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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, November 30, 2007


Yesterday, toward the end of my writing period, I experienced a flash of panic. As I struggled with the plotting aspects of my current chapter, I opened up the latest draft (not very recent) of my Detailed Outline to look at what I'd planned for later on. Cue panic.

My god, I thought, this isn't going to work.

I saw a pile of material that would all have to be changed or replaced--assuming that the thing as a whole could be made to work at all, by no means a given. As I scrolled through the paragraphs a sick bleakness settled in my core. Boring, I said to myself. Boring. How can this even be fixed?

There were other, unrelated issues on my mind that were predisposing me to a negative outlook. The toxic mix merged like the binary precursors of a nerve gas, which turn deadly when combined.

I stared at the screen for a few minutes, but it was clear I was in no shape to deal with these issues. I went upstairs. It was a crisp sunny day. I'd been planning to go for a jog, to run a rented DVD back up the hill. Now I felt too depressed.

I thought back to March 1981, when I'd had my first full-on anxiety attack. Not knowing what else to do, I'd wound up at Emergency at Vancouver General Hospital, where I actually worked at that time as a janitor. I paced and shook in a crowded waiting-room full of bruised, bleeding, and distressed people. Eventually I was seen by a doctor, an Irish resident only a few years older than I was. He was intelligent, compassionate, and very handsome. A shivering wreck in the little examination room, I felt completely inadequate.

He gave me a Valium in a paper cup. I told him I didn't want to take the drug.

"Why not?" he said.

"It's just such a...low-level approach," I said. "It doesn't get at the problem."

"Have you ever gone running?" he said.


"And notice how you feel good after a run?"


"Well, that's a low-level approach, isn't it?"

I nodded reluctantly, but I also appreciated that he had understood right away what I meant. And I was astonished at how the Valium produced a deep, carefree calm--inconceivable just a few minutes before.

Remembering that conversation from 26 years ago, yesterday I determined to don my sweats and go for a run. Popping the DVD into a backpack (the movie was 1989's Uncle Buck, if you're curious--still good, although I've put it on the B-list), I headed out into the cool sunshine.

I'm somewhat out of condition since I haven't been running for the past few months, but I was able to jog up Lonsdale Avenue to the Blockbuster Video on 19th Street. At a lumbering pace I wove among the people on the sidewalks, enjoying being among others on the local high street: standing at bus stops, smoking cigarettes, yakking on cell-phones, serving hot dogs from a stand. I dropped the DVD and ran back home, squinting into the brilliant, low sun in the vacant sky.

I ran up along a block of 8th Street and walked the last two blocks home, looking down the hill and across the harbor to the city. The sparkles on the water were almost too bright to look at, even through my clip-on shades. My heart rate and breathing slowed quite quickly; my condition is improving. I came back in the front door and started heating up some homemade pea soup for lunch.

I felt better. Not tip-top, but better. A run had been exactly the right thing to do--"low-level" or not.

To do what I'm doing I need nerves of steel. Unfortunately, I don't have them, so I've got to make the best of it.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

page fright

Today I start with my title. The term came to me abruptly yesterday while I was going about my morning routine, preparatory to coming down to the office to write. When I looked at my mind, I saw that I have a continual, gnawing resistance to facing the task of working on my project, and when I looked more closely, I saw that that resistance was based on fear.

Fear of what, exactly? The term came to me because I recognized the fear as being much the same as stage fright, which I've had a number of times in my life. In the main it's not been debilitating, since there is a ham and applause-junkie in me always seeking a way out. The worst times have not been connected with actual acting (I used to act back in high school, and indeed took a lead role in the silent film I made with my friends in those days), but, if I recall, in business presentations. Feelings of dread and doom overtake one as the moment of facing the audience draws inexorably closer.

I take heart from the fact that even experienced professional actors get stage fright--quite badly in some cases. I remember hearing that no less veteran a performer than Peter O'Toole had terrible nerves before going on stage, would hyperventilate and flap his arms to vent his stress. The pro is (mostly) able to take that energy and use it: inject it into the performance. The schmo stands on the stage, paralyzed and squeaking, bringing on the dreaded fiasco.

I recognized my resistance to writing as being in the same genus of fear. It's performance anxiety. There comes a moment of truth, and you've either got it or you don't. Can the high-jumper clear the bar? Can the soprano hit the note? The moment comes, and we find out.

When you actually sit down to write, you've already achieved something: you've hacked your way through a thicket of excuses. That in itself is an attainment that most would-be writers never achieve. "I'm too busy"; "I can't get enough quiet time alone"; "I'm not feeling creative right now". These and their allies defeat many a proto-writer.

And why? I believe it's because the proto-writer is undermotivated, basically due to fear. The proto-writer has page fright: the fear of arriving at a moment of truth and flopping. I don't mean flopping in the sense of not getting published or produced, for those problems happen only to the writer who has actually made it through page fright and written something. I mean flopping in the sense of balling up, freezing--experiencing an emotional state much like that of the terrified actor, paralyzed and squeaking on stage.

I can't say that flopping in front of your computer screen is worse than flopping in a live performance. We've all seen those Olympic figure-skating performances that have crashed and burned, due basically to performance anxiety, and imagined the crushing disappointment of people who have spent years in relentless single-minded training, all to face those four minutes on the ice. It must be like having your soul machine-gunned.

But the private flopping of the writer has its own special poignancy, even its own special agony. There's no world audience to witness your failure, but that world audience is in some ways a boon--it gives the high-profile failure something to push back at, something to define himself against: "I'll show them!" At the very least, he can enjoy the spectacle of defeat and tragedy--we remember Hector and Troy, after all, and they have their own measure of greatness. The failure of the writer is a private affair, an unsung tragedy, like the drowning of a hermit in the wilderness. He expires quietly, anonymously, his final thoughts unknown.

My way of dealing with page fright is through structure and routine. My morning routine happens automatically, by habit. If I just let one body movement follow another, I wind up here at my PC. That gets me through the thicket of excuses.

Then I have a structured way of getting into the writing itself. I open up my Notes document to the previous day's work, click on the Word highlighter, and go through the material, looking for "keeper" ideas. It's a fairly mechanical job, and it gets me engaged with the material, recalling what I'm working on. Nowadays I'm also copying and pasting the highlighted material into another document, which I call the Workspace for the chapter: where the refined notes go, along with plotting and outlining material.

Now, having got used to the water, so to speak, I can start splashing around. I can go back to my Notes document and start typing new thoughts into it. I think, "It's only notes--you can write anything here." I talk to myself, and type what I say.

In the Workspace I feel a little more pressure, since it's a more refined level of notes. But I have the safety net of dropping back to the Notes document, to chew the cud and muse randomly, or follow tangents.

My plan is to create a third level of preparation document, a Treatment, in which I will use the material from the Workspace to write out a story treatment for the chapter. The aim here too is to take the pressure off, to alleviate page fright by providing yet more scaffolding before I attempt the actual prose.

