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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

where do ideas come from, again?

"Where do you get your ideas?"

Sometimes I hear that question. Warren and I used to hear it occasionally while we were writing The Odyssey. I remember reading a piece by Marion Zimmer Bradley on that same question; she expressed frustration over it.

I think it's a legitimate question. That is, it deserves a serious answer (not just my occasional flip response, "Wisconsin"). I think it's worthwhile and also interesting trying to figure out where ideas come from.

I've mentioned before the theory that Warren and I developed about how story ideas begin. We saw them as having two elements, not unlike the egg and the sperm. One element was the situation or the world or the arena--the premise in general terms. In the case of The Odyssey, it was the idea of doing a show about kids turned loose from their homes and interacting only with each other, not with adults--a kind of idealization of our summer holidays when we were kids.

We found that to be an exciting proto-idea, but it wasn't enough. I would call that the "egg" portion of the idea zygote. Okay, you've got a bunch of kids running around; what's the specific story? Which kid? And what's he trying to achieve?

The next part of the idea--the part that fertilized the egg and turned it into a viable story concept--was the notion of having our guy fall out of a tree-fort and lapse into a coma, so he couldn't leave the kids' world. Now his problem is how to get out of it. A world of kid adventure is fun, until you realize it's totally unsupervised--and you can't escape it. Voila, a story is born (or conceived).

But where specifically do ideas come from? In my experience they come from facts: from real-world information of on of one kind or another. I suppose it could be of either the setting (egg) or problem (sperm) part of the story zygote; for me it has usually been about the setting first. As a kid I would read about space travel and automatically start imagining stories featuring spacecraft, astronauts, and extraterrestrial civilizations. Reading The Universe by Isaac Asimov when I was 12 made me hungry to know more about space, but much more than that it made me want to express my excitement with it in creative, story form.

I remember once participating in a creativity workshop. One of the exercises was to break into pairs and have each member of the pair seed the other with an idea for a spontaneous story. I forget what the seed idea was that I was given, but I remember the idea (it had to be one word) I gave to my partner; it just popped into my head: "vines".

My partner, a woman I didn't know, looked as though I'd tossed her a live hand grenade. She blanked out; she started getting flustered and even angry with me for giving her such a "hard" idea. For my part, I didn't see anything hard about it. The seed-word vines in my mind quickly became a vertical world of hanging woody plants, a place where whole villages could exist in a twilight among the animal and bird traffic that crept or flapped up and down its reaches... In short, a world I wanted to explore in my imagination. My partner was stumped.

I think my approach was to visualize some vines, and then look to see what was around them. Sitting here now, I thought that I could as easily have seen them as wound around someone's body, binding them while they're being carried by Polynesian cargo-cultists; or being gathered to make a mattress for a love-in among pygmy chimpanzees.

In short, what the seed-word is is irrelevant. It could be filing cabinet or cream o' wheat. It simply provides a specific for a stepping-off point. I thought a fine example of showing how imagination can be skillfully called on was in the movie Out of Africa, when Karen Blixen takes an opening sentence given her by Robert Redford's character and spins an extended story from it.

There does seem to be such a thing as imaginative talent. But like any talent, it can be exercised. There is a certain letting-go, letting images arise, trusting what will come. But it can be helped and pushed through conscious effort, too. Notice in my examples with vines, I draw on knowledge of the the world. I'm aware of things like cargo cults and pygmy chimpanzees, and so I can plug these into imaginative situations. I suspect that one of the many terrible effects of lack of learning is an impoverished imagination.

It may seem paradoxical, but I think my large diet of nonfiction books primes my imagination more than just about anything else I could do.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

getting naked

It's sunny and cold. The sky is clear blue. My office window receives direct sunlight only in three discrete panels on its wide surface, a large one at the bottom and two small rectangles lying near the upper-right corner, illuminated by the beams shining through squares in the latticework of the stairs to the back deck. The sun reveals the double-glazed window to be milky with dust and dribbled with trails of water-drops long gone, plump and translucent like melted wax on the outside of a bottle.

This morning the creative work was hard again: a sense of poking along in notes, following little blind alleys of research. Over all a nagging suspicion that I was occupying myself with unimportant research questions ("was there still debt-slavery in Rome in 47 BC?") in order to avoid the creative vacancy of grappling with story issues. So one's effort is tainted by a feeling of cowardice.

One is a coward, of course. But one doesn't like to think about being a coward, to be presented with evidence of it, especially in real time, while the cowardice is taking place. It's almost enough to put you off.

There's so much I could write about. This is my blog; I can use it as a soapbox for anything I please. Most of its visitors come in search of information on things like how to write historical novels or Iron Age Phoenicia. By and large, I think, they don't find what they're looking for (although some do indeed hit the jackpot).

