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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the brain and I

Earlier this month something prompted me to an ad in Scientific American (one of the magazines I read fairly regularly) and order a lecture series on DVD called Understanding the Brain. Published by an organization called The Teaching Company, it's a set of 36 half-hour lectures delivered by Dr. Jeanette Norden, a scientist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, accompanied by some simple computer animation instead of the usual lecture-hall overhead-projector transparencies (at least, that's what they used to use back in the days of my, uh, formal education). So now I've added a half hour of brain lecture to my daily diet of study.

What's with me? I felt a bit conflicted about ordering this series, since it cost money: even as a special promotion, the total package, with bound transcripts of the lectures included, came to something like $165. And when the package arrived at my door, I was also stung with GST and PST, plus a $10 service charge from Fedex for paying those taxes on my behalf at the border. (Not quite as offensive as the fee charged by our own federal government for levying GST on packages coming from the U.S.--that's right, they charge a fee for collecting tax.) It costs money to get smart--and in my current incarnation as an artist, money is in relatively short supply.

Still, once I make my decision I feel happy about it. I seldom suffer from buyer's remorse for buying books or other educational materials (except for fiction--there I find that buyer's remorse is my usual response, such that I rarely buy fiction nowadays).

I remember years ago--it would have been 1977--standing in Duthie Books on Robson Street, down in the subterranean section of the store called the Paperback Cellar, accessed by a spiral staircase of wrought iron. Having been hugely impressed by reading Joyce's A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was keen to read more Joyce. I stood there, staring at the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses--an oversize trade paperback priced at $5.95, then a much higher price than the average paperback. I felt conflicted about spending so much on a book. But then I thought: What the hell, I'm employed, and this is one of the world's greatest works of literature. It's cheap!

I bought it. No regrets. (In fact, I eventually bought another copy, for complicated reasons, and now have two copies of this same edition in my shelf--one weathered and beaten, the other pristine.)

So yes: the brain. I've long been interested in it. Back when I was a student I was interested in computer science and especially in artificial intelligence--the effort to get computers to simulate (or actually achieve) conscious life. (In the end I realized I was more excited about writing fiction about such things, and abandoned my school career to work on a novel--later aborted--centered on an artificial-intelligence project gone awry.) At one level it makes sense: if our experience of consciousness depends on a physical thing, the brain, and its mechanical processes, then why should such mechanical processes not be reproducible in another form?

Back then I was quite afraid of the idea that my mind, my actions, were perhaps determined by fixed laws, physical mechanisms. Reading about the brain could make me anxious. But the interest was there; it remained strong, and is still strong.

So this course on the brain is one of my forays into "general knowledge"--it is not directly related to research on my project The Mission. It will no doubt have a bearing on future projects of mine, though. And meanwhile the organ that I think with seems to want to know more about itself. Why not indulge it a bit?

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

switching tracks as a way of life

I've just looked up the word divagate in my Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Here's the definition:

to wander or stray from a course or subject : DIVERGE, DIGRESS

I was trying to come up with a word to express my way of studying, thinking, talking--my way of life, I suppose. It's what sprang to mind and I reckon it's close enough.

When I study, think, or talk--or when I write, for that matter--I keep switching tracks, elaborating on some sub-point before I get to the end of my initial point, and then going down a further digression on a sub-sub-point, until, quite often, I've forgotten my initial point--how I got here. My interlocutor has to help me out and remind me of what I was talking about.

It's not mere wandering attention or an inability to focus. On the contrary, it almost comes from a particular intensity of focus. I want to say exactly what I mean, but often I'm not sure exactly what I mean, and I'm thinking things through as I go. As a result, often, when I'm talking, I start the same sentence or point two or three different ways, searching for the right way in. I'm a strange mix: for the purposes of light conversation and repartee I'm quick and fluent, but when it comes to expressing more serious, important thoughts, I'm hesitant and laborious.

I'm very dissatisfied with lazy, ill-considered thoughts. It seems to me that most of the actions in the world are ill-considered, including--or especially--those taken by the world's most powerful people. Mostly we get by with very flabby, self-serving "reasons" for our views.

