room.

Again, Thackeray narrates action unfolding: he's a storyteller. People are doing things, and more specifically are reacting to each other's actions, even in these first three sentences. The scene is dynamic, even though the actions are as yet subtle. His method is to pack a lot of descriptive detail around these actions, so we can visualize the scene quite definitely. The description goes down easily because it rides on the flow of action. The narrator finds the scene funny yet intriguing, and therefore so do we.

So, another week's novel-opening contest goes by, and two classics show why they are still in print 150 years later.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

character, cont.

Back to regular life: rain plops from the gray sky outside; and upstairs Kimmie prepares to return to Mother Corporation, as a late colleague of our old training class used to call it.

I was talking yesterday about working on character. I didn't feel that I got to the heart of what I wanted to say--maybe because I don't know what I want to say.
Here is an extract of my highlighted notes from Malcolm Heath's introduction to Aristotle's Poetics (compressed):

Tragedy is an imitation of a certain kind of action. So one constituent part of tragedy is plot, the ordered sequence of events which make up the action being imitated. An action is performed by agents, and agents necessarily have moral and intellectual characteristics, expressed in what they do and say. From this we can deduce that character and reasoning will also be constituent parts of tragedy. Imagine that you have left me alone with your silver spoons. Broadly, there are two factors that will determine whether or not I steal them. One is whether I am honest; this is the kind of thing which Aristotle means by character--an agent’s settled moral disposition. The other relevant factor is how I interpret the situation: do I think that I am likely to avoid suspicion if I take the spoons? This is what Aristotle means by reasoning. Thus character sets my agenda (what would I like to do?), and reasoning relates that agenda to a given situation (what is it feasible to do in these circumstances?).

What he says about tragedy applies to other dramatic forms as well. The actions taken by characters, which constitute the sequence of events we call the plot, arise because of two things: the agent's "settled moral disposition" (character) and the agent's "reasoning".

The question of character (settled moral disposition) is interesting because, as we know, this may not be quite so settled. I'm inclined to use the word values to name this aspect. Each of us holds a number of values, and these can change with circumstance, and also over time. At work I might generally value efficiency, and behave accordingly, but on one project I might have political reasons for dragging my feet--a different value has supervened, at least apparently.

Closely related to our values are our beliefs--what we think is true. These seem to underlie, or perhaps simply provide the rational justification for, our values. If I value efficiency, why do I value it, at least in this one context? Why do I care? There must be some reason, whether I'm conscious of it or not. If you really examine this, it can be quite elusive.

In a work context, efficiency might seem an obvious value. The work exists to achieve some result; accomplishing that result in the shortest time, with a minimum of wasted resources, is clearly a higher-quality approach. And maybe in the case of a task that I have chosen all on my own, freely and willingly, and which I am performing myself, no further explanation need be sought. Efficiency then just means that I achieve my freely chosen aims as quickly and easily as possible.

But suppose I'm an employee. The work is not really chosen by me, but is something I've been hired to do by someone else. Now if I hold (or exhibit) the value of efficiency it has a slightly different meaning. Is it because I value the task as much as my employer does, and therefore completely identify with his values in this respect? Or is it maybe that I wish to get ahead, and therefore want to make a good impression? Or do I have a more abstract and philosophical belief that "whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do with thy might"--that any job worth doing is worth doing well? Or do I feel a sense of competitiveness with my coworkers, and want to beat them in a race to get things done? Or maybe I've made a promise to achieve something by a certain time, and feel that my word is my bond.

Now the beliefs underpinning my value of efficiency are less clear--maybe even to myself. To become conscious of them would be an act of self-knowledge.

I find that coming to this type of knowledge is as difficult with created characters as it is with oneself. There's an arbitrary aspect, in that a character's values and beliefs are just whatever I decide them to be. But that's not the whole story, because not all values and beliefs are equally interesting to me, or equally relevant to the story.

