Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 46

Massive Attack

The day of reckoning is fast approaching for my ‘first novel’. I was really worried about keeping the project going once my third child arrived. The fact is that the novel was crippled under its own weight weeks in advance of this event. The hiatus between chapters has grown to exceed even the previous record, the 6-month snag I had in producing Chapter III in the Summer of 2007, but at least in that case we had a whole move of my house and home in there to blame it on. Now I have been languishing on producing the fifth chapter of the novel for nearly seven months and counting. I wrote an introductory scene for it, then stalled; later I gained some momentum as the last few journal entries reveal, but now have stalled again. I am trying to make it through to the end of Part I of the novel because I still have two other large Parts planned out and they will probably include 4-5 chapters each, so there is a long road to travel down before this novel is anywhere close to being finished.

The questions creep into your brain. Your confidence falters. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to do this. Maybe I never have. How long have I been writing creatively? I trace my start of ‘serious’ creative writing back to 1990. That’s eighteen years. What do I have to show for it? A 5-figure student loan with a locked interest rate. Payment to last into my 50s or 60s. Six or seven published essays or reviews in relatively small magazines. Zero published stories after around 12 years of sending out short fiction. Why keep at it? Even if I can get a draft of a novel done the odds against getting it published are so long it becomes a laugher when compared to the amount of time it is taking me to write it.

In the dead of night or the silence of the pre-dawn morning, facing a blank page or scrawling away to fill one up in more fortunate moments, a writer really doesn’t know why they persist. Why tell stories? For what? For who? Because some of us must. Perhaps God has called us to this sort of eccentricity. We move through the world thinking about odd connections, interesting tidbits of seemingly useless information, random story ideas or character sketches, and other such stuff that if we really told the people we loved about in all possible detail we’d probably end up institutionalized.

People who don’t write cannot realize how much writers obsess over ideas and possible outlets for their creative impulses. I will give you a taste of some of my own musings:

Maybe this one article I read randomly on Kenyan witch hunts can become fodder for a story some day. Who the hell cares that I’ve never set foot in Africa and don’t know the first thing about Kenya? Maybe I will read a couple books about Africa to see if I can stimulate something. Why do I keep thinking about Thomas Merton and this one guy I met 12 years ago at a retreat who was briefly a novice while Merton was the Master of Novices at Gesthemani monastery in rural Kentucky. I have not forgotten that guy ever in all this time. Answer: there is a story there somewhere. Maybe someday I will tell it. Why have I been thinking so much about Bono lately and the nature of our popular culture’s obsession with this guy? What do I have to say about this topic that has not already been said? By the way, the Swahili word “Uhuru” means ‘freedom’. Maybe Bono and Africa could be in the same story. I could call it “U2ru”. Hey, I never realized this before but my idea about crafting a climactic scene around the old Corn Festivals in Indiana reminds me a lot of the one scene in Madame Bovary where a guy attempts to seduce the title character while an Agricultural Festival is going on in the Provincial French village. Come to think of it, the old Corn Festivals they used to have in the late 30s and early 40s in Indiana are a lot like the festival that is described in Madame Bovary. There are striking similarities. And didn’t my father tell me that when he was growing up in rural Indiana many of the people he knew had French names????

See what I mean? Am I mental? Who knows. But writers are like this, or at least this one is, and I really doubt I am so different from others, except in terms of success!

I’ll tell you what I do know. The day of reckoning is at hand, like I said. My novel is foundering. I cannot allow that! How can I?! I have been at work on this thing for almost 2 ½ YEARS. The lack of faster progress is frustrating.


Now here I am again, three days later. I decided I am going to initiate a massive attack on my manuscript. I have to keep writing it no matter how poorly it has gone in the past. There are probably a million reasons to continue, but the one that is hitting me so hard at the moment is simply this. If I do not press on with my novel now, I will never find out for sure if I have what it takes to write one. And writing a novel is something I have dreamed about for almost 20 years. It would be a terrible tragedy to hold on to a dream for that long and then give it up after so much time just because I have some earthly struggles and may have hit a few rough patches here and there.

My brother and the co-founder of this blog, “Duke Altum”, had the audacity to suggest to me that I may be focusing too much on reviews, essays, and even short story ideas right now rather than putting all of my focus on moving the novel along. I explained to him that at certain times in the last two years when I hit a blockage in writing the novel but still wanted to keep fresh creatively, I have written essays and a story or two just to keep my muscles limber. Then I try to sell them; I figure if I’m not going to be writing the novel at least I can see if anyone will publish some smaller pieces in an attempt to ‘make a name for myself’. It’s a nice idea, and a hell of a rationalization for delaying any further work on the novel. The problem, though, is that Duke was dead right. I should be forcing myself to work on the novel and muscle through my problems with it. You’re either a novelist or you aren’t one. You are either going to tell the story, or stop pretending that you’re going to.

My attack is already underway. I picked up the manuscript and blew the dust off of it. I started writing on a scene in which the main character’s son is born – and now, I am able to draw on my own experience from the recent past, since my own son is now five weeks old, even though I was still waiting to experience it when I began the scene. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

As soon as I started writing again it became obvious to me that I am trying to do much in my fifth chapter and must therefore close this chapter off and write a sixth, which will be included in Part I. There’s no reason why Part I has to have only 5 chapters, and I don’t want the final chapter of the first part to be an arduous slog that no one can make it through. Thus, suddenly I am close to the end of Chapter V, or at least the draft of it, and that, friends, can be considered progress. The chapter has a new title: “Spinning the Golden Wheel, Before the Crash”. I will finish the chapter, edit it, type it up, add it to the other four, and continue planning and drafting Chapter VI, in the hopes of rounding out Part I of the novel. So the first part of the book will be as follows:

Part I
Chapter I: Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers
Chapter II: A Premature Death, New Experiences
Chapter III: The Fiery Cross, Revelations
Chapter IV: A Lawyer’s Return, Life After Death
Chapter V: Spinning The Golden Wheel, Before The Crash
Chapter VI: ??

And in this way the dream clings to life.

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