One example, which I get from Sven Lindqvist's book "Exterminate All the Brutes", was the thinking about the issue of genocide in European history. From the British point of view, the mass deaths brought to colonized people like the Canary Islanders and the Indians of the Americas by the Spanish were easy to explain: the Spaniards were notoriously cruel and bloodthirsty. There: problem solved. But when natives were dying in large numbers under British colonial rule, and not entirely by disease, but also through mistreatment and massacre, new reasons had to be found. The "science" of colonial domination was developed through the 19th century, greatly aided by Darwin's theory of evolution, which held that "survival of the fittest" was an impersonal law that cannot be altered. The ideology was already well developed when Adolf Hitler was still in short pants.

When I try to say something true, something that I believe, I find myself wondering why I think it's true--and whether I really do indeed think it's true. This trait has me hemming, hawing, and hesitating. In writing it has me taking laborious care to establish a foundation under what I say. (Well, except for this blog! It's more off the cuff. Although even here I find myself going slowly, thinking, typing.)

I hop from subject to subject, all connected, since some sub-point within one leads to the next. But it often takes me a long time to get back to an earlier branch in this garden of forking paths--if I ever get back there.

Somehow, this is how I operate.

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Monday, May 26, 2008


It seems I'm finally coming up against what I feared when I first started this blog back in 2005: that I might run out of things to write about.

I used to keep a file of possible blog-post topics, but found that I never referred to it, preferring to shoot from the hip when I opened up the posting window. Why not just grab whatever's going through my mind, and start typing?

Sounds good. And maybe if I had more guts I could really follow through with that. But I feel constrained by the fact that, on the one hand, I don't want to talk too much about the content of my work in progress, the ostensible theme of this blog, and on the other that many of the other thoughts and feelings that dominate my life right now are things that are very private and inward.

So: here I sit.

Another week begins, and I must pray to the Muse to grant me a few more lines of my work--or at least the gumption to open up its files and face it, something I found that I couldn't do last Friday.

It helps to keep some perspective. Last night on CBC Newsworld I watched Brian Stewart interview the economist Paul Collier about his book The Bottom Billion, about the world's poorest people. These are the people--or whole families--who try to survive on less than $1 a day. Many of those people are in Africa. There were video clips of violence in Africa: unarmed people running for their lives while "soldiers" shot at them, and so on. What a mess.

I liked Paul Collier--a Brit who used to work for the World Bank. As he observed, political stability has only ever arrived anywhere at a great price in violence and upheaval, a fact we should bear in mind as we shake our heads over Africa. And, I think, even once it's achieved it's fragile, ready to be smashed when the strong give in to the temptation to gain their ends by force, and reap the whirlwind of violence.

As one of the "top billion", I have nothing to complain about. So I should get to work, then.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

pointing-out instructions

In Vajrayana Buddhism there is a particular class of teachings called "pointing-out instructions". These are essentially tips given by a realized teacher to his student so that the student may recognize aspects of his experience for what they are. The student may already be having the experience, but doesn't know he's having it. So the teacher points it out to him. The teacher can't give you the experience, he can only point to it in the hope that you'll recognize it.

In a more mundane sense, I think this is basically what writing does, or is supposed to do.

For why, I wondered, in a world with so much sensual richness and variety, do I spend so much of my time scanning my eyes along a track of ink-marks on paper? As sensory inputs go, this is thin gruel. Imagine how quickly you would grow tired of scanning your eyes along the pages of a book written in a language you don't know. It would get very boring, very quickly. You would become acutely conscious of how little stimulation you're receiving, and seek to increase it, most likely by tossing that book aside and doing something else.

But reading in English is something I can do, happily, for hours each day. Indeed, I feel I'm missing out if I don't read in a day.

It's not purely a matter of entertainment. Activities that are "purely" entertainment--such as, say, video games--are things I usually tire of quickly.

No, for me reading is about learning. But it's not simply learning for its own sake. For to sustain a positive interest in learning something, you have to feel that it's relevant to your experience, your life. You need to feel that the new knowledge is, in the widest sense, practical. The knowledge will enrich your experience of life.