This seems to be a crux. For the story as a whole--any story--has a meaning, and many subordinate meanings. Only certain values and beliefs will show those meanings in the strongest light. But not even the writer can know what a story's meaning finally is until the work is done, and therefore it's not clear what values and beliefs the characters truly hold until the work is done. Until then it's all a kind of chess game: any given move may be simple, but its underlying rationale may be deep, subtle, and even mysterious.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

digging for character

Well. I've been away from the blog for about a week now, mainly because Kimmie has taken the week off, so it's vacation-time and we're not using the alarm clock. That means later sleeping and a more free-flowing lifestyle. We both really like it.

Also, I have been working on my book, and the time not spent drafting blog-posts I have actually poured into real writing (or, in my case, preparation for writing). So that's all to the good.

But I don't want to drift too far away. I feel a slight twinge when I check StatCounter and see that regulars have visited the blog, only to find the same old post staring at them. So I thought I'd get on the case first thing today. It's the last day of Kimmie's vacation in any case; tomorrow she'll be back at the corporate rockpile.

Where am I. I'm on chapter 30, still doing preparatory notes. The toughest job I face is trying to understand my own characters. I started the whole project thinking I had a rough idea of who they were and what they were up to, but that sense kind of disappeared somewhere along the line. Now, finally, I have come to see that the discovery of what my characters really want, and why, is the major quest before me. I'm astonished at how difficult it is.

In this chapter, the point-of-view character is Menahem, the Babylonian-Jewish magician. Some time ago I decided what it is that Menahem wants to achieve, but now I need to know more--I need to know why he wants to achieve it. In quest of this knowledge I pore through my research notes, highlighting more, typing more. Why? I suppose because there is no direct way of accessing him as a person. Indeed, he is a historical character, but very little material exists that talks about him. He is essentially a fictional creation. As such, he's a blank. There's no way to learn more about him except by knowing his world better.

That might sound strange. As a fictional character, surely he is just simply whatever I want him to be. I don't need to "discover" him; I just need to "make him up". Make a couple of decisions, and get on with it. Why make things so complicated?

All I can say is, I've tried that. That's how I started out. I sketched a character, gave him an objective--something he wanted to achieve--and started writing. But a fuller character needs more. For one thing, a main character needs conflicts--not just conflicts with other characters, but internal conflicts. That means opposing tendencies within his own soul. What are these? And where did they come from?

In history, Menahem shows up in Josephus as the Essene who prophesies to the young Herod that he will be king of Judea one day. I've created Menahem as a character to whom the monarchy of Israel--the monarchy lost 500 years earlier in the confusion of events surrounding the return of the exiled Jews from Babylonia--is important: a personal mission. It's easy to believe that there can be such a character: they're all around us. Political junkies of one kind or another, ardently seeking to see their political vision realized, spending much or all of their time on the project.

But why? At bottom, why are people political junkies? What are they hoping to achieve, really? What's really driving them?

It would help to know what's driving oneself. If I want something, why do I want it? Why, really? In a certain sense, the more you want something, the bigger the mystery becomes. You think something is going to be satisfied, but what, exactly?

I'm working on this large and difficult book. Why? It represents a challenge of a certain kind. It calls on my abilities and powers, as well as on my curiosity and my impulse toward self-expression. Ego and pride are involved, as well as a readerlike curiosity to see how this story is going to work out. Will I actually be able to create a book that I would want to read?

In the end I might not have any better explanation than "it's in my nature". And maybe the same applies to my characters. I choose actions for them, and that is their character, full stop. But I still need to know their thoughts on the matter--what they think they're trying to do, and why they think they're trying to do it. Whatever they think, they're probably wrong in any case.

Warren told me that he was inspired by the work of an Amercian artist named Robert Henri, who painted in the early years of the 20th century. When I looked him up on the Web, I found this quote by Henri:

Most folks don't think what they think they think.

Yes. Now: how to write that?

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

sick souls

I've recently been reading again from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a book developed from a series of talks he gave at the Gifford lectures on natural religion in Edinburgh in 1901-02.