Is this an elegant or inspired way to write? Maybe not. It feels kind of corporate. But page fright is a reality. There are plenty of author-alcoholics out there to testify to its power. If a narrow pole were stretched across the Grand Canyon, and you found yourself out somewhere in the middle of it, how worried would you be about your poise and form? Speaking for myself, I wouldn't be one of those walking with a bold, insouciant step. I'd be wrapped around it like a snake, inching my way forward, alternately praying and swearing.

Just like that pilot I talked to at Seminary: "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing." Any method that gets you hitting the keys is a good method.

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the strangeness of dreams

We take most of our lives for granted.

Things that are already in our experience, in our environment, do not arouse our curiosity. In general, we're not really any different from, say, a herd of cattle who come upon a flying saucer resting on a field: they would walk around it to get to the stream to drink. They might glance at it, but it's simply there, not affecting their concerns, so there's no need to pay more attention to it.

In a similar way, many aspects of our lives seem familiar and not worthy of special attention; but if you look at them more closely, they become deeply puzzling.

A prime example: dreaming. This universal and familiar phenomenon, like that of sleep, we take for granted. It just happens. No halfway decent explanation for why either one exists has been suggested, as far as I know. Some people study them, but these things are a profound mystery. Virtually all creatures sleep, but it is inexplicable in our world of Darwinian natural selection why all these animals, who are someone's prey, find it so urgent to make themselves completely vulnerable for long periods each day, and that no creature has appeared which has dispensed with this programmed vulnerability.

This morning I had a long, complex dream. In one part of it my mother's driveway, which in the dream (unlike reality) was long and straight, collapsed, as though it were the roof of an underground chamber: the old asphalt fell in to a deep rectangular trench. In the dream I'd been using an outhouse next to the driveway, and narrowly escaped falling in with the collapse. Then I recalled that my own driveway at home had collapsed in the just the same way, the same day, and in the dream I realized that this must be very significant--an impossible coincidence. It confirmed my sense of the meaningfulness of events.

There was much more to the dream: it involved old coworkers at ICBC, scriptwriting, guitar-playing, and other things. I went through feelings of fear, depression, and hope. But why do I have such a diverse and mysterious--as well as fictitious--other life? What can natural selection ever have to say about that?

I'll tell you what: nothing. The phenomena, real and universal though they are, lie outside the realm of discourse of life science. They're addressed by psychology, but there is no really satisfactory account there either. If we're honest, we have to admit it's a mystery--a flying saucer in the field that we walk by en route to the stream.

I know that the dream-imagery was influenced by my watching another episode of Planet Earth last night: "Caves". I felt awe and wonder as I watched, and could feel the images falling like seeds somewhere deep in the dark of my soul. How strange the world is: huge lightless caverns filled with bats and cockroaches and translucent eyeless salamanders. Huge flocks of birds navigating in pitch-darkness by using clicks like bats, and building nests for themselves on the vertical walls made from their own saliva. Deep, deep into the Earth go the caves, cut by water etching its way through limestone: blind underground rivers and waterfalls and lakes, populated by creatures that have never seen sunlight...

The images became braided with other things in my soul, and served up as a personal adventure in my sleep. It's all so strange and purposeful at the same time.

It's a mystery.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

achieving the unprecedented

Last night Kimmie and I watched another episode and a half of the BBC nature-documentary series Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough. (I see from the Wikipedia article that the American version of the series was narrated by Sigourney Weaver.) Even on our old low-definition TV set, the show is awe-inspiring; it sets the bar for nature cinematography somewhere up in the stratosphere. We both love the show.

The episode on Mountains featured a sequence on the snow leopard of the Himalaya. This rare animal is seldom seen even by locals, but the filmmakers had caught footage not only of the leopard, but, incredibly, of a hunting sequence in which a leopard chases a young goat down a cliff, catches it, loses it again, and has to give it up when the kid plunges into a river below. As I watch these sequences, every once in a while, having made films and even a TV show myself, I think, "that can't have been easy footage to get."

The library discs include short documentaries about the filming of the series. After the Mountains episode they show something of what they went through to get the leopard footage. For a start, a veteran Scottish nature cinematographer went into the Himalaya and, living in a cave, spent weeks sitting in strategic spots with his camera, waiting. He sat in a blind on a slope for seven hours a day, day after day, watching the slopes around him. He finally bagged a couple of telephoto shots.

The producers searched harder. They went to the wild and war-torn border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the winter of, I believe, 2004. Again, it was a matter of weeks of solitary stakeouts in the snowbound peaks of the Hindu Kush before they finally got lucky. As Attenborough observed in the documentary, the chase sequence was not only a first for filmmaking, but was also in all likelihood the first time the event had ever been seen by human eyes.

And there it was in our living-room.

As I saw what the filmmakers had gone through to get their material, my awe of the show deepened. In the little self-interviews the cinematographers gave into cameras while they were awaiting an opportunity, their boredom, frustration, and anxiety were evident. They had suffered a lot--for nothing, up to that point. Anyone accusing them of wasting large amounts of time, effort, and money would have an ironclad case at that moment.

But they stuck with it, and were eventually rewarded with material that must have exceeded their wildest hopes. Their stubborn, perhaps slightly insane, determination paid off.

I admired them. I felt that their example was something that I need to take into my own soul. Their pain and anxiety are the inevitable concomitants of an ambitious and unprecedented task. So I shouldn't feel bad about my pain and anxiety--I should feel good!

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Friday, November 23, 2007

meaning in the ashes

The day before yesterday I finished reading Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, a powerful and moving memoir of his childhood in Limerick. I know I'm late to the party with this book, which was a bestseller in the 1990s and has been made into a movie. But since it's not (or anyway was not) research reading, it would have been in the category of "pleasure reading" (that is, books I read only for pleasure, since I take pleasure in all my reading), of which I have at most one book going at any one time--and usually not even that.

In this case, I chose to read it for genre research, as part of an effort to help my mother write her own memoir. She's a passionate fan of Frank McCourt and this book, and sees some strong parallels in it with her own early life. Will her own work be of the same genre? I don't know yet. Memoir itself is not a genre, since a memoir can be any kind of a story, depending on the life being told.

Genre is an elusive concept, neither well defined nor well studied. Robert McKee, in his screenwriting text Story, gives a list of genres with some quick definitions and examples, but it's an omnium-gatherum, a jumble of apples and oranges, with a few mangoes and persimmons thrown in. There's not a single scheme of categorization.

From his list, probably the best fit for for Angela's Ashes would be in the social drama genre, under the subcategory of domestic drama ("problems within the family"). Angela's Ashes is a family story--and they have problems aplenty, stemming mainly from grinding poverty.

But the story is told from the viewpoint of young Frank, and could be categorized under the heading of maturation plot or coming-of-age story.

