.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, January 31, 2008

"exterminate all the brutes"

Part of my problem in starting a fresh blog-post is not that I'm running out of ideas for posts, but that there are too many ideas--too many things to talk about. I find it intimidating that here, with my chance to talk about anything I want, I come up against the limits of what I can express--how much time and space I have to say whatever I may want to say. How well do I use the resources I've been given?

One very provocative line of reading and thinking lies with the book "Exterminate All the Brutes" by Sven Lindqvist which I'm making my way through.

The quotation marks are part of the title; it's a literary reference. Do you recognize it? It's from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, first published in 1899. The line is due to the colonial despot Kurtz, summing up his attitude to the locals over whom he has absolute power, and giving voice as well, as Lindqvist shows, to the de facto agenda of European colonialism from its start.

With a book like this, there is always the danger that it will turn out to be politically correct preaching and finger-wagging about Eurocentrism and racism. This book is not the least bit like that. It is indeed about colonial cruelty and racism, things that Lindqvist clearly deplores, but his approach is that of a curious, puzzled, and highly motivated investigator. And his method, so personal and individual, has as much poetry in it as scholarship.

His "method", if it can even be called that, was to journey to North Africa, to the Sahara, with a computer and a mass of data discs containing relevant research texts. There, while making his way from desert city to desert city by bus and taxi, he studied, thought, and read--all the while taking in the strange and frightening colors of his surroundings. In a series of short chapterlets, almost always less than a page, he shows the connections he makes between the historical and literary material, interspersing his thoughts with descriptions of his journey, his dreams, and a few striking memories of his childhood in Sweden. It's a truly unique literary stew--and a marvelous one.

Taking Heart of Darkness as a watershed, a powerful literary indictment of colonialism as it was (and is) actually practiced, Lindqvist uncovers many of the specific sources and inspirations that Conrad drew on to create his story. (Conrad of course had also skippered a riverboat on the Congo for awhile.) One fascinating insight is that H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, was itself a work in this same stream: the cruel, pitiless, technologically superior Martians were simply the British or the French, and we hapless humans the "natives" of Earth, targeted for destruction so that our new overlords could harvest the coveted resources of our planet. Wells, like Conrad, was a critic of colonialism.

Lindqvist shows that Wells's vision was no exaggeration. One of his disc sources included Winston Churchill's account of the 1898 battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, in which 11,000 Sudanese were killed and 16,000 "wounded" (no one knows whether any of these actually did survive), while the British took only 48 casualties. As Lindqvist puts it, "the entire Sudanese army was annihilated without once having got their enemy within gunshot." In the words of Churchill, who was there:

It was a terrible sight, for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed an unfair advantage to strike thus cruelly when they could not reply.

The British soldiers' rifles grew so hot from continual firing that they had to exchange them for reserve rifles, rotating them in and out of action. Brass shell casings formed into hills beside the shooters. The climactic colonial "battle" for dominance of North Africa was a turkey-shoot.

Covering as much ground as it does, Lindqvist's book is brief: a total of 172 tersely written pages. And that's another thing: his prose, even in translation, is a model of vividness, clarity, and power. Picking a passage more or less at random:

Clusters of animals and people are incessantly on their way across the dried-out riverbed that is Tam's equivalent of Hyde Park. Weary camels lower their heads and blow at the dust to see if conceals anything edible, and patient goats graze pieces of paper. Women come with their burdens, not on their hips as in In Salah, but on their heads. Groups of boys drift around, every step tearing up a cloud.

But Tam has a specialty. It has a road--indeed, a motorway--on which if necessary you would be able to make your way across the river bed with polished shoes. It is reserved for the army.

An officer comes across this bridge on his way to the post office, four men with him in white lace-up boots and white helmets, the chinstraps under their noses. Outside the post office they march on the spot while he walks past the queue, demands a stamp, and sticks it on. Then six steps forward and another spell in neutral as he mails the letter--at which they all march on with the same solemn expression of satisfaction.

Not bad at all.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

inquiring minds

It snowed again overnight, so I went out first thing again to shovel. There was less snow than yesterday, but I found the job harder, mainly I think because of the unaccustomed work for certain muscles--surprisingly, my thigh muscles. Then it was inside again to make the coffee and start keying research notes.

It feels as though my study has, if anything, intensified over the past few weeks. No doubt study, like everything else in life, follows a basic pattern of alternating movement and rest. You feel yourself in motion, trying to learn something, trying to understand something, and conscious of the fact that you're not there yet. At some point you understand. Something clicks and you get it. A light goes on, and you achieve a state of rest or tranquility. If you were rock-climbing, this would be a ledge--a place to stand or rest between stretches of scaling vertical rock.

This image is not bad, because it emphasizes the partial or provisional nature of the insights gained along the way. The rock-climber can't hang around forever on the ledge; he has to get going again to the next station on his journey up. Only at the summit is the task finished.

Sometimes, to me, it feels as though the ledges are few and the vertical stretches of rock are long. Long, long. Whenever I "arrive" anywhere in my studies, I'm conscious of how most of what I want to know remains obscure, unaddressed.

Maybe that's because the question that interests me most is the last and hardest one of the five that journalists are supposed to be concerned with: who, what, where, when, and why. Any of those questions can be a mystery, but the last one, why, tends to be the biggest mystery. Answering that question depends mainly on the questioner's notion of what constitutes an answer. When do you regard something as explained?

It's the philosopher's question. Even a simple version of it opens up avenues. Why do I live in North Vancouver? Well, I grew up here. All right, but is that a reason to live here now? Well, I actually left North Vancouver when my family moved from it in 1977, and I returned here to live with my girlfriend, who happened to have an apartment here. We kept living here because, in part, we were working here. From another point of view you could say that I live here because I bought a house here in 1987, and once you've bought a place, you need a good reason to sell out and leave. Or at least, I need a good reason--put that down to my character. Looking back further, you could say that I live here because my parents, both unlikely immigrants to Vancouver in the 1950s, happened to get together and at some point chose to move to North Vancouver, imprinting this place as my home.

More than the other questions, the question why requires a sense of purpose or direction on the part of the questioner: you need to know what kind of an answer you're looking for. In short, it points back to the question of why the questioner is asking this question! It's a two-edged question.

I suppose that the main reason my research seems endless is that the question I'm always most interested in is this why. It's the question that keeps on breeding offspring. And the answers you accept reveal your belief system: they show up your mythology.

An example: I'm reading Sven Lindqvist's excellent little book "Exterminate All the Brutes", an investigation into the phenomenon of genocide. He mentions the mass deaths of natives that resulted from the incursion of Europeans in the Americas. Lindqvist says that when the 16th-century British asked why so many Indians had died in South and Central America, the answer was not far to seek: the cruelty and bloodthirstiness of the Spanish. Then, when Indians died in vast numbers in North America as a result of contact with the British, a different explanation had to be found: divine intervention. God was clearing the land for the European settlers.

The explanation--the answer to why--depends sensitively on one's already existing beliefs, and also on one's level of objectivity and maturity. Once you become aware of these factors, it becomes hard to answer the question why satisfactorily. Am I just reaching for an easy prejudice? Am I accepting a cover story? Am I simply justifying my own selfishness? These are all likely possibilities.