Last night, as has been happening lately, I read from three books in my stack (Introduction to Books of the Old Testament; History of Greece to 322 BC; Principles of Psychology), then ran out of steam. I sat in my chair gazing across the room. Kimmie was upstairs puttering happily in her sewing-room (her "mad scientist's lab" as we sometimes call it). It was a familiar feeling: my mind wanted to move in some new direction, but I didn't know where.

I thought about events in my life over the past months. I thought about two dreams I'd had the night before--dreams of being naked, which are unusual for me. In one I was in a dining room, a restaurant on what turned out to be an aircraft, possibly a luxury dirigible like the Hindenburg. I was carrying some clothes, but was actually naked. When I was rushed back to my table by Kimmie and some other women, who were excited about celebrating my birthday, I realized I had to brazen it out. They either hadn't noticed, or were pretending not to notice, or, possibly, my nakedness added to their elation and excitement.

"I can get used to this," I thought. "Be bold. It's more other people's problem than it is mine."

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Monday, January 29, 2007

tinkering with blog, plodding with story

I finally switched over to the "new" version of Blogger, as urged over the past couple of months by Google. since I already had a Gmail account it wasn't too painful. We'll see how it works out.

Returnees will note that I've added a couple of features in the sidebar:

  • last book I finished reading

  • last book I started reading

  • other books I'm currently reading
Why, it's almost as good as being able to look right at my coffee-table stack (except I'm only including those books I'm actually, actively reading in the blog-list, whereas the coffee-table sags under the weight of books formerly being read and not yet reshelved).

Another feature are the "labels" I can attach to each post. I started off yesterday by labeling a number of recent posts--assigning categories to their content. Since as of yesterday there were a total of 361 posts, it will take me awhile to get through them all this way, and I'm not altogether sure of the value. On the other hand, the dry administrator in me (who owns a good-sized portion of my psychic real estate) is naturally attracted to this feature, so I do intend to complete it. Both die-hard fans and new visitors will be able to list posts according to their content labels. That should keep you up nights.

Meanwhile, I'm back at it, working now on chapter 26. I realize now that my method, if it deserves such a name, is what it is, and is not likely to change for the remainder of my draft. I keep researching, forging connections, and thinking through the backstory of each chapter. All of these contribute to the quality I have called "richness"--the "nonfiction" feeling that one is relating (and therefore reading about) real events. I believe that the more imaginary the world, the more removed it is from today's reality, or the reality of the reader, the more concrete and real-feeling it needs to be. In this respect historical fiction has a burden much like that of fantasy or science fiction. If you want to take the reader far away from where he or she is, you need to plant him or her definitely in another place.

Such anyway are my thoughts on it. Now to think of some labels to stick on this post...

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

date magic

What to talk about, when one's task is really a repetitive one, a more or less daily grind, and one that I don't want to reveal too too many details of, in the interest of keeping my story alive and fresh for its eventual consumers?

One thing that's happened is that my local community newspaper, the North Shore News, published a letter I wrote them a couple of weeks ago--it came out in yesterday's edition. Interestingly, yesterday was also my birthday.

That type of "date coincidence" has happened to me before. The real coincidental date in my life has been March 9. On March 9, 1989, my first TV show, a one-off half-hour comedy called "What's Wrong with Neil?", cowritten with Warren Easton, aired on CBC. Three years later, March 9, 1992, by the purest coincidence, our next TV show aired on CBC: the first broadcast of the pilot episode of The Odyssey, then still titled "The Jellybean Odyssey". It was an astonishing coincidence, when I noticed it. In each case I had a broadcast party here at my house.

But I was really astonished when, years later, in 2001, another "public view" event happened for me, when The Globe and Mail ran an essay I'd written, "Requiem for a Vehicle", about the career of our family car, a 1981 Toyota Corolla four-door sedan, on their "Facts & Arguments" page. It appeared in the--you guessed it--March 9 edition. I submitted the essay in January, and had no idea whether it would be published, or when.

What does it mean? I don't know. But when something occurs and recurs, especially something so unlikely, in such a pointedly insistent way, it seems to be begging to be noticed. I have noticed it. But the significance of it eludes me.

My birthday? Lovely, thank you--I had an excellent time, and received some excellent presents. I started drinking one of them last night.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

draft 1 inches forward

This morning I pushed through and finished drafting chapter 25. I sent a copy of it by e-mail to Warren in Chicago as proof that the cosmic heart-paddles have indeed reanimated this creative corpse.

Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have said, "The first draft of anything is shit." As far as I can tell, he seems to be right. That's not to say that the first draft of everything is equally bad; far from it. I think that the first draft, like any other stage, reflects the amount of work that's gone into it. But it also reflects the amount of work left to be done, and, depending on how much of that there is, this is the measure of its "badness".