When I read nonfiction, like, say, A History of Technology, I'm learning in a straightforward, traditional way. The knowledge is practical for me because I'm writing historical fiction and need to know those things; and also because it enriches my appreciation of the world around me. Instead of looking at, say, a ship in the harbor and simply taking it for granted, my view of it is enriched by having learned a little about the history of ships--about how they evolved ultimately from the dugout canoe, and how for a long time they bore traces of that origin in their design and construction. Instead of merely sweeping my eyes over the ship, en route to looking at something else, I might actually see it, notice it. It becomes a more vibrant detail of my experience. In a certain sense, it has been pointed out to me.

Fiction makes this process (potentially anyway) more intimate and intense. A stream of artistic prose carries your mind along a track of pure noticing. Just as, in a painting, every square millimeter of the canvas had to be worked by the artist, had to be seen and depicted, to create a vibrant work that is purely and everywhere the expression of the artist's vision, so in a work of writing every word is a contribution to a total, unflagging act of attention by the writer, communicated to the reader. Word by word, the writer draws your attention to things: sensations, thoughts, feelings. One by one, point by point, in a meaningful, purposeful structure. The writer is pointing out aspects of your experience to you.

This is what makes a resort to cliches such a sin in writing: it is a failure of attention, shoving something fake into an intimate experience of genuineness.

Yes, I like having valuable things pointed out to me. So I'll keep on with my reading.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

hearts of darkness

Having set aside, as I mentioned, the historical novel Spartacus by the young Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon, I continue to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Now about 20 pages in, I find I'm continuing to really enjoy it.

Let's take a look at how Conrad opens the story:

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

I found this opening interesting, but not especially exciting. Its high content of nautical jargon shows that this is a special interest of the narrator, but for me has a slightly distancing effect. And although the Wikipedia article on Conrad says that he is "recognized as a master prose stylist," I personally find his prose a little bit awkward, a little bit hard to follow. I sometimes find myself having to read his sentences a couple of times to get their meaning. Maybe this is due to the fact that English was a language that Conrad, a Pole, did not pick up until he was an adult. Still, his opener is good because he does not talk down to the reader; the narrator is treating me with respect, so I'm willing to extend him lots of credit.

Prose style is important, of course, but I think it is not by any means the main ingredient of high-quality writing. Trying to think of what actually is the main ingredient, I've come up with: "way of seeing". It's the writer's way of seeing the world--along with the ability to express this--that sets him or her apart. What details does he relate in order to convey his meaning?

Conrad opens Heart of Darkness by setting the scene: the Nellie rides at anchor at flood tide on the Thames estuary, and its officers are hanging out on deck waiting for the tide to change. The narrator names three of them by title only--Director, Lawyer, Accountant--but the fourth by name: Marlow. I found the first sketch of Marlow striking:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and with his arms dropped, the palms of his hands outwards, resembled an idol.

I would say that at this point, in paragraph 4 of the story, I felt myself engage with the narrative. Marlow, after this short introductory description, is already an interesting and unusual character--very specific. I found myself curious about him right away. You won't find a character description like this in an average potboiler novel. An average writer doesn't see people this way--isn't able to see them this way; that is exactly why that writer is average. It is not the flattering description of a hero (sunken cheeks, yellow complexion), but an interested and detached description by a keen observer who chooses telling details. A sailor, sitting cross-legged against the mizzen-mast, palms outward, to me is an excitingly real image. It engages my belief in what I'm reading, and bonds me to the narrator. I start to feel that I can really trust him with my attention and credulity.

I first read Heart of Darkness in, I think, 1979, probably just after seeing Apocalypse Now, when I learned that the movie was based on Conrad's book. Since Apocalypse Now was regarded as an "important" movie, and I was a budding film-maker, I wanted to get a better grounding in what it was about. (The movie itself was, for me, a disappointment.) I didn't give the novella the attention it deserved, and raced through it to "get it read." I didn't remember much about it.

The thematic path that has led me back to it is via Sven Lindqvist's "Exterminate All the Brutes", an investigation into the origins of genocide. Heart of Darkness is one of the central books he looks at. Lindqvist shows persuasively the documents and events that Conrad was exposed to just before he drafted his famous work--tells the story of how the ideas were formed and shaped.

It's part of the story of evil: where do the evils of our world come from? What drives us to commit acts of evil? These are questions that preoccupy me now.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

another one bites the dust

Thundershowers outside. The soft pale pink of rhododendron blossoms and bluebells glows under the gray sky.

