Monday, January 26, 2009

On what ought to be a resounding wake-up call to American Catholics (and Christians of all stripes)

Despite all that lip service (read: BS) about “reducing abortions” and “women’s health,” current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it blatantly clear yesterday in a nationally-televised interview why the pro-abortion lobby is so important to her party… it’s the economy, stupid!!


STEPHANOPOULOS: Hundreds of millions of dollars to expand family planning services. How is that stimulus?

PELOSI: Well, the family planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and part of what we do for children's health, education and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs. One of those - one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception, will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no apologies for that?

PELOSI: No apologies. No. We have to deal with the consequences of the downturn in our economy.

“Fix the economy by increasing the amount of pregnancies we terminate”… that’s a great idea. That’s forward-thinking. That’s “change we can believe in.” Did you know that $65-70 million of the President’s proposed “stimulus package” would go straight into Planned Parenthood’s coffers? What a surprise, huh? (Obama is, and always had been, PP’s “dream” candidate. I think nowhere near enough people have really thought about that. One wonders what PP’’s founder, a white woman and an infamous racist, would’ve made of that one…)

Don’t tell me it ain’t about convenience and money… don’t talk to me about “only in cases where the life of the mother is at risk”… after all, we've got an economy to jump-start here! It’s an industry we’re talking about here, it’s big business… might as well make money off of it!! Why not pass out coupons in public schools, Nancy?? (Actually, they probably already do that… or close to it.)

Anyone ever read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World??

Does anyone else see something troubling in this logic, or am I just a hopelessly right-wing fanatic??

Not condemning any person here… I know I’m in no position to… just the mindset.

Look, there’s no doubt this is a very complex issue. I acknowledge that. But even putting all spiritual/theological discussions aside: to actually encourage this as a money-making operation, as an industry – to me that is incredibly problematic. Where are the sweet-smelling Clintonian reassurances along the lines of “safe, legal and rare”? Doesn’t such a promise run contra to the instincts of the entrepreneur, or the businessman/woman?

Just as the government wants to help the Big Three make and sell cars, they also apparently want to help Planned Parenthood succeed as well… oh, for the greater good, of course (whose, is open to question). But you know what? - we could save a LOT of money and funnel it back into the economy by getting rid of all our elderly on life support, too… hmm… somebody call up Peter Singer at Princeton! (Don’t laugh - they actually do this stuff in the Netherlands!!)

Remember the whole “Quietus”** concept in Children of Men? This ain’t very far from that, when you think about it… encouraging the elimination of the inconvenient, so that the rest of us lucky enough to have been born already (and good thing we weren’t born during a similar economic crisis, under an administration like this one! *whew!!*) can thrive again, upgrade our house and buy a Wii for the kids! Whoo-hoo!!

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I don’t want some of that stuff, for my own family… I'm not putting myself on some holier-than-thou pedestal here... but at this cost?? NO THANKS.

** from the Wikipedia plot summary of P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men: “Older/infirm citizens have become a burden… they can either (a) die helpless and unassisted in their homes; (b) commit suicide or (c) take part in a so-called Quietus (government-sanctioned mass drownings).”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oil Men

Below is a brief excerpt from Chapter VI of my novel in progress, Only the Dying. In this segment, two men from the Standard Oil Company of Indiana have shown up in Bentonville, Indiana, unannounced, looking for Walter Brogan, my protagonist. When they find him, they invite him along on a walking tour of a possible building site for a new bulk plant facility for the storage of fuel oil. The site is alongside the B&O rail line on the outskirts of town where a decrepit ruin of an old factory now stands. Brogan understands that the invitation amounts to a job interview. The time is early September, 1930.

‘Al McCready is dead,’ the older man said when Brogan had stopped talking.

This was not what Brogan had been expecting to hear, of all intelligence that the men from Standard Oil of Indiana might have been there to impart. He was dumbstruck, and slowed his progress through the grass to nearly a stagger. Al McCready, dead? He had never known the man to seem robust, but passage from this world was not something that had struck him as being imminent. Although it was true that Brogan hadn’t exactly counted McCready among his close friends, he had been an associate, and for a few years running was his sole connection to the possible change in profession that the three men now seemed to be on the way to discussing. In short, the news came as a shock.

‘Had he been ill?’ Brogan asked.

Spenlow looked at his red-haired colleague, who exchanged a silent glance with him.