In psychology, why is known as a hostile question. Usually, when someone asks us why we've done or said something, there is an element of challenge: we're being asked to account for ourselves. The implication is that our behavior needs accounting for, and that our challenger--our accuser--has a right to this account. It's a "scientific" attack: instead of saying that I don't like what you did, I call on you to justify it, leaving my own motive unstated. There's a sense of ambush.

I suppose the question why is a kind of attack, even when made not on a person but on the world. It's a challenge to the world to provide an answer--and the world pushes back: "who wants to know?"

Well, I want to know.

And who are you?

Hmm. Good one...

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

a snowy morning

Awoke again just before 4:00 with a restless mind. When the alarm went off at 5:30 Kimmie sprang up to peer out the blinds at the window.

"What's happening?" I said.

"There's about five inches of snow!"

She was excited. We both like heavy snows, for their beauty, unusualness, and the quiet and disruption they bring to the busy city.

"Guess I'd better get out there and shovel," I said.

Dressing hastily in "work" sweatpants and T-shirt, and throwing on an old fleece and windbreaker, I fetched a plastic snow shovel from the storage-room off our building's common garage and went out into the dark. Yes: all was blanketed in thick, pristine snow, which continued to fall in wet flakes. Someone had trudged up the sidewalk maybe a half hour earlier: their footprints were mostly filled in. But otherwise it was pristine. Starting at our own front porch, I bent to the task of shoveling.

Being the only able-bodied man in the four townhouses that front our stretch of road, I take on the responsibility of shoveling snow out front. The rumble of my plastic blade along the concrete walks was loud in the silent morning. I worked fast, wanting to get it all done before people started tramping it down. Shove, lift, toss; shove, lift, toss.

A woman came walking down St. Georges Avenue, turning on to Keith toward the bus stop in front of our house. She was an older woman, rather tall, dressed in a dark coat and hat.

"We'll be glad when this winter's over," she said quietly as she passed me.

"I like it," I said, heaving another load of snow to one side.

"You do?"

She sounded almost interested rather than surprised, but didn't break stride in her progress to the bus stop. Soon she was joined by a gray-bearded man holding a tall cup of coffee. They quietly said good morning to each other.

I cut a channel through the snow to the street corner, then shoveled off my neighbors' individual walks. Only a couple of vehicles trawled up through the snowy streets, making muffled, muttering sounds while I worked. Otherwise, the only sound was the rhythmic scrape of my plastic shovel. The snow shone in the impersonal apricot-colored light of the streetlamps. The bus arrived, pulling up carefully, and the woman and man boarded. The bus spun its wheels awhile before it was able to pull away.

Panting, and feeling a bit sore in the lower back, I trudged up my cleared steps and rested the shovel on my porch. It was 6:20--time to come in an make the coffee.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 28, 2008

continuing ed

Up again in the cold and dark of predawn: I could feel the colder air here in the house when I set about the morning routine of turning on heat and lights and putting on the kettle for coffee. Kimmie advised me that it was –4° C outside when I took her coffee and crackers up to her.

We were both tired after a restless night. In my case, I found that some of my concerns about life were weighing on my mind. But eventually I started drifting into dream, back awake, into dream, and back awake.

Over the weekend I underwent a spasm of book-buying: five online and two at a bookstore.

The bookstore buys were translations of the Iliad and the Aeneid by Robert Fagles, intended as part of my ongoing education in the epic genre.

I first read the Iliad back in 1975, when I was in English 10. It was among a small collection of alternative books that the teacher, Mr. Ryan, offered me in lieu of reading what the rest of the class was reading, since (as I recall) I had already read that book. I chose the Iliad because I was aware that it was supposed to be a great classic, and I wanted to have read it.

Even though the translation by W. H. D. Rouse was in prose, not verse, I found the book heavy going: lists of difficult Greek names and places, and a, for me, hard-to-follow story. I don't think I finished it. Indeed, I never returned the old, peeling paperback--I may even still have it: one of two thefts-by-carelessness that I can recall perpetrating in my school career. (The other theft was at the end of grade 7, when I hung on to a social-studies text, The Ancient and Medieval World. Come to think of it, that theft may not have been carelessness, but a more willful desire to keep the book, again, I think, so I could finish reading it--although I don't believe I ever did.)

Now that I'm studying the epic genre, the Iliad and the Odyssey are indispensable. I recently read that Tolstoy read the Iliad through five times consecutively before embarking on War and Peace. If Tolstoy could do it five times, Vitols can do it once.

I bought my copy new at the Chapters-Indigo store at Park Royal. I wasn't going to buy any books there, since I am one of the many Canadians who resents the fact that bookstores here are still charging "Canadian" prices for new books: prices much higher than the "American" prices printed on the cover, even though the Canadian dollar is now at par with the U.S. dollar. This copy of the Iliad is a good example: $24.00 Canadian vs. $15.95 U.S. That's a premium of 50%.

For this reason I've been resisting buying in bookstores, and choosing to buy online instead, paying in U.S. dollars. But I made an exception, and was also encouraged by Kimmie, who wanted to make these books part of my package of birthday presents, since we had just returned one of the presents she had given me--a fleece that was not quite the right color. She was happy to get a substitute that I genuinely wanted.

And yes, I was happy too. I decided on getting this version simply by opening the book up and reading some of Fagles's verse translation. The opener:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

I found it vivid and vigorous--very readable. Right away I felt myself drawn to Fagles's direct, simple way of expressing the thoughts. I glanced at one or two other verses, but had already made up my mind that I was happy to try this translation. It was a bonus that Virgil's Aeneid was also available in his translation, also as a Penguin Classic.

So more books wing their way toward me. I feel anxious about it: I know I won't be able to finish the ones I've got going; I'll put some or all of them aside to start the new ones as they arrive. I've already started the Iliad--that is, I'm reading Bernard Knox's 64-page introduction. I'm thrilled to think that a book written 2,700 years ago is still being printed and read today--that I can acquaint myself with people from that remote time.

I enjoy reading with purpose. And the more definite and important the purpose, the more I enjoy the reading. As a writer in the epic tradition, I continue my education. It seemed to work for Tolstoy.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

from the moon to earth

Last night Kimmie and I watched episode 4 of the 1998 docu-drama series From the Earth to the Moon--about the flight of Apollo 8 in 1968. The series, a high-budget HBO offering produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer--the forces behind the 1995 movie Apollo 13--is well made and does capture some of the flavor of the 1960s as I remember it. It was a time of war, rioting, social unrest, assassinations--society in convulsions. I watched it on black-and-white TV at the time: state funerals, soldiers clubbing protesting students, endless machine-gunning and explosions in remote tropical forests--a backdrop of violence and killing against which politicians made stirring, idealistic speeches.

The series shows clips of all that, plus scenes of intense, nerdish men in rooms fogged with cigarette smoke talking earnestly about how to put astronauts on the moon before the Soviets beat them to it. At age nine, it was obvious and natural to me why "we" should be going all-out to fly to the moon: it was neat! What did it matter to me how many billions it cost? I made 25 cents a week in allowance; I had no notion of money. I loved space and its technology maybe even more than other nine-year-old boys.

I see things differently now. I'm still fascinated by space and space science, and I'm sure I'll always be interested in spacecraft. But instead of John F. Kennedy's famous speech of 25 May 1961, in which he committed the United States to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, I think of another speech, given four months earlier, by his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, which contained these words:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

The makers of the spacecraft that got America to the moon were all leading military contractors: General Dynamics, Rockwell, Boeing. The total cost of the Apollo program was about $20-25 billion, or the equivalent of around $120 billion today. It was ostensibly a peacetime initiative, but we can't ignore that it was done in direct, stated competition with the USSR--the West's Cold War enemy--and that the technologies developed were no doubt helpful for future military applications. Plus the money-stream helped those military contractors keep meeting their very large payrolls.

