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.

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