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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

happiness and unhappiness

What would a "happy" life look like for me?

I'm not sure but I'm probably living it.

All of life is a tension of opposites, is it not? Happiness exists only in contradistinction to its opposite, unhappiness (or misery or sorrow or suffering). Only when the opposites are in fairly close proximity do we feel the intensity of one or the other. If you've had a biopsy for a suspected cancer, you may be waiting for the result with feelings of anxiety, even dread. When it comes back negative, you feel a rush of relief and joy. For a while, life seems rich and wonderful--a gift. But the intensity of contrast wears off as a function of time, and you return to your previous state of tension along the happiness-unhappiness axis.

Writers, like other people, tend to measure success in terms of social rewards such as prestige and earnings. But if an intelligent, objective person looks at those rewards carefully, there is not much to them. I think about, say, Conrad Black, the once-Canadian tycoon now languishing in hoosegow in Florida. Wealthy, prominent, and successful by just about any social yardstick except his own, he sought, Gatsby-like, to attain to some limit or singularity of social success and glamor, to "suck on the pap of wonder" (I think those were Fitzgerald's words) by becoming a British lord and joining the "real" nobility.

It was not to be. Or rather, it was--but then ended, spectacularly and suddenly, generating a contrast-experience in the downward direction.

The psychologist Victor Frankl says that life does not provide the answers; life asks the questions, and we provide the answers. Our lives, our living situations, are, basically, our answer--so far--to the questions put to us by life. Each problem or dilemma in life is another question, and our response is our answer to that question.

Whatever my feelings about toiling in obscurity, this toil and this obscurity are the result of choices I have made--my answers to the questions set by my life. If I don't like that, then I have a new question to answer. But my Buddhist training tells me to have caution. The restless search for a better deal in life is the hallmark of the human realm, and is itself a manifestation of suffering--of living in samsara.

The best definition of samsara that I've come across is "wanting things to be other than they are". Here's something to try: if you find yourself wishing things were other than they are, take a deliberate break from that way of thinking. For a few moments, just accept the way things are and pay attention to your surroundings. Notice then how your mind feels. To the extent that you can do this, you have had a taste of nirvana.

For me, to be in a state of tension between happiness and unhappiness is the way things are. Well, why not?

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

the writer as soldier

George Orwell likened writing a novel to going through a prolonged illness. Another analogy has just come to me: fighting a war.

The image is not natural for me, since I am a peacenik, convinced that war is only ever a creator of problems, not a solver of them. Indeed to me, violence is a synonym for injustice.

However, the image floated to my mind, so I believe that there must be a connection (trusting my metaphoric powers). In a war, no matter how strong or powerful you are, success is not assured. The great theoretician of war, Carl von Clausewitz, admitted that as soon as you embark on a war, things become unpredictable. Even as you exert yourself to the utmost, you are not the master of your destiny, since so many complex and unknowable factors come into play. To some extent you're always rolling the dice.

Then there's the fact that a war is not just one thing, but a whole--often unexpected--series of campaigns and battles. You might win a brilliant victory in some battle, only to find yourself faced with the same giant task of trying to win the war. In each battle, victory is necessary but not sufficient. You've got to keep slogging on after it's over, whether you win or lose this one engagement.

And there's no fixed term. Unlike a sporting event, in which, even if things are going miserably, you can take solace in the knowledge that the final whistle will eventually blow and you can go home, a war is of no fixed duration. History is dotted with struggles with names like The Hundred Years' War. How many would be able to go through with a war if they knew that that would be its eventual title? Depressing.

Then there's the fact that everyone always goes to war certain of their own victory. But of course, the result is often defeat. Even the eventual "winner" can take a heckuva a pounding on the way. Indeed, most victories are more or less Pyrrhic, with the survivors trying to take comfort in the idea that their loved ones' deaths were justified by rescuing some abstract noun or other ("freedom", "democracy"). For people burying family members, or merely taking delivery of a dog-tag at the front door, it's cold comfort.

Writing a novel, of course, is not such serious business. But on a personal, individual scale, it brings comparable feelings into play. In a certain sense you're picking a fight with something that fights back, and success, no matter how you define it, is far from assured. And no matter how well any one battle goes--and often they don't go well--you know there are a large number of them still remaining. You strategize and discipline yourself. You need courage and have to be prepared for pain--perhaps lots of it. And, win or lose, you'll be shedding tears before it's over.

Right: on with the fight.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

the Muse and I

All right. If this blog is supposed to be about the process of writing this work, then what can I say about where I'm at right now?

