Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 27

Chapter 2 in the Books, So to Speak

Not much meat to this post, mostly gravy, but I did want to note for the sake of the general historical record (??) that the writing on Chapter 2 is complete, and I am now entering the revision and editorial process on the Chapter, which is officially titled "A Premature Death, New Experiences". I started writing the chapter on August 31 and finished the actual composition of it October 27. It will probably take me a number of weeks to revise and edit it, so I'd say that the goal now is to at least have started on Chapter 3 by the time we hit Christmas. But at that point at least I will have a Prologue and a good two chapters completed for the draft of the novel. I am not really sure how well the chapter turned out; certainly I will be working hard on it over the next month or more, trying to make it better. I think I covered the general themes and plot points I had envisioned, and I also think I ended the chapter on the right tone, which hopefully will set us up nicely for Chapter 3.

New Working Title in Contention

Also, I also have a new working title for the novel in official play, contending for the right to grace the cover of what may end up being my first novel. The original working title, which is not exactly off the table, is "Obeisance to Mammon", which I have defended on this blog, but I am not totally sure of it all the same. The new working title is "Only the Dying", which I have taken from the work of Indiana's best-known poet, James Whitcomb Riley. The name of the poem is "Our Kind of Man", and the verse was written as follows:

And the sick man sees the sun once more,
And out o'er the barren fields he sees
Springing blossoms and waving trees,
Feeling as only the dying may,
That God's own servant has come that way...

I have to think on it more, but I think the imagery of someone who is 'sick' - which could be interpreted a number of ways - looking out over the 'barren fields' is evocative and in some ways recalls to my mind a man such as Walter Brogan. Additionally, the phrase 'only the dying' provides a link between Walter Brogan and all of us: for in one sense, who is not among the 'dying' of the world? I think this is a title that sounds good and is worth consideration. Therefore, it is officially in the running.

Hope everyone has a Happy Hallowe'en. Personally, I can think of little scarier than trying to write the rest of this novel....!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #41

IN MEMORIAM: R.C.S. 1927-2006

This week's justly famous poem is from Robert Frost.


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mutt Ploughman: "The Best Novel I Have Read in 2006, Bar None"

"As in all the best fiction, in McCarthy's work, language is not a tool; it's an element." - Reviewer Michael Helm, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

"The Road", a new novel by one of my all-time favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, is the best novel I have read in 2006, bar none. Yes, at least in my view, it is that good.

I'd like to present some of my thoughts about why, but in so doing I am burdening myself with two challenges. One, to keep my comments about the book brief. I don't plan to say a lot; it's just not necessary. My firm recommendation to all who read this is just to read the novel. The second challenge is not to give any of the story away.

I suppose it may be too early to begin year-end lists, but this book will not be equalled by anything I read between now and December, two months' time. With the possible exception of my annual Dickens read ("Nicholas Nickelby" this year), nothing will even be in the same class, and as great as Dickens was, it's hard to draw a comparison between McCarthy's book, which is a veritable clinic in economy and technical precision, to anything Dickens wrote, to which you couldn't possibly apply the same terms.

The bare bones plot of "The Road" has been outlined in numerous reviews and blurbs which exist in countless places already. It's some time in the future, and the world is a devastated corpse of what it once was, due to an unspecified, and probably nuclear, calamity on a massive scale. Most of the planet is charred and dead, including almost all wildlife and plantlife. Everywhere there is carrion and destruction. Through this landscape, two survivors, a father and a young son around age 10, walk alone on the literal and metaphorical "road" of the novel's title, scavenging for food, heading south for warmer weather, and trying to escape from bands of other mutated survivors who eat other people: the only steady food source still around.

Their journey is a story of survival. There are plenty of horrible sights and terrifying encounters. But their authentic and moving relationship to one another is the emotional core of this bleak but brilliant story. And the writing itself is the true treasure of the whole experience. McCarthy has been writing brilliantly about nature and about metaphysical truths for decades. Here he hones down his longer, Faulknerian passages of old for short, concise paragraphs, by turns lovely and visceral, lush and violent. Like the reviewer Michael Helm wrote above, Cormac McCarthy's use of the English language becomes in itself a force of nature. You will feel cold, desolate, hopeless and lonely when you read this book.