‘We were thinking you might be able to tell us,’ said Spenlow.

‘Me?’ asked Brogan. ‘No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know the man well enough to know that. Sure, we spoke a lot, but we never got into that kind of thing. McCready is – or, was – he was a bit rough around the edges. Smoked a lot. But if he was sick or not, I never knew.’

‘In that case, I’m sorry to have to tell you. It was a surprise to us too, as you can imagine.’

‘Any news about what happened?’ Brogan wanted to know. By the time they had reached the old building and were standing adjacent to its flaking southern end.

‘He was found in his home, in the bathroom. Looks like an accidental death. That’s all I really know, and couldn’t tell you much more than that in any case, on account of the inquest that is just underway,’ Spenlow related.

‘Sorry state of affairs,’ commented Doyle abruptly, and Brogan was about to agree, but then saw that the other man wasn’t even talking about McCready. He was peering into a shattered window close to where they stood, into the darkened interior of the old factory. ‘We’d need to come in here and level all of this right quick.’ This last comment was directed to Spenlow, almost as if the preceding conversation had never taken place.

Insensitive son of a gun, thought Brogan. McCready put in over a quarter century of service to this crackerjack’s outfit. But he said nothing.

‘You said he was found in his bathroom?’ Brogan asked. His thoughts had immediately flown to Ilse Heinricks and her tragic death two years before.

‘That’s right. Damned tragic,’ replied Spenlow. He shook his head. ‘Anyway, I didn’t want to mention that while you were eating with your whole family. But it was one of those things that got us out here now. McCready’s untimely death accelerates the process. We’ve got Fred Means in there temporarily, but he won’t be delivering to this area. We need a new facility.’

With that, he began looking over the decrepit building. He walked around the corner to the west side. The breeze tousled the grass. A wasp buzzed near Brogan’s head. He waved at it impatiently, not knowing quite what to say next. He was still a bit flummoxed by the news about McCready, but didn’t want to ask more questions on the matter. Something made him feel that Spenlow, representing Standard, knew more than what he had indicated about the death, but there was no legitimate basis for this feeling. Only the inclination of his own gut.

Spenlow had opened a small distance between himself and Brogan. He gestured to Doyle to join him, and for a few moments the two of them spoke in inaudible tones. Doyle made broad sweeping motions with his arms, and pointed in particular directions. Brogan, standing off to one side, realized the younger man was describing a potential layout of the site. Spenlow nodded here and there. It began to occur to Brogan that Spenlow was doing more of the talking because he was the officer type, a man who made decisions. Doyle was the foot soldier, as it were; the man with the trade knowledge. Although he seemed rather young to have expertise, he clearly was directing the thought process.

Brogan stood off to one side and remained quiet. He didn’t want to seem impatient. But the truth was he had left Benson on his own at the station, and, more to the point, he still didn’t know what the precise purpose was for these men to bring him out here with them. He had an idea, of course, that they were interested in recruiting him, but they had yet to make mention of this. They must have picked up something in Brogan’s demeanor, however, for Spenlow broke away from Doyle again and wandered across the grass towards him once again.

‘Sorry, Brogan. We were thinking things over.’

‘What are you thinking about?’ Brogan asked. He thought it wasn’t out of line to ask, since they had brought him out this way after all.

Spenlow pulled a white handkerchief out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He removed his barbershop hat with one hand and mopped his brow with the other.

‘Well, if we’re going to put a bulk facility in here, we’ll need a man to run it. You know that. The fact is, we’ve got a job to fill. McCready recommended you to us. In fact, he brought your name up some time ago. That doesn’t surprise you, I take it.’

‘No sir. We spoke about it. He told me months ago he would mention my name. I’ll be up front about that.’

‘Hopefully you’ll be up front about everything, Brogan. That’s the sort of man we’re looking for.’ Spenlow now regarded him with great scrutiny and a stone face. Doyle had his back to them, still looking back and forth over the land.

‘Of course, Mr. Spenlow. I didn’t mean otherwise,’ said Brogan, rubbing his hands together.

‘I’m sure you didn’t, sir. And while we’re talking straight, I’ll tell you this. We’re here because of McCready’s, let’s say, “enthusiasm” about you as a good candidate. But we’ve got questions, too. A couple concerns. I don’t mind telling you about them. I’d like to know what your answers would be to those concerns.’

‘Then go ahead, Mr. Spenlow.’