I'm going through the process that has evolved, seemingly of itself, in the long course of working on this project. I'm in the midst of trying to work out the chapter that, for now, I'm numbering 32. (My chapter numbers--and the number of chapters--will change in the next draft; this is one of the few things I'm sure of.) The notes document now runs to 32 pages as well.

The first and best metaphor that springs to mind is that of digging. I ask myself questions and try to come up with answers. Whether the questions are really useful or germane--never mind the answers--is not clear. They are just what come to mind in my effort to discover where I'm going.

I have a rough idea of where I'm supposed to go--that's laid out in my outline, the blueprint I developed in the earlier, happier days of 2002-03. But sometimes that outline is vague (such a huge job), and often it's hard to engineer the events that will bring about the steps required in the outline. Then again, sometimes the outline itself needs to be changed: I come up with actual new ideas for how to turn my story. In a way, that's the most exciting part of this first-draft process, even as it creates anxiety that my whole story might shift out of its current form and turn into something else--something that will take yet more years of my life to write.

Ah, anxiety, my old friend. Many fears attend working on a project like this (all right, on this project--there are no others "like" this). The greatest fear is of not finishing it, which might happen for any of a number of reasons, the most pleasant of which would be my own death. Other reasons would be physical or mental incapacity of one kind or another, including the "incapacity" of losing inspiration.

And now it dawns on me that this is the real reason that epic writers of the past have invoked the Muse at the beginning of their works. Not for quality of inspiration, even though that is how they couch their terms: "Help me, O Muse, find adequate words..." But for quantity: "Help me, O Muse, find the creative stamina to reach the end of this work..." I can't speak for other epic writers, but that's what this one needs. And for this I really do pray. And I believe that the Muse so far is helping me. Through the umbilicus that attaches us she sends the inspiration that nourishes me through these long seasons of effort.

For this I thank her. Oh yes indeed. Thank you, O Muse. Please don't let me down. I will keep at it and offer the result, good bad or indifferent, to you. It is yours before it is anyone else's.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

making it good

What makes a piece of writing good? We always know how much we're enjoying something that we're reading, but it's hard to define what makes a written work enjoyable.

Establishing the criteria of quality in writing has been the business of literary critics ever since that job function has existed. But according to Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, it is actually impossible to formulate "rules" of literary quality. If I read him correctly, he's saying that although we have a direct experience of the superior quality of one work over another, we can never finally say exactly why it is better. (Indeed, it was partly for this reason that he wanted to get away from the whole project of comparing the merits of various literary works, and see rather whether he could outline a "science" of literary criticism based on the purely objective aspects of literature--things that can be known.)

That may be OK for a literary critic, but a practicing writer does need practical guidance in how to tell good from bad, and how to steer more toward the former than the latter.

Speaking for myself, I would say that I'm guided, as a reader and therefore as a writer, by the desire to experience certain kinds of feelings while reading. Without going into the how of it, I'm seeking a kind of engaged interest--something that holds my attention and, in a certain way, compels my assent. I think that in order for this to happen, the writer's understanding of the world, people, and events must be similar to my own. I'm disengaged or put off if, while reading, I think, "That's not how the world works; that's not how people are; that's not how things happen."

I've mentioned before that the best writers make the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar. This perhaps is the heart of the matter for literature. The task is to create a work in which strangeness and familiarity are laminated together in endless tight layers, like the layers of hard and supple steel in a samurai sword. The more strange a work is in some respects--the fanciful world of Harry Potter, say--the more it needs to be homey and familiar in others, such as in the everyday interactions of its characters. The more quotidian the setting and its people, the more strange and mysterious the underlying universe of the story--and here I think of James Joyce and his Dubliners.

Different readers like different things. We have different issues, different interests, different life experience. Certain writers "speak" to me more than other ones do--and the same will be true of you.

As I've said many times before, I have a hard time now finding fiction that I can enjoy. For whatever reason, writers are not speaking to me. So I'm setting out to write the book I can enjoy reading. Will others enjoy it? Who knows. There are a lot of hurdles to get over before I can find that out.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the solitude of uniqueness

Again I find myself staring at this screen, wondering what to write about.

What's my problem? I'm a writer, aren't I?

I might be "a" writer, but I am coming to feel that what I'm working on is something that is outside the bounds of normality, even by writing's standards. I feel a bit like someone who's brought a plesiosaur to a pet show. What events do I enter it in? What category to I put it in? How do I fill out my entry card? There is a sense of the grotesque, and a general feeling of what's he doing here? That my very presence, in some sense, is spoiling everyone's fun.