But through it all, especially if you have children of your own, you will feel warmth from a single source: the father's desparate and all-powerful love for his son. He will stop at nothing to protect him, and he will not abandon him short of his own death, for any reason. In the hands of weaker novelists, this element of the story would be laughable, or simply trite; in McCarthy's hands, it is literally a torch, and you will follow it willingly through the darkness of this book. There are some brief scenes that are nearly unbearable in their agony: the father cannot force himself to take certain steps that COULD help them in the long term, but may hurt or terrify his only son in the short term. His love is stronger than some of his most primal instincts.

And just when this book cannot get any darker there is a brief but hopeful conclusion to the novel that dares to offer the suggestion of victory for love and life in a world annihilated by senseless evil and death.

This novel's final paragraph is one of the most breathtaking and luminous passages I have ever read, and it's only about 3 sentences long. In it, McCarthy pulls the camera of his expansive vision back and revisits a dream-world, back when the earth was teeming with beautiful creations only a Supreme Being could have designed, and offers a single glimpse of beauty and magnificence that even today is available to everyone, if only you can pause and open your eyes for long enough to see it. It is a single paragraph that could invoke hours of discussion and interpretations, but in the end it is simply a final flourish of a haunting and lyrical literary masterpiece.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Music of the Alley: An Introduction to the Fiction of Naguib Mahfouz

I can't speak for other readers, but for me there is always a feeling of enchantment when I encounter the work of an accomplished foreign novelist or poet for the first time. I experience the thrill of discovery as I am inducted into an entirely new world, one which I had not been previously aware of. Of course, this experience is neither new nor exclusive to me, but it is one that seems to be less and less sought after these days, which is a monumental shame.

There are places in the world I know I will never lay eyes on, never set foot anywhere near... and when I stop to think about it, this feels like a real loss. But there is a way to visit these foreign shores, to immerse oneself in others cultures and times and places, and the best part of all is that it doesn't cost you a dime. To read the great writers of the world is to partake of the great banquet of civilization, to sample dishes with flavors foreign to our Western palates that have the power to awaken hungers, or even cravings, we never realized we had. I vividly recall the thrill of "tasting" for the first time (for example) the spicy stew of South America through the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, or sampling the dark, heady brew of Scandinavian cultures via novels from such great writers as Sigrid Undset, Halldor Laxness and Tarjei Vesaas. And if any American reader would like to be fully immersed into a great seething cauldron of diverse and fascinating cultures, there is no experience quite like the Ivo Andric's epic of the Balkans, The Bridge on the Drina. Both Mutt and I have posted on most of these great writers on this blog. (And by the way, for more on the pleasures of eclectic reading, I would refer you back to one of Mutt's earliest posts entitled "Basking in World Light: In Praise of International Literature," in the Archives under August 2005.)

But the "gustatory" experience that comes through reading the work of a novelist from the Arab world was something entirely new and different for me, which is why I had been eagerly anticipating dipping into the ouevre of Naguib Mahfouz for a long time. Why start with Mahfouz? Well, for one thing, there just aren't that many novelists from Arabic cultures known to those of us who live in the West. When Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 (and oh yeah, that's another great reason to read his work), he was the first Arab writer ever to win it, and it exposed a great many people to his many novels that had been totally unaware of them previously. He was to a large extent unknown to the Western world. I certainly had never heard of him; in fact, I don't remember thinking anything about his winning the prize in the year he won it, since I was just beginning college and wasn't thinking much about reading and literature in those days. Later on, as I begun to read more widely and specifically, began to get a hankering for foreign fiction, I became aware of his name and reputation, but little else. Still, I was intrigued enough at the very idea of reading supposedly great fiction from a country as obscure to me as Egypt that I made a mental note that I wanted to read one of his novels at some point. Unfortunately, it took me many years to get to that point.