The older man smiled. ‘Brogan, I consider myself a reasonably good judge of a man’s character. I think that’s part of what got me to where I am right now. And you strike me as a decent fellow. You’ve got some backbone. And you seem to work pretty hard. Standard of Indiana can appreciate those qualities.’

‘I suppose I have some pretty good reasons to work hard,’ Brogan said, shrugging. ‘More reasons every day, I’d say, if you read the papers.’

‘I assure you, sir, that I do. Good jobs aren’t exactly easy to come by nowadays. Which is why we feel we need to select our man wisely. To tell you the truth, Mr. Doyle here is of the opinion that you might not have the experience required to do this job. We know you haven’t been in the business for long. What would you say that?’

Brogan eyed the redheaded man. He still didn’t turn towards the two of them, even though he was certainly within earshot. This Brogan found irritating.

‘I’d say if he has questions about what I can or can’t do, maybe he ought to ask me about them himself.’

Now the younger man did turn around. Quickly. His eyes blazed, but he did not advance towards Brogan.

‘Now listen here—’ Doyle began.

Spenlow held up one hand. His eyes remained on Brogan. He waited a moment before speaking. Brogan stood his ground and looked at Doyle straight on.

‘Look, Brogan,’ said Spenlow. ‘This isn’t personal. I appreciate that you have self-confidence. But the fact is that Doyle’s correct. You do lack experience. You’d have to hit the ground and learn the distribution aspects of this business in short order. Pumping fuel is one thing, sir; handling it on a regular basis is quite another. I need not tell you that aside from all business issues, there are also safety concerns that we would need to have assurance that you would be able to understand and address.’

Brogan took his eyes away from Doyle and paid Spenlow his direct attention. He still didn’t like, or much respect, what he could ascertain of the younger man’s character. But he knew that Spenlow’s points were valid, and he could sense that his opportunity was on the line. There would not be a whole lot of other chances to land a more suitable position, he thought.

He realized that Spenlow was giving him the chance to speak. So he decided to make his own thoughts clear.

‘Mr. Spenlow, I understand that you’re concerned about my experience. It makes sense that you would be. But if you don’t mind my pointing this out, it doesn’t seem to be too big of a problem, or your employer probably wouldn’t have sent you out here to find me. I’m sure you men, and Standard Oil, aren’t interested in wasting time.’

‘You got that right, Brogan,’ said Doyle, still looking him over.

Brogan ignored the interjection. He continued: ‘I’ll tell you this much. I think I can handle the job. I’m strong, I work hard, and I’m local. And I’m looking for a more promising situation in order to better protect my family. There’s no shame in saying that. Now, I don’t know if you folks teach your employees or if I need to go out and spend some time up in Gary or Calumet talking to other men that handle fuel or what. I do know I spent a lot of time talking about the way it works with Mr. McCready.

‘I’ll learn the job. You can bet on that. If you’re looking for a man that’s serious, who will make you feel right about your choices, Mr. Spenlow, I am that man.’

At that moment, as Brogan finished speaking, what might have been a lingering moment of silence suspended between the three men in the grass was splintered by the long, low rumble of a freight train’s whistle. The approach of a trainful of supplies seemed to Brogan to lend the whole situation a good feeling, a kind of unspoken confirmation that the location was appropriate, and the need to find the right man for the job was, for all practical purposes, the last piece of the puzzle.

‘That’s good to hear, Brogan,’ said Spenlow. ‘Very good. Now, let’s take a few more minutes before we get you back to the station to talk about what a bulk plant down here might look like. Come with me.’

He walked around the edge of the building, clapping Doyle once on the shoulder as he did so. Brogan followed after them.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mutt Ploughman’s Annual Non-Scholarly Charles Dickens Essay

*The Posting of Which Officially Concludes Dickensfest VII*

My business here is to offer some thoughts on this year’s Dickensfest selection, which happens to be the 1850 novel David Copperfield.

Even among the multitude of famous novels written by Dickens, David Copperfield stands apart for a number of reasons. First, it represents the midway point in Dickens’ career as a novelist – there were seven major novels that came before it, and seven more followed. Second, it is the first of his novels that Dickens wrote exlusively in the first person, losing himself in the voice of the young Copperfield of Blunderstone Rookery. Thirdly, it has the following distinction, which I will articulate using Dickens’ own words from his preface to the ‘Charles Dickens Edition’, published in 1867: ‘Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.’

