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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I would like to report progress in my great work--I really would. But the very concept of progress has become hazy even to me, the one supposedly "progressing" with it.

I have arrived again at what feels like a characteristic spot for me: stuck on a cliff-face. Metaphorically, that is--although in my personal mythology, the guiding image is from a real event. When I was attempting my lifewriting project about seven years ago, one of my efforts was to write a number of vignettes of my earliest memories. These form an archipelago that has no sequential order in my mind; they remain self-contained yet interconnected, not unlike the Greek myths.

Here is the vignette that I labeled, simply, "Cliff":

Let's climb up here. Yeah. Okay. It's the cliff behind the Schmidts' house. It doesn't seem like a cliff because trees grow around it and up it and on top of it, but the dirt runs out and you have to go up the speckled rock. Greg Schmidt is first. he's twenty-four days older than I am. He's five. I'm next. Doug Schmidt is last. He's four.

Greg is fast, he finds places to grab and places to put his feet. I try some of his places and some of my own when his look too hard. At some point I stop. All the places look too hard here. I look down. Doug climbs slowly below, bristly blond head against a yellow sweater. I can't see the last place I put my foot. I look up again. There's a crack in the rock running up at an angle. The top of the cliff is rounded. Greg is just standing up to turn and look down.

A wave of fear passes through me. It is intense fear that I have never felt before.

"C'mon!" says Greg. "It's easy!"

There's a squeal of excitement in his voice. He makes a big come-up gesture with his arm, lifting one gum-boot from the rock with the energy of his movement.

I cling to the rock. I look up. I look down. The fear becomes strongest as I realize that I must either go up, go down, or fall. There is no other choice. There is no one who can help me. I must do something. I must do it by myself.

"C'mon!" says Greg. "Grab over there!"

I must choose.


But Greg is already turning to explore the trees at the top, losing interest in us.

I don't know the word panic, but I know I mustn't or I will fall. The top is closer, but I don't know how to get there. The bottom is farther but I'll have to get past Doug. I'd be chickening out. I could still fall.

I decide to go up. I reach for the crack where Greg went and cling to the rock as I make my way. I hate being forced to do this. I hate being stuck so I have no choice. I hate being terrified. But I have to. I put my feet in places and grab places with my hands. The slope gets less and I walk leaning forward over the curve at the top. I make it.

I look down and see Doug slowly climbing his way up. He doesn't seem scared. I feel some triumph but mainly relief and maybe anger that I had to be scared so badly to get up here. But I made it.

Want to know what it's like to be most of the way through writing The Mission? See above.

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