Saturday, February 23, 2008

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 42

Writing in Lent

At least the good news is that after many months' delay, and having written a new short story and an essay in the interim as reported in my last journal, I am back at work on the Indiana novel. I am working on Chapter V now, but still in the first 'scene' of the chapter; I have a long road to hoe in this chapter alone, before I can even think of what comes after that. But at least I have gotten a start on it once again, considering the fact that it was November 6 when I finished the preceding chapter. Although I gave myself until age 40 to complete the draft of the novel, my recent pace has put even such a generous goal in jeopardy!

This chapter takes on a lot of meaning for me, for a few reasons. On a practical level, although the previous four have been loaded pretty heavily with a lot of characters and plotlines, so many that it seems questionable whether I will be able to keep all of the balls in the air, this fifth chapter is attempting to take on even more. It has to accomplish a lot of things, and do so if at all possible in a similar amount of space as the other chapters. This is the first chapter, for example, of the whole novel so far that will attempt to make several jumps in time instead of being set in one year. The first three chapters of the story were set at different months in the year 1924; Chapter IV was the first to move ahead, but it was all set in 1927; this new chapter will span from 1929, when it opens, to 1932, where it will end. This makes my challenge more difficult than it has been already, since in some way you need to account for the space in between those jumps; you have to let the reader know at least the most essential information about what has happened in between, and you have to do it in a way that doesn't bog the chapter down OR make the reader feel cheated for what he or she has missed.

I am facing that challenge now as the chapter opens, because I went from the conception of Walter & Greta Brogan's son, Luke, at the end of Chapter IV (I assure you, I spared the reader any description of the mechanics of what took place, since you KNOW I would bungle any attempt to make that sort of thing read well!) to the early summer of 1929 at the beginning of Chapter V when Luke is already a chubby 9-month-old. Thus the reader got none of Greta's pregnancy and was not a witness to the birth of their son. I felt it was not necessary to attempt to write a whole 'labor and delivery' segment of the book, and I didn't think I'd do such a good job at it anyway. My vision for this book extends all the way to 1942, so I have to leave some stuff out somewhere along the line! For me the most important thing is to establish that they were able to start a family after all, and that for the rest of the novel Walter Brogan will be embroiled in his efforts to provide for them all during the difficult circumstances of the Depression and the World War II era.

And speaking of labor, although not the child-bearing kind, the entire book to me feels like a massive labor at this stage. It has been coming hard and slow when it comes at all, and I have been feeling the difficulty of what I am trying to do in the most acute way in the last few months. Working two jobs, under very tight and often stressful financial circumstances, awaiting a third child in addition to the two very active little girls I have now: all of these things make the attempt to write a real novel absurd if not outright irresponsible: should I not be spending whatever time I can put into this work doing other things? Even when I try to stay true to my original vision and set these distracting questions aside, I find when I sit down that the work has felt strained and unfocused, and I feel the burden of my own creative vision, since I feel like I have so much more ground to cover and make so little headway in covering it. The idea of finishing by the time I turn 40 now seems ridiculous where it once seemed crazy to give myself so much time.

So why do it? I ask myself this all the time. Especially now in the season of Lent, one feels the need to strip away things that don't matter and focus on things that do. Does my writing belong in the former group? I honestly find this a hard question to answer right now. I do know that it doesn't feel like it doesn't matter to me; writing for me is very serious, it always has been; I don't do it for silly reasons. I do it because it feels necessary for me to live. But lately I haven't been doing the best job of making it easier for the people I provide for to live, or at least live at the level of comfort that I want for them. Is there more I can do - especially since the writing I am doing now doesn't seem to be of the best quality? Should I be focusing on other things?

During Lent I have a personal tradition of trying to spend time engaged in what they used to call Lectio Divina, or spiritual reading. I know how grandiose this sounds but the truth is that if I don't set time aside to do it in Lent I find I don't do too much of it at all the rest of the year, something I'd like to rectify at least to some degree. Right now I am reading a book by Thomas Merton, one of my favorite spiritual writers, called No Man is an Island, and in the book I found the following quotes which I must say have hit me where I am living now as I have struggled with these questions: 'All vocations are intended by God to manifest His love in the world. For each special calling gives a man some particular place in the mystery of Christ, gives him something to do for the salvation of all mankind.' Merton also writes, 'Each vocation has for its aim the propagation of divine life in the world.' I have often said that to me writing this novel, if I can really do it, feels to me like my 'life's work'. The question is whether I really have been called to do this sort of thing by God, and if so, can I make sure that my work actually contributes in the way that Merton describes above. If I can complete the work in such a way that it does, it has not been a waste of time. But if I give up or cannot do it, it has been a waste. And if I think that is where it's going it would be better to give up now. But on the other hand, if I really believe I have been called to write by God, then I need to do it as well as I am able. Merton also writes, 'By doing things badly we make ourselves less real.' If I'm going to do it I want to give it my best and that means working at it and not giving up.