Anyway, I have just finished one of his more well-known novels called The Harafish. This being my own initiation into the work of this fascinating and prolific writer, I thought I would share a few thoughts and impressions about it, as a kind of introduction to the fiction of Naguib Mahfouz. It is also, I ought to note, an appropriate time to post these thoughts as Mr. Mahfouz just died a few months ago. So this is also a kind of tribute to his life and work and an admonition for more people to discover it.

My entry into a world totally foreign to my own sensibilities was announced before I had even read a word of the book itself -- for the very title and structure of it carry with them traditional Arabic literary overtones. First, the title -- The Harafish. "Harafish" is an Arabic word, as the English translator explains in an opening note, meaning the "rabble" or "riffraff". But then she quickly adds that "in this novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless." Then there is the interesting and Arabian Nights-like way the book is structured, with each chapter not listed as "Chapter 1" or Part II," but in this way: "ASHUR AL-NAGI: The first tale in the epic of the harafish"; "LOVE AND IRON BARS: The third tale in the epic of the harafish"; etc. It is obvious that Mahfouz was intending to model his story after the folk tales and myths that he grew up hearing and that have been handed down to him through the culture he lives in. Even as subtle a change as structuring the book in this unorthodox way provides a hint that, for American readers anyway, Dorothy ain't in Kansas no more.

The Harafish was definitely a new and interesting experience for me as a reader. New, and yet, no so new after all. Because Mahfouz is exploring themes that are certainly universal to men and women of ALL times and ALL cultures -- the hardscrabble lives of the working class and the chasm of injustice between the haves and the have-nots; the turbulent and absurd relationship between the sexes; the inherent mystery of human life and particularly human suffering; the influence of religious tradition on society, etc. -- but he allows his readers to view all this through a distinctly Arabian, and I imagine a distinctly Egyptian, filter. And yet, it should be remembered too that Mahfouz studied philosophy and was a insatiable reader of Western literature as well, admiring writers like Dostoevsky, Camus, Beckett, Faulkner, Dickens and Proust. So what you end up with is a curious and inimitable mix of mysticism and pragmatic philosophy in his prose, with powerful undercurrent, naturally, of Arabic folklore and Islam pumping just underneath the surface. Perhaps a few passages cited at random will help demonstrate what I mean. Here is the opening "sub-chapter" of the first tale (each "tale" is broken up to as many as sixty brief numbered sub-chapters, sometimes only a line or two long -- which also makes for a narrative that is driven along by quick snatches and images, rather than a long and linear storyline):

In the passionate dark of dawn, on the path between death and life, within view of the watchful stars and within earshot of the beautiful, obscure anthems, a voice told of the trials and joys promised to our alley.

The first tale tells of a baby, eventually named Ashur al-Nagi, who is abandoned (we never find out by who) at the doorstep of an Islamic monastery in an alley in Cairo. This baby grows up to become a giant of a man, eventually rising to become the "clan chief," apparently a prominent position in the back alley societies of Cairo. It's never fully explained in this book, but Mahfouz often wrote about particular "alleys" in his native city of Cairo and the lives that are lived within them (one of his other famous works is called in English The Children of the Alley), and so I can only assume that the word "alley" roughly corresponds to what we know as "neighborhood." (Whether or not it's literally one alley I am not sure, although for all that is described in the stories, I doubt this is the case -- it seems a bit more geographically spread out than that.)

At any rate, the rest of the tales simply tell of the lives of the many descendents of Ashur al-Nagi: their triumphs and failures, loves and losses, and their frequent losing and regaining control of the alley itself. As the book moves along, the original al-Nagi becomes more and more of a legendary figure, almost corresponding to a saint in the Catholic Church, which is strange, since he was a thief and adulterer who ended up losing everything he had (wrongfully) gained and then disappearing forever without a word to anyone. Although in that culture, adultery at least seems to be viewed as something that can't be avoided, and is more or less accepted by everyone, even its victims. Even monogamy for that matter is not something held out as sacrosanct.