Yet the circumstances are so very harsh, with the family often struggling to find its next meal, that the story has a lot of the emotional energy of a survival story, which McKee lists as a subcategory of the action/adventure genre. I felt the same kind of anxiety for the McCourts' survival as I do for the characters in movies such as The Poseidon Adventure, for example. Will they make it? (And indeed, just as with other survival stories, some of them don't.)

Of course, if the concept of genre is to have any use, it can't be merely a superficial or arbitrary designation. It might be OK for a bookstore to shelve a book under one heading or another, without really caring which; but a writer can't be so cavalier. You need to know what species of animal your story is, and write accordingly.

I remember talking years ago with Phil Savath, a fellow TV writer who went on to become a writer-producer of Beverly Hills 90210 and other shows. He was saying that the basic structural elements of, say, TV sitcoms were the same, regardless of where the show might be set.

"You know," he said, "you could take The Mary Tyler Moore Show and set it in a monastery. There's Lou, the grumpy old abbot, and Ted, the dumb prima donna, and so on."

As I recall, he was criticizing networks' fixation on superficialities and their lack of attention to the parts of shows that audiences connect with: character relationships. The basic point is that there are structural aspects of stories that are deeper than their setting or even their apparent outward concerns.

As I read Angela's Ashes, I looked at my emotions: what are my aspirations for these characters? What would I like to see happen? To me, these are clues as to what a story is really about, how I, the reader, relate to it at a gut level. I realized that I was coming to see Frank's father, Malachy McCourt, who drank the family's few pitiful coins of grocery money at every opportunity, as the antagonist--a kind of likable ogre, willing to starve his own children to death in order to slake his thirst for booze. His wife, Angela, and their children, of whom Frank is the eldest, are powerless to stop him. They're just little children. I realized that my aspiration in the story--what I hoped might happen--was for Frank to survive and become strong enough to overthrow his father, or break his grip on the family.

There is a deep mythical dimension here, for the story of the devouring father, who must be confronted and defeated by his children if they are to survive, is an ancient one. It shows up in two generations of ancient Greek myths, for example: when Kronos overthrows Uranus, and then again when Zeus overthrows his father Kronos, each son saving himself from being devoured. This archetypal setup probably lies near the heart of the true meaning of genre--what is the core myth of a story? From what primal arrangement of people and things does it derive its basic emotional power? The other factors of genre are more like clothing and window-dressing over this beating heart.

Anyway, whatever its true genre, Angela's Ashes is an excellent piece of work. Frank McCourt deserves all the praise and honors that have come his way.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

what to do when the Muse is busy elsewhere

I sit in a little pool of light in my dim office. The blinds are still closed to the deep-blue twilight outside. The dark is just now lifting, and there is 2° of frost out there.

I'm on track with my usual morning routine: I've read my way further into Microsoft Windows XP Inside Out, highlighter in hand (I'm now on page 463--about 1/3 of the way through), trying the techniques as I go. I've keyed notes from The Roman Conquest of Italy and from The Pagan God. I've finished both mugs of coffee, and now it's blog-post time.

This orderly, routine approach is, for me, essential if I want to get anywhere (although you could make a reasonably strong case that I'm not getting anywhere...). I have no kinship at all with those "inspired", chaotic artists who work in crazed, sometimes drug-suffused, bursts of activity. I believe Thomas Wolfe was one such; certainly his writer-protagonist Monk in You Can't Go Home Again was. He would write in an ecstasy or frenzy for 24 hours or more at a stretch, and eventually collapse from exhaustion. Wolfe must have known this type of approach in order to write about it.

Or D M Thomas, when he wrote The White Hotel: he too wrote in a kind of trance for 12 or 16 hours a day, finishing the first draft with lightning speed. It just came to him.

Of course Hunter S. Thompson was famous for writing (and living) while wasted on every type of drug procurable. Many novelists are alcoholics, and many of those write while drunk.

Unthinkable for me. The first sip of alcohol is itself the end of my productive day. (Well, almost--I do finish my afternoon reading period while drinking my first glass of wine.) It lets in the clutch of my mind and I go out of gear. I'm not good for any more mental load-pulling; only for light social conversation. If I had to produce something coherent while intoxicated, I'd be in deep trouble.

My approach is orderly and workmanlike. I enjoy wrestling with details of administration--how to set up filing systems, working out the naming conventions for documents, and so on. These things can make me feel busy and productive, and thus boost my confidence. And I find that when I am dispirited and afraid of my task (as I am now), these simple tasks and my structured approach help to see me through. I'm not a living skeleton lying on a dry plain, croaking for a Muse who never arrives; I'm more like the same living skeleton trudging forward, staff in hand, at a slow, measured pace. I may well keel over long before reaching my goal, to be covered with sand and forgotten like the Muse-supplicator, but at least I died while in progress.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

denial, habit, and the cliff

Last night I finished reading Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, a sketch of our global future in a warmer world. The final chapter, in which he discusses the challenge of preventing the global temperature from rising more than 2°C, I found especially interesting because of his treatment of the major stumbling-block in our path: the psychological defense-mechanism of denial.

There are many different defense mechanisms (Anna Freud made an extensive study of them in the 1930s) that we use to protect ourselves from potential emotional pain. Among them, denial is a key one. According to one explanation, when we experience cognitive dissonance--the conflict in our minds between two strong but irreconcilable beliefs--we feel such discomfort that we deny the truth of one of the beliefs. The classic example is in the behavior around addictions, such as smoking. A person with otherwise healthy self-esteem is confronted with two data: smoking is damaging to the body; and nonetheless, I smoke. Denial in this case usually takes the form of "smoking is not really damaging", or "it won't damage me." But sometimes a smoker might assert, "I"m not really a smoker--I smoke less than a pack a day." Either way, one is spared the pain of confronting one's own self-destructive behavior.

Lynas is saying that this is the dominant mechanism preventing action on the problem of global warming. He says:

One study used random-sample focus groups in Switzerland to investigate attitudes to climate change. Its results showed how the "tragedy of the commons" is reflected in people's belief "in the insignificance of individual action to change the order of things," with the result that perceived "costs to the self are greater than benefits to others." However, the researchers found that the most powerful motivator of denial was more straightforwardly selfish--an unwillingness to abandon personal comforts and consumption patterns. People would complain that public transport is late, dirty and overcrowded, therefore they "need" their cars. Or they might argue that their lives are busy and difficult, so they "need" foreign holidays for a couple of weeks a year.

Lynas goes on to list eight specific expressions of denial catalogued by the Swiss researchers:

  • the "metaphor of displaced commitment" ("I protect the environment in other ways, like recycling");

  • denial of responsibility ("I am not the main cause of this problem");

  • condemning the accuser ("You have no right to challenge me");

  • rejection of blame ("I've done nothing wrong");

  • ignorance ("I don’t know the consequences of my actions");

  • powerlessness ("Nothing I do makes much difference");

  • comfort ("It is too difficult for me to change my behavior"); and

  • "fabricated constraints" ("There are too many impediments").