I remember that Christmas of 1968, hearing the radio broadcast of the astronauts Borman, Anders, and Lovell, in orbit around the moon, reading the opening verses of Genesis. Harvey Burt, our host for that Christmas dinner, said that Mara and I would be able to think back to that day and remember where we were.

Looking back on the Apollo program and on the show last night, I think the most important and memorable thing was the awe of the astronauts when they watched the Earth rise from over the horizon of the moon. As far as I know, all astronauts have felt this awe: the feeling of preciousness of Earth, our island home in the vast, dark, frigid sea of space. What are we doing to the only home we've got?

I felt anxiety and sadness as I watched the show. Looking at the world around me, from the news on TV to the street outside my house, I find it hard to be optimistic. We take our planet for granted, and I think there will be a terrible, terrible price to pay.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

getting religion

One of the books from which I'm currently keying notes over my morning coffee is The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Like anything written by William James, it's a treasure-chest of deep insights into human behavior and motivation, expressed with a confident pithiness, as though he were simply stating something obvious and known to all.

This morning I was typing from the lectures on "Conversion", in which he discusses the changes that come over one when one "gets religion", as they used to say. It's fantastic material--the more so since I have personal experience of the phenomenon.

The most famous instances of conversion are sudden--like Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, when he turned from Christian persecutor to Christian evangelist--but, as James observes, conversion happens with equal power and effect over time, as a slow phenomenon. The difference, he thinks, is a matter of how much of the processing occurs in the unconscious as opposed to in conscious awareness.

My own conversion was of the slow type. (I don't do anything fast! Well, except maybe type...) I've written before about how the door opened for me in Italy in February 1979, while I was reading The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. In Buddhist terms, I had an experience of the dharma or truth: reading the book woke me up and opened my mind to the present moment.

It was like eating that first potato chip: I had a hunger for more. When I returned home from all my travels that year I began my search for a spiritual path. This search would have many vicissitudes and, so I thought, blind alleys. The turning-point was in December 1986.

By then I knew clearly that I wanted to take up Buddhist meditation. This had been my inspiration when I'd read The Way of Zen, but I had had some second thoughts and reversals along the way, mainly because I thought that in order to pursue the kind of Buddhism I was interested in--Zen Buddhism--I would have to go to Japan in order to do it in a wholehearted way, and, looking at myself honestly, I wasn't prepared to do that. This realization had made me feel like somewhat of a spiritual failure: too fainthearted to pursue the path of his own salvation. What a chump!

But by late 1986 I realized that I wanted to take up meditation, no matter how second-rate or inauthentic: it would be better than just doing nothing.

My search had finally turned up the Vancouver Dharmadhatu (as it was known then--now the Vancouver Shambhala Centre) at Heather and 17th, in the lovely tree-lined district around Douglas Park. I attended their Monday night open house to listen to a public talk, and, returning to the center the following week, I took up their offer to receive meditation instruction before that night's talk.

The meditation instructor on duty that night was Dr. Ron Greenberg, tall, blond, lean, softspoken. In the little carpeted office of the center he taught me the simple technique of shamatha meditation as practiced in that tradition, then asked me if I had any questions.

"Yes," I said. "This is a Tibetan meditation center--but there aren't any Tibetans here. It's all run by local, white-bread people. All the teaching, all the meditation instruction."

Ron nodded.

"Well," I said, "how can I be sure that this is authentic? That I'm getting the real thing?"

"That's for you to decide," said Ron.

His response, soft and matter-of-fact, hit me like an electric shock, it was so unexpected. For me to decide? And yet right away I knew he'd spoken the truth. The authenticity of anything cannot come from somewhere else, is not carried in certificates or assurances. If he'd tried to persuade me of his authenticity, I would have been left in doubt. By putting the responsibility on me, he gained my complete confidence. At that moment I knew that Dharmadhatu was the place for me. I was converted.

Since then there have been many twists and turns. But I did more or less enter the "state of assurance", as James chooses to name the experience:

The characteristics can be easily enumerated.

The central one is the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same. A passion of willingness, of acquiescence, of admiration, is the glowing center of this state of mind.

The second feature is the sense of perceiving truths not known before. The mysteries of life become lucid; and often, nay usually, the solution is more or less unutterable in words.

A third peculiarity of the assurance state is the objective change which the world often appears to undergo. An appearance of newness beautifies every object.

James goes on to say that when conversion happens, one pretty much retains the outlook thus attained, even if one does eventually backslide.

I am a backslider. I have departed from the close practice and study of the dharma that I followed for 15 years. In a sense I'm a lost sheep, I suppose. But in another sense this is simply the next leg of my own individual path. I am far from repudiating the training and teachings that I have received; on the contrary, that remains my spiritual education--and we should all have a spiritual education. There are not words to express my appreciation for its excellence.

And I'm certainly paying a price for backsliding: conflicts, doubts, and worries encroach on my mind like ivy overtaking a shed. But at the same time, I feel a deep sense that these things are not fundamental concerns--I don't feel "alone" with them as I once did. This is the lingering effect of my "conversion"--one for which I will always be grateful.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, January 21, 2008

post preempted

Spent my blog-posting time writing in my neglected journal this morning. Some things have to be kept to myself, after all.

The sun has just risen in the clear subzero air outside. The garbage-truck rumbles and clanks up the lane. Kimmie has just left for work, bundled up and hurrying down the sidewalk in the cold blue.


Friday, January 18, 2008

no gum-chewing

The spoken word has power. The written word has, perhaps, even more. In many ways I find this to be an unfathomable mystery.

It's as though humanity reached as eagerly for writing as a child does for speech. I recently saw a wonderful documentary about how infants learn. Of all the sounds that the developing baby hears in the womb--and it hears plenty--the most audible to it is its mother's voice. At birth we're already very familiar with our mother's voice: its pitch, rhythms, and other qualities.

Experiments show too that at birth the brain is a general-language machine, in the sense that a newborn infant can distinguish between sounds in just about any language. A one-month-old baby of English-speaking parents can clearly distinguish between two different sounds in, say, Hindi, that its parents cannot tell apart. Among adults, only Hindi-speakers can hear the difference in sound. The baby, immersed in the language of its household, loses this universal sound-distinguishing ability soon, by about six months, as I recall. Now habituated to its mother tongue, it too can no longer tell the foreign sounds apart.

Babies work ceaselessly to speak, as they do to walk. As extremely social animals we thirst to communicate. The baby's survival depends in part on its ability to communicate its needs, and babies get very frustrated at the barrier they experience in getting their message across. The acquisition of language has the strongest possible motivation behind it.

Language, as a skill, comes under the heading of technology, and it may be our oldest one. The technology called writing is much more recent, dating to maybe 4000 BC or so. But that too was reached for eagerly by cultures who felt the need for it. And now it would surely be the worst sign of disaster for a culture to slide from literacy to illiteracy: the social equivalent of Alzheimer's disease.

In this culture we're inundated with words and we take writing for granted. There seems to be too much of it: marketing "messages", political campaigning, the disposable chatter of text-messaging. If television is, as Steve Allen put it, "chewing-gum for the eyes", then almost all writing today is chewing-gum for the mind.