It becomes clear as you read these chronicles of the successive generations of the al-Nagi family that Mahfouz is using this device to do two things: one, ponder the mystery of human existence in all of its squalor (and occasional grace); two, to create a rich panorama of the lives of the simple, hard-working people who inhabit the forgotten alleys of his native city. Yet by tracing a family's history generation by generation, he imbues the narrative with an epic, almost scriptural tone -- it feels like you're reading stories straight out of the book of Genesis, although maybe the Koran would be a better text to use for comparison (I plead ignorance, having never read from the Koran -- something I plan to correct one day). Anyway, the stories feel like myths handed down through the years and told around campfires -- they are riddled with hilarious human foibles, acts of incomprehensible evil and violence, sordid love affairs and illegitimate children, and the like. But interestingly, what links all of these stories together are the presence of the harafish as constant witnesses of the repeated failures of the al-Nagis, and the mysterious chants heard nightly in the main square from over the ancient walls of the monastery -- with its huge, impenetrable wooden doors that remain closed to all who might be curious about the mysteries contemplated within.

Part of what makes Mahfouz's novel so much richer than just your average chronicle of passing generations of a particular family in a particular place is the deep spirituality that saturates every single page of the book. Obviously this is a Muslim culture, so the character of that spirituality is going to different than that which a Western Christian is used to; nevertheless, there is certainly deep human wisdom contained in all of the world's religions, and it is fascinating to hear the insights of the Islamic faith applied to specific lives. Here is a typical passage in which a character contemplates the past and the mystery of time (keep in mind that the novel that supposedly influenced Mahfouz more than any other was Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu):

For the first time he began to brood on what was past and what was to come. He thought about people who had died, about saints who had lived for a thousand years. About the processes of decay that turned strong men into objects of ridicule. Betrayal was not only caused by spiritual weakness or the acts of men. It was easier by far to wreck an armed parade than to unsay things that should never have been said. You could rebuild a ruined house, but not a human being. The pleasure of the music is only a short-lived veneer on the song of parting.

I don't know why and I can't point to any specific examples to back this up, but for some reason it just seems to me hard to imagine a Western writer making the same points in the same way (especially in that beautiful and evocative last sentence). Here is one more example of the deeply spiritual, wise and beautiful prose Mahfouz delivers, even in translation (a character has built a towering minaret and has just climbed to the top of of it, and is now looking down over the alley he calls home):

At the top the language of the stars was audible, the whisperings of space, the prayers for power and immortality, far from the exaggerated complaints, the lassitude, the stink of decay. Now the poems from the monastery sung of eternity. The truth revealed many of its hidden faces. Destinies were laid bare. From this balcony he could follow successive generations, play a role in each, join the family of the celestial bodies for all eternity.

I hope these passages will give you a taste of the exotic and enticing flavor of Mahfouz's fiction. The Harafish did not strike me as a perfect novel -- it is definitely repetitive in places, it is very difficult to keep the multitude of characters' names straight, and it is perhaps a little bit longer than it needs to be -- but overall, I found it to be a fascinating, wise and deeply affective work of art. Many times his prose soars with a lyrical beauty that reveals his obvious talent, his true writer's soul. And the insights into the mystery and fragility of human relationships makes the novel well worth reading and pondering for a long time afterward. The Nobel Prize committee seems to me to have gotten it right when they wrote in his citation that Mahfouz "through works rich in nuance -- now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous -- has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind."

