Monday, February 16, 2009

In lieu of "Valentine's Day"...

I know many readers are waiting in rapt expectation for the annual Secret Thread Valentine's Day Celebration... what's that you say? You don't remember any in the past??

All right, I'll be honest here - I think Valentine's Day as we know it today is ridiculous, a total sham. I think this guy is absolutely right on the money when he says, essentially, that not only is it a bad idea all around, but it only exists to make retailers richer and actually weakens the concept of "true love" in people's minds.

I know that makes me sound like a crank and a curmudgeon... and yes, it also makes me unpopular at home around this time of year... but something about the idea of the Hallmark Corporation telling me that I MUST express my love for my wife on THIS day, in THIS way, just rubs me the wrong way.

Fortunately, I've come across two items that serve as great reminders/instructors of what real true love is all about... i.e. self-sacrifice, giving without counting the cost, and taking great personal risks to make yourself vulnerable to someone else.

These are the kinds of ideas you're not going to find expressed in pithy statements inside of those Hallmark cards...

A phrase that dawned on me when I first became a parent and has stayed with me ever since is this (and I don't claim it to be in any way original!): the greater the love, the greater the risk. Once I had a child and started the long and wondrous journey of watching and helping him grow (and subsequent other "hims" and one "her" since :) ), I began to realize what a 'great and terrible' thing is it to wholly invest yourself in someone else. Of course I had a sense of that once I met and fell in love with my wife, but with a child somehow it is even more apparent - the instant they are born you feel yourself "fully invested." It felt to me exactly like climbing a very high ladder, putting some powder on my hands and reaching out for that swinging trapeze - even though I had never swung on one before, and there was also that terrifying realization that there is no net underneath!!

Because there isn't. When you give yourself away in love to someone else, you are fully aware of the fact that you could lose them at any moment... and that realization intensifies your love for them like nothing else. Oh, I'm not saying for one second that I always treat my loved ones as I should because of that love... far from it, unfortunately, for I am a deeply flawed man like any other. But when I stop to think about how much I love them, or how much I love their mother... really think about it, and the implications of that... well, I think there is a healthy bit of fear mixed into the warmth of the love I feel. It's scary to deeply love someone, because of how vulnerable you become. Every parent has felt this.

Here are two items that caught my eye because they are expressions of this... in very different ways.

The first is a blog entry from a writer for The New York Times who is suffering from cancer. In this piece he offers a heart-felt tribute to his wife who has hung in there with him through a very physically and (importantly) emotionally/psychologically debilitating experience. It's so devoid of sentimentality that it actually describes things you'd never want to really know about (the man has prostate cancer, so you can imagine)... but that honesty is essential, because it serves to hammer home his point all the more. Which is nicely summed up when he writes:

Yes — lust is essential. But right now, sex seems quaint, old-fashioned. Oddly enough, it can’t compete with the depth and gravity of a light touch, a sly glance. I’m in the mood for the Beatles and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” not Grace Jones growling, “Pull up to my bumper, baby." Don’t get me wrong. I really, really like sex. But given a choice between the mere biology of lust and the deep soul of love, I’ll take love.

A wise man. Me too. Sex is important, sure, even vital - but it's not the be all end all, even though our culture tries to tell us it is. God bless Mr. Jennings in his fight to beat the cancer, and may he enjoy many more years of love - true love - with his wife.

Then there's this concise, poetic and heart-shaking from Donald Hall (especially when you realize the writer lost his beloved wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, several years back) description of the risk of love... which, if you truly mean it when you say those words "in sickness and in health," you're signing up for on the day the ship sets sail.

Love Poem

When you fall in love,
you jockey your horse
into the flaming barn.

You hire a cabin
on the shiny Titanic.
You tease the black bear.

Reading the Monitor,
you scan the obituaries
looking for your name.

May God give me, and all spouses everywhere, the strength and courage to see the journey through to its end... no matter how rough the waters become, no matter if the very ship itself goes down in the effort.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 51

It’s gratifying to report that I have completed the draft of Chapter VI of my novel, as of this morning.

‘But wait!’ interrupts the discerning reader of this blog. ‘You started writing it back in July! How is this progress?? I’ll look forward to reading the book in about twenty years, thanks.’

My answer: ‘Chill out, bro. This is in fact progress, as I am about to explain. It is true that I first laid pencil to paper on July 28, 2008 to begin drafting Chapter VI and that today is February 9, 2009. For those who don’t do math, this constituted a period of roughly 6½ months. However, back in ’08, I only got through one “scene” and part of another one before careening into a brick wall and skittering off wildly towards a few essays and some weird short story about a woman who commits suicide by jumping off a tower in a parallel universe. As you can see, I lost my head for a little while. Fortunately, I buckled down sometime around Jan. 2 of 2009, and have written all of the rest of the chapter since then, which is only about five weeks. It’s a good size chapter, close to 40 pages. When you consider the documented fact that most of the first five chapters of the novel have taken me anywhere from 3 to 6 months to write, I’d say that Chapter VI was composed relatively quickly, and it bodes well for getting this book done in the less-than-two-more-years I have allowed myself.’