I think what's disappointing about the first draft is what I might call the quality per hours invested. Draft 1 is disheartening because it represents the largest quantum of effort in any project, and therefore causes one's hopes to soar. The result, I find, is, at least after the first exhilaration of finishing, always disappointing. One hopes that after all that work something more polished, more sensible, more readable, would have emerged. Nope.

For draft 1, the best strategy--if you can do it--is to switch off the quality indicator of your mental dashboard altogether and pay attention only to the quantity indicator. Even this is relatively disappointing compared to the much faster progress--page throughput--one can achieve in the second and subsequent drafts, but there is the miracle of creation: the fact that you started with nothing, and now have something. Even if we can't follow God and say that it's good, at least we can say that now it is.

I've decided to start printing hard copies of each first-draft chapter again. I left off doing this back around chapter 13, when I stopped reading them out loud to Kimmie when I'd done them. Now, partly out of concern after reading The Revenge of Gaia and James Lovelock's warning of how all our electronic documents will vanish with the collapse of industrial civilization (which he foresees this century if we do not act swiftly and vigorously to ameliorate climate change), I want to have a hard copy. Toward this end I bought a couple of plastic hanging-file boxes at Wal-Mart last week, and am setting them up to receive all my extant chapters.

Today Kimmie and I are planning to be virtuous and power-walk (in the cold rain). That means I need to get into my research reading early, and that means I need to get going. Which books, you ask? These days it's been An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament by Oesterley and Robinson; Principles of Psychology vol. 1 by William James; A History of Greece to 322 BC by N.G.L. Hammond; then, if I've got time and energy, The Earth System by Kump, Kasting, and Crane.

Off I go.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

fighting over ancient bones

Another rather underslept night for me. The rain has dissolved away the snow, and the rhododendron and the aucuba both obviously enjoy the above-freezing temperatures, having both hung shriveled and limp when the air was below freezing. It's a drab, wet, cold day.

I'm still on the case, keying research notes in the morning over coffee--something to look forward to, for me; something to get me out of bed. Right now I'm keying from a library copy of The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity by James D. Tabor.

I'm still in chapter 1 of that, but his introduction was very good, describing his own personal connection with ancient history and how he became involved with it, and also an exciting real-life-mystery account of events surrounding the discovery and subsequent cloak-and-dagger intrigue of two ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. One of these, the so-called Talpiot tomb, contained a number of ossuaries (stone boxes for housing the bones of a corpse, a practice prevalent around Jerusalem for about 100 years, including the lifetime of Jesus) inscribed with names that all bore connections with the family of Jesus: Mary, Joseph, and yes, even a "Jesus son of Joseph". In all there were 10 ossuaries in the tomb, and one of them has gone missing--no one knows where, or what was on it. The original excavator of the tomb is dead, and an apartment building was erected over the site (this in fact was why it was discovered in the first place).

Fascinating stuff. Tabor himself so far is proving to be a good narrator: he comes across as passionate and excited, but also open-minded and undogmatic. He seems refreshingly free of the edge of bitterness that seems to cling to so many in the field of biblical archaeology. People are suspicious to the point of paranoia that their colleagues are trying to prop up pet theories. Recall the recriminations around the discovery of the "James" ossuary in 2000--inscribed "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus". Experts aligned on either side of the debate as to its genuineness--that is, whether its inscription really was from the 1st century AD, as the ossuary itself undoubtedly was. The question is still not really resolved, and the reasons appear to be politics, religious beliefs, and personal relationships rather than science.

As Tabor observes, the last thing the Israeli authorities want is the discovery of the bones of Jesus anywhere in Israel. From their point of view, there's no real upside to such a discovery. Hmm...another possible motivating factor in the mysterious appearances and disappearances of these important artifacts.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

on talent

Beside the bed I have a small stack of magazines, which I work through in my brief bedtime reading period each night. Right now it consists mainly of magazines I received as stocking-stuffers at Christmas, but the one on top is the December 2006 issue of Scientific American, which I'd bought sometime before Christmas, but haven't had a chance to get to until the past couple of days.

The letters section refers back to the August issue, which I also read, and its cover story about the psychology of the "expert's mind"--what makes geniuses such as chess grandmasters or math prodigies so much better than the rest of us at their specialty? The author of the article, Philip E. Ross, found that chess grandmasters, for instance, do not have any more inherent ability at the relevant skills, such as that for remembering positions on the chessboard, than nonplayers. What they do have is a long history of working at it, and thus habituating their minds so that they are able to remember chess positions at a glance. Ross's finding was essentially that when it comes to greatness at some skill, Thomas Edison was right in saying that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. What the greats have that the rest of us don't, according to Ross, is motivation. They are never satisfied with their performance, but are forever trying to improve, no matter how good they get.