Yesterday was Victoria Day in Canada; Kimmie and I relaxed in the prolonged weekend, and put up wall-shelves in her sewing-room to accommodate the growing crowd of Barbie-dolls clothed in her sumptuous creations. She bought about a half-dozen dolls over the weekend at Value Village in Vancouver--all brunettes this time. Lovingly she washed the dolls and shampooed and, yes, conditioned their hair. (Kimmie never had Barbie-dolls as a girl.) More models for her small-scale couture.

As for me, more reading, more notes. I left off reading Spartacus, a historical novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the pen name of Scottish writer James Leslie Mitchell, who died in 1935 at age 33, having, according to one source at least, apparently worked himself to death (not how I plan to go!).

Gibbon, a passionate socialist, was a talented writer, but I found that, even though I was most interested in the period and the events (I bought the book precisely because it was about the Spartacus slave revolt), the narrative did not hold me. I was influenced partly by the reviews on Amazon.com, which were ecstatic.

What went wrong? Gibbon's style is appealingly vivid and terse. He packs a lot into the opening sentence, for instance:

When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master's body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast.

It's an eventful first sentence, to be sure. I especially liked the detail that the slave is carrying a copy of the Republic. But this purely outer view of the action proved to be Gibbon's way of narrating all the action in the book. We never get too much inside characters' heads, and thus the story has a rather cinematic quality: sights and sounds without thoughts or feelings. To me, as I think about it, this is a particular weakness in historical fiction, where there is a particular barrier, the gulf of time, to the modern reader's being able to identify with characters and feel connected to the story. Getting inside characters' heads is exactly how to make a modern reader feel at home in the ancient world.

When Robert Graves wrote his Claudius novels he narrated them in the first person, as Claudius, and thus provided an automatic entry to the inner world of his character. Yes, Claudius's ways of thinking and feeling seem strange at times--but at other times not. We recognize him as a person like ourselves, and even have the intriguing thrill of witnessing just how different an ancient person's thoughts are from our own, rather than merely seeing how strange their actions are, and puzzling over why.

Such, anyway, are a few of my thoughts. I had made it just past page 100 of Spartacus, and realized that it was a chore to keep on reading, so I pulled the bookmark and sent the book back to its slot in our bedroom shelf. I pulled out my new copy of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and started (re)reading that instead. I experienced the pleasure of embarking on a story by an experienced, self-assured writer who has something important to say.

So, yes, novel-wise, another one bites the dust.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

making your own mistakes

The writing life, I suppose, is what you make it. While there may be certain characteristics found in the lives of many writers, there is not a single "writing lifestyle"; the discipline--if I can call it that--is too wayward and elusive to be pinned down in a definite approach.

In reading James Carroll's House of War yesterday, I came across his mention of how he had given up the Catholic priesthood--his initial vocation--in the wake of angst and disillusionment over the Vietnam War and the peace movement, and decided to take up writing. He had broken off contact with his father, who had been in charge of intelligence at the Pentagon, to live in a small apartment north of Boston, devoting himself to the crafting of words.

I felt a sense of admiration for and kinship with Carroll in his making of that decision. In my own way I made a similar decision, at a younger age, turning my back on other occupations and possibilities to take up writing as my...what, profession? vocation? path? In my case I can pinpoint the time: it was a day in early December 1979, in the Sedgewick Library at UBC, where I was doing last-minute studying for the final exam of Math 100. An unhappy and alienated student, I did not in any way feel part of the university, or part of anything. I had no specific career or goal in mind. I was trailing along, going through the motions. The only thing I felt any passion for was writing, but I was not enrolled in and was not interested in taking any "creative writing" courses at the university, which I felt sure would be a painful waste of time.

Sitting at a table, with pale winter sunlight coming in the windows, I felt a sense of crisis grow as the clock swept closer to the time of the exam. It was a short walk away in the Math building, but I would still need to allow some time to get there. The minute-hand clicked, closer to the hour--and clicked again, then again. I still hadn't got up. With a feeling of alarm I wondered whether I was going to just sit there and not go to the exam, which would mean, in effect, dropping out of math, and therefore, in effect, out of university. No point in going if you're not going to write the exams...