Almost all. For man does not live by chewing-gum alone, and it was not as chewing-gum that writing was originally created and valued. In the first place, someone must have had something important enough to say that he wanted to record it, so it would not be forgotten--or altered.

Writing reflects the cast of thought behind it. It is an expression of the values and intentions of its creator. All writing is intended to influence others--this blog is so intended. The question is always, influence people how? in what direction? to do what?

Lying next to my keyboard is the latest statement from my phone-service provider, Rogers. Across the top are emblazoned the words, "Welcome to Rogers"--a typical example of automated and meaningless commercial "friendliness". A more honest headline would be: "We rely on your money for our profits, but in most ways you are a nuisance to us, especially if any of our employees has to pay any individual attention to you. Then you become a cost center. Please don't do that." (Indeed, if they put that message on there, I would gain respect for them--something I have very little of right now.)

Those of us who make an art of writing have a special duty not to be false. The deluge of chewing-gum writing is characterized by its manipulativeness, hypocrisy, and frivolity. Writing as art should be none of these things. But most of all it should be truthful: telling it like it is (or was!).

I don't even like real chewing-gum.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, January 17, 2008

the same--but different

Yesterday I visited my mother and her sister for our weekly lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches on fresh bread). Afterwards, Mom and I got talking about writing, and we again visited the topic of genre, which I might define casually as the family to which a particular work belongs.

Does genre really matter to the writer? Or is it a thing of interest only to critics or to those who are selling the work--such as bookstores who need to know what shelf to stock a book on? To the extent that genres are patterns, are they not formulaic, and therefore uncreative? Isn't writing to a genre simply a paint-by-numbers approach?

I'm not an expert on genre--I'm just learning all this myself--but my first gut response is: no, writing to genre is not necessarily uncreative. It can be uncreative, perhaps, if the genre conventions are very strict.

But even here I'm not sure. I was thinking about the old-time romance plot, in which the poor, unassuming, beautiful, and principled maiden becomes the seemingly impossible love-object of a wealthy, powerful, handsome, and forbidding man. After a couple of more or less standard plot complications, they wind up married happily ever after. If you don't happen to be a fan of this genre, then these romance stories quickly become stale and repetitive, and their fantasy elements, so removed from real life, start to cloy.

But are the stale and cloying aspects of these stories the fault of the genre? Or merely the skill of the storyteller? The romance premise that I described above is essentially that used in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, a book still in print and therefore, by definition, a classic. I haven't read the book, but the famous BBC miniseries based on it, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, remains one of my favorite pieces of filmed entertainment.

Why? I think because Jane Austen makes me believe it. Her skill in crafting the situation and the characters defeats my skepticism and resistance to being drawn in. The characters are not stale types stamped out of a mold; they seem more like vibrant, actual people. The liveliness of the characters makes their feelings and their values matter. The story comes alive.

To me this says that the story itself--the genre--is alive and well. It triggers real interest and emotions in the audience; it speaks to us. I suspect that its durability is due to the fact that it is saying something profound on many different levels. Unconsciously, we read it or view it on all those levels, and from this comes the feeling of being fulfilled or satisfied by the story.

As T. S. Eliot put it:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to the utmost--and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

Not just in storytelling, but all through knowledge and in life itself the mystery of Same and Different confronts us. We recognize Different things as being the Same, and the Same things as being Different. In some strange way, the more strongly you emphasize Sameness, the more poignant and powerful become the Differences that arise.

Genre tells us how to make our story the Same, so we can find interesting, powerful ways to make it Different. It tells us where on the great family tree of stories we are. For no matter how unique, individualistic, or even solitary we are, we are still somewhere on a family tree. Like it or not, you've got parents, maybe siblings and cousins. You can deny it--but why?

It's better to acknowledge who you are and where you're from, and work from there.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

story peaks

Yesterday I reached a (minor) milestone in the progress of the book by finally hammering out the sequence of story-events that I've been working on. These story-events constitute a mini-climax within the work as a whole--what is known as an "act turning-point" in storytelling jargon.

By writing in "acts" you show that you understand storytelling; by reading or watching a story composed in acts the audience feels confident in the powers of the writer, and also that the work is one thing--a unified whole.

For, interestingly and perhaps counterintuitively, it is exactly the decomposition of a thing into relatively autonomous parts that makes it a whole--a distinct thing. The human body, for example, is not just a mass of cells, and still less a stew of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It is made up entirely of subunits which are relatively whole in their own right: organs. The heart, for example, is integral with the rest of the body but is also a distinct organ with its own clear functions and inner rules of operation. In the term coined by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, it is a holon: a part that is also a whole.

In a complex hierarchical system, in order for a higher-level whole to operate smoothly, all (or anyway most) of its component subwholes have to be running smoothly: doing their jobs without taxing the higher-level holons above them. When this is not happening, for whatever reason, there is a failure of efficiency and of health (a word that comes from the same source as whole), and the organism is diseased. If your pancreas is not running smoothly, you have some form of diabetes. If your thyroid is not running properly, you have some kind of metabolic disorder.

In a story, the acts are the highest-level "organs" making up the story as a whole: the equivalent of its brain, heart, and liver. And like these vital organs, acts too are complex things made up of subwholes of their own. In a movie script the next-lower subwhole is called a sequence, and a similar level exists for prose writing--often roughly at the level of the chapter in a novel. The next-lower subwhole below the sequence is the scene. Each scene too is composed of distinct subunits, which Robert McKee calls beats. These, according to him, are the elementary units of a story: the individual intentional actions that cause a story to move forward.

So, having now plotted out my act-climax in some detail (and having resolved many story and character issues to do so), I feel like someone who has scaled a mountain-peak. But it's just one peak in a range--and not the highest one. That still lies ahead of me. And the difficulty I've had in scaling this one gives me pause about tackling the big one.

But I'm committed now.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

the interior battleground

Now in all of us, however constituted, but to a degree the greater in proportion as we are intense and sensitive and subject to diversified temptations, and to the greatest possible degree if we are decidedly psychopathic, does the normal evolution of character chiefly consist in the straightening out and unifying of the inner self. The higher and the lower feelings, the useful and the erring impulses, begin by being a comparative chaos within us--they must end by forming a stable system of functions in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle. If the individual be of tender conscience and religiously quickened, the unhappiness will take the form of moral remorse and compunction, of feeling inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relations to the author of one's being and appointer of one's spiritual fate. This is the religious melancholy and "conviction of sin" that have played so large a part in the history of Protestant Christianity. The man's interior is a battleground for what he feels to be two deadly hostile selves, one actual, the other ideal.

I typed those words, first spoken in 1901, yesterday from William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. I was struck yet again with his powers of perception and his ability to summarize complex and profound aspects of life, and dish it all up in a single paragraph.

As I typed, I remembered my feeling when I highlighted the passage while reading it last spring: I recognized myself in his words. And I cannot but feel that he must have been describing himself as well, having survived the soul-conflicts of youth to look back on them as a unified soul of age 59 or 60 (he will have had his birthday in the course of the lecture series).

As an astrologer, my first thought is that it's simple to distinguish these psychological or spiritual types by looking at the birth chart. The conflicted soul James describes is one whose chart is dominated by squares and oppositions: planets in stressful aspect, indicating psychological or instinctual drives in conflict--people for whom, as he says moments later:

spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.