I have been working on my novel for two years next month; if I make it to the end of Chapter V I am done with one part of three. If I follow my original plan I have at least 2 1/2 more years of work ahead of me on the book and I don't have any reason to think my life will become easier financially, spiritually, or materially in the meantime. But I am not prepared to give up and I still believe I can achieve something with it that will be glorifying in some way, ultimately, to God. Rainier Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet suggested to his youthful protege that he ask himself very honestly if he believes he can live without writing poetry. If the answer is yes, Rilke suggested, his course of action was simple: stop writing it now and get on with his life doing other things. But if the answer was No, however, Rilke's advice to him was to stop worrying about it and get down to the work. It helps me to remind myself of this during times of struggle, and this is one of those times. I don't expect the struggle to end for a long time, but that is all right. I don't want success to be handed to me on a platter, and I can't expect to earn God's reward either by cruising into Heaven on auto-pilot. I must put in the work.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Duke Altum's POTM #60

Ha - did anyone notice the subtle change in the title of this series there?? Since I don't seem to be able to keep up with this blog as regularly as I'd like to, calling this series of occasional great poems the "Poem of the Week" series seems just a trifle, well, optimistic. So, just like that, is has now been officially re-named the Poem of the Month series! See how easy that was! But the same great, albeit sporatic, content will continue... so keep on tuning in!

This month is a beautiful poem - well, honestly, more of a prayer than poem - from Franz Wright... a Lenten poet if there ever was one! (Wright's poetry often deals with repentence, salvation, grace unearned, delivery from or contention with spiritual and emotional suffering, etc.) The last eight lines alone are well worth the price of admission (i.e. reading this blather first!), and I appreciate them a lot personally as they articulate a prayer I have sometimes uttered in my own heart, but of course lacked the words to articulate as well. Amazing stuff.


Cloudless Snowfall

Great big flakes like white ashes
at nightfall descending
abruptly everywhere
and vanishing
in this hand like the host
on somebody's put-out tongue, she
turns the crucifix over
to me, still warm
from her touch two years later
and thank you,
I say all alone—
vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats
awakens me and I look up
at a minute-long string of black geese
following low past the moon the white
course of the snow-covered river and
by the way thank You for
keeping Your face hidden, I
can hardly bear the beauty of this world.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Swinging to the Music

A review of U23D
directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington

Concert films are almost always boring. No matter how much one may love the band or the artist, anyone who has been to a rock concert knows that viewing a film of a group performing live is nowhere near the experience of being there in person. After the first few numbers, it amounts to listening to the same songs you’ve heard over and over in a slightly different format and tempo. What you don’t get is all of the sights and smells, the pulse of the music in your bones, the strange but pleasing communion you experience with a large gathering of like-minded people for a temporary period of time that is somehow all the more transporting for that.

The challenges to producing a successful concert film would seem all the more formidable for a group as huge in every way possible (except perhaps the physical stature of the members) as U2, the Irish megaband that has been an international phenomenon for decades now. One of the reasons their popularity has become so pervasive across the globe is that their concerts are more than just a live performance. A U2 concert is an event, a spectacle in almost every sense, anchored firmly by the members’ unique talents to entertain with passion and vigor. These men are gifted artists all, blessed with the good fortune to have discovered not so much fame and wealth, but a clear vocation. U2 knows why they’re here. They are doing what they were born to do, and if you’ve seen their shows you know this is true.

The challenge for filmmakers Catherine Owens, a designer of U2’s stage presentations, and Mark Pellington, a film and television director (The Mothman Prophecies, “Cold Case”), was to provide an experience that, while necessarily falling just short of “you are there” verisimilitude, is nonetheless as grandiose and thrilling as this truly great band’s audience expects. In U23D, with the help of recent (and quite remarkable) film technology, they unquestionably succeed. The first concert film ever to be shot entirely by digital, three-dimensional cameras, U23D can rightfully be considered a landmark motion picture, and also one of the most satisfying marriages of form and subject to be seen on the big, big screen in many years.