The first three lectures lead in with a general discussion of his topic--looking at religion primarily from a psychological point of view. Lectures 4 and 5 are together called "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness", and deal with optimistic religious experiences, using as his main example the "mind-cure" school of religion that seemed to be all the rage at the time he was speaking. This held that one can quite abruptly change one's life for the better by having faith in the guidance and help of a higher power, visualizing health and happiness, and refusing to dwell on or even acknowledge pain, illness, or depression in one's life. As James demonstrates, this approach had proved itself to be widely effective and powerful--indeed could not have become so popular if it had not.

But in lectures 6 and 7 he moves on to "The Sick Soul"--the opposite outlook, which does not deny pain and sin, but looks these right in the face, acknowledging them to be a permanent feature of the human and even cosmic landscape. I'm still working my way through lecture 6, but already have been exposed to some powerful remarks that remind me very much of some of my Buddhist studies, which likewise emphasize the futility and impossibility of finding lasting happiness in life, so long as one relies on clinging to impermanent things.

As James says,

Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world: in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.

In illustration of this, he quotes Goethe in 1824:

I will say nothing against the course of my existence. But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.

Whew. Or this, from Robert Louis Stevenson:

There is indeed one element in human destiny, that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.

Sobering words. They seem to suit my mood at the moment. Reading as much history right now as I am, especially sweeping views of the whole of human history (I've just finished Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race), it's hard not to see it as a march of folly, the gradual acquisition of more powerful means to achieving the same dismal ends.

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, writing in the 1930s, saw militarism as one of the main features of a decadent and moribund society, a kind of social disease that would prevent the arising of a decent human civilization for as long as it persists. Well, we live in a world that is vastly more militarized than it ever has been, with more killing power distributed into more hands.

Being the biggest and best-armed is no help. Toynbee points to the legend of David and Goliath as the example of how supreme power breeds complacency, and brings about its own destruction through means it feels no motivation to foresee. Even when a heavily armed power toils to stay up to date, upgrading its military systems, as the ancient empire of Assyria did, it eventually reaps the whirlwind of militarism.

Assyria dominated the Middle East from about 1000 to 650 BC, but its oppressive strength bred tremendous resentment in its neighbors, and eventually all the conquered rose against it and destroyed it. When the Greek general Xenophon led his 10,000 mercenaries back from Persia toward the Black Sea in the 5th century BC, he passed Nineveh, the ancient fortified capital of Assyria. He and his men were amazed to find such a vast and heavily built city utterly vacant. Xenophon was unable to discover the truth about who had built the city, or when. The very name of Assyria had been forgotten.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Again I sit here, wondering what to write about.

Various things tumble through my head. I have feelings of trepidation and hesitation that seem to come from many sources. I think back to what made me launch this blog back in March 2005: I wanted to find out what this new phenomenon was called blogging, and, as an experiment, went through the steps of setting up a blog on Blogger.com, not realizing that by the end of it I would be "live" and would have a blog. Having built it, I started typing content into it.

I'm still here. I wanted to create a journal of the progress of my work, one that others could check in on, if they so chose. The commitment of publishing would keep me coming back and writing posts, so at least I would have a record for my own use of the process of writing this book.

Along the way I have used it to develop my thoughts on writing and reading, on art, literature, mythology, symbolism, and other things. These are ideas, and it's hard to know how much influence or effect they might have. They're like seeds: insignificant objects that mainly never do anything, but when they find a home and sprout, then tremendous results can occur. I'm throwing them out there, for whatever it's worth.

I don't regard myself as a normal member of the blogosphere, engaging in comment on other blog-posts or weighing in with heated opinions about the topics of the day. Looking at the reader comments attached to online news articles, I find that the tone of exchange is generally dismal and juvenile. I have no wish to be part of that.

So this document is what it is. It's more like correspondence than journalism--like writing letters to someone I know well. I suspect that the advent of e-mail, so excellent in so many ways, has damaged the level of correspondence. There's nothing exactly like the kinds of letters I used to write and receive before the days of e-mail (never mind text messaging!): thoughtful, carefully composed communication intended only for one or two people. It's too bad.