At least, that's the most visible case. Astrologically, this would be the person with squares in the so-called cardinal signs--Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn--which express themselves more impulsively and spontaneously than the other signs. For them the "war between spirit and flesh" will be acted out physically and dynamically, with real and obvious casualties--more like World War 2 than, say, the Cold War, which might be how the "war" manifests in the life of one, like myself, dominated by the "fixed" signs: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius. The conflict here is relatively hidden and quiet, but nonetheless real and still behavior-determining. More like arm-wrestling than like ice hockey.

I'm glad that I've not had a life of outward chaos, like, say, Britney Spears, famous now for for a life of wayward impulses, misdemeanors, and mistakes. But those conflicting, tectonic forces of the soul have always been at work in me, and still are.

If unhappiness characterizes the period of order-making and struggle, and much of one's life is given over to order-making and struggle, then--well, you fill in the blank.

Not that my life has been unhappy--far from it. I would say that I've led a happier life than most people (no way of measuring this, of course), even if I have spent much or all of it wrestling with contraries in the soul. It has led to a feeling that life is, in some deep way, a problem--but I always liked problem-solving.

I haven't solved this one, and at this stage I don't really expect to. It's enough to be engaged in the task of "forming a stable system of functions in right subordination." Once you start cleaning out that storage room, it doesn't really matter anymore how much of a mess it's in: you're working on it. The work itself is healthy, the right thing at the right time. At first you don't know where to put stuff, but gradually order emerges; you discover what you value.

What do I value? I've got to take the car in for regular maintenance--then some breakfast.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, January 14, 2008

tunneling from both ends

Still at it. That is, still working my way through the difficulties of my story.

I have spent a huge amount of time (even by my own slow standards) fiddling with this part. But experience has taught me that there's no use in pushing on with a piece of writing if you're not clear on what you're doing. That is tantamount to trying to fix a problem using the wrong tools.

From the point of view of this blog, one difficulty is in how to describe this slow, searching process--how to make it seem interesting, or at least comprehensible.

An image that springs to mind is that of building a tunnel. Often tunnels are built by digging from opposite sides of the mountain and trying to meet in the middle. This is no doubt done in order to halve the construction time by putting two full excavation crews to work at once.

In a similar way, I build story by digging from "both ends": that is, by imagining the result or end-state I want to reach, and also by imagining the motives and actions of the characters en route to that end-state. Changes to the end-state mean making changes to those motives and actions. Changes of motive and action lead to different end-states.

"End-state" means not just the ending of the story as a whole, but also the end of each segment: each chapter, each scene. In a work that has been planned, outlined, each of these will have its story purpose, and therefore the end-state that needs to be reached. But getting characters to go there can be difficult.

Why? After all, the characters just do what I tell them, don't they? Why not just send them to the destination and get the whole thing written quickly?

It's about believability. Stories in which characters move smoothly as though on rails to obviously contrived end-states smack of author convenience, the evidence of which is a feeling of bending the rules of reality every which way to get there. I've talked about these things before. These are those scenes in which the hero's fetters are done up poorly, enabling him to wriggle free; or the building has large ventilation-ducts suitable for crawling through; and so on. There's a sense of "let's just get through this part so we can get to the exciting stuff ahead".

Contrivances like these ruin my enjoyment of a story. I don't mind a few--every story needs some help at times to keep going--but as they pile up, I sense writer laziness and a work written in the belief that credibility doesn't matter, or, worse, that the audience is too dumb to notice or care.

If your hero is tied up, and you need him out of his bonds, how do you get him out? If you resort to the old "luckily, they weren't tied up very well" trick, then you're lazy in my opinion. You don't care about your story very much.

How might I handle it? If I don't have any creative way of untying those knots, I might simply have the hero struggle with them, and not succeed in untying them. In story terms, that's what's known as a barrier: the hero tries something, and it doesn't work. A rule of thumb in storytelling is: always make things tougher for the hero than he expects. (It's OK to surprise him on the upside sometimes--especially when he's expecting things to be very difficult.) Now, whatever he does next, he has to do it tied up. He'll have to get creative with a future opportunity.

Or I might try to avoid having him tied up. Why create problems for oneself? Don't use the old "tying up" formula: use something else. Maybe he escapes--and, sprinting free, triggers an old leg-hold trap in the woods, and is caught that way...

If I decided he had to be tied up after all, then I would have to examine the details of his situation: tied up how? Where? By whom? I'd have to visit the character(s) doing the tying up: how motivated are they? How knowledgeable? What materials do they have? How much time? What is their attitude to what they're doing? By looking at how the bad guy approaches the task, I'm digging my tunnel from the front: how would I do the job, if I were he?

In doing this, I might hit on an idea for how the hero will escape. Once I have this, I need to start designing my scene so as to make this work. That's digging my tunnel from the back.

I find I need to shift from front to back, back to front, again and again, working through a story problem in steps. Maybe my idea is to have the bad guy leave behind a tool that the hero will use. That too is a story convenience, of course--unless the hero makes it happen. Hero might see bad guy set down the tool for a moment, then hit on the strategy of trying to "make" him forget it. Now the escape task shifts to a new arena: how the hero tries to manipulate the bad guy's attention, even as he is being tied up. A story subproblem opens up, with its own features--another little tunnel within the tunnel.

A story is not complete until every one of those problems and subproblems has been solved to my skeptical satisfaction. I need to believe that every single character is always acting in some way that I myself might act in the same circumstances. This requires imaginative effort, and not being satisfied with easy answers--things I've seen before.

It's hard. But when you do the work, it really pays off. If you want to create a really good story, set yourself and your characters tough problems, then think hard about how to solve them. If you keep at it, the answers do come.

Just as in civil engineering, in writing this method of tunneling from both ends speeds things up tremendously--even if it doesn't feel fast.

Labels: , ,

Friday, January 11, 2008

study as path

More reading, more keying-in of notes from my source books. Where is it all going? I don't know.

On the one hand, my Buddhist training tells me that book-learning is not and can never be a path to true knowledge--to ultimate truth. The truth--especially truth in the sense of a solution to the "puzzle" of life--can be realized only directly and nonconceptually. It is an experience, not something that can be put into a sentence.

I remember clearly when this teaching broke through into my mind. Perhaps paradoxically, it was via reading a book: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. It was February 1978 and I was traveling through Europe with my friend Tim. Running low on funds, we had decided in Rome to turn around and head home. As we drove north out of the city, Tim was at the wheel of our 1970 Westfalia and I was sitting at the table, reading. And as I read, in the dim twilight of that overcast day, about how Buddhists discover reality by direct experience--through meditation--rather than learning about reality through words, I felt a deep sense of recognition and excitement. I wanted to have that experience!

For a time, maybe an hour or two, I felt a tremendous sense of elation and connection with my immediate experience. I really saw the interior of the van, the smudges on its windows; I smelled the cocktail of scents of its damp, food-containing interior. My senses were open, rich, alive: I was experiencing the world as directly as I had ever done, and it was a delicious thing.

But it quickly passed, and I was distressed to find my mind sinking into its ordinary worries, distractions, and even peevishness. I felt sickened by the plunge from such an exalted state of mind to such a grouchy, unpleasant one. If only I could stay in that more uplifted state! Why couldn't I?

