Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Journal of a ‘Novel’-Entry 44

My Point Is….

You have to wonder if writers have it all together upstairs. Especially unestablished writers. I get up, I drink some coffee and read a book for a while, which I do just to get my brain into some kind of motion and because I enjoy it. But in so doing, I usually knock off an hour of time. Then I go to my basement, pull out the spiral notebook in which I am writing an utterly uknown novel that it’s hard to imagine anyone who is not related to me would care about in any way. I scribble in the notebook for about 45 minutes at the most, with nobody awake, no noise, and nothing to show for it except a lot of broken pencil leads and a few paragraphs. (This is if I am lucky and a small child doesn’t wake up way too early, which is what happened today.) Then I go upstairs to start my day, for I don’t have any more time to devote to the effort. I have one job to go to, and one some days another one after that, and by the time I get home it’s around 8 p.m. and I put my children to bed and get a little time to spend with my pregnant wife before she goes to bed out of her own utter exhaustion.

The rest of the day, while I am trying to do what I’m accountable for, I wonder about what the point is. Is there really any reason to attempt to write a novel today, when the odds against it being published are so amazingly long, the odds of anyone buying or reading it our day and age are even longer, and the tangible benefits to me and my family are at best miniscule and at worst non-existent? Yet, there I go the next day, or the day after that, and try it again. Not too long ago I spent 45 minutes in my basement and came up with three sentences. On a great day I might get a page and a half of longhand. I am working on the 5th chapter of a novel that I envision to be about 12-15 chapters. The first 4¼ took me two years, from March 2006 to March 2008, to produce in draft form. I go about the rest of my life, don’t talk about it much with anyone except with my brother, think about it an alarmingly huge amount of the time when people don’t realize I’m thinking about it, and go down there the next day to try it again. Soon, in my home, we will have a third child, a newborn, and after that the time to devote to this work will be even more sparse, the bills will be even more pressing, the importance of getting my work done even greater, and all the rest of it.

But the weird thing is, I know I will keep trying, in spite of the way it all feels and looks. It’s hard to imagine taking years out of your life to do something only to have it go nowhere, but that’s what a lot of writers do. You chalk it up to experience and start all over again. I’m not saying that’s what will happen here, because I don’t know what will happen. But the odds are very favorable that this will stay on one of my shelves somewhere. You’d think this would persuade me to give it up, but it won’t, and that’s the part even I don’t understand. I’ll keep at it, because there’s a compulsion in me to try to write stories, and this story in particular, and there’s no telling what it rose up out of or what it means. It just is. It’s there in me because God put it in me and the only way to approach doing what I am trying to do, in the end, is just to believe that God wants me to try. And I will try, I mean, I’ve proven that – I’ve been trying to write for almost 20 years. Something will send me back down there to try again in spite of all that’s working against it. I am not sure what that ‘something’ is, and I can’t think of many reasons to be glad I have the compulsion – but I am still glad I have it. Perhaps the only reason is that God did give it to me, and that makes it a gift, and gifts are something to be thankful for.

Chapter Full of Challenges

The tentative title I have going for Chapter V of the novel is A Domestic Tragedy, Obeisance to Mammon. As part of the title implies, I have at least one ‘big’ event to work into the chapter, but I haven’t really gotten there yet. My chapter titles tend to change in the course of writing them, too, so this one could definitely change. The second phrase, which would be familiar only to consistent readers of this blog, which means my brother only, has been associated with this project for a while now. (See my blog entry, August 31, 2006, in the archives if you don’t believe me.) It’s lifted from the mouth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in turn lifted it from the Gospel. I doubt this one will change, because that phrase is tied to an actual event from history that I want to use to round out this chapter and Part I of the novel. As for the ‘domestic tragedy’ part, readers will just have to wait to find out what that means (probably for a very long time, too).

Talk about the bull in the china shop, right now I am just barreling my way into this chapter and not paying all that much attention to what I’m upsetting. I’m still trying to find my way back into the voice and the rhythm of the story, and the only way I know of to do that is just to hack away at it, as I said at the end of my last entry. But I am also doing something I haven’t ever attempted to do, which is bring a story ahead through almost four years in the space of one chapter, which means I have to give a reader enough information to know what has happened in between. Or at least the relevant parts. So right now I am trying to explain how Walter and Greta went from having no children and no home of their own at the end of Chapter IV (although the creation of an offspring is sort of imminent in that chapter’s closing moments) in the fall of 1927 to having a house and a 9-month-old son when the next chapter opens. And believe me, I’m winging it. I’m making it up as a I go along for the most part, but I think that might be all right, depends on what I come up with to explain the leap.

