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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

integrity and adequacy

I find myself engaged in a major rethinking of my project--the reason that I have had it up on blocks, so to speak, for a couple of months now.

When I say "rethink", I don't mean I intend to junk major portions or completely alter what I'm doing. Maybe the word think would be better than rethink. It's a process of learning more, of going deeper, asking why, and forging connections.

In order for a work of art to have integrity, to have unity, everything in it must relate with everything else. Everything in it needs to belong, and needs to be felt to belong. I suppose that the larger and more complex the work, the more difficult it is to meet this requirement.

It's hard to be more specific about this without going into details about the work itself, which I don't really want to do (the spoiler factor). But there is sometimes the feeling that an idea for one part of the story can be applied to others parts, thus knitting them together thematically. My current investigation into ancient credit and finance, for example: I am working with it as a means of creating tension and interest in my current chapter, but I'm also asking how this might be applied to other sections of the story. If it's meaningful and relevant here, it should be meaningful and relevant elsewhere.

Credit could thus become a thematic strand: a kind of thread running through the work, tugging the pieces into closer union with each other. It becomes part of the meaning of the work.

An exciting but scary aspect of this process is that such meanings cannot really be forced onto the work; they are discovered. There is something organic about it. I think of the image of neurons forging connections among each other in the brain: they branch out, their fibers fastening on to each other and fusing, the junctions growing stronger with each impulse that passes through them. The brain, composed of countless complex parts and subunits, becomes a functioning whole.

I continue to worry about my work in progress. When I wake at night and lie thinking, it is still one of my main concerns. Or while watching TV in the evening: something I see will trigger a thought about my work, and I will actually gasp as though an electric shock had been applied, startling my wife. It's fear that I've missed something important, or that my work is deficient in some deep but specific--and irreparable--way.

Life. A story must capture the flavor of life. There are endless ways of doing so, but it's not easy. A story represents both your understanding of life and your ability to express it. When you're offering up a story, you're saying, "I think life is like this." Even supposed escapist and fantasy works say this. As Joseph Campbell observes, stories of magic and monsters are really about the psychological world--our inner life. The story is a test and an expression of the writer's personal adequacy to the world.

In this view, the greatest works are by writers who are highly adequate. They see into life and are able to paint what they see--to express it. As with any endeavor, excellence is only for the few.

Could it be that a truly unified work can come only from a unified personality? Someone who has attained personal integrity in the deepest and widest sense?

I don't know. The question marks here express the truth of my own situation.


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