No, of course I'm not spoiling anyone's fun. But gradually I feel myself taking on more qualities of alienation: that my experience and my effort are taking me beyond the bounds of what other people can really grasp.

I think about the survivors of the true-life story that was the basis for Melville's novel Moby-Dick. In a rare display of fury, a sperm whale really did turn on a whaling ship in the South Pacific and stave in its hull, sending it to the bottom. The surviving crew were left in two lifeboats more than 1,000 miles from land. They became separated, and one boat was never heard from again. The other boat eventually beached on South America with a few survivors, but only after an excruciating ordeal that involved being baked alive under the sun, the madness induced by drinking sea-water, and cannibalism.

Who could ever really understand the extremity of what those men went through?

The alienation of an extreme experience is perhaps just a metaphor for life. Naked and alone we arrive on planet Earth for our journey; naked and alone we depart. Alienation, perhaps, is our basic condition, and all of our societies, our pet shows, are just so many efforts to cheer ourselves up.

No, I'm not depressed. But I am feeling a new and greater sense of the solitude of uniqueness.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

back to work

Back from "vacation".

Kimmie has had a week off, and today returns to the Corporation to resume the stresses of contract development, her new job. I too took a week "off".

What does that mean in my case? First of all: no waking to an alarm-clock. This morning the alarm was again set to ring at 5:30, but Kimmie's bedside clock lay silent through the past week. That meant sleeping in till 7:00 each morning, and therefore a day shaped differently from the usual "work" day.

I would still key my research notes over morning coffee--what else would I do? I enjoy that, and it gives a feeling of forward motion, however spurious.

The real "vacation" lay in not opening up my chapter-notes to struggle with my story. This is the daunting and anxiety-producing part of the work, and therefore the part from which I seek any excuse to avoid--including the excuse of being on "vacation". For a week I gave myself permission to leave the beast alone.

As usual we stayed close to home, except for an overnight trip to Vancouver Island to visit my father (very nice, and with excellent dining as always). We did some neighborhood walks and bought Kimmie a dress-form at Dressew downtown for her birthday--and Kimmie did spend plenty of time in her "mad scientist's lab" of sewing creations in Robin's old bedroom, in the summer heat and with the noise of traffic blasting in the open window from Keith Road.

Now it's time to take up cudgels again and measure my powers against the waiting monster of my work. O terrible foe.

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Monday, July 14, 2008


Kimmie is taking this week off, so I will likely take a break from blogging, to enjoy a freedom from the usual routine.

Summer has hit Vancouver full-on: it's been hot and sunny and clear. Twilights have settled into soft blues and mauves, with the sounds of swishing leaves and people's laughter on the streets.


Thursday, July 10, 2008


These days my "writing" consists of reading and typing the resulting notes. My method I suppose is not much different from what it would be if I were writing a work of nonfiction: reading, highlighting, typing. Occasionally my research sparks ideas for my story, and I type these in suitable story-related documents. I shift back and forth between reading my research works and musing on their implications for my story. I can only say that to me, this feels productive.

I follow specific lines of investigation. For a number of reasons my research right now has led me to look into the mythology surrounding Mount Lycaon in Arcadia--the place where the god Pan was allegedly born, where Zeus allegedly turned a king into the first werewolf, and where the Greek version of the Flood originated. My text right now is The White Goddess by Robert Graves, a treasure-house of deeply researched and interconnected mythological lore.

Taking a glance at the reviews on Amazon.com, I see that The White Goddess has become somewhat uncool--although it still has its passionate fans. Even those fans seem to feel the need to make excuses for what they fear is its political incorrectness and lack of concurrence with current scholarship.

Personally, I would never dare to presume to make excuses for a man of such evident and outstanding genius. True, he's an outlier: a poet, a maverick. He was not a professional academic--and was proud of that fact. He spent only a brief interval of his life teaching at a university in, I believe, Egypt; the rest of his life he spent as a professional writer.

Bravo, I say.

Graves had access to resources that academics lack. Not only was he fully conversant with ancient Greek and Latin, he had read, apparently, every surviving classical work in its original language up to the Byzantine era. He had tremendous powers of deduction and inference, as well as a profound knowledge of the natural, climatic, and folkloric aspects of Europe and especially the Mediterranean world.