Quite the list. I recognize pretty much all of them operating in my own psyche (my special favorites are the last three). Together, they form a powerful bulwark against behavioral change.

I had another thought while I was reading the chapter: denial may have a large share of responsibility in preventing change, but let's not forget good old habit. Habits by definition are behaviors that have become automatic, and they have become that way because we find them to be effective in achieving our aims. Most of our behavior is habit, with or without any psychological defense-mechanism running alongside it. William James stresses its powerful, even paramount, role in our mental lives.

But recently I read another interesting take on habit: it was by Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation. He says that it's easy to form new habits. What is difficult is to break old ones.

This is because all of our mental apparatus is programmed precisely to form new habits. We automate our behavior in order to free up attention for the novelties in our experience. When we're learning how to walk, it ties up our attention. We have to concentrate on where to put our feet, how to balance ourselves. Once it's learned, it becomes automatic, so that normally we can walk without giving it even a moment's thought. Only special conditions, such as walking on an ice-rink, or across a stream via stepping-stones, or when we have pain, force our attention back to the task. Otherwise, we can walk, talk, and yes chew gum all at the same time.

What does all this imply about our common future? Will we be able to give up the herd mentality and status-seeking that have us moving ever farther into remote suburbs and commuting to work in ever larger carbon-spewing vehicles? We have to cut through the layer of denial, then through the layer of habit. Will we? Or will the lemmings plunge dutifully off the cliff, secure in the knowledge that we didn't break ranks?

Not to dodge personal responsibility, but much does depend on leadership. Even though we believe in freedom, we follow leaders. After all, one of those lemmings has to be the first one over the cliff.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

the writer tries (again) to encourage himself

I slept better last night, thank you. And woke to a morning of frost. I had agreed to drive Kimmie down to the SeaBus terminal so she could attend a work seminar over at Metrotown, so we joined the cars creeping down the frosty streets in the twilight of early dawn.

Yesterday I felt too restless and distracted to get down properly to work, so I spent most of the day procuring a Dell laptop for my aunt and trying to set it up. Got to keep a watchful eye on the writer's universal tendency to seek alternative activities. "I'll just take care of this..." Yeah, right.

One contributing factor of distractibility was my feeling of disgust and boredom with my project, at least with the stage I seem to be stuck at. I'm disgusted with the fact that I can be stuck for so long at one point; I'm in a leg-hold trap and have not had the courage to chew my leg off rather than just let myself starve here. The story situation I'm working with, its features and motivations, all seem bland and colorless to me. Who cares? I think. Who cares?

You need to find what excites you. When you find that, then you jump on it--or at least start steering toward it. When that no longer excites you, you need to move on. Something else will excite you now. For we're each of us repositories of all the emotions, all the passions, and each one of these will have things that trigger it. In terms of behavioral science, these things are called releasers. The energies within us are set and primed; they just need the release of a particular stimulus. It's up to us to find the stimulus.

Ah well. I must remember Thomas Mann's observation that the quality of the finished work is independent of the mood of the writer while creating it. He found that the quality of the material he wrote while dissatisfied and depressed was almost indistinguishable from what he wrote while enthusiastic and optimistic. The finished work bears only the faintest traces of the state of mind of the writer while it was being composed.

The moral: keep at it, regardless of mood. Just as a good parent puts the welfare of the child first, so a good artist puts the "welfare" of the project first. Don't starve it, don't hate it; above all, don't abandon it.

Somehow I've got to make my way through the next scene, no matter how boring and mechanical it seems to me.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

helping Earth to quit

The air has turned suddenly colder. Rain started to fall just now as I lugged our recycling out to the back lane in the morning dark.

I again lay awake for long stretches this morning after 3:00. Pushing its way to the top of my list of nighttime worries is global warming, fueled by my reading of Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. Based on his survey of all the scientific literature, he reckons that in order to have a 75% chance of keeping the average heating of Earth below 2° C, net carbon emissions have to peak by 2015, after which they must continuously and quickly decline. If we fail to hold the average heating below 2°, there is a strong likelihood that positive-feedback mechanisms will kick in, causing a cascade of further upward surges in temperature to 6° and beyond, rendering planet Earth unrecognizable--and mostly uninhabitable--to those now living on it. Much of it will be arid, baking waste: like the Sahara Desert or Death Valley, or the naked rock of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The shrunken circumpolar temperate zone will be buffeted by ferocious storms, as well as unpredictable droughts and heatwaves.

Those are just the openers; the real problems are much worse.

When I was a boy, I, like many others of my age, loved dinosaurs. I had a set of plastic dinosaurs to play with. I knew their names (triceratops, ankylosaurus, etc.), and soon I knew which geological period each came from, whether Jurassic or Cretaceous (with the odd Triassic specimen thrown in). I knew that these were different times in Earth's ancient prehistory, but I didn't know what they signified, why the periods were separated and given different names. I assumed that time was continuous, and that things just gradually changed so that one set of creatures turned slowly into another. The names were just arbitrary labels for sections of time, like the hours of the clock.

I was wrong. I didn't know that the different geological periods were separated from each other by distinct and obvious transitions. They're called geological because they show up as layers in underground rock. A thick, homogeneous layer represents a long period of time when things were more or less the same. A thin, very different layer shows a time of sudden transition. This gives way again to another thick, homogeneous (though different) layer.

Those transitions are not smooth and continuous; they are more like changing television channels: an quick disruption, followed by something completely different. The disruptions--those thin layers--are relatively sudden, catastrophic geological and climatic events that shake the Earth (figuratively and often literally) and everything living on it or in it. In the past they have been due to asteroid collisions with Earth, or massive outpourings of magma from the interior--or sometimes more than one event happening at nearly the same time. This is what is believed to have happened at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods, 251 million years ago. The catastrophes of that time destroyed 95% of the species living on Earth, from the depths of the sea to the highest mountaintop. The survivors were very few.

Imagine what it would take to have such a result, what kinds of cataclysm could produce such vast and total die-offs. Even if we detonated every existing nuclear warhead right now we could not produce such devastation, even after allowing for all the radioactive fallout. Indeed, if humanity were wiped out, plant and animal life might recover in the radioactive world. This is what has happened at Chernobyl in Ukraine, now a place of thriving forest and animal life, precisely because it is still a no-go zone for humans.

Greenhouse gases are a much more powerful and pervasive force
than nuclear weapons for stressing the globe. For my part, I need no further convincing that we are already well on the way to the next major die-off and geological-climatic change on planet Earth. The current droughts in Atlanta, California, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, and Australia are some of the early symptoms of a regime-change that will continue to get much stronger even if we stop carbonating the atmosphere today.