Butterflies entered my stomach. What am I doing? I wasn't sure, but I was aware that I was on the brink of allowing a whole life--a life of normality, achievement, and social acceptance--to crash down behind me while I faced something else: another kind of life, an unknown kind.

Exam-time arrived, and I was still in the library. I had made my choice. Exhilarated, I packed up my books and walked into the cool sunny air, away from the library, away from the Math building, up to the gravel expanse of "C" Lot to the yellow Volkswagen to drive home. I stopped at Safeway on 4th Avenue to pick up a Christmas turkey for the household. I was a different person. For better or for worse, I had taken a step toward my own life, a decision that had come from within me. I knew it would bring difficulty, would be hard to explain. But it was genuine and authentic to myself, so I felt good--very good.

Since then I've had some successes, and quite a few failures, and I still feel some of the awkwardness and misfit-ness that I felt in university. I live in society, but I'm not really of it. It's a solitary path and it often bothers me, in the sense that it doesn't count as a normal "career".

But deep down I have no regrets. Indeed, I wish everyone the same thing: to feel able to do what they really want to do, and not simply flow with the swift-running current of society.

So I've cobbled together a life in a suburb that seems to work for me. There are dissatisfactions and difficulties--but who doesn't have those? I'd rather have my own set of dissatisfactions, and not someone else's hand-me-downs. Even if you're making mistakes, big ones, they should be your own, and not merely someone else's idea.

Now if I could just cast off my nagging bourgeois preoccupation with productivity and revenue...

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Rumpelstiltskin the writer

I regarded yesterday as a small victory. My output was slight--but I had an output. When I came down to my office after breakfast, it was looking bad: another day of project-avoidance.

I fiddled and footled with other things, painfully aware of my procrastination. But eventually I coaxed myself into opening up my working files. Unhappily and with distaste I made myself look at my draft in progress, the chapter I've numbered 31(b), growing slowly as a yew-tree. Where does it need to go? Has it started the right way?

The ice cracked when a specific question occurred to me. It was a question about how certain minor characters, holders of a specific job-function, would behave at a particular moment. What was their job? The smallness and specificness of this question was what enabled me to get going. I could go to my Notes document and type my thoughts, such as they were. Would they lay their hands on my character, or not?

This caused me to look at my story-world more closely, to go in and make a decision, or two or three related decisions--small ones. This is the difficulty of writing, I think: decision-making. One of the biggest obstacles to writing is vagueness: an indefiniteness about the subject. If your information is too scanty, you've got nothing to write. If you force yourself to write when you don't have enough information, you become an author of cliches.

In fiction-writing, developing the details of what to write takes effort. Those details have to be discovered, imagined, decided on. Ideally, you need enough information so that you can pick and choose: you can make creative choices.

This is partly a matter of technical research, and partly a matter of active imagination. For the writing to be good, the fictional world must become as definite and specific as the real world--the world of memories, for example. It's like constructing sets for theater or the movies: the set needs to be complete before you can film your scene there. In filmmaking there's a document called the call-sheet that specifies all the people and equipment that need to be on the set for the filming of that day's scenes: actors, hair stylists, special camera gear, automobiles, and so on. Someone has to work out all those details and figure out what's needed, and when.

Writing fiction is the mental equivalent of that. The "set" is in one's head--one's imagination. But it too needs to be furnished through a process. It requires education, research, imagination, and decision-making. I believe that the power of the finished work, the amount of interest and pleasure it can evoke in a reader, depends on how much of this type of effort has gone into it.

All that material furnishes the straw which Rumpelstiltskin the writer spins into gold.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

musings of a braided stream

I've been staring at the screen here for a few minutes now. What to write about?

One of the books I'm reading right now is The New Larousse Encyclopedia of the Earth. I've finished the chapter on "Running Water" and have started the chapter on "Oceans and Lakes". In his discussion of running water, Bertin describes the different kinds of streams--for there is a great variety of types of river. In Buddhism, the mind is sometimes likened to a river, the stream of which shows many different manifestations, from rushing gorge to placid pool, without changing its essential nature.