I reckon I'll keep sending these letters into the ether--to finish documenting the construction of this invisible cathedral. One day it will become visible, and this record might make more sense.

(This post has no title, because no matter what I do, Blogger will not let me enter the Title field. Last day of Mercury retrograde...)


Friday, July 06, 2007

the goddess is dead

Another lunch at my mother's place, and five more novel openers to look at. Again, yesterday, Mom chose five books from her living-room shelves, more or less at random, and we looked at how they opened. Yesterday's crop included The Diviners by Margaret Laurence and A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. But we agreed that the strongest opening was that of The Outsider by Albert Camus:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deepest sympathy. That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

(That's the best translation that I have been able to find online; I don't have a copy of the book here at my house.)

The opening sentence itself is a factual statement of one of the most powerful moments in a person's life--when his or her mother dies. The immediacy of today makes the event very present, rather than something that happened in the more distant past. The narrator is writing in his journal, perhaps, or talking to us directly in the evening. Three powerful words, each one of which tells.

But if the first sentence provides a shock, the second provides a stronger one: that the narrator is not sure whether his mother died today or yesterday. It raises sharp questions: Why doesn't he know? Was her death mysterious in some way? Is he just indifferent? The cold factualness of his admission strikes a chilling tone.

The next sentence tells us that he learned of the death by telegram. It tells him, the son, there will be a funeral tomorrow. Who's arranging this funeral? Why wasn't he on hand for his mother's death? Didn't he know she was dying? Didn't he care? His pondering of the factual question of when his mother actually died, along with his seeming indifference to the event, suggest a disconnection from life that is both cognitive and emotional.

At the same time, "Mother" is not merely a person, but an archetype, the Goddess--the giver of life and of feeling. So there is a deeper chill: that somehow the Mother of us all is dead, and we the orphans live in an impoverished world, the waste land of her permanent absence. The word mother is among the most heavily loaded and significant in any language; so is the word die. Putting the two together creates a tremendous voltage. Mother is who gives us life; for her to die is a somber, almost paradoxical event.

I recall that the opening scene of James Joyce's Ulysses also deals with the death of a mother--the mother of Stephen Dedalus. In that respect these two great artists were mining a similar vein. In the 19th century Nietzsche proclaimed God to be dead. In a sense, these writers are suggesting a catastrophe that might be still greater, or anyway more jarring and traumatic: that the Goddess is dead too.

This is the condition of the Waste Land as elucidated by Joseph Campbell: no divinity without, no divinity within--just the sterility of a landscape populated by traumatized survivors thirsting for life. It's the spiritual condition of modern man, and the fact that Camus can suggest this condition in just a few words shows why he is among the greats.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

"G" is for good

Last Thursday, when I visited my mother for lunch, for fun we spent part of our time looking at the opening sentences and paragraphs of a few novels. They were a semi-random selection of popular novels and serious fiction, including things like Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

Based purely on the strength of their openers, among the small collection we looked at, I would award the palm to Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone mystery, "G" Is for Gumshoe. Here's the opening sentence:

Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me.

Nice. Many writers strive to grab your attention with an opening hook, which may be violent or often mystifying, but Grafton stimulates the reader's curiosity naturally and without excessive force by mentioning that "three things occurred." This simple statement provokes the question, "what three things?", and I as a reader am willing to extend the narrator enough credit to read on to find out. It's not an artificial attempt to mystify the reader, to provoke a huh? response, as so many openers do. It is a factual statement made by a person who has a direct, organized way of presenting information--and this in itself tells me something about the narrator, who is also clearly the first-person protagonist.