I think about an interview I saw with Tiger Woods. When he sets his mind on achieving something, he can't let it go. An example is his ability to bounce a golfball up and down from the head of a club, kind of playing paddleball with it without letting it fall to the ground. This ability has no known use in terms of helping one's golf game, but Woods got it into his head that he wanted to be able to do it, and kept practicing it until he could. Now he can dribble a golfball that way as long as he likes. I remember similar stories about Steve Nash, who, as a soccer-playing teen, would not let himself go in to dinner until he had achieved a higher number of bounces of a soccer ball from his foot without letting it touch the ground. These guys are driven, and the results speak for themselves.

The editors at Scientific American found themselves deluged with dissenting letters. Critics pointed out that sustained effort over a long period could hardly account for prodigies like Mozart, who was composing concertos by age three. And I think of those famous "savants"--people with severe mental disabilities who nonetheless show tremendous talent in some skill, often music. Profoundly retarded children who can hardly walk nonetheless crawl to the piano for the first time and start playing a song that's on the radio (not easy, if you've ever tried it).

On the other side, you have phenomena such as the Polgar sisters, three Hungarian girls who were raised by their father to be chess experts. Their whole lives were centered around chess, and in due course all three grew up to be very strong players (all grandmasters, I believe); indeed Judit is one of the ten highest-ranked players in the world. How much chess "talent" were they born with, and how much of their ability is due to their father's pushing them singlemindedly into mastering the game?

Where do I stand. I believe in innate talent. Young children clearly have different gifts; it's very obvious. And whatever you're good at, you tend to want to do more of, which tends to make you better at it. So a positive-feedback loop ensues, in which an inborn inclination is reinforced through effort. The inclination also provides the motivation, perhaps. Although it seems likely that the truly great are those who have both talent and great motivation. For there are also talented people who are relatively unmotivated.

I tend to believe in James Hillman's "acorn" theory, which holds that each of us has a kind of mission in our lives--what we were born to do. And I believe that each of us has the toolkit that will allow us to fulfill that mission. As far as I know, I have no talent for golf--but I also have no interest in it. So I do not represent any kind of a threat to Tiger Woods, in any way.

I was born with a number of talents. Among other things, I draw quite well and I'm also musical. But I've come to realize that these things are definitely subordinate for me. The reason is that I don't pursue them continually. I do very little drawing these days, even doodling; and I pick up the guitar maybe a couple of times a week on average, but only to fool around--not to push my skills further and master more.

Writing (and reading) is different. I do these things every day, and indeed structure my day around them. I've always been pretty good at them, but I'm not satisfied. I can be pleased with my own work, but I am never satisfied with my ability: I always want to improve. I'm semi-obsessed about finding ways to make my work better. I study, I compare, I think, I practice. I develop theories that I hope will let me make my work better.

I don't have the feverish intensity of some famous geniuses, but I have a certain laid-back intensity: "without haste, but without rest," as Goethe said. I'm certainly without haste; but I manage also to sneak in a fair amount of rest, I think. Sigh.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

recovering work habits

I'll get in a fast post. The daily routine has changed now that Kimmie has returned to work and we're trying to maintain the virtue of power-walking each day (most days anyway). The doable slot for that is after Kimmie gets home, about 4:20. To go out walking then, I have to do half my daily reading before then, requiring me to start at around 3:00. Well, 3:00 used to be my guideline time for doing a blog-post.

So where have blog-posts gone? It's still up in the air. Right now I'm working this one in between returning home from a haircut (much overdue) and moving on to the ever-loving reading with my tea.

I'm back writing again: keying story-related notes first thing in the dark of morning, over coffee, and moving on, with fear, to the actual drafting of fictional prose in the rest of the morning. The good news for me was that when I reopened chapter 25 to start rejigging it, I was fairly happy with much of what I found there. In fact, I found that a number of ideas I'd gotten lately for improving the chapter were already in there when I looked at it. Yes--I'd forgotten what I'd put in, and thought up the same ideas again as ways of improving the chapter. Friends, that is not an efficient way to do anything. It's a testament to how long the thing has been lying around, not unlike those car-hulks you see in some guys' garages or on their lawns: perpetual "works in progress", where neither the work nor the progress are ever much in evidence.

Still, William James says in his Principles of Psychology that if you simply keep at something during the working hours of each day--that is, make a habit of doing something--your eventual success is virtually certain. So I suppose I have a New Year's resolution after all: to make an appointment with my chapter in progress each day. Yes, to reacquire the not-too-bad work habits that used be marked as "satisfactory" by my teachers on my elementary-school report cards. Lately, to be honest, I think I myself would have checked the "needs improvement" box.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

learning the tortuous method

Finally, yesterday, I reached a point where I said, What the hey, and opened up my long-neglected chapter 25 to start writing in it again.