Right now I feel that my own mind is like a "braided stream": a river that, having dropped a great deal of sediment on a comparatively flat ground, has broken into multiple intersecting channels, weaving across the landscape. There doesn't seem to be a "mainstream", just lots of parallel channels moving along together. My mind lacks its usual focus; it feels dispersed and unenergetic.

Astrologically this corresponds with a major transit of the planet Neptune, which is running over my natal Venus and square to my natal Mars. Neptune is a boundary-dissolver; it represents the yearning for perfection and bliss, which cannot usually be attained in the limited frame of an individual body and mind. Therefore Neptune symbolizes the desire to merge with something greater, to lose one's burdensome identity, to recover the lost bliss of the womb, before separation was discovered.

The transit of Neptune to Mars is always difficult, since Neptune represents the urge to give up and transcend ego, while Mars represents our selfish side: how we seek to assert our individuality and satisfy our personal wants. A common Neptune theme is sacrifice, giving up something we value without getting any obvious personal benefit in return. Our Mars nature generally finds this idea most unsatisfactory.

To a great extent, life is about giving things up. For one thing, being born means that death inevitably awaits us; we will all have to surrender our lives at some point. But along the way, other things have to be surrendered. Scott Peck talks about this process in his famous book, The Road Less Traveled. What we surrender in the process of maturing are the beliefs and goals of our youth. He provides a list of six or eight typical ones. One is the adolescent belief in omnipotentiality--the idea that I can do or be anything I want. As time goes on, we make decisions and close off avenues. When I was 10 years old, for instance, it may have been possible to aspire to be a professional athlete or a chess champion. Now, even if I wanted those things, I couldn't have them.

Omnipotentiality is not a reality in any case, I don't think. It was probably never an option for me to be either an athlete or a chess champion, not just because of lack of native talent, but even more importantly because of lack of desire. I didn't want those things. Fantasizing about them is like a giraffe fantasizing about being a cheetah. If you're a giraffe, you've got to go with that--there's no choice.

Surrendering such beliefs or fantasies is, I suppose, technically, disillusionment. We use the term in a negative way, usually--but what's so bad about losing your illusions? What do we have against reality? Isn't that just a drug-addict's view of life?

In Buddhism, disillusionment is seen as a good thing. Chogyan Trungpa Rinpoche, in teaching the practice of meditation, never made any promises to his students, except perhaps two: boredom and disappointment. Every student could look forward to those. We generally avoid those experiences like the plague, but Trungpa Rinpoche was enthusiastic about them both. Why? Because they're anti-ego. They're exactly what ego is continually seeking to evade and prevent.

But this is also the message of Neptune. If you identify with your ego and its desires, you're going to suffer anyway. If you can see your ego and its wants as not a big deal, then you suffer much less.

Easier said than done. Like many people, I tend to take my desires and hopes seriously, and feel about surrendering them the way Charlton Heston felt about surrendering his gun: you'll have to pry them from my cold, dead hands...

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Monday, May 12, 2008

keeping the posts short

I seem to be running behind. I know: I have no job, no fixed schedule; what can "behind" mean to me?

Well, I live a routine life, just as much as if I had a regular job. This is the most productive way to live, I find--and productivity is important to me, appearances notwithstanding. The meagerness of my output is not due to any desire to keep my work in short supply. But without my routine, that output would be more meager still.

So I'm very aware of time. At any given moment of the day, I can usually guess the time to within about 5 minutes. To have a productive day, I know where I should be at each time of that day.

I fit the writing of blog-posts in after my morning research-notes-with-coffee, and before I head up for breakfast. In order for the blog to stay alive, it' s important that it not take too much time. Sometimes I get caught up in my argument or point, though, and find that a post can take me an hour to write. I don't feel good when that happens--it's too much time.

Today, running late, my intention was to jot down only a quick, back-of-envelope blog-post. It's already become longer and fleshier than what I intended, so that's a bonus.

But it's time to get on with my, uh, "real" day, such as that is.

On with the week, on with my work.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

finding out what works

I find that I'm rebelling against my blog, now three years old. These days I'm not sure what to say, or why exactly I'm doing this. There's a balancing act between talking about the process of creating this work, and the danger of revealing too much about it. It's a little bit like watching a "making of" documentary about a movie before seeing the movie--putting the cart before the horse.

