Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 3

This blog is about "literature and the spiritual life", a Thomas Merton-ian description for the forum appended to the blog by its founder, and my brother, the legendary Duke Altum. My posts have not focused very much on the spiritual life side of the equation. I'm nowhere near as good waxing on this subject as Duke is, but there is certainly a spiritual side to all of my reading and writing pursuits, and that is also the case with this new project. To me, writing has certain spiritual qualities, such as solitude, quietude, acting on impulses of the heart and the will and the subconscious, probing into the deepest recesses of the soul for a glimpse of truth. So I suppose my justification of blogging about my own writing projects is that, in one sense, I am talking about spiritual activity in some obscure way, and if that sounds imprecise and unsure of itself, it is. But it does not mean that, in my case, writing fiction and spirituality are not connected. Just because my command of the language is inadequate to the task of articulating why the writing process deserves to be a topic on this blog does not mean that this position is indefensible. It just means that I might not be the guy to do it.

In any case, perhaps what I mean to flail at here in this entry is that this new project I am seeking to undertake does have a spiritual dimension for me. Even more than one. Today I was doing a little reading in the 'Spiritual Exercises' of St. Ignatius as a kind of mental serum for the rest of the day's poisons, if you will. Yes, I know that you are not supposed to 'read' the Exercises, you are supposed to 'make' them, but I don't know much about them and I just wanted to expose myself to the langauge in this old writing itself. And in one of the exercises St. Ignatius makes a suggestion to use the five senses in the contemplation of the Nativity, the actual moment of Incarnation in the birth of Christ. It proceeded to go through the senses, inviting the person making the exercises to try to 'taste' the air in the stable; to 'see' the glory of God, smell the animals and the hay and everything. Even just reading those guidelines seemed to give me a better impression of the Nativity in my own mind, which is what all writers try to do on some level, make you see things.

I realized that this is the sort of experience I want to create for readers of my proposed novel, except about Depression-era Indiana. I want it to become a sensory experience in the sense that you really hear, feel, taste and smell the small town during that age of history. But the challenge of this is obvious: I wasn't there myself. Therefore I have to rely solely on what other writers have said, eyewitnesses like my Dad, and my own imagination. Reading an interview once with Edward P. Jones, the man who wrote the novel 'The Known World' (see Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2005), which was set in the Civil War era in Virginia, I read his response to an interviewers question about how he got the details right from the period since he had admitted to doing very little research. He said something to the effect of, 'If I'm the writer, and I tell you it's Virginia in 1850, to you it's Virginia in 1850 until I give you reason to think otherwise.' In other words, he believed in the power of his imagination to see what it looked like himself and describe it. I am sure he went back and checked on details, but to some large extent it was not research but a lack of restriction on his imaginative powers that made that book work successfully.

As in Ignatius' suggestion to use all the senses to contemplate the miracle of the Incarnation, a fiction writer needs to do the same thing to 'get inside' his terrain and then convey that to other people in writing in a way that makes it possible for them to sense where their story is taking place and what it is like there. The words of the Spiritual Exercises definitely seem to help a person experience the spiritual world in a more intimate way. A novelist's words must do the same thing for the world he is creating. This is the sort of effect I am looking to achieve when I write my book. It will take a lot of work.

But there is another spiritual aspect to this project. Why am I really writing it in the first place? Why do I want to go back in time, experience a world I never lived in that is nothing like any world I know? And why do I long for other people to experience that world? These are much more difficult and complex questions. But I think there is something of a vocational aura hovering around this idea that I have had. Do I dare float the possibility that I was intended to write this story? Indeed, BORN to do it? Is this something I can associate with a life calling, a summons by God to maximimize my talents and abilities and create something in imitation of Him that can last, through which people can know something about my family history and the rigors of raising children in the Depression in this country, and through which I can learn more about who my ancestor was and what he was all about? If I do NOT write this story, am I failing in a much more profound way than just not completing a fictional story? Or was I never intended to do it in the first place, as I might have thought I was?

There is, as you can see, a lot of complexity to this idea, and if it is not clear that I have been thinking about it over the years, it will become that way with more postings. I think it is something that I have almost no choice but to attempt. What will come of it? Do I have what it takes? Am I putting too much stock in a vague concept, trying to 'force' it? Who knows. There's no manual for writing novels; if there was, I would have had one done before my mid-30s. But I can tell you this, I'm gonna pursue it. See if I can find the answers to all of these questions.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Another solid post that touches on all kinds of BIG subjects... your comments about the Spiritual Exercises, and the effect reading them has had on your thinking about writing fiction, interest me a lot... and I wanted to point out that other great writers before you have noticed connections between the Exercises and creative writing. Denise Levertov, the great American poet and Christian convert, was powerfully impacted after she went through the Exercises as an adult, and had she wrote in a letter to a friend:

"... what really struck me was how much of what St. Ignatius recommended resembles what a poet does anyway. As a religious exercise, he recommends imagining oneself a witness of Gospel events and noting every physical detail that one can conceive. And in writing poetry, one must do the same thing-one must observe (or re-observe, re-collect)-every concrete detail of your subject, whether or not you ultimately include all of them in the poem."

So you see Mutt, you are in good company there. Obviously you are not writing poetry, but the principle is the exact same as the one you described. A very perceptive reading on your part, and that's saying a lot as the Exercises demand careful attention -- they're not light reading, are they?

As Mutt well knows, there are sacramental aspects to creative writing (see Ron Hansen's excellent essay 'Writing as Sacrament' in his great book, A Stay Against Confusion), so I think that his thoughts and ideas about a potential novel fit right in here on The Secret Thread. Mutt, there is no need to justify or qualify your posts on this novel-in-progress any more! Great literature (and great art) is inherently spiritual in nature, I believe... when we create, our work points inevitably back to the existence of our Creator, whether we always realize it or not. That is what this blog is all about. Let us revel in the gift of our creativity, and use it to the full extent of our abilities and talents (in doing so of course, we glorify our Father in Heaven)... it is up to God to decide what fruits will be borne, if any, from the seeds we are laboring to sow.