It happened when I came up with a new way of opening the chapter--a new point of attack. It's not that the idea is especially brilliant or original, but it has energy: that feeling of jumping into something that is already going on, so important in launching a story or any section of one. I know that the way forward is in not taking things so seriously. But at heart I am a serious person, with serious purpose, so the task then is to find a way to express my seriousness in a way that is carefree.

I know that when I read my notes or my journal I sometimes think, "Just write like this, you goofball." Those things I just write as a kind of stream of consciousness--as I'm drafting this blog-post now. If you have a gift of fluency, as I have, plus the practice of having written millions of words, it's possible to just let it flow.

To some extent, I have acquired my painstaking writing method as I've aged. I remember back in elementary school that I would just sit down and write, and fill pages pretty easily without too much double-checking or revision. My friend and classmate Brad, who was a very good writer (and now a tropical ecologist, I think, or something like one), was the opposite: he toiled over his writing, chewing his long pointy plastic pens down to their brass refills--and then chewing the refills till they became squeezed, dented, bent strips of metal. He had the unusual distinction of handwriting that was pressed even deeper into the page than mine was--and mine was and is deeply pressed. Sheets of ruled looseleaf became curled and worked under his touch like leaves of hammered metal, covered with the signs of the ferocity of his concentration: rich blue-black ink in a relatively large hand but sharply slanted, with much, much heavy crossing-out, arrows pointing to where text was to be moved, small tottering columns of printed or cursive letters in the margins or snaking between existing lines, and maybe the odd large word of judgment pointing to a crossed-out section, such as "BAD!!!".

For Brad, writing was a physical act, something that used his physical energies and had concrete physical effects. He obviously suffered while writing, and it showed on the paper. He would procrastinate assignments, and then wind up writing long into the night at home, sitting at his kitchen table among his orchids and pet birds until 2:00 a.m. For him there was no such thing as a single draft. His first draft would be an unreadable jumble. His final draft would always be a longish, well-argued, well-expressed essay that showed evidence of its tortured birth in its very polish and the clear current of thought.

Before Brad, I was a one-draft guy. Lazy and self-confident, I would just sit down and start writing, with minimal crossing-out--and the next day hand in the result. But Brad's laboriousness made me feel a little bit inferior, a bit envious. Even though I got excellent marks for my writing, I started to worry that I was lightweight. I became concerned that I was too undemanding of myself and therefore handing in stuff that was not really first-rate. I wanted to have pages that showed the evidence of my thought-process, that showed traces of creative suffering!

So, a little self-consciously at first, I started to "work" my writing more: more crossing-out, more marginalia, more drawing boxes around paragraphs and sending them via arrows to other pages. For the sake of a better final result, I gave up on the idea of submitting first drafts. I wanted to be able to flip through the first draft to show what I'd gone through, the way Brad did, casually but also in self-disgust. I wanted to become a proper writer, dammit!

Well, I did. My process was never as tortuous as Brad's (thank god), but by subjecting my effort to more criticism, as he did, I came up with better stuff, a better final draft. And I enjoyed the sensuousness of my battle-scarred first drafts, the way the paper became deformed under the heavy, backtracking touch, so that ten handwritten pages created a sheaf as thick as 20 clean sheets, each page stiffened with the quantity of ink and the deformation of its cellulose fibers. The pages now rattled when turned; they were brittle with heavy wear; they were fatigued. I loved that kind of page, and I still do.

Well, my process has become fully tortuous. I no longer use longhand; now it manifests itself in the length of the notes documents I do--my quantity is tortured. Now, though, it might be time to lighten up a bit. I'd like to set down my writing cross and take it easy again--just a little, just for awhile.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007


When I was keying my last post four days ago, I made mention of the pneumonia I got in 1990. Even as I typed, I was starting to feel irritations in my chest, and was coughing as though I'd inhaled dust. As the evening wore on, I coughed more and more; I realized I'd become infected with something somehow.

I started on a program of echinacea and goldenseal in water. It seems that I have held it down to a mild chest-cold, whose symptoms are now mostly gone. So far, it has not gone into my head. I'm taking it easy.

Kimmie reluctantly and grouchily returned to work Monday morning, the alarm-clock again launching us from bed in the dark of 5:30. For my part, I feel ridiculous reporting that I yet again turned back to the notes for my proto-chapter 25, a large Word document that now runs to (shudder) 58 pages. What had I written in there?

I have reviewed the notes before, more than once. Indeed, I have gone through them with Word's yellow highlighter, marking up the "keepers". I read through those.

You know: my notes are good. I surprise myself with the profundities I get involved with. As I've said before, I don't want to tip my hand too much here as to the specifics of my thematic maunderings; that should wait at least until after publication--possibly until after death, or possibly until after the last trumpet-call.

