Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 2

Although I don't know if anyone besides Duke would have read the post, it was fun to introduce my new writing project via the blog in my first entry. It strikes me that if I am not doing any actual writing of a new story yet, and won't be for a while as I have previously explained, it does feel a little strange to call this my new "writing project" since I'm not writing. At least, not in the technical sense.

Nonetheless, in another sense you might argue that I have already been working on this story for years. It might not be accurate to say that I am starting to write it, but it is accurate to say that it is in the works. And arguably has been for a while.

Writing builds up in one's subconscious for a certain period of time before it is ever put onto the page. That period of time is nearly impossible to quantify. But I know from my own writing experiences that before any story or nonfiction piece is written, there is a period of mental planning that occurs, and that could take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, even decades in some cases.

For example, I recently published an article in the journal Rock & Sling on the singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee (see the Archives from August). That piece took me months to write, but I was thinking about it for at LEAST two years prior to ever sitting down to write it. I had been building up a strong desire to put out there somehow my thoughts on what this singer's music meant to me, but sometimes it takes an event to spur the writing along. In the case of this article it was the release of Bill's album 'Friendly Fire' and seeing him perform again for the first time in a couple years that got me to sit down and knock it out.

Or, in a story I serialized on this blog called 'Start Something', a single line from the film 'Edward Scissorhands' stayed with me for years and in an indirect way led to the final line of my story. I wouldn't call it the impetus behind the piece, but it was something that stayed with me and in the end informed a story I wrote years later. For the record, there is a scene where a woman asks Johnny Depp's Edward to hold her, but since he has scissors for hands, he simply says, 'I can't.' I lifted that line and put it in the end of my story in a different context.

There is an interview I heard once with Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's third and final wife, in which she said that she always knew that Steinbeck was planning a book mentally, because his attention span for trivial matter was very limited. She said there was always a period when whatever she told him in regular conversation kind of went right through the ears without sticking. This because he was preoccupied mentally with planning a novel.

Though I may not suffer Steinbeck's afflication of distractiveness - and maybe that says something about my level of effort for the new project! - I feel like I am in this phase. And I feel like in a way I have been in it for some time. I really don't know what I want to write in this story, or where I plan to take it, but I do have some vague ideas, and they are whirring around in my head as I think about it more. It's hard to get across on here how rapidly an idea grows and how forcefully it makes its presence felt on the writer's mind. But I can tell you, as I guess this blog shows, that I walk around with it threatening to take over my interior live in its totality at every moment. To me this is a positive sign in terms of my creativity, but one must be careful that it does not distract them too much from other responsibilities. After all, I do have two little kids and a wife at home who deserve my attention. Hopefully I do not skimp on them too much in favor of my own literary fantasies.

And what of my ideas for the story? I can give a few random details, which I set down only to see what remains and what doesn't as the planning unfolds in these very early stages.

I'd like the novel to be set in western Indiana, in the 1930s. It will center around one central character, whose name at least for now is Walter Brogan. He's of Irish descent but a few generations removed. (This is a principal difference from the person I am basing him on, my paternal grandfather, who was partly English, but not Irish, at least not that I know of.) I attempted to create this character for the first time recently in a story I started but had to abandon called 'Drifter'. The idea there was to chronicle the end of Walter Brogan's life, which would take place in the early 1960s. It would be the same guy, but those events would not be included in the scope of my supposed novel.

The novel, I think, would span the time of approximately one year in the height of the Great Depression. I was thinking early 1930s, like '32 or '33, but I have to do more research about when it was at its worst. Without giving too much away, I think the story would have something to do with the struggles Brogan has raising a family at this time and working in the oil industry as a fuel distributor. There is a quasi-legend, or at least one version of events, that says that my grandfather, Floyd Lovell, who did distribute oil in the 30s, was fired from his job for extending credit to his customers who could not pay for the oil without persmission to do so.

This story has me by the throat. To me, this is one of the central aspects of my grandfather's character, if it is true. And if it is not, it still will be the central aspect of Brogan's character, because this little detail fascinates me. Floyd Lovell was, by my father's accounts, a difficult, tempermental man at times, and a tough father to live up to if one was bookish and not very gruff. But this anecdotal evidence that he might have shown compassion to other men/families, who were after all no better off than he was, says a great deal to me. It means he had a soul and a heart and knew what was what, in the end, I believe. It means he cared for other human beings, and this knowledge means a lot to me because I never knew the man.

I'll leave it there for now, but this is the terrain I want to explore. I am going to do a lot of research on both the time and the oil industry during that period, for obvious reasons. It should be fun and informative. I also plan to do a lot of talking with my Dad, as much as I can, to support this project. I've talked to him a thousand times about this, but not in this context. I am really looking forward to those upcoming conversations. I'll report about those two, and other aspects of the idea, in upcoming posts.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Obviously any comments I make about this post or this project will be heavily laden with biases coming from all directions... but having gotten that disclaimer out of the way, let me just say that I think this is a fascinating idea Mutt has going. The post touches on all kinds of great and worthy topics (either related to the story specifically, or to creativity more generally), but in terms of the project itself, I think one thing is very clear: the story will not let go of Mutt, so therefore you have no choice but to write it! I know, that's much easier said than done, but obviously it's a very strong passion that is brewing there in your heart of hearts, and recent discussions about the difficulty of discerning vocations notwithstanding, a wild chimp could tell you that you MUST persue that passion for your own sanity's sake.

Well, obviously you are doing so, and the exciting thing will be to wait and see what Mutt can come up with. You've got the bones of a story there in a much more coherent form than I thought, although I realize that it is just bones at this point... the "flesh" needs (to borrow a very striking image from R. S. Thomas) "to form softly on the bough of bone, like snow on a tree branch..." (He was talking about himself growing up as a child, but still, the power of the image holds...)

That (perhaps) apocryphal tale -- we don't know, do we? -- about Floyd Lovell giving his customers a break is just the kind of conflict of interest/conscience that can potentially make for interesting fiction.

The whole concept of getting lost in one's own fictional creations/ideas, to the extent that you have to check yourself so that you don't shirk your "real life" responsibilities, is a fascinating one to me. Of course we have talked about stuff like this before, and I can relate on a very real level, although I tend not to be planning novels (at least not yet). But I certainly do get "lost" with my own ideas and sometimes you do in fact need to drag yourself back down to earth, or else your home life or job will do the dragging for you... which is not to say that home life is a drag! It's the exact opposite, in my case (thank God). BUT, in the creative soul, the urge to explore ideas that maybe don't relate much to the real world (on a surface level anyway) can be very strong indeed... it's a fine line, walking between God-given "eternal" impulses and God-given "temporal" responsibilities. (For there's not a doubt in my mind that the artistic urge is a window into the eternal.) I'll post back here once I've got that problem solved.

Anyway, I'm all over the map here but I want to thank Mutt for a very interesting post. I'll even forgive him for burying my latest POTW like some ancient beast swallowed up in the Irish bogland. I'm all for him using this blog as an "online journal" for the creation of his fiction... why the heck not??? This blog is about celebrating, AND PERSUING, great literature in all of its forms... who says some of those "forms" can't come from the participants themselves???