After reading just one novel, I am convinced of the truth of this statement, and will definitely be returning to his extensive body of work in the future, God willing...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 26

Chapter 2 Gets a Name, Nears Completion

Here is a small update for all those millions of interested readers on the progress of my novel. The drafting of the second chapter is coming to a close. I still have two more 'scenes' to write and one of them is pretty critical (I don't know if any piece of the book, really, is any less critical than any other). But I know what both of these 'scenes' will consist of and I know, more or less, what I want to accomplish in them. Then the chapter will be printed, edited, revised, rewritten, and printed again to repeat the cycle. So far I have been going through about 3 drafts of each chapter (I consider the Prologue to be a chapter, more or less) before moving on to the next one. It's probably not enough, but it's a compromise: when I used to write longer manuscripts in the past, I would try to get the whole thing down in one long shot before going back and revising the entire thing. But the job of editing and revising the entire thing 3 or 4 times is not appealing to me and hasn't worked well before (note: my story collection "A Son of the Suburbs"). Hence, the new method is to rewrite and revise the chapters 3 times before moving on to another one. More than likely, when I get to the end I will still have to do more rewriting, that seems almost certain. But at least this way I have the feeling that my chapters are somewhere in the neighborhood of where I want them before I move on to the next one.

All that is to say that once I have completed the draft of Chapter 2, it will more than likely be another 6 weeks or so before I put a single word down on Chapter 3. But at least I have finally settled on a title for Chapter 2: "A Premature Death, New Experiences". Hopefully that title will sound interesting enough to some people to entice them to read on after finishing Chapter 1.

How has Chapter 2 turned out? Well, ask me when I finish the next two scenes. But overall, I am happy with it so far. It did not really turn out like I first envisioned it, but that's all right with me. I didn't really have a clear sense of what I wanted to get from it, so I can't be surprised that it's not really what I thought. But I think it accomplishes at least in broad terms what I wanted it to accomplish: it provides a window into Walter and Greta's very early days of marriage; it gives some background about Walter's father Julius; and it begins to position Walter Brogan up against some of the larger negative forces which will continue to work against him for the rest of his life, in some significant ways. That last part of the chapter is not overt; I think only the initial inklings of his struggles can be detected in the chapter, but they are there under the surface, and throughout the rest of the story, hopefully, they will continue to grow in their unfortunate tenacity.

Right now, the thing I am most pleased about with Chapter 2 has nothing to do with the story itself. It has nothing to do with the events of the chapter. It has to do with the creative process. The fact is that around late August, when I was beginning Chapter 2, I only had very vague notions of what I wanted to do in the chapter, as I said before. I knew I wanted to get into Walter Brogan's backstory, which I did. I also wanted to explore some of Walter and Greta's interactions with a wealthier, elitist class of people, which I am doing now. I thought I wanted to get into some of Greta's backstory, but in the end I didn't; that still must happen at some stage, possibly Chapter 3 (see below). The point is: I didn't really have a plan, I didn't know what I wanted to say. But here I am in October, about six weeks or so later, almost finished with the chapter. The writing happens when you sit down and persist with it. I firmly believe I have a story to tell, but it does not write itself and it does not 'work itself out' beforehand in some auto-pilot mental literary process, leaving me only to sit down and 'transcribe' what is already neatly written out in my head. It doesn't work that way. The best thing about Chapter 2 is that for me it is a total vindication of the writing process. I trusted that I could keep the story going if I worked at it. This chapter - although it may not be a good one - is proof that I can do it. Once this is done, I have 3 chapters in the first draft. Before Christmas, I will hopefully be well into a fourth (Chapter 3 of the novel). To me, this is progress. This means my novel is being written. I just have to stick at it. "Persistence pays off", says a writer whose work I deeply admire. I think he's right.

Chapter 3 - A Teaser

Well, don't ask me to give you a name for this chapter yet. It took me forever to get the name for Chapter 2. But I think I have some general ideas about what is going to happen here. The story will skip forward 5 months to November 1924. The election will have just taken place, putting card-carrying Klan member Edward Jackson in the governorship of the State of Indiana. This will be the tipping point for Walter Brogan, who will seek out advice from his father-in-law, P.G. Heinricks, about how he can take action against one of the negative forces that is operating in his life. He will receive sensible advice that he doesn't expect, and events will prove that his father in law knows what he is talking about. Meanwhile, this may be the time when we learn more about Greta, while she and her husband are trying to start a life together while living in the house she at least partially grew up in. Why she left home at 18 to live in Michigan City, away from her parents. How she and Walter came to meet. That sort of thing. Lastly, we will perhaps see some early maneuvers of one Myron Devreaux, the young attorney who once pined for Greta, but has his own ambitions now to keep him occupied.