The three-dimensional aspect of the film is a gimmick. Some may find it over the top at best, and off-putting or even irritating at worst. Entering the theater, the viewer is handed 3-D glasses, and for the first several minutes of the show I found it slightly difficult to get used to the sometimes-blurred or replicated images on the screen. I found, however, that the eyes adjust to it, and to me the handful of moments in the film when the 3-D imagery really works best are worth the temporary disorientation. Besides, it’s a fun gimmick; when was the last time you saw a 3-D movie? (I realized I hadn’t seen one at all.) At one particular moment in the film, the neck of Adam Clayton’s bass appears to be reaching out over one of your shoulders; in another fascinating touch, during the band’s classic anti-violence anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, all of the crowd noise is consigned to the background, and while Bono sings the line, ‘Wipe your tears away’ directly into the camera, he reaches out and seems to actually wipe your own cheeks.

By deploying a dizzying array of camera angles, close-ups, and breathtaking wide-scale shots that fully encapsulate the sheer magnitude of the frenzied South-Central American crowds (the film was shot in Mexico and Argentina primarily) and the astounding stage and lighting designs, the filmmakers have done an extraordinary job of approximating to the fullest extent possible the sensual and visual barrage of a U2 concert. They deserve credit for their expansive vision and execution of this hugely entertaining film, which is best experienced on the IMAX screens it opened on initially.

Still, the ultimate credit goes to the band itself, who have turned themselves into worldwide icons by force of their own extraordinary talent and creative bravado. Some people seem put-upon by U2’s tremendous popularity and seemingly infinite success. For others, this is made even worse by their relatively clean reputation and by Bono’s global stature as an activist against hunger and poverty who seems at times to have more gravitas than presidents and heads of state. But the essential fact remains that for U2 to be as massively popular as they are, and for their shows to deliver the huge payoff one comes to expect, the songs themselves have to be great. It may be stating the obvious that a song like “Oops, I Did It Again” performed in the same venue with the same stage and lighting would not come off nearly the same way, but sometimes it’s easy to take fine songwriting for granted. The music viewers will see and feel in this concert film consists of some of the most spirited, unique and satisfying songs in rock music history – “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “New Year's Day”, “Bullet the Blue Sky”, “With Or Without You”, and so forth. There’s a good reason classics are classics; they’re built to last.

Lest anyone still believes that U2’s best work is behind them, however, nowhere is the aforementioned greatness so evident as in the performance of “Vertigo” from the band’s last album, which provides U23D’s most electrifying moment. The opening salvo of the film, this bombastic rock gem explodes every asset of U2 as a live act in one spectacular burst.

As an entertainer and vocalist, Bono is a force of nature, defying his age and whatever shelf-life a set human of vocal chords might have. He almost literally leaps off the screen. The Edge, U2’s extraordinary guitarist, is a technical genius, and performs with such cool professionalism and ease that one wonders if he is programmed. And the rhythm section of the band, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums, play so well together after 30 years that you expect their flawless execution as a matter of course. I can’t think of a better compliment to pay to these fine musicians.

By the time you reach the first chorus of “Vertigo” and hear Edge’s call to the Spanish-speaking audience of ¿Donde esta? you’re ready with your answer: Right here, in the beauty of the moment, along with everyone else, no matter where in this world we’re from. And for at least 80 minutes out of your busy life, there’s no place you’d rather be.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

TST is Back... and Nationwide!

Well, not really. That was just a lame homage to classic ZZ Top. I once had a job as a janitor cleaning schools during the summer vacations, and for some reason the "soundtrack" of those days for me is loaded with vintage, before-my-time ZZ Top, from the period when their albums were still being released with Spanish titles: stuff like "Cheap Sunglasses," "I'm Bad (I'm Nationwide)," "I Thank You" and of course, who could forget, "Jesus Just Left Chicago." I'm talking way before the "Sharp Dressed Man," "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Legs" days.

Whatever. The point is, we ARE back, after at least a months' worth of technical issues, delays, and the usual craziness of life as working, young-children-raising family men.

As you can see, The Secret Thread has received a bit of an upgrade: at least, we hope it's an upgrade. We're still working out the kinks of the new template here, but in general it should be a bit easier to read and more pleasant to the eye.

But the same great content (if you're going to laugh, laugh here!) will continue... coming up soon, Mutt will provide and extended review and offer up some reflections on the spectacle that is U23D (U2's 3D concert film that is currently playing in IMAX theaters across the U.S.). And I'm planning on ringing in with another list, just for the fun of it: my Top 10 Road Novels of all time. So, please keep on stopping by... and enjoy the ride!