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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 27, 2007

finding the feeling

Over the last couple of days I have read over some of my blog-posts of the past few months, and thought I detected a rather depressed tone. It seems that a couple of years ago, when I started this blog, I was more lighthearted and capable of humor in my posts. It looks a little like one of the possible effects of aging, in which the joie de vivre of youth is squeezed out by painful experience.

May it never be!

I don't think too much about the "tone" of my writing, since I generally regard this as hard to control, and anyway the effort to control it would be a contrivance, an affectation--something I want to avoid. But every once in a while it is pushed into my attention. I recall, for instance, the very first feedback I got from a literary agent. It was in response to my submission of a youthful adventure novel called The Black Orchid, which the agent (forget who) tore to shreds. One of her withering comments was something like, "...and the dry, stilted tone, which I suppose is an effort to make it sound 19th-century...." Apart from the general unwelcomeness of this "negative praise" (a term I learned from my father), I was struck by the criticism, because I hadn't been aware of trying to affect any particular tone, or to make it seem "period". My prose style, according to this agent, was therefore just boring and stilted, full stop.

Ouch. It's a jungle out there, I thought.

It smarted, but I didn't take it too seriously. I knew my writing stood up favorably in comparison with the great majority of published material. But it did give me some pause. My outlook did and does tend toward the detached and scientific, and my writing style inevitably reflects this. Am I too much of a "scientist" to write fiction and drama? Why do I want to write fiction and drama anyway?

Well, I just do. There is a creative spring within me that keeps burbling forth, and I want to channel that, give expression to it. But there's no denying that that spring percolates through the rational, analytical rock of my mind. A hardheaded Mercury in Capricorn is just not the gushing type, or given to effusiveness.

Of course, it's not a question of a dichotomy between "dry and factual" and "gushing and effusive". And it's not as though I want to read stuff that is merely dry and factual--although I tend to find such stuff much more persuasive than purely emotional outpourings. Rather, I like a balanced, detached, well-researched text powered by an underlying passion. I like adult discourse, not baby-talk. Passion drives the prose forward, motivates it, makes it matter. Clear, authoritative facts, enlisted in the cause of passion, make for powerful reading, I think.

Another way of cutting dryness is humor. This again should not be contrived--for that is painful to read. But if one has a natural humor, then this enlivens one's prose, creates warmth around detachment. Maybe when I'm feeling depressed this becomes muted, and conspicuous by its absence.

And yet another way of boosting the vitality of a naturally even and dry tone is to turn one's detached mind directly onto the emotions themselves--to take an interest in feelings and reporting their effects, rather than simply ignoring them, which is what a true dryasdust does. When a detached mind pays attention to the feeling side of life, the effect is especially powerful, I think. James Joyce was a master of this. A cool, detached, satirical Aquarian, he nonetheless saw into the living heart of people's feelings, and was able to evoke their manifestations in his writing. His dramatization of the painful fight at the Dedalus Christmas dinner in A Portrait of the Artist is one of many examples of his mastery: a cool detached eye seeing how a family suffers, and reporting it vividly, blow by blow.

In the end, you can't really camouflage who you are. As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam." But I do need to watch out. For I think I do unconsciously steer away from "emotional" writing, just because I dislike naked appeals to feeling as a way of making one's case. My desire for objectivity and evenhandedness has me purging my prose of words or expressions that might seem "loaded" or tending to bias the viewpoint. The result can be too much like report-writing (something I'm very good at).

I don't believe in trying to goose scenes in order to wring more "feeling" out of them. In season 2 of The Odyssey, when a new story editor was shoved in by the network to run the writing of the show, he threw around the words emotion and feeling as though merely saying them were the same as evoking them. I had contempt for both the intent and the method. If there's anything I like less than dry, insipid writing it's ungenuine and painted-on emotionality. Real feeling comes out of real situations, and to make them real, you need to be connected with truth--you have to tell it like it is.

When I (mainly accidentally) switch on a contemporary TV drama, the strained efforts at laughs and emotions simply embarrass me, if they don't provoke active feelings of horror, like witnessing someone losing their grip and defecating in public.

No, give me a good, well-written report.


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