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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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