In another sense, though, the creation of any work of art is beyond the worldly and quotidian circumstances of its physical creation, and indeed a work of art is beyond what its creator can say or indeed know about it. Northrop Frye makes this point in his Anatomy of Criticism, which I'm currently reading. What a poet may have to say about his own work, Frye says, may have special interest, but not special authority. For in talking about his own work, the poet becomes a critic, and he may be a good or bad one, but there's no such thing as a definitive critic--one who has the last word on any given work of art.

I bought Anatomy of Criticism when I learned that in it Frye talks about, at least in passing, the epic genre. I'm thirsty and hungry for anything I can find out about this. What does epic mean? What does genre mean? Are these real, actual things, or merely terms bandied about vaguely by students of literature, with no real consensus as to what they actually refer to?

Frye's landmark book, first published in 1957, addressed what he saw as the central and long-neglected question about literary criticism: is there such a thing as knowledge about literary art, or is everything, in the end, simply and merely a matter of taste? Is there or could there be such a thing as a science of literary criticism--a field of knowledge that progresses and grows in the same way that other fields of scientific knowledge progress and grow? Could the study of literary criticism be like the study of physics or geography?

Northrop Frye emphatically believed that such a science is possible, and Anatomy of Criticism is his effort to sketch out its scope, methods, and agenda. It's a brilliant work in its own right, dense with bold, deep ideas. He essentially picks up the ball of a scientific poetics where Aristotle left it 2,300 years ago, and runs it further up the field.

I'm on page 125, and have not yet reached his detailed discussion of genre, but he has already given me plenty to think about. Indeed, any given page of this book could serve as the basis of a separate thesis, so rich is it with ideas.

Why exactly am I so keen on studying genre, and especially the epic genre? Don't most writers just wing it and write what they want without worrying too much about their "category"?

It's not so much that I want to conform to a pattern, but I do want to know what I'm building. Why reinvent the wheel? If you're setting out to build a bridge, wouldn't it make sense to find out how others have done it, what the techniques and hazards are? What if you built a house, but out of ignorance neglected to include bedrooms? Wouldn't that be silly?

A genre by definition is a structurally stable form. Like a genus or species of animal or plant, it exists because it works. The raccoons that patrol our yard at night are a viable form of life; they can make it in this novel environment; as an organism, they work.

I want to create something that works: a pragmatic goal.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

aging (dis)gracefully

Speaking for myself, these are uncertain times. As one gets older, it seems reasonable to suppose that one should get wiser, more mature, and generally acquire a better outlook on life.

But this isn't necessarily so. I think about the saying that some people "forget nothing and learn nothing". But I worry that there could be another saying, that some people "study everything and learn nothing". Or simply that in one's older age, the chickens of one's youthful folly and hubris come home to roost.

Yesterday I continued to make my way through James Carroll's House of War, his history of the Pentagon. The book is not exactly what I expected it to be, but I am enjoying it very much--maybe more than if it had been what I expected. I was expecting a kind of institutional history of the Pentagon. Instead, the book is a thoughtful examination of the ideas and policies of the U.S. military since the Pentagon was created in World War II, particularly as these ideas were held and pursued by various significant individuals. Distressed by the current and growing militarism of his country, Carroll is asking, "what went wrong?"

One of the most significant players in this history was Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. McNamara, a young statistician attached to the Air Force in World War II, went on to become CEO of Ford, and made a name as a brilliant and highly capable and successful executive. From there he was recruited to join Kennedy's cabinet in 1961.

The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, had been built to its full Army-specified size in 1941, in direct defiance of President Roosevelt's order that it be cut to half its planned size. From the word go it was a cockpit of interservice rivalry. With the advent of nuclear weapons, its budget ballooned in the fear and paranoia of the Cold War.

Kennedy was elected after engaging in the most powerful scaremongering ever used by any presidential candidate. People were terrified of the "missile gap" (which did exist--but hugely in the United States' favor), and the citizens were urged to build bomb shelters for what was increasingly looking like an inevitable and imminent nuclear war. The terror came to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and twitchy fingers hovered on the hair-trigger of nuclear attack.