In my case, research means more than background research; it entails what amounts to original research. By this I mean that I assess material from various sources, and develop connections and theories of my own, as a scholar would. This is necessary, among other reasons, because of the disparate types of material I seek to bring together. I need to find what I think is true, even if this means solving paradoxes or finding factual solutions to gaps or inconsistencies in the historical record. It's a gargantuan task.

When I reopened my notes document, I saw that I started keying regular notes in it back in June 2006. There was a gap over the summer, as my mind was straying and I lost momentum, then I picked it up again in the fall. Seeing this one document, one chapter's notes, stretch back over so much time filled me with nausea.

Yes, nausea.

Still, the notes themselves are good; they are sound.

Would I rather have rubbishy half-baked junk published and being read, or carefully crafted gems lying quietly in the dark, never seen? My actions seem to point to the latter.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

the quest for omega

We woke to snowfall. Wet snow has fallen all day. I shoveled the heavy, translucent stuff from the sidewalks in front of our building. Now I hear trickling sounds and a couple of drumbeats of drops falling outside.

Yesterday was sunny and clear, with a chill wind blowing from the west. Kimmie and I walked in the neighborhood called Norgate Park, an anomalously flat district of North Vancouver resting on the apron of land just inland of the industrial foreshore. Small ranch-style houses rest on little lots in a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs.

Then, while Kimmie shopped for ribbon at Fabricland, I got myself two packages of highlighters at Staples and headed into the newly opened Indigo Books store on the lower level of Park Royal's south mall. Kim and I agree that this store is not very good--barely an improvement over the Coles Books store (also owned by Indigo) located nearby and shut down to make way for this new operation, even though this new store is much bigger. For all its size, it has only one small alcove, maybe 10% of the store, containing books of any interest to me (history, science, political science). The rest of the store seems to be filled with children's book, teens' books, notebooks, cookbooks, diet books, self-help books, and of course fiction: long rows of this in the main open area of the store.

Browsing without much interest the science section, a small book caught my eye: Meta Math!: The quest for Omega by Gregory Chaitin. I was drawn by the name of the author, with which I was familiar from reading books by the mathematician Rudy Rucker. I picked up the book and flipped through it. Yeah, some equations, some demonstrations set off in boxes, and a writing style that appeared to make heavy use of exclamation marks and bold type.

"What is this omega anyway?" I thought. The back flap blurb described it as "an exquisitely complex representation of unknowability in mathematics." Hmm, sounded promising.

I thought back to February 1990, when I was laid up at home with pneumonia. I was so weak I could hardly get up off the sofa. But to have variety in my life, I got out of bed in the morning, made my way downstairs to lie on the sofa, and then climbed back up to bed at night. The infection had me running a fever much of the time. If I'd been unable to read, it would have been very boring. But I find that a (mild) fever actually heightens my concentration and alertness, so I was in good condition to read. Even though I was sick, I decided it was a good opportunity to try making it all the way through Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind, which I'd bought back in 1984.

I was completely absorbed, and able to read the book all the way through during my illness. In it he makes mention of Gregory Chaitin along with other important 20th-century mathematicians such as Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. (He brings in Turing and Chaitin much more in a subsequent book, Mind Tools.) These thinkers have concerned themselves with questions such as how much can be known or discovered in mathematics--finding the limits of formal mathematical systems. It may sound obscure, but it has important implications for digital computers, which are now the primary machine of our world.

As is my custom, I made a point of starting this book (despite 10 or so competitors in my coffee-table reading stack) when I got home. I was surprised and pleased to find this paragraph on the first page of the preface:

Science is an adventure. I don’t believe in spending years studying the work of others, years learning a complicated field before I can contribute a tiny little bit. I prefer to stride off in totally new directions, where imagination is, at least initially, much more important than technique, because the techniques have yet to be developed. It takes all kinds of people to advance knowledge, the pioneers, and those who come afterwards and patiently work a farm. This book is for pioneers!

Embroiled as I am in research (admittedly not mathematical or scientific), "studying the work of others," I felt heartened and stimulated by this. I really liked Chaitin's excited attitude--altogether unexpected from this longtime computing sage who has worked for IBM forever and is the pioneer of the daunting-sounding field of "information mechanics".

Yes, infinity is one of those things I kind of keep tabs on. It's a very important concept, at the very least. The big question is whether it is anything more than a concept--whether infinity denotes something actual. My own hunch is that it does indeed, and that the workers on infinity--all the many different infinities, infinitely many of them, in fact--are studying important properties of the world we live in. I believe, in fact, that the study of infinity is a form of exact theology: where the tools of mathematics are applied to the divine, the numinous.

Hmm. Maybe I'll venture a bit further myself on the quest for Omega...