When you read Dickens, you’re taking on a lot, and commiting a hefty block of your own time. As well you should. There aren’t many other writers whose novels take such a commitment with every outing, which is why their legends don’t endure. Unlike most writers’ work, when you decide to read Charles Dickens, you’re not just experiencing a story – you’re entering a whole world. It’s like traveling to 19th century England for an extended stay every time you open one of his books. You’re going to get the sights, the smells, the noises, and above all else, you’ll get an entire peanut gallery of personalities – not just one or two characters. You’ll enter Victorian chambers for tea with the very rich, gossiping amongst themselves about this scandal or that; but you’ll also take to the cold streets, and experience the poverty and peril of the underworld.

One of the reasons Dickens was so adept at portraying many different aspects of British life was his own experience early on as a court stenographer, where he was exposed to a wide variety of real-life characters ensnarled in an unmitigated maelstrom of legal and moral predicaments. In fact, one aspect of the character of David Copperfield’s life that parallels Dickens’ own is revealed when, late in the novel, Copperfield also becomes a court stenographer, allowing Dickens to deliver this revealing observation: ‘Brittania, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl, skewered through-and-through with office pens, and bound hand-and-foot with red tape.’

However Dickens’ talents may have come about, it is because of his astonishing range of vision – his close attention to all levels of human society, not just the elevated ones – and the author’s singular gift of imagining and giving voice to so many different characters that his works have become immortal in the annals of world literature. Almost no iteration of the modern novel can be imagined were it not for the influence of his stories.

Hallmarks of that influence can still be seen clearly in much of today’s literature and film; it is something I perceive acutely every time I take on one of these annual adventures. Just as I have been reading David Copperfield, I saw two films that bear his influence: Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story (itself a genre which Dickens has also greatly influenced) which depicts disadvantaged, orphaned children banding together to avenge the murder of one of their own; and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which features a long, complicated plot filled with coincidental collisions that are as unpredictable as they are improbable, and also pays particular attention to the sights, colors and sounds of the world of the poor. Mr. del Toro, the Mexican director who is responsible for such visionary works as Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, frequently acknowledges Dickens’ influence on his films and screenplays; in Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, the young female protagonist’s offering of her left hand in introducing herself to a man who will become her abusive stepfather is unabashedly lifted from Chapter II of David Copperfield, where David does the same thing to a figure who will play a similar role in his existence.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the entire phenomenon of Harry Potter would be utterly nonexistent without the long reach of Charles Dickens. J.K. Rowling’s complex plots betray an indisputable debt to the Dickens canon, and her very memorable wizarding world includes dozens of characters of all shapes, sizes and colors (not to mention species). The bumbling elf-like character of Dobby, for example, who is introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is so comically Dickensian in his mannerisms and frequent lamentations that it feels like he was lifted right out of one of his novels, except for the fact that he is not human! Not to mention the central notion of the boy hero who rises from humble circumstances, which can be traced straight back to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the first major novel in the English language to feature a child as its protagonist.

In David Copperfield there is little question that we encounter Dickens the novelist at the zenith of his considerable powers. But rather than to try to describe in hyper-literary terms exactly why that is the case, I think what I will do instead, for the duration of this commentary, is attempt to describe some of the things that I have most enjoyed about this particular Dickens novel, and let whatever conclusions or observations that are scattered in the process sprout where they have fallen.

Within our own family, Duke and I are somewhat reputed for our tendency towards hyperbole – and few among us, if I may be so bold, can do it like we can. But NOBODY exaggerates like Dickens does, and when he chooses to lay something on thickly, he doesn’t just cover the subject, he smothers it. His descriptions of David Copperfield falling immediately in love with the childish Dora Spenlow are so over the top, I found myself howling. Probably a lot of critics throughout the different eras since his books appeared have crushed him for this, and there’s no doubt that he can overdo it on certain subjects just like he can overdo it in general (note the size of his novels!). But that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to Dickens, and I suppose if you’re going to wax at length about any particular subject, you can do worse than extolling the virtues and sublime qualities of the person you love.