That experience, fleeting though it was, was a key one in leading me to take up of Buddhist meditation myself in late 1986. I learned that the enlightenment of the Buddha would take sustained effort for an unknown time, probably many lifetimes. I also learned that enlightenment will never be realized in the future--it can only ever be realized in the present, the only moment we can actually experience. So, like all Buddhists, I trained in paying attention to the present moment. Even if you don't have the enlightenment of the Buddha, this is a wonderful way to live life--indeed the only way to truly live life, to actually be present for your life while it's happening.

I also learned that for all the talk about how enlightenment is nonconceptual, the Buddhists have a vast literature and students are urged to study it all the time. Indeed, it is held that to attain enlightenment through meditation alone--that is, without any accompanying study--is vastly more difficult and time-consuming than to follow a path of both practice and study, sometimes known as "walking with both feet."

Study is closely connected with the deeper meditation experience known as vipashyana, or clear seeing. The basic idea is that it's easier to see things when you know what you're looking for. Through study you learn theory, such as, say, the nature of the mind. Then, through practice, you put that theory to the test. You look to see whether the mind is as you've learned. Or, maybe more accurately, you glimpse directly the way your mind is, and recognize it as being what you've studied.

For a time I felt neurotic and anxious about how "conceptual" I was, and felt bad about my thirst for study. Eventually though that went away. Concepts--thoughts--in Buddhism are often likened to clouds in the clear blue sky of the mind. For the beginning meditator, the mind seems completely overcast, and the notion of clear blue beyond is mere hearsay. One nervously and anxiously looks for signs of clear blue.

It seems that the only real antidote to that nervousness and anxiety, which are themselves "overcasting" the sky, is to become thoroughly bored with the meditation practice. When you're bored enough, you start getting a "who cares?" attitude, and somewhere in there you notice the distinction between thoughts and the space they're floating in: the blue sky. You can start to relax about thoughts, since, as clouds, they're insubstantial, transitory, and basically nonthreatening. It's not particularly important whether they're there or not. Indeed, as the painter John Constable found, clouds are what make the sky so interesting and exciting.

So I continue to study. I know I won't become enlightened through study, but I will find new ideas, and new ways of connecting them, and therefore will find new things to look for in my own experience.

Interesting. I entered the path of Buddhism in the hope of finding nonconceptual reality, and have emerged from my training with a heightened ability and appreciation for study--for concepts.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, January 10, 2008

security blankets

Sitting here again, staring at the blank window of Blogger, wondering how to launch on my nth blog-post.

It's not that I've run out of things to say. Indeed, I feel there is too much to say, that I'm always scratching the surface and introducing topics that need to be addressed in more depth.

This morning I've keyed research notes from three different books: The Epic Cosmos, Asimov's Guide to the Bible (Old Testament), and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. I felt a deep stirring within me as I typed this paragraph from James's famous book:

The experiences which we have been studying show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas (conceptual systems) that our minds have framed? Why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed. Science gives to all of us telegraphy, electric lighting, and diagnosis. Religion in the shape of mind-cure gives to some of us serenity, moral poise, and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does, or even better in a certain class of persons. Evidently, then, science and religion are both genuine keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically. Just as evidently neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other's simultaneous use. And why may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes? On this view religion and science, each verified in its own way form hour to hour and from life to life, would be co-eternal. Primitive thought, with its belief in individualized personal forces, seems as far as ever from being driven by science from the field today. Numbers of educated people still find it the directest experimental channel by which to carry on their intercourse with reality.

There you have it: different strokes for different folks--and different strokes for the same folks at different times. The reality that each of us lives in is much broader than any particular belief-system. All of our fanaticisms are so many efforts to reassure ourselves that we've found the ultimate security blanket. But William James didn't need a security blanket. He could calmly look at the world and embrace it with a warm but discriminating and passionate eye.

From Asimov's book I'm typing up material on the Book of Judges--a period of (as usual in the Bible) conquest, slaughter, and revenge. Precious little of it could be called in any way edifying. Not able to lay your hands on all of the "inheritance" promised you by God? Go find a city that looks a bit weak, attack it, kill the residents, and live there. Problem solved--until someone roots you out of the place and levels it to the ground.

It's still much the same, not only in the "Holy Land" but everywhere else: people continuing to do the same things, hoping for different results. I'm afraid there's no alternative: we need to give up the security blanket of our tribal gods, and the sooner, the better.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

style? forget it

A couple of days ago I was talking with my mother about writing. She was saying that one of the things she frets about while writing is how to say something--the issue of style.

I used to concern myself quite a lot with style, but I don't anymore. Or: not much, anyway. Now I believe that if, as a writer, you're focusing on style, you're directing attention at the wrong thing. It's a waste of time for at least two reasons:

1) the most important effects of creative writing are unrelated to style;

2) any style that is self-consciously "used" comes across as affected, which places an obstacle between the reader and the content of the work.

Now I associate "chosen" styles with commercial writing. I think back to writing for hire that I've done, such as a couple of small pieces for Vancouver magazine back in the 1980s. I wrote them in the snappy, breezy style that was the tone of that section of the magazine--and collected my (small) checks. It was perfectly good work, and I myself enjoyed reading that part of the magazine. But if I set out to write a novel in that style, it would be self-conscious and phony exercise (and possibly a work of "chick lit").

I'm no more happy when "serious" writers fool around with their writing style. To me, the work of, say, Ernest Hemingway comes across as affected. Maybe it wasn't; maybe that was his natural and spontaneous way of writing. But I don't think so. It reads, to me, like the work of someone trying to write a "special way" for effect--to impress, in some way.

I'm afraid I can't even exempt my literary idol, James Joyce. Much of Ulysses is a stylistic tour de force. But to the extent that it is such, I'm afraid it is not very powerful--not to me. Such tricks rely on the reader's education in understanding some abstract point or joke being made by the writer. There is then, presumably, a burst of detached, ironic amusement, or some such. Compared to what literature is capable of, this is an empty and arid experience.

I hold much more with E. B. White, who said that style is not something that a writer can really contrive; it is a natural expression of the totality of the writer's being. Your style arises from the sum of your personality, experience, and education. At the moment of writing, you can't change those things; they are what they are, as distinctive as your fingerprint. It's almost impossible to change--and why would you want to?

An excessive concern with style shows that the writer is either ignoring or taking for granted his subject-matter. But this is a bad idea. The first duty of the writer is to have something worthwhile to say. And the more important your subject, the less important the issue of style is. If you've witnessed a genocide and want to write about it, it would be foolish and narcissistic to fuss over your literary style, aiming for precious effects. You've got bigger fish to fry.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, devotes maybe 3 or 4 pages to "diction"--roughly the equivalent of style as I'm using the term here. The rest of the 40-odd pages he devotes to content: your story. That accords with the balance I would propose: spend 90% of your effort on story, or what you're writing, and 10% on style, or how you write it. No: make that 95% and 5%.

The tip I offered Mom was to write the way she might write down a vivid and important dream when pressed for time. If you've only got 10 minutes to write down your dream, how do you attack it? You're not sweating over the fine points of style; you've got something to say, and you've got to get it down--now. That way, you'll rely on your natural style, whatever it is. For better or for worse, it will be you.

I might boil it down thus: don't be clever; be honest and accurate.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

happiness: how to

If we were to ask, "What is human life's chief concern?" one of the answers we should receive would be: "It is happiness." How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is for most men the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure. Even more in the religious life than in the moral life, happiness and unhappiness seem to be the poles round which the interest revolves.