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007


When keying notes from Joseph Campbell's Occidental Mythology at the end of last year, I typed the following passage (slightly compressed) from the epilogue, called "Conclusion: At the Close of an Age":

In the long view of the history of mankind, four essential functions of mythology can be discerned. The first and most distinctive--vitalizing all--is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being. Talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it. Only the accident of experience and the sign symbols of a living myth can elicit and support it; but such signs cannot be invented. They are found. Whereupon they function of themselves. And those who find them are the sensitized, creative, living minds that once were known as seers, but now as poets and creative artists. More important, more effective for the future of a culture than its statesmen or its armies are these masters of the spiritual breath by which the clay of man wakes to life.

In my last post I was talking about my aesthetic system. But I realized that before even an aesthetic system, I need a sense of why art is valuable in the first place. Life is short. If, when pressed with the question, how to spend one's time?, one responds, "as an artist", one should know why one will spend one's time that way. At least, I need to know that.

I need look no further than Campbell's words above, and if I want one statement of validation, I would use the last sentence of that paragraph.

If I were to amend that sentence in any way, I would add the words "its business enterprises" to the list along with a culture's statesmen and armies. Nowadays I suspect that the best, or anyway the most creative, minds of our society are seduced not by politics, still less by the military, but by business. We want to make money.

Certainly for me this has been an important seduction or distraction--not that you'd know it by my circumstances or net worth. I've done all right, but my level of wealth is quite a bit below what might be expected of someone of my age and ability. I remember reading a few years ago, with a twinge, an article in Scientific American about IQ. One point made in the article was that despite all the controversy over the validity of IQ and what exactly, if anything, it might measure, it is and has always been a strong predictor of worldly success. If you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your best asset is not a degree from any university or membership in any particular organization or fraternity, but a high IQ. I don't know if I remember the words exactly, but the specific quote in the article that struck me was: "If you have a high IQ, worldly success is yours to lose."

Ouch. You see, I have a high IQ. I forget the exact figure--it was only told to me years after I'd taken a test in a neighbor's backyard. (The neighbor's friend's daughter, who happened to work for the UN, was making what I think was a casual sample of kids' IQs in various countries. I don't know whether she was targeting bright kids or not. She administered the test at a picnic table in the quiet shade of Mrs. MacLellan's lawn, along with a "morality" test devised by a famous psychologist--I forget who.) Plus, confusingly, there are a couple of different IQ indexes, one of which grades "higher" than the other. But I was also pulled from my grade-2 class one day for special intelligence testing, and again in grade 3, when I was tested along with a few others for admission into a hothouse program called Major Works.

By the way, if you're not a person with a high IQ, I can't really tell you what it's like to be one. At least, in some ways. It's true that in comparison with most other people, I'm able to spot patterns and figure things out quickly. I remember one of my janitor coworkers back at Vancouver General Hospital trying to work through a bunch of math questions in preparation for some exam he was going to take. He was in a section where series of numbers were given, and you had to provide the next numbers in each series. When he asked for input, I looked over his shoulder and was able to quickly answer a few of the questions.

"How do you do that?" he said, stunned.

"Well, you look to see how fast the numbers are changing. Are they getting bigger very fast? Or only a little bit at a time? Are they going up, then down? You kind of just see how they're moving."

He shook his head.

Another janitorial coworker who admired my mind was Angela, a small Hungarian woman with a certain European mystique and sexiness even in her housekeeping uniform. Having lived in Paris a long time, she spoke with a French accent.

"What must it be like to have a brain like yours," she said one day. "I wish I had a brain like that."

So yes, I've been admired and envied for my mental abilities. But most of the time I don't have any particular sense of mental "superiority". The image that comes to mind is that of a dog chained to a stake in the yard. A dog usually will stay parked at the end of his chain, almost choking himself if need be, just to be at the limit of his freedom. A high IQ is like a long chain. You're farther away from the stake than the short-chain dog, but you're still sitting there, choking and irked by your limit.

In short, I struggle with problems I can't seem to solve, IQ or no IQ.

But by virtue of my IQ, much of the fruit of society was there for the picking for me--or so the experts claim. Over the years I have made various, relatively half-hearted, efforts to gather some of these, to "make it" in societal terms. When doing that, though, I have not really been true to myself, and the results have accordingly been mixed.

So I take my cue now from Joseph Campbell, and see my vocation as an artist lit by the words quoted above. I venture to guess that Campbell's IQ was very high indeed, and luckily for us all, he made excellent use of it.

But what will happen to me? I lie awake nights worrying about this.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

where interest comes from

James Joyce, in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, sets out an aesthetic system via the voice of his protagonist Stephen Dedalus. The artist/young man, now about 18 years old, is feeling more self-confident; like the eagle-chick, he stands at the edge of the eyrie, flapping his wings and thinking about freedom.

Even now, at age 47 (soon to be 48), I'm not sure I have what amounts to an aesthetic system--or indeed whether I need or want one. And yet I do have my likes and dislikes, which are mainly quite strong and definite, and surely there are reasons for these likes and dislikes--reasons that, if gathered together, would no doubt constitute the outlines of an aesthetic system. I suppose what my "system" lacks is a central axiom or theory from which all the other things flow. I have pieces, thoughts, but they are not unified--not yet.