But beyond these things he had a conviction in his vocation as a poet, which placed him in a fraternity not with academics, but with poets of all ages--including the poets responsible for the myths of the ancient world. Graves trusted his own poetic instincts to tell him how the poets of old connected their images and their meanings. You can't annotate that with a footnote. The plausibility or authenticity of the connection lies in its intrinsic power--in whether it awakens something in the reader or listener.

Yes, I can understand how, for academics, Graves constitutes a kind of no-go zone. But academics don't have a monopoly on knowledge, still less on history, culture, or myth. Graves was writing, first of all, for fellow poets: those entrusted with making use of the powerful images and their interconnections. And it is in that role that I approach his work.

And as I reread The White Goddess, I too am glad that I'm not an academic.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

quiet life

It's hard to describe the writing process as I'm now practicing it. There is a feeling of tunneling in, digging into the ideas and characters that I've got, searching for a nucleus, for the linkages.

Research is continuous. In some ways I feel that a work of fiction or drama is as much a matter of research as any work of nonfiction, or even of science. And, in many ways, the more fanciful your story, the more its underlying network of consistent relationships, of rules, needs to be solid and worked out. Somewhere in the mysterious chemistry of fact and fancy emerges the special cocktail of familiarity and strangeness that is a story. A good story, anyway.

Summer heat is upon us. Right now (7:26 a.m.) the green central area between our building and the buildings next door is still in shade. The sun strikes the lane beyond the low canyon between our buildings, and the sky is clear blue over the gray expanse of the long roof across the lane. It is quiet except for the whir of two fans in my computer.

I wanted a quiet life in which to think and write, and, outwardly, I've got it.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

laboring in freedom

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.
Thus spake Einstein. (I forget now where I found that quote; I copied it into a document I have for recording quotes.) I've mentioned it before, but it's one that I keep returning to in my mind.

I realize that I place tremendous importance on this idea of laboring in freedom. Indeed, I've bet my whole life on it.

What it means to me is that one' s work is generated spontaneously from within, and not in response to outward inducements from others. Not as an assignment given by someone else, not in response to the supposed cravings of the "market", not in order to gain the approval of society or any subset of it. Instead, one becomes inspired by one's own relationship with something--an idea, a possibility--and, with the energy of this inspiration, which is the same thing as enthusiasm, one works to realize the inspiration.

This can never be a practical decision. By its nature it is the opposite of practical: it is not a means to realize some near-term worldly or economic end. For those of us who have a worldly, practical nature, this disconnect produces anxiety.

At least, that's how I feel. The worldly part of me--which is not a small part--looks on with a kind of horrified fascination at the "enthusiastic" or creative part of me, the part that is devoted to an inspired task and doesn't give a damn about anything else. The worldly part finds itself in the position of having to think of ways to sustain the inspired part, which doesn't seem to care or even notice whether it's being sustained or not.

"When's this thing going to be done?" Worldly Part says.

"Huh?" says Inspired Part, not looking up.

In the earlier part of my adulthood, the worldly part of myself tried to be in control. It saw itself as the manager of the whole system, and the inspired part as subordinate. Creativity was to be put in the service of worldly aims.

That was the wrong way around. Whatever feelings of confidence or security may have come from it were illusory. I may not have felt direct anxiety over my creative life--but I should have. (Indeed, I did have a lot of anxiety, and I reckon that my creative life was possibly one of its chief bases.)

Now I do have worldly anxiety: I worry about my long labor at such a vast creative project. Like the audience in a good movie, I wonder, "How's this going to turn out?"

I don't know. It's not a script I've written. I'm playing my part, and hoping for the best.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

another day

I've been taking it easy, blogwise. Kimmie took an extra-long weekend over Canada Day (and had dental surgery on Wednesday), and I fell in with vacation mode alongside.

But even in vacation mode I keep on reading, researching. It can never be "enough", except in the sense that there comes a point when I feel willing to dare writing more of my story based on what I've learned so far. The creative urge pushes me on, even if only slowly, like viscous lava rolling slowly down the side of a volcano.

The great majority of research material that I uncover I will never use. Rather, it helps me to feel at home in my world, helps me make choices that feel real to me.

I hear the clunk of Kimmie's footsteps in the kitchen upstairs as she prepares a blender-drink breakfast for herself. Outside the weather is cooler and still: even the frail leaves of the Japanese maple hang motionless in the morning air. I hear the wavering drone of an airplane, but other than that, only the breathy whir of my computer's fan.

Another day, another day.

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