Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 47

Journey to the Center of the Novel

I finished writing Chapter IV of my novel in progress in November 2007, right before my 37th birthday. I finished writing Chapter V about two weeks ago. There was a seven-month interval in between there that I’ve already lamented was too long, although not entirely unproductive. I did manage to write a few other things, including an essay that is headed for publication in The Other Journal called “Hope on the Wing: Encounters with The Innocence Mission”. But I did a lot of stumbling around and not getting a whole lot of writing done. (Also had the small matter of the arrival of my third child, to be fair to myself, so it wasn’t entirely procrastination.) I started to have a number of other ideas for writing projects large and small, fiction and nonfiction, and while I was grateful to be having ideas, the time came when I felt like the motivation and commitment to the novel I am writing was starting to slip away from me. So I vowed to make a ‘massive attack’ on the manuscript. I went back to Chapter V and finished it up. After all that struggle, I must admit that, at least for now, I was pretty pleased with the way the chapter turned out. Now it’s time for me to move on with the story.

That means starting on Chapter VI. I only have some vague ideas of what sort of material is going to populate the chapter. That’s all right, because they all start out the same way. Vague, nebulous, like a vapor.

Entering into the drafting of a chapter, I feel like I’m almost floating in a kind of pre-creative state. In a very miniscule but also significant way, it sort of feels to me like the state of things in the beginning, before God created the earth, as described in Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” I realize how pretentious and ridiculous this may sound, but I don’t think it is. If you consider the artistic impulse in terms of a fallible human being’s honest, if insignificant, attempt to imitate his Father, who “created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), you can see why this feeling may occur in some way inside of me or anyone else who attempts to create something.

Before putting down one’s story, there is a kind of dark place you must go to, your creative pool. Even Stephen King realizes this, and sort of gave it a different and a lot more simplistic form in his novel Lisey’s Story where he developed the concept of a mysterious dream place called “Boo’ya Moon”, the main physical characteristic of which was a big pool of water. Say what you want about Stephen King, but the man is not lacking creativity, nor a well-wrought knowledge of the process. He may well feel that darkness upon the face of the deep just before he concocts his own creations. Of course, the novel also contains more words than have ever been necessary about everyone’s favorite prepared food product, Hamburger Helper – so you might take it all with a grain of salt. Hamburger Helper may be a great metaphor for King’s novels, but I won’t go there; I respect Stephen King.

(If you’re wondering how any single piece of prose could go from the Book of Genesis to Stephen King to Hamburger Helper in just a few paragraphs, well, that’s the beauty of journaling.)

Anyway, now it is on to Chapter VI, and in terms of timeline, the story is now moving into the Great Depression era of history. I remember early on, we’re talking years ago, I always pictured this novel to be a ‘Depression’ novel. Never would I have dreamed that I might have been required to work on writing it for two years before even cracking into the 1930s! That’s a first novel for you – a labor that keeps growing even as you learn how to do the job. But now that I am finally entering into the Depression period of my novel, I understand that it is only at this stage that I really entering into the heart of it – or as William H. Gass might say, “the heart of the heart” of the novel I am writing.

I have my work cut out for me. This novel will not work if it does not effectively bring the Great Depression to some kind of recognizable and hopefully potent life. This country has seen many writers bring the era alive in novels far more accomplished than anything I could write – Steinbeck, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, etc. – but not a lot of people are writing novels set in the Depression today. Time is marching forward, and those who actually lived through the Depression are now dying off. My Dad is one of those who still survive who can tell about what living in that time period was like. For people like him, who were only kids when their family was struggling through those times, it was a social and cultural event that marked their lives forever, indelibly. My novel is being written as an attempt to restore that time and all of those struggles to the fore of my own and hopefully to readers’ attention, in order to better understand why it left such a mark.

It’s all very daunting, and this could be the time, more than any other that has gone before, for me to be afraid – very afraid. There must be a million reasons I can think of for why I am not the guy for the job. Yet if I want to be a novelist, it’s my charge to ignore them on and charge ahead. Thus, while it might be a time for fear, it’s really a time for wonder and excitement. THIS is the heart of the struggle. I find myself approaching the center of the novel and what I really feel more than anything else is the thrill of the hunt. It is a ridiculously daunting challenge to think that I might finish this story, revise it, craft it to my satisfaction, send it out, and have someone read it, buy it, and put it on the shelf. But then again, if you told me two years ago I’d have written a total of six chapters and would still be very much alive in the hunt for a first novel, I would have thought even that was insane. So we’ll see.

In spite of the fact that I am not sure where it will go, Chapter VI does have a working title, which is ‘The Black Giant, Obeisance to Mammon’. It will focus somewhat on advancing Walter Brogan’s story into the early Depression, but will also place unusually heavy emphasis on some of the ‘outsider’ characters in the novel – people like Myron Devreaux, Peter Heinricks, and in particular Cal Wittenburg. Witternburg will emerge, if he has not already, as a driving force in the story, for he represents the farming community, and provides a window into that world where Walter Brogan will find his sympathies and his compassion inexorably drawn.

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