Other nice touches: Grafton's use of "on or about" tells us that the character is a cop or involved with the legal system, or is otherwise making playful use of that legalistic phrase. The date May 5 places the story precisely in time, and further strengthens the impression of the narrator's penchant for facts and precision. The mention of Cinco de Mayo in California sets the story in place, and also in attitude, since this unofficial holiday is a time of celebrating Mexican pride, hinting that the narrator may have connections with the large Hispanic community in California. Finally, the phrase "Happy Birthday to me" tells us still more about our narrator--that she's a Taurus, for one thing. Her use of "Happy Birthday" itself is ironic or playful, expressing her attitude. How well do you have to know someone to know what his or her birthday is? We know this narrator's birthday already, so are getting in fairly close and intimate--all in one 22-word sentence.

Here's the rest of the first paragraph:

Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:

1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.

2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.

3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty's hit list.

Very good. We learn a lot, quickly: that the narrator is 33, and that either time is hanging heavy on her hands ("an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two") or she is ironically commenting on how fast time is passing her by. Then she delivers immediately on the promise to tell us about the three things that happened. We learn that her apartment was reconstructed for some reason (was it wrecked somehow?); that she is someone whose work involves transporting people from the desert, at least sometimes; and that she has become an enemy of someone named Tyrone Patty.

Only at this last point, number 3, does Grafton use what I would call mystification--referring to someone or something that the reader does not know in a way that implies that the reader does or should know. (Note that in number 2, she refers to a Mrs. Clyde Gersh, indicating that the narrator did not know her either.) But by now we're drawn so far into the narrator's world that this teaser is legitimate. We know her well enough that she can play with us a bit. Plus, her no-nonsense style suggests that she won't leave us hanging for long. (I didn't read on to find out, by the way.)

There's no fluff here. Each sentence pulls you further into the narrator's world. She has a strong attitude and this permeates each phrase. All in all, I found it very engaging; it's hard not to keep reading.

Of course, this is just the opener. As in a horserace, just because you break fast from the gate doesn't mean you're going to win. But it does show that this writer is proficient, in control, and respects her readers. What's not to like?

More on this topic later. Aren't first paragraphs fun?

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

the (un)inhibited writer

I've sat here for some minutes now, trying to think of how to launch this post. Usually some idea comes to me quickly, and I start wandering into my topic, discovering it as I go. Today nothing has really recommended itself to me.

Technically this is writer's block. I can say that this block is due to the cause to which I would generally attribute writer's block--I'm not writing about the right thing. In this case, it means that I'm constrained in my blog from talking about many things--things that I feel are too private or personal to publish, or things that will reveal too much about my work in progress, spoiling the eventual result. Writer's block, in short, is striving to write about one thing when you really want to write about something else.

As a result, writer's block happens to writers on paid assignments, or in the midst of large projects to which they've committed themselves and don't want to abandon. Writer's block, as the name implies, is inhibition. What inhibits us?

I sense that these inhibitions are of two broad kinds: inhibitions due to knowledge and inhibitions due to emotions. The knowledge inhibitions come from not knowing what we're talking about. This type of block is cured by research, as Robert McKee suggests in his book Story.

Emotional inhibitions I think can be of several kinds. One kind is performance anxiety: that what one will write will be no good; fear of failure. Another kind is exposure, which is perhaps the same as other kinds of inhibition: fear of drawing unwanted attention to ourselves, or fear of provoking unpleasant reactions from people. Why won't I go skinny-dipping with the group? Afraid of what people will think about my naked body. Why not ask that woman out for a date? Afraid of rejection.

Good writing takes off its clothes and asks people for a date. At bottom it seems that inhibition is an attitude toward risk. The inhibited person--the blocked person--does not have enough confidence in the possibility of the reward that lies on the far side of a risk. "Safety first" is the motto, and it may well be one that was learned early and hard. It is therefore difficult to give up.

I remember reading a book on investing called The Zurich Axioms. In it the author, Max Gunther, makes the point that life is inseparable from risk. The caterpillar, in order to munch on the life-giving leaf, must crawl out the branch and risk being eaten by a bird. It can hide in safety for awhile, but eventually hunger will drive it out into the zone of risk, to live or die.

There's no guarantee. A risk can work out badly--maybe very badly. The caterpillar gets eaten. Or I think of sensational local news stories, such as a teenage boy who recently was killed when he crashed his motorcycle late at night on the Barnet Highway, no doubt traveling at high speed. He took a risk for the thrill of it, and snuffed out his young life.