One thing at a time; got to finish Chapter 2 and get it as close to 'complete' as possible. But it's a lot of fun to flesh out ideas here in this journal, so thanks for coming along.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

"Be grateful that no one knows you": Cautionary words for young writers from Rainer Maria Rilke

Call it a guilty pleasure: lately, whenever I can find the time, I have been sneaking in bits of Rilke's work into my reading, hitting upon various poems and prose pieces here and there. He was certainly a genius, and I find the language he uses vigorous and intoxicating, even in translation... this is not to say I understand everything I read by him, but it always seems to me to be worth the effort for the beauty and wisdom I find in his writing.

Here is an example of that wisdom that I thought my partner in this effort, Mutt, would appreciate. I just happened to come across them at random in one of his uncollected prose pieces -- in this case, an appreciation of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Now I know Mutt very well and when he reads this his first reaction will be, "Ha! This doesn't apply to me; I'll never be in the situation he describes." But O Mighty Mighty Mutt, I beseech you to read on, read on, until you reach the end! Then let the profundity and wisdom of these off-hand comments, which seem to be only tangential to the main points Rilke was trying to make in the essay, work on your mind and heart a bit... I found them to be fascinating and insightful, and I hope you will too. Certainly, if nothing else, they give you a sense of the kind of mind Rilke had, and how seriously he took the craft -- no, the vocation -- of writing. And they might also serve as cautionary wisdom for young writers who may, in their sheer humanity, be tempted by the idea of "someday becoming famous." I'm not saying that's your temptation at all (in fact, see Mutt's oustanding "Journal" post, the one prior to this one, to learn all you need to know about what motivates him as a writer!), but I do think you'll appreciate his points... Anyway, it is the last two paragraphs that got my attention and made me want to share this, especially the astounding last lines.


[NOTE: These are the opening paragraphs of an essay simply titled "Ibsen".]

There I sat before your books, obstinate man, trying to understand them as the others do, who don't leave you in one piece but chip off their little portion and go away satisfied. For I still didn't understand fame, that public demolition of someone who is in the process of becoming, whose building-site the mob breaks into, knocking down his stones.

Young man anywhere, in whom something is welling that makes you shiver, be grateful that no one knows you. And if those who think you are worthless contradict you, and if those whom you call your friends abandon you, and if they want to destroy you because of your precious ideas: what is this obvious danger, which concentrates you inside yourself, compared with the cunning enmity of fame, later, which makes you innocuous by scattering you all around?

Don't ask anyone to speak about you, not even contemptuously. And when time passes and you notice that your name is circulating among men, don't take this more seriously than anything else you might find in their mouths. Think rather that it has become cheapened, and throw it away. Take another name, any other, so that God can call you in the night. And hide it from everyone.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 25

On the Spiritual Exercise of Writing this Novel

"I believe God created me for a purpose ..... but he also made me FAST. And when I run, I feel His pleasure." - Eric Liddell, as stated in the film "Chariots of Fire"

It is a good moment to react to some comments posted to my last Journal entry by my cohort/fellow artist/twin brother, Duke Altum, who points out that this blog is about literature generally, and can be related to the writing of literature as much as to the reading of literature. I appreciate that observation because most of my contributions to the blog have been more about the former than the latter, but hey, that's me.

The above quote from Chariots of Fire (which Duke will no doubt appreciate) more or less expresses my idea of the spiritual value or the spiritual exercise of writing the story I am currently writing. I am not entirely sure of my specific purpose for having been created, so I can't say it's NOT to write fiction. But I do believe God knows what my purpose is, and that He has one for me. I'd say one of them, if there can be more than one, is to be a faithful father and husband, which I try my best to be. There could be others, and possibly writing books is one of them. I guess we'll find out.

