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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 20, 2007

technical barriers

Rain has returned at last. It falls heavily in the somber twilight. The dark greenery glints in the amber light from the bright lamp on the east wall of our building--a manufactured star in a dull space.

I study my way forward. By that I mean that my progress, such as it is now, is via study. It is as though there are two urges within me: the urge to create, and the urge to know, and that these compete for processor-time in my brain.

The creative urge presses forward, a variant of the mating instinct, seeking the joy of creation: bringing the new into being, the divine prerogative and act, according to Mircea Eliade. But this runs into two (main) barriers: technique and subject (for want of better terms).

The technical barrier is about matching one's ability to the task at hand. Can I do this? A clearer example would be in music. You might be able to play some piano, but if someone drops the sheet-music for "Claire de Lune" in front of you, do you have the chops to play it? In the case of a musical instrument, the issue of one's adequacy is clear and stark. If you don't read music, for example, that settles the question right away.

In writing it's less clear. We all learn to "write" as part of our elementary education. Our very ability to read fiction seems to point to our ability to write it, since, unlike with music, literacy empowers both reading and writing at the same time.

But of course it's not so. I remember being so inspired as a young man by reading James Joyce that I felt I must be able to write as he did. My ability to experience the power of his language must mean that I had it in me to create such language myself. Only gradually did it become clear that I was nowhere near being able to write as Joyce did--that even if I could acquire Joyce's vocabulary and command of grammar and so on, I would still be only at the base of the mountain of his achievement. Even though I had direct experience of the power of his writing, I really didn't have the first idea of how he achieved his effects. It wasn't just that I didn't have access to his toolkit; I didn't even know what was in his toolkit, or where I might find a kit like it.

It's a little like what Robert McKee says about would-be screenwriters. The apparent simplicity of the final document leads them to severely underestimate the difficulty of creating one. In his words, it's like saying, "I like opera; I think I'll write one." Few opera-lovers would make that mistake, but movie-lovers--and book-lovers--make it all the time.

Writing seduces us into thinking we can do it. (Incidentally, this general delusion of universal proficiency in writing helps to depress the value of writers' work.)

I remember getting an oil-painting set when I was about 12 years old, along with a canvas. Yahoo! I loved all kinds of artistic creation, and was a fairly talented drawer. Now I could create paintings--beautiful, detailed works in color. Fantastic!

I put the canvas on the easel, squeezed some colors onto the palette in the kit, and faced my creative task. I visualized a scene--yes, a scene of trees in the full leaf of summer, with light shining through their leaves. Fantastic! I started mixing green with yellow, a dab of blue...

It soon became clear that I had no idea how to paint. How did those guys get their trees to look realistic? How did they manage to avoid creating messy blobs? How did they get any detail in there? How did they prevent all their colors from merging into excremental brown on their palette?

I abandoned my painting, realizing that I had a lot to learn before I could face a canvas with some sense of knowing what I was doing. Having a painting kit didn't really teach me anything about painting, but I did acquire a new respect for skilled painters. I learned how hard it is to do what they do.

Creative writing is not so different. Apart from the inspirational and creative aspects of the art, it's a skill. What makes it especially difficult and confusing is that there does not even seem to be universal consensus on what constitutes really good technique in writing--no equivalent of the painter's criterion of "likeness". I think this is because writing, unlike the other arts, does not work with the senses directly. Rather, the senses of sight and hearing are used to convey an abstract entity to the imagination of the audience. The real medium of writing is concepts--invisible, tucked away in each person's mind, colored with personal associations. The writer's tubes of paint are concepts, and they do their work in the secret recesses of the soul.

So much for technical barriers. I was going to get on to subject, but perhaps that will be tomorrow. Now the writer needs breakfast.

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