The death of the victims heightens the thrill of the survivors: their deaths are the measure of the survivors' achievement, and provide its emotional voltage.

Speech is not often used to communicate people's true, deepest thoughts and feelings. Such communication is too risky for most of us, and we avoid it. In that sense we're all inhibited--we all have "writer's block". The writer who manages to turn into the skid, and actually, truthfully express what he or she is thinking or feeling, is showing us all the way to be genuine, courageous, and how to make a bid for the true prizes of life--the green leaves out on those sunstruck branches.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

better than perfect

Back to the work-week after the Canada Day holiday. A sunny, easygoing weekend in a city largely deserted. Just when the city is at its most lovely, everyone flees it to wait in ferry queues or fight traffic on the freeways. The beneficiaries are those left behind.

After my "tortoise on Everest" post last Friday, I've been thinking more about my various hangups and difficulties in writing, and got to looking in a book I bought four years ago, The New Birth Order Book by Kevin Leman. An Adlerian psychologist, Leman specializes in the psychology of birth order: whether you're the firstborn, middle, last-born, or an only child. Apparently this is still not a very well respected field of psychological inquiry, even though the thinking behind it is not remotely mystical or superstitious, but based on straightforward, practical considerations.

I'm a firstborn, and like many such, as well as only children, I struggle with perfectionism. Leman devotes two chapters to perfectionism in his book. I've never considered myself a perfectionist, but when I reread his list of symptoms, I had to admit that I am indeed one, or perhaps a "recovering perfectionist."

Here is what Leman calls the "cycle of perfectionism":

The perfectionist is the originator of the motto, It's all or nothing. He tends to be a streak performer; when he's hot, he's hot, and when he's not, he's a mess.

This leads to biting off more than he or she can chew, perhaps the perfectionist's major problem. Perfectionists can always take on one more thing, even when his or her schedule is absolutely full.

The hurdle effect causes the perfectionist to panic. He or she looks down the track and sees all those hurdles ahead. The hurdles aren't necessarily there but they are perceived and overwhelming. How did I get into this mess? How am I ever going to get out?

As the hurdles seem to grow taller and taller, the perfectionist compounds his or her problems by maximizing failures and minimizing successes. If perfectionists make mistakes, they internalize them, chew on them, and go over and over in their minds what went wrong. If they manage to do something right, they think, It could have been better.

When the pressure becomes too great, the perfectionist may bail out, quitting the project or turning it in less than well done with the excuse, There just wasn't enough time.

Whether the perfectionist manages to finish or backs out, he is always left feeling he must try harder. He is the original victim of the Avis complex, sure that he is number 2.

He observes that perfectionists are procrastinators, and that never-finished projects are a sure sign of a procrastinating perfectionist. In his words:

It doesn't matter how intelligent, talented, or fortunate you may be; the only way to avoid failure is to sit back and do nothing.

Hear, hear! It's nice to be "failure-proof"...up to a point. Another great quote, not from Leman, is this:

Hard work and perseverance pay off eventually; procrastination pays off now.

I don't have the worst kind of perfectionism, for I do manage to finish some things (and start many more!). And while I find criticism painful and unpleasant, it is not so painful that it leads me not to finish things or to show my work. I do tend to keep things under wraps until I feel ready to show it--until it has passed the test of my own critical eye.

How is perfectionism treated? (And by the way, Leman is not joking: he regards perfectionism not as a cute quirk, but as a debilitating, life-ruining liability.) The therapy is to move away from an attitude of identifying with the result of one's efforts ("I am what I do") to identifying with the effort itself ("I will do my best"). Leman calls this attitude the pursuit of excellence. Pursuers of excellence do their best, and accept that whatever happens will be the best possible result, since they did their best. Perfection is not ours to attain, ever. But we can always do our best.

Would you rather be a perfectionist who does nothing, or an imperfect person who does his or her best?

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