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.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Mutt, I can imagine any great writer going through a phase like you are in, where there is more perspiration than inspiration. I remember reading in a Lewis biography that he had to prod Tolkien to finish The Lord of the Rings. But I don't want to pretend that I know what God is doing in your heart, lest I should do something akin to persuading Abraham not to offer up Isaac in obedience. I pray you will have God's discernment whether to press on or to wait on Him. We your readers will be patient! I admire your hard work and honest soul-searching.
P.S. Putting myself in Kelly's shoes, good move leaving out the labor and delivery portion....I wouldn't want to be the model for that!