But to Liddell's point from the film, in addition to my role as a Dad and husband, I think God gave me specific talents, and writing is unquestionably one of them. That's not arrogant, because it's a matter of how much I have, and I am not sure I have very much - but I have SOME. Let's just be honest about that. The challenge for me is to develop whatever talent I have to the highest degree possible, and turn that talent into something specific and of value to someone, anyone. That's what the last 16 years have been all about for me in some respects. And that is the work that I am currently engaged in. it's a long road, but I am committed to it. If I wasn't, I would not have wasted my time, whenever I have had it, trying to learn to write good stories for much of the last 16 years - close to half of my life.

So when I am griding through a piece of writing - as I surely am doing now - it is best for me to try to remember the lofty goal of trying to make the most of one's talent for God's glory. I am not saying I think of that very often when I am writing. But I do think that when I remember to think about it this way, it helps me stay the course, and it gives my efforts some purpose where most of the time it is easy to feel that there is none. Consider the odds of gettting a book published, what people feel will "sell", and all of that. Why does a feldgling writer keep at it in the face of such overwhelming odds against his success? For non-Christian artists, it is hard for me to answer that question. For me, it has a lot to do with trying to fulfill God's hope, in one sense. Although God loves me unconditionally, one has to feel that when He gives us talents, in a certain sense He becomes filled with a kind of "hope" that we will deliver on them. He invests in us, and like all investors, He expects to receive a return. He knows that it is possible that He won't, and yet He still makes the investment.

Hemingway once wrote that a writer must "face eternity" every day when they sit down to do their job. He didn't mean the comment to be spiritual in nature, and yet by the very language he used, it is. For me, the prospect of facing eternity has something to do with this idea of attempting to give God some return on His investment. God is eternal and will hopefully take eternal pleasure in what we do with our lives. If I end up writing this novel, or another one, or a great story, or anything that could be considered a success on any terms, I hope God will feel that his investment was rewarded. Or, if I consistently try and fail, but remain committed to developing my talents until God decides to take me back, perhaps I have will also have done my job. In the eternity of God's "retirement" - the age that follows Christ's triumphant return - perhaps God will enjoy some of the spoils of my labor. I hope so. To honor him in writing is my prayer. I may not always act or feel that way, but so let it be written here by me, so that it may one day be be done for Him.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #40

Of course I've known the name of W. H. Auden for a long time -- you can't be a person who's interested in poetry in the modern era and not have heard it mentioned or referred to at one time or another. But embarrassingly, I have not yet read much of his work, despite its stellar reputation. (Actually I probably know him better from Richard Wilbur's stunning elegy, simply titled "For W. H. Auden," than I do from anything Auden's actually written!?!) He's just one of the many writers whom I know I need to get more familiar with, but haven't gotten around to yet... another name on that increasingly long list... I'm only one man, by God, and a father of young kids at that! My time is severely limited!!!

Anyhow (end of pity party), when I read this poem of his for the first time recently, I was utterly bowled over by it. This is one of those poems that re-introduces you to the power of poetry, that reminds you of the ways in which simple observations can lead to monumental truths, life-changing truths, in the hands of a truly gifted wordsmith. It struck me as darn near perfect when I had finished the last line.

I don't want to write any more about it -- to explain it in any way seems to rob it of some of its own unique impact. There's so much profundity within this one short poem, that to express appreciation for it might take a week... so instead I implore you to read and enjoy, and feel the potency of Auden's wisdom seep into your soul, like spring rain on a soft and fertile field...


Musee de Beaux Artes

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 24

Look for My Completed Novel Coming Soon......in around 2010

Well, let's face it folks, this stuff is slow going. It's been a month since I posted on this blog with a journal, or anything else, and I guess it's about time to contribute something to the conversation. Which is pretty much one-way......luckily for ST readers (all one of you!), the mind-plowing Duke Altum has been keeping his chambers loaded and kickin' stuff out of both barrels. His intelligent "Mining the Modern Malaise" series will keep your brain humming for weeks while you try to figure out if you have the rocks to check out writers like Saul Bellow.....I know I don't.....

