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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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