And of course we won't stop today. The question is whether we can start cutting down by 2015. Due to human agency, Earth has become a smoker. Hydrocarbons are her nicotine. The voices in the halls of power have been saying that smoking is not hazardous to our health. Now, with increasing evidence that it is hazardous, they're saying that we can't quit--maybe can't even cut down. The habit is too strong. We'll keep puffing and hope for the best.

I have about seven years in which I can choose to help my species and my planet. How should I spend them?

That's what kept me awake this morning.

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Friday, November 16, 2007


Time to dip back into the vault of vignettes of my earliest memories. This one I called "Sandbox":

Mara and I are sitting in the sandbox in the front yard. She's sitting in one corner and I’m sitting in another corner. Mara's face is white and serious. An animal runs into the sandbox between us and stops. We stop digging to look at it. I don't know the word rat but that's what this is. The rat is dark-colored with a long bare tail. It looks at me with one eye and Mara with the other.

We watch as the rat runs out the other side of the sandbox. It's quick and quiet. It runs across the grass and up the stairs toward the kitchen door. It stops on the stairs for a moment, then runs in the open door.

Mara and I watch the house. We hear Mom yell. It's a loud, low sound without words. Then we hear her say, "Get out!" There's a quiet thump. "Get out!" Thump again.

The rat runs back out the door. It runs straight down the stairs, quick and quiet, and across the grass through the fence. Mom comes out the door holding her broom. She watches the rat go. She's breathing hard. Mara and I still watch. Why did Mom yell at the rat?

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

epic as world-view

Back at my post--blogwise, anyway.

Two days ago a big box arrived in the mail: an order of books from Amazon.com. It contained three picture-books on Victorian fashions for Kimmie, and two books for me: the Penguin Classics edition of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (translated by Robin Buss), and The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums, a text on the epic genre. The first I got as part of an investigation of "escape" stories, since this is what Mom and I think her memoir-in-progress might be (and also because of the unanimous acclaim of reader-reviewers on Amazon). The second I discovered while looking on Amazon for another book on Greek epics, under the heading "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought". The readers' reviews for this one were also glowing.

As far as I can tell, genre is not a well-studied aspect of literature. After Aristotle's original categorization of poems into four kinds--comedy, tragedy, epic, and "dithyrambic" or what we would call lyric--it seems that much of what is known about genre is a matter of received assumptions and checklists of structural features. My Webster's gives this definition:

epic n (1706) 1 : a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero

There: an epic is long, a poem, in "elevated style", and recounts the deeds of a legendary/historical hero.

The view taken by the authors of The Epic Cosmos (it is a collection of essays) is different. Their thinking is based on the ideas of Louise Cowan, who in fact was the teacher of all the authors at something called the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, connected with the University of Dallas. Cowan herself provides the introductory essay, "Epic as Cosmopoesis". My compressed notes from paragraph 1 of the introduction are as follows:

Epic is both more frequent and more diverse than the recognized canon tends to indicate. Characteristics intrinsic to its nature include its sense of totality and its consciousness of mission.

Yes! I thought. Fantastic! A sense of totality and consciousness of mission!

Cowan goes on to state that the epic genre is characterized by four main features:

  • penetration of the veil separating material and immaterial existence, allowing an intimate relation between gods and men

  • an eschatological expansion of time

  • restoration of equilibrium between masculine and feminine forces

  • a sense of motion, linking human action to a divine destiny, toward which epic senses history moves

Any work, however humble, that has these aims as part of its agenda, qualifies as epic from this point of view. Any one of those four features would be a major undertaking, and alone would make for a work of serious purpose. Taking them all on at once, of course, is a gigantic and ambitious task--one so large that all true epic authors have invoked divine help for their work, either explicitly in the text (calling on the muse for aid) or "offline". The epic author requires help to gain access to the realm of the gods and channel divine energy. There is an element of theurgy here--or maybe sorcery.

The introduction, which I've not yet finished reading, has already given me a huge amount to think about, and a great boost of inspiration. Looking through Ms. Cowan's magic mirror into the dark inner world of the epic, I have felt an elevation and renewed appreciation for my chosen task. And my various life problems, my worries and kvetches about career, money, relationships, and so on, seem puny and pusillanimous in the presence of such concerns.

Ms. Cowan, and her students and coauthors, are saying that epic is, first of all, a point of view. It is a way of seeing and artistically representing the world as a whole. As I dip into this book, I feel strongly that this is my own point of view, and that I'm reading--and doing--the right thing.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Yesterday was the Remembrance Day holiday here in Canada. Kimmie and I spent a couple of hours in the afternoon walking in East Vancouver, marveling at the windblown trees in the low light of the sun. Storms knocked out power for many thousands of people, but we saw our lights flicker only a couple of times.

Today I thought I would offer up another one of my lifewriting vignettes of my earliest memories. This one I called "Clouds":

I'm standing beside Grandma in the living-room. Grandma wears sweaters and pants, and scarves on her head. She has big eyes and she blinks hard. She stands with her arms crossed in front of her. She doesn't talk like Mom and Dad. Sometimes words are hard for her. We're looking out the window over the table. There are white clouds in the blue sky.

"Look!" I say. "The cloud's moving!"

When I turn I face the side of her pants.

"Yes," says Grandma. She is calm. She is not surprised.

"Why do they move?" I say.

"The wind...blows them," she says.

"Where do they go?"

Grandma unfolds her arms to move one of them in the air.

"Around the world," she says.

I feel something deep and big and mysterious. I turn to look up at Grandma. I am in awe.

"Grandma, do you know everything?"

"Oh no," she says. "No!"

Now she's surprised. I'm surprised at how surprised she is. I don't understand how she doesn't know everything. She knows where the clouds go.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

careers not attempted

Last night Kimmie and I attended a reception at the Vancouver Art Gallery to highlight the work of two local photographers, Stuart McCall and Angela Cameron. Pressing through heavy traffic in the moist, dark warmth of the evening, we found parking up on Hornby Street and made our way to the gallery, situated right at the center of downtown in the old courthouse building.

The reception was tucked away in a small room beyond some service stairs at the southwest corner of the building. There about 30 people sipped wine and nibbled chocolates and cashews, talking and viewing the selection of large prints. I've known Stuart since 1980, when he used to work at the Eatons camera counter with my friend Brad. Not long after that he set up a studio with a couple of partners in Gastown, and has been plying the photographic trade ever since. He's an artist by nature, but his bread-and-butter work is industrial photography: he enjoys photographing hydro dams, coal mines, factories, and the like.

Only one of his photographs last night was truly industrial: a steaming mill in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The others were striking and vivid scenes from around the city, and neighborhoods where he's lived. Kimmie and I both especially liked a shot of his old 'hood in Kits Point in the 1980s: a night shot, with colorful old houses shrouded in snow, standing behind gnarled, black, naked trees.