In the meantime, I have been writing Chapter 2 of my novel in progress, "Obeisance to Mammon". I am not sure what the title of the chapter will be yet. Originally it was reported here as "Taking the Cure", but I don't think that will work anymore. I'd say I am about halfway through the Chapter or maybe a little over that. We'll see. I have a lot more to write on it though, I know that. I think the chapter will probably be equal in length if not longer than Chapter 1 was, and that chapter wasn't very short, so it looks like this novel will be written in fairly thick chapters, which is not a really big susprise if you know me or my writing.

How long is this damned book going to take? On the way to work this morning I was doing some of the math: I started the Prologue in around March of 2006, and was working on that until the beginning of June. I worked on Chapter 1 from June through August. And since August I have been writing Chapter 2. This will probably carry me until at least November if not December. Which means I wrote about 3 chapters (the Prologue is around the same length) since March. MAYBE, if I work at the same pace, I will produce 4 chapters in 2007. That brings me up to 7 chapters. Now, i always thought this novel would be somewhere around 12-15 chapters, but it could be more. Let's say 15. That means at the end of 2007, if nothing happens to majorly slow me down even more, we're talking about 2009-early 2010 when this sucker's done! See you then!

One particularly frightening possibility I have made with this discovery is: that means there could be at least three more years' worth of this dreadfully boring journal.....

The Broad Picture: Chapter 2, and Inklings of Chapter 3

As I said, I am about halfway through Chapter 2, more or less. It's been going hard, but it's still going. I haven't killed the story yet and it hasn't killed me. What's it about? As I've said before, in this chapter the newly married Walter and Greta Brogan are on their honeymoon in southern Indiana in a famously opulent motel and spa. They do their best to acclimate themselves into their highly temporary surroundings while Walter Brogan wonders what to do about the "secret" he's holding: the unexpected and troubling encounter which readers are witness to at the end of Chapter 1. At the same time, we learn about Walter's backstory - how he had football dreams, played at Notre Dame for two seasons under the young Irish coach Knute Rockne, and how he arrived back in his home town one night after class at Notre Dame to find out his dreams of football were over, killed, along with his father, in the line of duty.....Walter and Brogan have encounters with some wealthy lawyers at the hotel and discover that one of them has a mentor-like relationship with someone they both know. The chapter will end with Walter and Greta returning to Bentonville to begin the rest of their "normal" life together.

After that, hopefully, the novel will begin to slowly move forward. It will jump ahead about 5 months (slow progress at first, gaining inertia hopefully) to November 1924. The Indiana government has just been taken over by a new chief, Governor Edward Jackson, a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Walter Brogan, colored by previous experience, will begin to feel that he must take decisive action to protect himself and his family. But he will receive advice to the contrary from a worldly-wise older man. Meanwhile, Peter Heinricks will pursue grand adventures in the world of big oil, and local politician-in-waiting Myron Devreaux will begin plotting his moves for a future bigger than anyone predicted he'd have. (Not a little embellishment there, but that's the basic tenor of the ideas that are kicking around right now. Ought to be interesting to see if they come to fruition!)

Epilogue: A Teaser

Finally, thinking of the much longer term arc of the novel, out of nowhere recently I had an idea for the Epilogue to the story, which I've always had some idea of the voice for if not the content of. (Hint: first person voice, not Walter Brogan's, and not Luke Brogan's like the Prologue.) It will be called "The Embrace of the One-Armed Savior", and hopefully in more ways than one will circle the wagons all the way back to the beginning. We'll see if this in any way ends up being part of the book, but it was fun to drop in here at the end of this post, and hell, maybe in 2008 or 9 of whenever I am writing the end of this novel, I can come back and say I had the idea first in 2006.

Happy reading and doing whatever it is that you do! Back to the grind!!