Dickens’ portrayals of the lives and struggles of the underclass and the poor are always interesting to read, and his sympathy towards their plight resonates profoundly, which can be comforting if one is reading during tough economic times themselves, and is all the more laudable given that shortly after his first novel appeared on the scene, Dickens himself had absolutely zero financial worries of his own. He was the J.K. Rowling of his own time. But his memory was long and sharp, and he never strayed too far away in his own mind from his father’s humiliation by being thrown into debtor’s prison (which is where I probably would find msyelf right now if I lived in those times) or his own personal baptism into the life of the working class via a stint in a blacking factory as a young boy. In this novel, as in most, there are a number of characters who are involved in a mighty struggle to stave off insolvency, David Copperfield himself being not the least among these; but the spirit with which he carries himself in this struggle is laudable and worthy of the reader’s appreciation. He won’t give in. He makes something of himself against all odds. I can relate to that idea.

I also find it interesting to note, which may not be much of a surprise, that David Copperfield himself becomes a writer, and begins to publish stories and such in various magazines. Later, he publishes a novel. It was with a wry turn of the lip, I admit, that I discovered that David Copperfield’s transition from aspiring writer to ‘authorship’, to use his own word, occurs over the course of exactly one brief retrospective sentence in the novel, whereas my journey towards being a published fiction writer began somewhere around 1994, and has yet to find its way to a legitimate conclusion. However, my lack of success is no fault of the fictional Copperfield. Furthermore, I can always reiterate the words that close the previous paragraph here with regard to my own situation: he won’t give in. He makes something of himself against all odds.

Lastly, it’s also interesting that although Copperfield touches on his literary success in the book, he reflects upon it with humility. Dickens doesn’t have him fixate on his own stories or novels: ‘I do not enter on the aspirations, the delights, anxieties, and triumphs of my art,’ he writes, in Copperfield’s voice. ‘That I devoted myself to it with my strongest earnestness, and bestowed upon it every energy of my soul, I have already said. If the books I have written be of any worth, they will supply the rest.’

One of the funniest characters in the book to me was a man called Wilkins Micawber, a side character with whom David works for a period early in his career. Micawber is one of those Dickens characters that is comically dramatic, waxing at length about the plight of his existence and the various challenges he faces. In this case, Micawber is constantly fighting to overcome debt, a struggle for more than one character as I alluded to earlier. He even spends some time in debtor’s prison. This character is based on Charles Dickens’ father, John. Micawber’s circumstances are difficult throughout most of the story, although he eventually finds a way to deal with his problems, thanks to the help of many generous friends. But what makes him funny to me is the numerous letters he writes in the book and the off-the-cuff speeches he gives regularly about his struggles to defeat his creditors. These are filled with flourishes of highly exaggerated language that amply demonstrate both Dickens’ unique flair for drama and his exuberant prose style.

To conclude I would remark that the key to appreciating Dickens’ work, to me, is to simply allow yourself to enter fully into his stories and become swallowed up in them. I believe that this is the way Dickens meant his fiction to be experienced. His efforts seemed to lean towards creating a panoramic reflection of human experience, an invitation to readers from all walks of life to come inside and be entertained and perhaps to learn or re-learn some of the things about ourselves that are worth remembering. For you can say what you want about how his novels are filled with melodrama or unrealistic twists and turns or just too many words, but the fact is that very few novelists across the centuries, in all the history of English literature, had compassion, generosity, and warm-hearted enthusiasm for their fellow man on the same scale as Charles Dickens.

If you, in a dark moment, seek to cut yourself off from mankind and cower in the mirthless, painful corners of our existence – and I admit, sometimes I do myself – then you might do better to curl up with some Hemingway or Nietschze. But if you pine for some instruction from literature on how to be alive and to accept and even embrace your brother, while being simultaneously and copiously entertained, Charles Dickens is still your man. David Copperfield stands forever as one of the greatest examples of what he accomplished.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Journal of a 'Novel'-MILESTONE 50th ENTRY!

Mark it: November 7, 2010

I know many of you have been anxiously awaiting the miletone 50th entry to my Journal of a ‘Novel’ series of posts. If you are in this large group, you have been waiting for a whopping eight weeks, but your wait is over. This one is for you!! (????)

And in the spirit of this post and of my literary work for the year ahead, let’s get to work. The date above is my 40th birthday. It also represents a new goal for me with regard to my fledgling, but slowly coming awake again, novel-in-progress, with the working title of Only the Dying. Actually, this goal is not really new. When I first started writing on this story, way back in March 2006 (the research began in 2005), I always thought, and I even told the few people that knew I was starting on this, that my loose goal was to have the novel completed by my 40th birthday. That never meant published, for who knows if this novel will ever be published. It faces monumental odds. Rather, it meant that I would have finished writing the book by the time I turned 40 years old.

