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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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