What’s important is to move the story along, because we have to get into the 30s and the Great Depression. That is the historical core of the book; the formative period of Walter Brogan’s adult journey and of his son Luke Brogan’s entire life. It also was the formative core of my own father’s entire life and as such was the ultimate impetus for this entire enterprise. So it is imperative for me to get into it and start digging away at what is there. It’s essential for my novel and, in a much larger way, essential for me. This gets back to what I wrote about in the first part of this journal, but for now the literary challenges abound and I have to worry most about them. At some later point I can return and attempt to analyze what I thought I was doing when I set out to do it!

My job at present is to get the reader from Fall 1927 to March 1932. That means taking the story through 1928 and explaining how the Brogans found a house, how Walter Brogan paid for it, and how Greta’s pregnancy and the birth of Luke Brogan went. That also means cruising through 1929, which includes the opening of P.G. Heinricks’ family restaurant, The Golden Wheel, and no less than the Stock Market crash of 1929. After that, I need to sweep you along into the 1930s in even less space, for I don’t see too much happening in the first two years. It took some time for the effects of the crash and the Great Depression to infiltrate down into small town America. But by 1931 into 1932, things were getting hard everywhere. People were out of work and farmers were killing their cattle. It all led to the moment when an over-achieving former Governor of New York took the national stage in Chicago and informed the nation that it was time for a ‘new deal’, that we should all ‘admit’ that for some time we as a people had been paying ‘obeisance to Mammon’, and that things in America had to change……….


Cathy said...

I wonder if it's not an enviable position you're in; where you sense you are free from any other motivation for writing than the belief that God wants you to. Like you are firmly grounded in your own "innocence mission" for writing. Not that you wouldn't welcome any of the other motivations -- monetary, expectations of your readers, success, etc -- but by God's grace THE right reason will always reign supreme.

Although I have come in midstream here, I do appreciate your novel entries. I confess I read them with one eye closed, because I am one who likes surprises. I have a hard time differentiating between a teaser and a spoiler! I know that Duke provides valuable feedback -- one of the many benefits of having a twin, I'm sure!

Mutt Ploughman said...

Cathy, thanks for your insightful comments! You make a really good point: it could well be an 'enviable' position to be in, if one has the right perspective. It is true that there is a sort of purity to being the 'aspiring' writer - literally no one expects anything from you; there's no external or worldly pressure to come up with anything; you're only doing it from your own motivations. In fact, writers who do achieve success often lament that there is no way to get back the 'freedom of no expectations' that surrounds them in writing their first books. Another way to put that is that there is only one first novel, I guess, and the rest will have to be written under the weight of baggage.

The idea that I could be on my own 'innocence mission' is clever, and not something that ever would have occurred to me, so it's nice to get your perspective. I am glad you stopped by!

It is kind of weird that I write these journals and explain beforehand what I am working on. Certainly if I actually had 'readers' or knew that my fiction would some day be read, I might not talk so much in a public forum about what the book is all about. But the truth is I am probably just writing these entries to hear myself 'think' about what I am doing, and I go back and read them and sometimes get a little more clues into what I am trying to achieve by doing so. Also I thought if some day my work ever does see the light of day it would be cool to have a record of its completions - this entire 'journal' is a take-off of a book I read once called "Journal of a Novel" which was a collection of John Steinbeck's journal entries that he wrote while trying to compose the novel that became "East of Eden". It's pretentious to try to think I could write my own chronicle of a novel's creation, but that's ok because all creative writing is kind of pretentious: you have to act as if people care what you have to say.

Cathy said...

On second thought, my second comment was silly, even careless -- like a bull in a china shop. This novel is like your baby, and goodness knows I wish I journaled my own kids' progress. As far as me likening it to a "teaser" or a "spoiler", it's really neither, since a grown-up, finished work is sure to look different than when it was younger anyway. Plus I'm thinking too highly of my own memory! I wish I could edit these posts sometimes! Anyway, I think your journaling is excellent not only so you have a chronicle of the journey (which is a valuable resource, not just to yourself), but to help you assess what you've written. Onward christian soldier!

Cathy said...

P.S. I just wanted to add that I did the same thing with Duke's "Confederacy of Dunces" review: I read the first paragraph and thought "I have got to read this", and sort of shut my brain down and skimmed the rest. Silly, but at least consistent :)