I talked with a few people there, including Peter, Stuart's former photography partner, who left to become a crime-scene photographer in London. He's spent a bit of time in Los Angeles hobnobbing with Hollywood types, and is also working on a screenplay. Knowing about the success of The Odyssey, he wondered why I hadn't gone down to L.A. to try to launch a career there. For his part, he'd found that he fitted in very easily in the social scene there. But he's extroverted, engaging, and handsome (I'm only engaging and handsome).

It's not that I never considered it. But in my heart of hearts, I didn't have a desire for a Hollywood career. I didn't see myself going down there to hustle projects, or to seek work--any work--on other people's shows. At the least, I would have to have a script in hand that I wanted to shop--a project I really wanted to get made, and was willing to do anything to make that happen. I just wasn't in that situation. As I said a couple of months ago to Michael Chechik, producer of The Odyssey, "I don't want to write shows that I wouldn't want to watch."

Interestingly, my own father faced the choice of "going Hollywood" himself, years ago (probably in the 1970s or 80s). He was already a career TV guy here in Canada, a producer with the CBC. In talking with an agent down there, he found that he could very likely get lots of work directing commercials and TV episodes, and do very well at it. He was tempted. He thought about renting a small apartment there, and commuting from Vancouver. But he realized that developing a career there would likely mean, among other things, entertaining people, which would require a bigger, better place, and spending more and more time there--until it would be his whole life. And he didn't want to live in L.A., or, especially, to bring his family there.

I feel similarly. I know it's not me. I can write scripts--I'm sure I've got more good ones in me--and when I do write them, I'll do what I need to in order to realize them--including shopping them in L.A. But I want to stay on the beam of doing what I really want to do--and what only I can do. It's very hard to explain what I'm doing or why--even to myself. But I do have a feeling that I'm doing what's right for me.

When it comes right down to it, I don't even want a house in Bel Air or a Ferrari. So I should leave those on the table for others.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

book as cornucopia

Yesterday I pressed forward in my morning writing session, typing more into the document I call "Draft 2 Notes". I've decided to move my note-making to this document, since my thoughts are ranging over the whole range of my story, and, for one thing, I want to be able to find these ideas later when I go looking for them. If they're all buried in the notes for one of my chapters (30 currently), I might not.

It was tougher going. I'm investigating the ancient idea of the Twelve Tribes of Israel as it may have been used by the Essenes in their community. I feel a bit frustrated, since I seem to be retracing the same ground over and over, crisscrossing over my own tracks, like Pooh and Piglet in search of the elusive woozle. But I know the feeling when I "get" something: there is a click of insight, and I know I've got it. Until I get there, I have to keep fiddling with it. Another analogy: working at a large jigsaw puzzle, and repeatedly trying pieces in one spot. Inadvertently, you try the same ones over and over again, in and among a few new ones.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy this process. My fear is that I enjoy it too much. I might rest in a place of happily footling with bits of historical information, forging connections, finding symbolic links--and never move on to actual writing. Very little of this material will wind up in the finished piece--there's just too much of it. But, as I've said before, having so much groundwork under it will lend that all-important quality of richness: the feeling that the writer has selected details from a superabundance of possibilities, rather than laid out everything he's got.

The image just popped into my mind of visiting, with my granddad Alexander in March 1982, a "supermarket" in Soviet-era Riga. Even in that relatively well-off "republic", the shelves were meagerly stocked: a few root vegetables, some canned goods. It was a depressing sight.

"When we hear there is going to be toilet paper," he said in his very good English, taken up only when he retired, "people come rushing--with broom handles, or pieces of rope, to put the toilet-paper on."

"Stringing it on like beads?" I said.


Well, I don't want my story to be any Soviet supermarket. Neither do I want it to be like my own Save-On Foods, however: a palace of packaged goods, with a few unpackaged things ranged around the periphery. No, how about the central market in Barcelona, as I remember it from 1979, when Tim and I were driving through Europe. It was the biggest and most impressive of all the many markets we visited on our travels: a maze of tables banked with fresh produce of every kind. I remember masses of fresh fish of many species laid on beds of ice, their scales scintillating under the bright lamps that hung over the stall. All the fresh, tender pork chops, sausages, green-leafed vegetables, bread. We wandered through it hungrily. What to choose?

Yes: let my book be like the Barcelona public market! Vast, fresh, wholesome, delicious.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

lifestyle of the independent thinker

Yesterday I worked on both projects. I pushed ahead with more investigation relating to The Mission, and in the afternoon, after lunch and my energizing siesta, I opened up the Word files I've got on my future-fiction opus, and picked up there more or less where I'd left off.

It felt good. I'm able to write the way I read: switching from one thing to another, refreshed by the change when my attention flags. Plus, with the future work (I'll just call in Project B for now), I felt actual creative excitement, something I can experience only in small, controlled bursts with The Mission, hemmed in as it is by the complexities of factual research. With Project B I can let the volcano of my imagination spew forth its forms--which it is well able to do.

In that way I can happily pass a day in complete solitude. I saw no one yesterday from the time Kimmie left in the morning till she returned at dusk. No one phoned. I did not stir from the house into the gray rain. But the day felt productive to me, so I was happy. I moved slowly from one activity to another, but by and large, I did not waste my time.

Commuting to work, for example, is a waste of one's time (apart from all its other negative attributes). I don' t do that. Going out to lunch while one is at work is, generally, a waste of time and money. I don't do that either. Preparing to go to work--dressing, grooming oneself, and so on--may not exactly be a waste of time, but it can be an irksome, unwelcome chore. I don't do that either. I shave, dress, and so on before I leave the house--when I'm ready, not under the gun first thing in the morning.

All these facts make my life appear leisurely. But as I looked at it yesterday, I waste very little time. First thing, out of bed, I make the coffee and then hit the office, studying my PC's operating system, then typing research notes from highlighted books (for example, from The Roman Conquest of Italy and The Cults of the Roman Empire this morning), then writing my blog-post. Next: breakfast. Almost always cereal, taken in the living-room while reading a magazine. No, not Star Weekly; usually one or other of Scientific American, The Economist, MIT Technology Review, Canadian Geographic, or Popular Science. Then some exercises and stretches, and on to my writing day.

I fix myself some lunch, over which I do more (purposeful) reading. Then comes teeth-brushing etc., and my siesta--necessary to make me more alert in the afternoon, and to prolong my shelf-life a bit in the evening. Then it's on to errands, or, if I have no pressing errands, like yesterday, I can get back to the office and (hopefully) do more. Yesterday it was Project B.

At 3:00 p.m. it's back upstairs to start reading. I make some tea and read from about four books I've got on the go. Yesterday it was Angela's Ashes, Letting Go of the Words, The Roman Conquest of Italy, Six Degrees, and The Act of Creation. Each of these is project-oriented. I'm reading Angela's Ashes mainly so I can better help my mother work on her memoir. Letting Go of the Words is a web-copywriting text (and a very good one). The Roman Conquest of Italy is background for The Mission. Six Degrees is to enlarge my general knowledge of what's happening in the world, and is also background for Project B. The Act of Creation, a psychological text on creativity, I'm reading as part of my ongoing research into the nature of identity--which is really a larger philosophical project.