Thus (compressed) opens lecture 4 of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, entitled "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness", delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901.

James goes on to examine the spiritual strategy of seeing the world and everything in it as good. In some cases this positive, optimistic outlook is inborn in an individual; in others it is acquired as a worldview, as part of a system. Based on a conviction that creation must be good, one simply sees it that way. You look for the good, and wherever you look, you find it. When presented with suffering or evil, you quite possibly don't even see them. If you do see them, you refuse to acknowledge them as in any way negating or vitiating the basic good of creation; rather, they contribute to the greater perfection of the world.

As James points out, there is much to be said for this outlook. To name just one tangible benefit, many people have been cured of serious physical ailments simply by changing their attitude and refusing to succumb or even to acknowledge illness. Miraculous cures happen, but they happen only to the "healthy-minded". Modern experiments have shown that having a positive, optimistic attitude magnetizes good fortune: good luck comes to such people. They even find money lying on the ground that is missed by pessimistic people (I kid you not--read The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman). And, all things considered, what does negative thinking really have going for it anyway?

Still, although James is impressed with the achievements of the "religion of healthy-mindedness", he feels that these people have not really engaged with life as fully as those who find religious faith from a condition of having a "sick soul"--those who experience great suffering and evil. These, to him, are the spiritually "twice-born", whose faith is deeper because it is not in any way blinkered with regard to the dark side of life.

Happiness is a central concern of Buddhism. The behavior of all sentient beings, without exception, is seen as a ceaseless, restless, and futile striving for happiness. As a practitioner, you learn that your thirst for happiness is itself the cause of your suffering. This condition is given the technical name samsara, the best definition of which is: "wanting things to be other than they are."

One of the boldest statements about happiness that I've found is in The Practice of Tranquillity and Insight, a text on Buddhist meditation by Thrangu Rinpoche, abbot of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton. In fact, I read this while I was a monk at the Abbey. I was jolted when I read on page 6:

The attaining of day-to-day happiness is...the result of shamatha and vipashyana.

Shamatha and vipashyana are technical meditation terms: Sanskrit for "tranquility" and "insight". Tranquility is what most of us associate with meditation. The mind becomes calm and relaxed. In that state it becomes capable of insight, also known as "clear seeing": seeing things as they are. True clear seeing, true insight, is possible only with tranquility. You can have tranquility without insight, but you can't have insight without tranquility.

So there you have it. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, happiness is indeed attainable, and requires very little in the way of wealth or props. It really comes down to whether you believe him. Considering the radiant, genuine smile that seems to be his normal facial expression, I see no reason to doubt it.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, January 07, 2008

acknowledging divine aid

I've sat here for a few minutes now, arms folded, staring at the screen, and into the pool of light cast by my old hot-pink desklamp, wondering what to write.

One thought that has moved through my mind in the last couple of days arises from reading The Epic Cosmos, a collection of essays about the epic genre in literature, edited by Larry Allums. One of the recurring features of the great epics of the past is a formal (or at least expressed in the poem) call on the Muse for help in composing the work. The poet makes clear that he need divine aid in order to achieve the task before him, and acknowledges it publicly, so to speak. In some way, too, this might also support the authority of the work: it' s created not just by human hands, but by the gods.

I've never had much patience for this literary conceit of "the Muse"; it puts me in mind of effete, unproductive, writerly types languishing in smoking-jackets and complaining about the difficulties of creative work. Invoked by anyone more recent than John Milton, the Muse seems to be an over-precious and anachronistic image used by certain people who feel a need to shore up their status as "artists".

All right, maybe that's a bit harsh. But for myself, I've never referred to the Muse in anything but a joking way.

But now I'm wondering. The Muse was invoked by epic writers of antiquity because of the superhuman scope of the task. Also, epic itself, as a genre, is specifically about ventures so great that they involve both humanity and the gods. So as humans and gods collaborate in the epic struggle, the poet asks for divine collaboration in the creation of the work.

I think about my strange, determined bonding to this oversized, unreasonable, and inconvenient work. Where does that bonding come from--that motivation? I feel stuck to it, chained to it, in a sense, like Prometheus to his rock in the Caucasus Mountains, having his liver torn out each day. Like that cornball line of the persistent suitor who just won't give up: "It's bigger than both of us, baby."

It dawns on me that this is the Muse. Which Muse? There were nine of them (Robert Graves would say that this number is an intensifier of the number 3, which belonged to the Great Goddess). Calliope was the Muse of heroic and epic poetry. Her name meant "beautiful-voiced"; she was the principal Muse, and specifically the Muse of Homer when he composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.

A daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, Calliope was--and is--immortal, and therefore must be out there (or in here) as much now as she ever was. Her planet was Mercury, guide of souls beyond the temporal sphere. Is she the one urging me on in my heroic task? The one who has made me uncompromising and irrational in my fixation on this unlikely project?

Well, why not? In James Hillman's terms, each of us has an "acorn" or a guardian angel, whose business it is to keep us on the track of our chosen life. For an artist, this guardian would be a Muse, no? Hillman says that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the guardian is uncompromisingness: the guardian angel doesn't cut deals with practicality or with the world. The angel knows that the world and its problems are fleeting, and not worth sacrificing one's cosmic mission--one's reason for being.

Yes, I need divine help, every bit as much as Dante--or, for that matter, Ebenezer Scrooge. It's wonderful to think that it's there, supporting the mission. The work cannot be achieved by either man or goddess alone.

O Muse, help me! Don't desert me now.

Labels: , ,

Friday, January 04, 2008

notes on finishing Aristotle

I've just finished keying notes from Aristotle's Poetics. This short work is still probably the best overall guide to writing dramatic works, whether as prose or as script. Aristotle focuses on storytelling, which he sees as the core of the poetic art. Art, to him, means "imitation": when we see art we must be reminded of life in some way. In Shakespeare's terms, it is the mirror held up to nature.

For Aristotle, the highest form of poetry was tragedy: serious poetry intended to be acted out on stage. In order to gain the fullest audience involvement, the characters need to be "better" than we are, at least in certain respects. Why? Because the key emotions of tragedy, according to Aristotle, are pity and terror. It is to experience these vicariously that an audience watches tragedy, and they are evoked by seeing superior people undergoing misfortune. When a good person suffers, we feel pity; whereas when a bad person suffers, we feel satisfaction.

It felt a bit strange to read these things, put so bluntly by the great philosopher, and yet he hit the nail on the head. We see it all the time in movies: the bad guy does mean things, and gets his just deserts in the end. The good guy, or girl, braver and more noble than we are, suffers, and we feel pained about that. It's politically incorrect to rate people on a quality scale, and yet that is what popular art does all the time as a matter of course. (For the record: I'm no friend of political correctness--quite the reverse.)

According to Aristotle, comedies are stories about people who are worse than we are. And this is true also: think of the TV sitcom, the staple story of which is about the flaw of one of its characters. Out of jealousy, social climbing, greed, lust, or other motives, a character does ridiculous things, and we laugh. "Ha ha, what a schmuck." The typical sitcom episode ends with the character being chastened, and apologizing for his behavior: all is restored to equilibrium until the next episode.

It gets me wondering though about more modern dramas, that depict gangsters and low-lifes (say) in heroic dramatic roles. Usually gangster heroes (such as those played by, say, James Cagney) were seen as popular heroes by many--admirable rebels against corrupt or unjust government forces. Or some, such as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, are relatively good: he may be a greedy, violent, vengeful, ignorant criminal, but he has principles or a code of honor that his foes lack. He's better than they are.