Kennedy was able to defuse that crisis, but he had a change of heart about talking tough to the Soviets. He came to see it as his mission to lead the world away from nuclear Armageddon. (Looking at it now, I suspect this was the real reason he was whacked in 1963.)

Robert McNamara, for his part, saw it as his mission to bring the Pentagon under civilian control--his control--and to move the "nuclear trigger" out of the hands of paranoid hawks such as Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command, who believed ardently in the preemptive and massive first-strike use of atomic weapons. In Vietnam, McNamara sought to rationalize the use of bombing as a tool, not to destroy everything and everyone in sight, as was done eventually in World War II, but to push the Viet Cong toward a political, negotiated solution.

This idea proved to be a complete failure. Even by 1967 more ordnance had been dropped on Vietnam than on Europe in all of World War II, and the Viet Cong showed no sign whatever of giving up. Meanwhile, McNamara was becoming a nervous wreck. He was weeping at his desk in the Pentagon. Lyndon Johnson was afraid that McNamara was going the way of the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who, in 1949, had degenerated into acute paranoia and wound up committing suicide while under psychiatric care. When McNamara, at a key meeting, yelled and pleaded that the bombing in Vietnam had been a total waste and had to stop, Johnson had him removed from his post. McNamara was 100% right, of course--but the bombing went on.

Robert McNamara is 91 now. It seems that the Vietnam War proved to be a humbling and shattering experience for him: a time when his intelligence and self-confidence met their Waterloo. Or, switching to a metaphor used by James Carroll, he was Ahab meeting his Moby-Dick in the Pentagon, the great beast that he sought to subdue but which dragged him under. The brilliance of his youthful achievements led on to pain and no doubt remorse in his older years.

So age is not any kind of safe haven. Not unless, perhaps, you've lived prudently and wisely in your youth. And how many of us have done that?

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Monday, May 05, 2008


I seem to be back to full intestinal health--praise be.

This morning I continue to type notes from different books--The New Larousse Encyclopedia of the Earth (not so new now; I received it as a present in about 1973), Anatomy of Criticism, The White Goddess. Searching, typing--what am I doing?

I'm not really sure. I'm looking for something, but what? Can I even say?

The first word that jumps to mind is unity. I'm looking for unity. A work of art is, after all, one thing--a unit. Everything in it must belong. How do you decide what belongs? It's partly intuitive, partly rational, or so I find. I think about John Constable, fussily reworking his paintings. I believe that in his masterpiece, The Hay Wain, he painted the dog (walking along the near shore of the pond) in and out of the picture more than once. Not just the dog, but other elements too. Constable had a hard time deciding what belonged in a picture.

A work of art, such as a novel, is like a landscape: it is a visible thing whose features are supported by a host of invisible factors that stretch out into the whole universe. Its richness and uniqueness and beauty derive from the specific conjunction of those factors.

I'm looking for things I can use. I'm searching the most likely places, trying to let intuition guide me as much as possible. For the artist does not create ex nihilo, but assembles things that he or she finds. Creation is a matter of combination. To have a range of things to combine, you need to go hunting.

So I'm hunting. It's almost like beachcombing, or like the old guy I saw in the Hinnom Valley outside the walls of old Jerusalem in 1981, walking slowly down the slope with a metal detector, looking for coins or other bits of treasure not yet found.

Yes, after all these years, still assembling my construction materials.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

(not very) sick days as opportunities for freedom

A quick post, just to keep my hand in.

I have some kind of mild gastrointestinal infection that had me fasting for five days (I stopped fasting yesterday). It's also had me living a less structured life, as I typically do when having "sick days". In fact I'm not sick in any meaningful sense--I feel good--but the break in routine of eating and so on makes the day different.

So I continue to follow my research instincts. I'm making discoveries, which creates a feeling of excitement and confirmation. I try to stay open to my intuition, letting instinct guide me from one book to another, one idea to another.

Is this any way to write a work of fiction? I don't know. I don't know if it's properly known what fiction even means. (I think of my old classmate Don's mnemonic device for remembering how to distinguish fiction from nonfiction: "bull" vs. "non-bull".) Northrop Frye also had trouble with this strangely vague but persistent way of categorizing literature.

So I'll press forward, and let it be what it is.


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