As I've said many times, with regard to literature, fiction, I put storytelling uppermost in the hierarchy of values. E. M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, based on a series of lectures he gave in 1927, put "story" near the bottom. (He distinguished "story" from "plot", which he rated higher.) His denigration of story is typical of a 20th-century practitioner of the art.

The whole point of a temporal art like fiction is to take the audience on a journey, not unlike a train ride, that is carefully structured to convey a particular experience. That experience and that structure is the story and how it is told. As I have also said many times, I believe that most fiction-writers are deficient in storytelling skill.

What makes a story good? Different stories appeal to different people, of course. I've been accused of applying inappropriate standards to genres that just don't appeal to me. That might be true sometimes, but on the whole I don't really mind what genre a story is in. I do have genre preferences, but I will enjoy a good story in, I think, pretty much any genre. And what work of any kind, in any medium, is so good that it could not be improved? Very few are in that category (and incidentally, I think that A Portrait of the Artist is one of them).

I'll start with the seemingly vague statement that a good story is interesting. And here's my theory of what interesting means: we find something interesting when it provokes tension within us. Tension, in turn, is what exists between a pair of opposites. The stronger the opposition, and the more closely they are placed together, the greater the tension, and the greater the interest.

I believe this dynamic holds throughout any work of art, from its top level of overarching idea to the bottom level of the execution of its details. At the dramatic level this opposition is called conflict. In storytelling, at the highest level of a work is its controlling idea: an assertion about a value and how it is realized in the world. The primary conflict in a story then is the counteridea: a contrary assertion. Robert McKee, in his Story, uses the example of the idea "crime doesn't pay". Many detective stories have this basic idea--the good guy winds up catching the bad guy. The counteridea is that "crime does pay"--the idea held by the antagonist, the idea he is seeking to realize in the world by getting away with his crime.

That's at the top level. But the same principle holds down all the levels. Another McKee concept, the "gap", is a further example. The gap is the space between expectation and reality, or expectation and result--what the character expects and what the audience expects. A character takes a certain action, expecting a certain result--and something else happens. A gap opens up: novelty, and the character must react. That gap, just like the gap in a spark plug, is a place of electric tension--it is the locus of story interest. The unexpected draws our attention and holds it; it interests us.

In Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, which I recently finished reading, one of the major gaps in the story occurs when the character Hurstwood, manager of a Chicago bar, while going through the solitary routine of closing up the place for another night, discovers that the safe has, for the first time ever, accidentally been left unlocked. It has more than $10,000 in it of his employers' money. And Hurstwood, under various pressures in his life, is at that moment in great need of money--or so he thinks.

In terms of his character, this is a cosmic gap. It opens when he, expecting all to be as usual and the safe to be locked shut, discovers that it is instead open--an Aladdin's cave of illicit possibility. It takes him by surprise--and us. What makes it storytelling is that it happens at the exact moment in Hurstwood's life when this surprise will thrust him into the greatest possible tension. On any other night he would simply have locked the safe and not given it another thought. Tonight he is ready to enter the adventure of discovering who he is; and we, the readers, are ready to discover along with him. We sense that the choice he makes, whatever it is, will express and reveal who he really is, deep down inside. And we are very interested.

Dreiser does a fantastic job of writing this scene, showing himself to be a storyteller of the first order. He doesn't skip over it lightly; he works it. In McKee's terms, he indulges the gap: he tarries in this place of high interest, keeping us in tension, feeling Hurstwood's inner tension and turmoil.

As so often happens, I feel I'm just getting warmed up. I'm sure I'll return to these themes again.

It was a quiet New Year's Eve. Mainly, anyway: we have a bus-stop right outside our front door, and two groups of loud young drunks caught buses at it during the evening just as we were heading to bed (well before midnight). I was relieved when the bus arrived to carry the first lot away, only to feel irritation with the second lot that showed up shortly afterward. I looked out from the dark of Kimmie's sewing-room at a group of about 12 young adults, male and female, 20-ish, talking loudly and shrieking at each other. One heavy-set guy strode into our flower bed to urinate against our holly-tree. The coal of his cigarette glowed in the dark.

Annoyed with that, I went downstairs, even though I was wearing only sweatpants, having just emerged from the bath, and stepped out on the front porch. The urinator quickly stepped away back to the bus stop. I carried a flashlight, which I was going to turn on him. But the next bus arrived, and, after some loud haggling among the people about whether they should take it after all or wait for someone else to arrive and pick them up, they clump aboard. All except one guy who, cell-phone to his ear, set out across the road to some other destination, trying to organize something with some other party.

The bus pulled away.

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