At the time I was 35, and that seemed like giving myself a reasonable space to get the book finished. Five years seems like a long time, but I was trying to be realistic. It was to be an ambitious project, and I had (have) never written a novel before. I also had two children at the time I started it, and have since added a third; I am the sole bread-winner for my family, etc. There’s not much time in an existence like that to work on a novel, especially if you have financial pressures of the sort I (and many others) face every day.

But the truth is, I never really held myself mentally to that, and always thought of it as a “loose” goal. It didn’t matter to me so much if I finished it by then, as long as I got it done “someday”. With this 50th journal post (the fact that there are 50 posts and I’m not even halfway done with the novel tells you there’s a disciplinary problem here), however, I announce the change: now, my 40th birthday IS the official goal, and I pledge to do everything I can to meet it. The problem is, I am a lot closer to being 40 than I was when the goal was originally floated! It’s less than 2 years away now. But no matter: I understand now that I have lacked the discipline so far that is required to see this novel through. And setting a tighter deadline will hopefully help me develop the discplinary fortitude to get the book done.

But this is no self-flagellation. I now take the time to appreciate, hopefully without aggrandizement, what I have accomplished so far. For while I have not done a great job over three years’ time setting myself to hard work on the book, I have done a reasonable job. I have hand-written over 270 manuscript pages, and have drafts of a Prologue and five full chapters completed. I researched for three and half months about the Great Depression, the Roaring 20s, and the oil industry in late 2005 and early 2006, and learned a lot there. I have continued to research such topics as Indiana history, the oil boom in Texas in the early 1930s, early pro football teams, Prohibition, township governance and by-laws in the state of Indiana, New Deal politics, and, most recently, the smuggling of contraband or “hot” oil across state lines that led to the Connally Hot Oil Act of 1935, all while continuing to write the novel. I think these are all legitimate accomplishments, and worth being proud of, but all the same, the novel is still not making very rapid progress, and unfortunately it hit a LONG snag towards the end of 2008 for at least a couple of months. I might have had a sixth chapter completed by now had I not hit a rut, but lamenting that reality is not a very good use of time either.

And at the very least I can be happy that I used that time to write two or three nonfiction pieces and one short story, all of which I am pleased to have written, even if none of them have yet to find a home in print. But those pieces have been written about elsewhere on this blog and are not my focus here.

The simple fact is that for all I have done so far, more effort is required if the dream of writing a novel is ever to be realized. The question for me is how to work in the effort that it will obviously require. My life is no less busy with three children than it was with two, when I started the book, as one can easily imagine. My time only grows shorter as life moves ever-forward. It may seem bleak but it’s true. How long does one allow oneself to take an honest shot at one’s life dream? When is it too late? How long can one justify taking the time to write a novel when I could use the time for an infinite variety of other pressing needs and matters, and in light of the chances of success a novel might have to be published, let alone read? Why does one even attempt to labor against such odds in the first place? If I, at 38 years old, can still walk around saying that I feel like I was ‘called’ or ‘born’ to write novels, when most people who are called to do so have certainly produced something worth mentioning well before my age, at what point does that become kind of a sad joke, or worse, a form of self-delusion?

Needless to say these questions haunt me all the time and I do not have, or I do not want to have, their answers. But I know that my time is not unlimited. And I have strong suspicions that so far I have not lived up to my full potential on this earth. I don’t know if I am kidding myself or not at this stage. What I do know is that I have a very powerful urge to write, and I want to use that urge to produce writing I can be proud of. And I also know that a long time ago, many years ago, I set a goal for myself that I would someday write a novel. As early as 1999, the subject for my novel began to take shape in my mind. And to this day that novel remains unwritten. It’s in progress, but it’s still unwritten. I am the only one who can write it. So I am giving myself a deadline to finish the book. The deadline is November 7, 2010.

What does that mean? It means I have to write a lot more than I have in a smaller amount of time. If I have been writing the book for almost three years, and have produced what I believe is a bit less than half of the story, what it means is that I have to write over one half of the novel in less than two years. So it’s obvious that the output will have to be more prodigious with less time. How can I expect to achieve this? The only answer is to cut other things out. For example, I almost always devote some time in the early morning to reading. Much of that is going to have to be temporarily suspended, as much as it pains me. Reading for pleasure is going to have be fit in only when more pressing matters have already been addressed in a given day.