Often, as yesterday, my reading period is punctuated by a fitness walk with Kimmie when she gets home. We do a brisk walk through the neighborhood, and she can talk about the latest office politics. Then, come 7:00 p.m., Kimmie and I have dinner. My "work" day is over, and I'm ready to watch some TV, usually programming I've borrowed from the library. By 9:30 I'm starting to nod off, and it's time to hit the sack.

Sometimes, watching the news and so on, I think I should be doing more in the world. People are out there, doing stuff, and maybe I should be out there doing stuff too.

But that passes. I'm getting to know myself well enough that I don't feel confused about what I should be doing. A few days ago, maybe while I was lying awake in the night, my true job title came to me: independent thinker. If I had to sum up what I think my function is on planet Earth, that's probably it. The other things that I do--creative works and so on--come out of that. I feel I was put here to think independently.

I feel very good about that. It implies a lot. As vocations go, it's quite rare. Looking around me at the world, it appears that very little true thinking is being done. And of the thinking being done, very little is what I would call independent.

So there you have it: the lifestyle of the independent thinker. Not very appealing, perhaps--unless you happen to be one.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

the next stepping-stone

After yesterday's rather dark post, I more energetic and purposeful again, and had a new idea for how to press forward with The Mission. Yes, of course it's just more studying, shifting and arranging notes, but that's the nature of this beast. What I had was a sense of direction.

I liken it to crossing a wide stream via stepping-stones: you stand on a stone, unable to see which one to try next. But then you choose one, and take a step. You move toward the far bank. There is a (small, temporary) sense of exhilaration in the feeling of moving forward, of doing something. This next stone might be your last: this one might be the dead end from which you cannot find any more stones to step on. But for now, at this moment, you're getting closer to your goal, and that's all you can do.

In short , it felt good.

In the afternoon, when Kimmie got home from work at around 4:30 p.m., we went for a walk through the neighborhood. It was not a full-on power-walk, as we had been doing, since these sometimes cause her pain, but it was vigorous. Since we have just changed back to Standard Time, the sun was setting. Some trees were still clad with leaves, fiery orange in the horizontal rays of the sun. Other leaves lay in crisp heaps like corn flakes on the sidewalks. The air was chilly, and the masses of white cloud high above gave a sense of depth and vastness to the vault of mild clear blue. I felt a sense of peace and even joy.

The Earth is still beautiful. We can still act.

While Kimmie chatted excitedly about the big organizational change in her department at work, I looked at the silhouettes of the trees, and at the beauty of the city across the water, lights flaring in a smoky sun-tinged haze.

Enjoy this.

How good to be out in the fresh air--yes, even city air. How good to be walking, not one of those stressed people zooming by in their cars, their SUVs and pickup trucks, feeling anger and hatred for those who impede them. How foolish to take our world for granted.

The sixth great extinction on Earth, brought about not by volcanic eruption or asteroid impact, but by the ingenuity of one of its species, one that likes to congratulate itself on its own cleverness. What is the meaning of this? I wondered. Is it a cosmic tragedy, or a comedy?

We returned home. I took in our recycling box and bags, which our neighbor Allison had thoughtfully brought to our basement door, and got back to my reading. Kimmie went upstairs to her sewing-room, her favorite place in the universe. My zest for reading had returned. Keep on learning, I thought. Don't question this, just keeping moving forward. Do it.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

conflicts of artistic duty

Yesterday Kimmie and Robin headed off to attend a baby shower in Coquitlam for a family member. I stayed at home, restlessly moving between activities (spent some time with my new laptop, tentatively exploring the strange world of Second Life). By reading-time I felt scattered and unsure of myself--unpleasant feelings that reminded me of times when I've been far out of my element, such as at industry cocktail parties or on certain kinds of aimless holiday when there's nothing particular to do but "have fun".

I need purpose, and my purpose must feel serious and meaningful. Yesterday I felt myself being stretched, by focus being split, tugged in different directions.

If I had to name a specific spark for these feelings, I would say it is reading Six Degrees by Mark Lynas: a description of Earth under the effects of global warming. It's already happening, of course, put in train when the Industrial Revolution started converting coal into energy for textile mills. At that moment, the human race unwittingly put a hotter planet into the mail; now we're starting to take delivery.

A warmer future, as Lynas points out, is not a cozier future. Even without global warming, the proliferation of human beings on Earth has led us into what is being called the sixth mass extinction of life--the fifth being the die-off of the dinosaurs at the transition from the Cretaceous to the Tertiary period 65 million years ago. Due to human causes--other than climate change--species are becoming extinct at 100-1,000 times the normal rate. Global warming will drastically increase that rate. In the next century, a large fraction of life-forms on Earth will disappear.

The Earth has been warmer than it is now. In the Pliocene epoch, 5-2 million years ago, the planet was 3° C warmer than it is today. The warming, it has been determined, was due to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which ranged from 360-400 parts per million (ppm) during that epoch. But wait: today's level is 382 ppm, and rising at 2 ppm a year. The inescapable inference is that we are already on track to heat to the Pliocene temperature. In the Pliocene, there were no glaciers (source of much of Earth's drinking-water for humans), and very little polar ice-cover.

Rainfall in many places may increase, but in the form of frequent and powerful storms; areas of desiccated ground will expand into what are now temperate zones. We shouldn't take comfort from the fact that Earth was this warm before, because in the Pliocene there was a greater abundance of life, unstressed by human depradations, able to manage the environment; and the sun was not as hot as it is today (it grows steadily hotter as it ages).

Another problem is that this episode of warming, unlike that of the Pliocene, is happening with catastrophic suddenness in terms of geological time. The migration rates of many species are too low for them to be able to outrun the spread of hotter temperatures; they'll die off with the disappearance of their food sources or as their metabolism is pushed past its operating envelope.

All right. So what's this got to do with me? Of course it concerns me deeply as a human being; I want to do whatever I can to help prevent or mitigate the worst of these effects.

But it affects me as an artist too. Even though global warming is high on the agendas of many organizations, media outlets, and even governments (at the level of talk, anyway), it has not really sunk in as an issue with many of us. This is partly due to ignorance. But I think a bigger part has to do with imagination: by and large, people find it hard to imagine this stressed world in our imminent future.

Well, imagination is something that I can do. Contrary to my grade 1 teacher Miss Warden, I do have an imagination--a good one. I can look into that crystal ball and imagine what lies ahead. I can imagine lots of graphic, gory details. I can imagine surprises.

Is this, then, what I should be doing? Should I be helping my fellow humans face the future properly by imagining it for them? Is that not my duty?

