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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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