Furthermore, I am going to have to write more, and more often. For me to achieve this new goal, it seems reasonable to expect that I will need to write once a day at least for 5-6 days per week. And it may require even more than that. I remember when I was trying to get Chapter 1 of the novel off the ground, back in 2006, I was trying to fit in what I called at the time “two-a-days”, where I would write as much as I could fit in in the mornings, and then take the manuscript with me to work, drive to a library on my lunch hour, and try to put in some more time on it at lunch. I may have to adapt a similar strategy now. How else can I expect to make the progress I need to? It will take a lot of persistence and effort when there will be many, many days where I don’t want to do it. But it’s becoming clear that it won’t get done otherwise, and who knows, I may run out of time in one capacity or another.

Can I do it? I think I can. I can recall another time in my life when I set a milestone birthday as a goal to achieve something, and I manged to achieve it. When I was serving in the Army in my 20s, I told myself that I would obtain an advanced degree before I was 30 years old. At the time this goal involved taking the GRE test to even be qualified for graduate school, researching and applying to schools, then entering a program and completing the course work for a Master’s degree AND a thesis. It’s true that I was single then and had no family and nowhere near the same financial constraints that I have now, but that’s no excuse for not achieving other goals later in life. If I did it before, I can do the same thing now. Getting a Master’s degree required a lot of work, and I accomplished that, so I can move on to the next goal and get that done too. If I am fixated on the idea that the day will arrive when it’s too late, then I suppose I have no business trying to get something done in the first place.

Today I went down into my basement work area, where I have not written a word in several months. In some places there were literally cobwebs to be brushed away. I cleared off my writing desk, a dark wood piece of furniture that my wife gave me when we got married, because she believes in my writing abilities. Then I set to work, climbing back up the side of the mountain, scratching out only a few new paragraphs to a draft I have had going of Chapter VI of the novel, that had been laying stagnant for many months. I am working on a scene in which Walter and Greta Brogan, married characters from the novel, are in a restaurant discussing the downturn in the economy. The year in the novel is 1930, but I hardly need point out the parallels to the present day. ‘The question is,’ Walter Brogan says, ‘how bad are things going to get.’ As we all know, things from that point in history only got far worse before they got better. But they eventually did get better.

What I want the character in my novel to do is press through, and he will – he will keep working as hard as he can to provide for his family, come what may. He may not emerge victorious, but his spirit will live on, just as his real-life inspiration, my grandfather, has lived on and is living on in spirit as I write this book which is partly based on his life story.

Reader, your humble(d) scribe has no choice but to do the same thing. He has a job before him. Times are tough. He is under strain. There are many things demanding his attention. He has not achieved everything he has set out to do. He must have faith, stay strong, get serious and stay serious. His family is counting on him to become what he believes he can become. The work awaits: it must be seen as his job: it is his job. Time for him to set to it.

Monday, January 05, 2009

"Take up and read" - again

It will come to know surprise to anyone familiar with me that C. S. Lewis is one of the guiding lights – “patron saints,” if you will – of this blog. The very name of the blog itself is a direct reference to something the world famous Oxford (and Cambridge) don wrote in his essential book The Problem of Pain.

Anyway, this post also takes its inspiration from something Lewis once wrote, which is (paraphrasing a little here) that no one can say they “know” a book having only read it once. I heartily agree – the first reading of a great book is something like your first introduction to a memorable person. Or any person, for that matter… who would say they truly know a person after just one meeting? Chances are, you've only just begun to scratch the surface.

In the spirit of this wise dictum, then, I present a short list of books that I am aiming to re-read in the year 2009. I’ll say right off the bat that it’s unlikely I will get to all of these, especially since there are so many new books I want to get to… but these are some of the books I consider to be truly great and worth investing a lot more time into. There are depths to these books I have only barely begun to plumb, and I look forward to discovering what a second trip through these pages may have to teach me.

In 2008 I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s magnum opus Blood Meridian and got a lot more out of it than I did the first time (which is not to say I understand the book now!). Who’s to say the same won’t be true for some of these classics?

Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery O’Connor
I resolved a while ago to re-read at least one part of the short but essential O’Connor canon every year.

Silence, Shusaku Endo

The Creators, Daniel Boorstin

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) and Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), Pope John Paul II