But then we get to the "grunge" phenomenon of the 1990s: movies like Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, populated almost exclusively by the dregs of society: criminal lumpenproletarians who lack redeeming qualities. Both movies were more or less comedic in tone, at least in many places, and so were perhaps conforming to Aristotle's scheme in that way. But I found most of the characters in both those movies revolting, and I cared less about what happened to them than about whether I was about to be subjected to yet more disgusting scenes. I wouldn't want to see either movie again, although I thought there was much cleverness and ingenuity in Pulp Fiction.

But in general I regard shows like that as a measure of the aberrant times we're in. I think about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, how people in that future dystopia attend movies to watch the women and children of their "enemies" being killed, and laugh at them. In many ways, we're there now.

Still, I'll rely on Aristotle. All spiritual training involves the cultivation of virtue--and not just the relative "virtue" of being less cowardly or brutal than one's enemies. The challenge of being human remains the same. And as Gandhi recommended that one should be the change one wants to see in the world, so I think I should create the stories I want to read.

So that's what I'm doing.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, January 03, 2008

writing with guns to head

My approach to writing is inseparable from my quest for beliefs.

Yesterday, while keying notes from Story by Robert McKee, I came across his view on what the function of art--written art--is in society (slightly compressed):

I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one responsibility: to tell the truth. Therefore, study your Story Climax and extract from it your Controlling Idea. But before you take another step, ask yourself: Is this the truth? Do I believe in the meaning of my story? If the answer is no, toss it and start again. If yes, do everything possible to get your work into the world. In a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.

To tell the truth. OK, good. What is the truth?

In the first place, from the artist's point of view, it's honesty: telling it like it is. Reporting the actuality of one's experience rather than an idealization of it, or what the community agrees it is or should be. What's it really like to get married? to get fired? There are conventional ideas around the experience of these things, but the writer should have no truck with those. What do you really think and feel? That is what the writer should be writing.

You might call that subjective truth: honesty about one's own subjective experience. But there's also objective truth: the world of facts outside oneself. The storyteller must also be honest and proficient here. That means taking the trouble to find out how things are.

If you want to write about firemen, you need to know their world. What are their job functions? How do they spend their day? How are they similar to each other? How do they differ from each other? You'll need to know these and many other things before you can write something worth reading about firemen. If all you know about firemen is that they're tall, strong, brave, and like rescuing people, then you're simply regurgitating a cliche--a conventional idea of what a fireman is. And as McKee says, what's wrong with creative writing can generally be summed up in one word: cliches.

The only way to prevent cliches is to acquire knowledge: actual, objective knowledge of what you're writing about. Each sentence should be telling the reader something he or she didn't know before--something he or she has not already heard elsewhere. Each sentence should contain some element of surprise. With each sentence you learn something new. That's what keeps a reader interested.

Yes, often that "something new" is a matter not of direct knowledge but of imaginative innovation: the various quirks of Harry Potter's world, for instance. But even there the imaginings are based in fact, and in a direct experience of the sensual world and the people in it.

And for those of us not writing fantasy, we have to dig deeper into our world for surprises.

In my case, I'm not satisfied merely to dig into the world of facts; I also dig into the world of theories: people's beliefs and the dimly-felt realities to which they refer. My "story research" is also a kind of scientific or scholarly or philosophical research. I'm not sure this is the "right" way to write, whether it will add anything or make for a better end product, but it seems to be the only way that I can do it and feel that I'm giving it my all. If I did not do this, I would not feel that I've tried everything in my quest to tell the best, the truest, story that I can.

It's a fascinating journey, an interesting way to work--but it's time-consuming. That in itself is not really a problem except for two things, in approximate order of importance: 1) death; 2) revenue. I could croak before I'm finished, and I could go broke and be derailed from my work by having to scare up the wherewithal to live.

Both of those things have worried me from time to time. But I can't let them scare me off my project, or intimidate me into changing my approach. This is a great experiment in my approach--the approach I would use if not coerced by any outside influence. With Death and Revenue holding guns to my head, I have to coolly keep my nerve--and keep working.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

genre for fun

It's 2008, and we return to our work routine. Kimmie, off for the past 10 days or so, prepares upstairs to return to the office. I too will return to a more "normal" schedule.

Over the holiday I continued to work on my notes, but not directly toward The Mission. Instead I became absorbed in two topics: genre and theology.

Why these? In the case of genre, it's my evolving sense that this elastic concept, which according to some (including Aristotle) is key to being able to execute an artistic work properly, is not well understood. Robert McKee in his text Story emphasizes the importance to the writer of an understanding of genre, especially the genre in which he is trying to write. He provides a list of movie genres, but it is an omnium gatherum of story types ("education plot"; "revenge plot"), settings ("Western"; "historical drama"), and moods ("comedy"; "horror"). To me this is mixing apples and oranges, with a few mangoes and persimmons also thrown in.

Stories, like most things, can be categorized in a number of ways. Which are the ones that matter most to the creative writer?

I'm starting to see it this way: no work is of simply one genre. Rather, each work comprises several. I'm thinking that genre, which comes from the same root as the word gene, functions much like a gene: it is a definite unit of heredity that makes itself manifest by expression. In the body, a gene is responsible for the production of one or more proteins, which are themselves like chemical machines or robots that perform functions. Just as a person's genome is the total suite of his or her genes, what we call genre in a story is actually a genome as well: the total suite of its genre components.

Suppose you're writing a Western romantic comedy. Is your story a Western, a love story, or a comedy? Answer: all of the above. "Western", "love story", and "comedy" are all genres in the genome of that story. It has "inherited" story traits from all those genres.

The mixing and combination of genres in storytelling is much like the mixing of genes in reproduction. The vast possibilities of combination make sure that each individual is a unique expression of traits--and that is true of both organisms and stories.

What are the implications for the writer? One still needs to study genre--but one needs to understand all the genres in the genome of one's story. In this example, you'll need to know something about Westerns, about romances, and about comedies. Of course, each of those is a category with many subcategories--and you will need to know your subcategories.

One interesting task would be to take a story and analyze its genre affinities by comparing it to other stories that have similar traits. When I was explaining this idea to Kimmie over the holiday we had just watched the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life. "Christmas story" is itself a genre, which includes things such as A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It's also (for want of another term) a supernatural fable. Again, here it resembles A Christmas Carol, but also other works such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade as Heaven Can Wait) and Splash. Its actual plot structure follows one of the types of what Robert McKee calls "ironic ascension", one in which the character is

pushed further and further from his goal...only to discover that in fact he's been led right to it.

In this the story resembles Ruthless People. It also falls in the category of story called "education plot", which, in McKee's words, "arcs on a deep change within the protagonist's view of life, people, or self from the negative (naive, distrustful, fatalistic, self-hating) to the positive (wise, trusting, optimistic, self-possessed)", and in this way resembles stories such as Tender Mercies and My Best Friend's Wedding. It's also a domestic drama, and its mood is mainly comedic.

All of these are contributing factors--all are genres in the genome of It's a Wonderful Life.

Over the holiday I was reading and typing notes from works such as Aristotle's Poetics, Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, McKee's Story, and even a bit of Genetics for Dummies in order to dig into my genome metaphor.

That's one way to have holiday fun--and it was fun.

Now: back to work.

Labels: , , ,