The clock is ticking, and I feel the nagging anxiety of conflict.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

genre science

My mother and I are having weekly meetings about storytelling. She makes lunch for us and for my aunt Jackie, now also retired, then we crack the books. She's hoping I can teach her something about the art of story--and I hope so too.

It's not a planned course. I'm feeling my way along intuitively, trying to pass on things that I think make sense. I feel much doubt, because I wouldn't necessarily wish my own methods on another person (even if my methods finally turn out to work!). And yet, those are the only methods I know at first hand.

Our text is Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Since 1990 I have tried to absorb and apply his ideas to my own writing. As he stresses in the book, he does not provide a formula for how to write stories, but rather lays out the principles for what makes a story good, along with diagnostic tools to help when one's own work is having trouble. When I read Aristotle's Poetics, I saw that McKee is mostly interpreting and adapting Aristotle's ideas to modern storytelling. Which suits me find, since not only is the Poetics a fantastic short course in how stories work, but my own mind naturally gravitates to an Aristotelian orderliness and keenness on accurately identifying first principles.

As McKee says, the first thing you need to do in telling your story is to work out what genre you're in. Are you writing a mystery? A love story? A fantasy? The word genre is related to genus, and I explained it to Mom as being like the species of animal you've got. You need to know whether your story is an ostrich, a crocodile, or a bison, before you can know what its component parts are supposed to be.

Once you know that, you can address the structure of your story--its skeleton. An ostrich skeleton and a crocodile skeleton are not the same. You need to know what it is you're creating. McKee is emphatic that writers need to do personal research into the genre of their story--to find other works in the genre and do their own cross-analysis of them, identifying their parts. What characters and situations are always present? What kinds of settings are used, and how do they affect the action? What are the basic themes or ideas of the stories? McKee says that you should study both successes and failures in your genre, to gain conscious knowledge of its workings--to gain a better knowledge of the genre than your audience subliminally has.

As McKee points out, there is not much good study material out there on genre. Plus, genres themselves keep evolving and combining. We have medieval whodunits and corporate thrillers and sci-fi erotica. As far as I know, a single book, Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, spawned the whole genre of "chick lit" which overran the fiction sections of bookstores like mountain pine beetle. It is (or was) popular because it touched a chord in an audience. It spoke to its readers. If you seek to write chick lit, you would have to study Bridget Jones and other works to find out exactly what makes them tick--why, in other words, they appeal to readers (and presumably first of all to yourself).

Personally, I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of genre. It seems clear to me that the word is applied to different things--to settings, such as Western; to themes, such as "revenge story"; and to styles, such as satire. "Genre science" (if I can call it that) is still at that early stage in which things are still not differentiated clearly, like a big drawer in which socks are mixed in with shirts, neckties, and longjohns. It needs sorting out, and I for one would be interested in helping with that task. I'd like to become a genre scientist.

I was struck when I read Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale by his discovery that the basic structure of the fairy tale is quite invariant, if you look at it deeply enough. I suspect that all our story genres are similar in this respect, and that this invariance must express something deep about how our minds and emotions work. In short: the genres are expressions of our mythology.

Of course, it says something about my nature that whenever I look around me, I see only research projects...

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

writers and nonwriters

When I used to work at the Insurance Corporation, one of my colleagues was a fellow writer named Greg. He was also serious about the craft, and had an MFA and about two draft novels to his credit, among other things. I think we were quite different as writers, but we enjoyed talking with each other and recognized that we were kindred spirits: writers who actually wrote, who had carved out time and space for it in our lives at basement desks and in predawn hours. I thought of him just now because we came up with a Latinized term to describe getting back to work after a break: rockus pilus. Opening up the page here at Blogger to enter another post, I thought, "rockus pilus".

Sometimes, when people find out that I'm a writer, they say, "Oh! I have a great idea for a book!" or "I have a great idea for a TV show!" An old schoolmate recently asked me about how to get a TV sitcom going, since she thought the madcap aspects of her little store would make a good TV show. My response?

"Well, I've created and written a successful TV series already, and no one will take my calls."

That dashed some water on her enthusiasm, but she didn't seem too crestfallen. After all, she hadn't invested too much in the idea yet.

Others have tried to persuade me to write the life stories of their relatives and such. Richard, who used to cut my hair, was one such. He wanted me to write about his mother in Chilliwack, who apparently had had quite a wild life.

"I just have all these ideas," he would say, between bouts of speaking in a Donald Duck voice and teasing the women stylists around him, "but I'm no good at writing."

If it sounds like people are serious, as I think Richard was, I have to come up with a response. Usually I just report, truthfully, that I already have more ideas than I can write. Coming up with ideas is not my problem and never has been. Choosing one and then executing it fully has been my problem.

Sometimes they're serious or semi-serious projects, as when a fellow dharma student, Betty, approached me once with her idea of having our center put on a show to commemorate the life of our teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

"And you're a writer," she said in her quiet, breathy voice. "So maybe you could write some ideas."

"And you're the producer," I said.

"Producer?" she said. (She had never had any experience in show business.) She sounded mystified, impressed, and wary.

"Yes. The producer is someone who wants to put on a show, and her first job is to sweet-talk a writer into working for free."

Of course, there was no question of such a project being a paying job--we both knew this. I wouldn't dream of charging for it. But I also didn't want to do it, and I wriggled away with the laugh that my statement got.

Often I give encouragement back to them: "How do you know you can't write? Go ahead--give it a try."

Yes: stage productions, memoirs, TV shows--people have these great ideas but they "don't have the time" or "don't know how" to write. They'd love to see their idea executed by someone who knows what he's doing--why not me?

Well, for one thing, as I said to Michael (who eventually went on to produce The Odyssey) when he was trying to put together a movie project and suggesting that Warren and I could write a script for it on spec, "If I'm going to work for free, I'm going to write something that I want to write."

For another, of course I'm not going to let myself get hooked into other people's frivolous vanity projects! Do the same people, upon meeting a builder, say, "I have a great idea for a house--how about building it for me?"--with the idea that it will done gratis? I think people believe they are flattering the writer by being willing to share their fabulous idea with him.

People love the idea of having some record made of their thoughts, but they don't want to, well, go to all that effort. But it's easy when you're already a writer, right? No sweat off your back!

Alas, I suspect that writing is no easier for a "writer" than for a "nonwriter". The main difference between them is probably the desire, drive, and willingness to actually do it. When Warren and I wrote our first TV pilot script (Flash Dispatch, a sitcom about bicycle couriers, written in 1984), we worked between midnight and 3:00 a.m. each night in his little apartment over Bageland on Oak Street. It was the time we had together, after I'd finished my evening shift at ICBC, and after he'd taken a nap following his own daytime shift working as a messenger downtown. We were both tired and not at our best, but we wanted to do this, so we did it. The script got written, and it got read. It wound up opening doors for us.

So there you have it. A writer is not someone who finds writing easy. A writer is someone who writes.

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