Monday, November 03, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 49

The Mind Wanders

The writing of my fledgling novel has been pretty difficult in recent weeks. Well, actually, by “pretty difficult” what I mean to say is “nonexistent”. I suppose this edition of the ‘Journal’ will amount to an update on why I haven’t made much progress. I’d better turn things around. If for no other reason, it would be a travesty to arrive at the milestone 50th entry of my space-stealing “Journal of a ‘Novel’” and not be writing the thing at the moment when I reach it.

I get pretty streaky sometimes with this long work of fiction, which is not very conducive to getting the thing done, but it has been a consistent problem. At least I can say, and this is usually the case even when I get in ruts in writing this novel, that I continue to write something even when I do get blocked. One thing I stalwartly refuse to do is go long periods without writing anything. Thus, I have been working on a few other side projects. For several weeks now I have been gathering up notes to attempt a nonfiction essay about the work of novelist Paul Auster, and indeed I recently read four of his novels in the same month – unprecedented for me since I started reading seriously around 1988 or so. I have started to write the piece a couple times, but I am having trouble finding the correct ‘angle’ I want to take. That’s pretty normal. Hopefully I will find the right point of entry here soon and head into it. It’s not that I want to keep procrastinating on the fiction, but I have put a lot of thought and reading into the idea of writing about Auster’s work – which I have read for years – and I want to take it seriously if the muse is calling me to write this piece.

Otherwise, I have recently written two essays, one called ‘Problem Child’ (posted below) which was a humorous (hopefully) look at my years in the ‘metal militia’. Part of the inspiration for this piece was reconnecting with an old high school pal with whom I played in a metal band called Mere Illusion (I want it on the record that I was not in the band when that name was selected; even back then I didn’t much like it. ‘Grand’ Illusion would have been better.) more than 20 years ago. We had one on-stage performance, at the Governor Livingston Regional High School ‘Battle of the Bands’ in Spring 1988. After I started working on the piece, this guy actually turned up an audio casette recording somebody had made on the night we performed, and mailed me a copy. There were six songs in all, all metal songs from the 80s, and I was both the bass player and the lead singer of the band. We performed in front of about 300 people. It was honestly one of the most surreal listening experiences I have ever had to listen to myself playing and singing heavy metal over 20 years ago. Like I said, the essay was more or less written before I heard the tape, but the tape certainly helped firmly root me back into that time, and it helped round the thing out. It is weird the way things happen serendipitously sometimes.

Finally, most recently I have written a new essay called ‘The Soldier, the Spirit, and the Bride’ which is nothing at all like the last one I wrote, thankfully! I think I successfully got the metal out of my veins (only for now, it never really leaves, once a junkie you remain on the hook….). This essay was precipitated by a very different motive: my mom had found a clipping for a writing contest being sponsored by Central PA magazine (who knew?) that advertised an annual writing competition, and she sent it to me, suggesting that I should write something for it. Normally, I wouldn’t do that. Most of the time, I can’t write because I want to get something, or because someone invites me to do so. (If someone approaches me from Newsweek tomorrow and asks for an essay, I’d probably change that tune.) The topic and the motivation has to come from a more mysterious place within; you get grabbed by a subject and a sudden burst of energy to write on it, and it usually isn’t clear until later why you wanted to write about that topic in the first place.

On the other hand, though, sometimes you see something like this, and take it as a challenge: what would I write if I had to enter the contest? Could I come up with something? What do I have to say about anything related to central Pennsylvania???? The answer at first was: not too much! I couldn’t think of anything and I sort of dismissed it. But then one day an idea popped into my head, and I realized it was something that had been buried back in there for a while (13 years, to be precise). So I accepted the innate challenge that my mom had made when she first sent me the clipping, and just started writing. And I got an essay out of it that I am pretty pleased about. I will enter it into the contest; whether it wins anything is another story. I am sure the odds are long, but it will be out of my hands. Maybe someone will love it; more than likely, I’ll get a note saying which essays did win. But no matter. It’s not the competition or the prize money (modest); it’s the idea of challenging myself to write under certain limitations. I’m not posting the essay here though; the rules are pretty strict about the essay not appearing in print anywhere first, and who knows who could find it even on a blog. Wouldn’t want to be disqualified on those grounds.

Some day I am also going to write an ambitious piece which sets out to compare Stephen King’s 7-book Dark Tower series (note ‘What We’re Reading’ section on the left) to J.K. Rowling’s 7-book Harry Potter series. I want to compare and contrast these two massive works of the imagination to see which is superior and why. So far I think Rowling’s series leads the race (I am through book IV in her series too), but both efforts have some discernable merits over the other, for vastly different reasons. In general, at least so far, Rowling’s series is far more intricately plotted and elegantly composed than King’s is. It’s kind of like you might expect from a big work from a British imagination versus a big work from an American imagination. It’s like a large, endless castle banquet vs. a Super-Sized Value Meal at McDonald’s. Both are excessive, but one is a bit more refined. That’s not to knock Stephen King too much, however. He plays much more fast and loose with the rules than Rowling does; relies far less on conventional themes and well-known mythological devices; his long suit has always been his fearlessness and his lack of attention to what ‘critics’ think. Rowling is a superb plotter, she does everything meticulously and carefully and is fully in command of her own world of Hogwarts; King shoots from the hip, lets his imagination run totally wild across his barren landscape, sometimes to the point of outright sloppiness, but his compelling voice and assurant hand knows you will keep going. It dares you not to.

So there you have it: this post is about everything but the job at hand, my Indiana novel. It is on the back-burner. But I’ve come far enough to know it will be back. After I get some of these ideas out of me, I will take it on again. I think the day is probably coming pretty quickly though when I am going to have to clamp down. The question will become, are you going to get this story done or not? If you’re not, shelve it now and get on with whatever else you plan to write. But if you think you are, then let’s knuckle down to the job at hand. It is hard to have the impulse to write about many things; both a blessing a curse. I am glad I have ideas, but I think I require more literary discpline if I want to write novels, something I have aspired to do for nearly 20 years (and still no novel). I’m not getting any younger. Time waits for no man.

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