Discerning Reader (DR): ‘Ok, ok, so you are working well now. Will it continue?’

Mutt Ploughman (MP): ‘I hope so. I am going to make every effort to cruise right into writing Chapter VII without so much as a tap on the brakes.’

DR: ‘But don’t you have to put in some time on editing and rewriting Chapter VI first?’

MP: ‘Next question.’

DR: [clears throat] ‘What’s Chapter VI called? Being Discerning Reader, I of course saw that already in the historic Entry #50, but maybe the legions of other readers here will want to know.’

MP: ‘Good point. It’s called “The Right Man, Tapping a Gusher”.’

DR: ‘What’s “tapping a gusher” even mean?’

MP: ‘Read the book.’

DR: ‘I’d love to, but I don’t have 20 years to wait.’

MP: ‘Ha ha ha. Well, it has to do with the discovery of oil under the ground.’

DR: ‘Where else might one discover it?’

MP: ‘Do I need to end this interview?’

DR: ‘Sorry. So what does happen in Chapter VI?’

MP: ‘I can’t really say that.’

DR: ‘Nah, I guess you can’t. Can you relate the characters the chapter is most concerned with?’

MP: ‘Sure. There’s Walter Brogan, my protagonist, of course. Cal Wittenburg, the wheat and hog farmer, at least at the outset. He’ll also have a key role in Chapter VII. Peter Heinricks, Brogan’s wayward brother-in-law, experiences some major changes, but off-camera, as it were, since he’s in Texas. And finally Myron Devreaux, the attorney who wants to run for public office, returns in this chapter from being absent in Chapter V.’

DR: ‘Where time-wise does Chapter VI lead us up to?’

MP: ‘November 1, 1930, to be precise.’

DR: ‘Interesting! So why did Chapter VI take so long to write?’

MP: ‘It’s a good question. The answer is I wish I knew. As I remember, when I completed Chapter V over last summer, I was feeling about as confident as I have at any time that I could keep going with the novel. I liked how the writing was going. My goal was, like it is now, to hop right into Chapter VI – and I did! But as I said above, I got about two scenes in and just hit the wall. It wasn’t really “writer’s block”, per se. I mean, I had an idea generally of where I want to go. When I start a chapter, I write a very loose outline, like six or seven lines. I don’t really want to plan the book very much, planning is overrated. But I do have some ideas of where I want a chapter to go when I start on it – you have to have something in mind – so I jot a few of them down in about one sentence each. So I had done this for Chapter VI, it’s still sitting there on my desk. But I got into the second scene and something just wasn’t working well. And it’s a confidence thing, I believe. You start to second-guess. That’s why momentum is important. I wasn’t feeling it, and I started to skip days, and before I knew it the thing had gone way cold and I couldn’t breathe any life into it anymore. Is that frustrating? Exceedingly. But there’s a positive thing which comes out of this kind of experience too. Whenever this happens to me, and it has happened a number of times in writing this story, I always find that my writing instincts do not give way. I can’t get the chapter moving again, but luckily – and I do consider this extremely fortunate – I am still dying to write something. Anything! So I might scribble a few entries in here, for example, or, a lot of times, I think about trying an essay or a story. So that’s what I did from August to January 1, ’09. I wrote a book review, at least two essays, and the short story I mentioned before. The story in particular I think really helped me on a confidence level. I had a weird idea and decided to try it. Just before then, I had had a different weird idea for a story that had to do with Bono [singer from U2] and Africa, and I tried it, and I failed right out of the gate. But this time I had a fantastical idea and I demanded of myself that I would write it. I felt that I was the only one who could. And so I did. It was a great exercise, and it gave me back my confidence.’

DR: ‘What happened to that story? I know you’ve always tried to get stories published, but without much success.’

MP: ‘True. I entered it into a contest. I’m still waiting for the results.’

DR: ‘Good luck.’

MP: ‘Thanks. It’s a real long shot, but I don’t mind the odds, and I’ve certainly gotten used to rejections.’

DR: ‘Any other potential publishing accomplishments in the docket?’

MP: ‘I have one other short story submitted to a literary magazine and an essay also entered into a contest. Still waiting on all three.’

DR: ‘What do you predict will happen?’

MP: ‘Next question.’

DR: ‘So what happened after you finished the story?’

MP: ‘In a word, the holidays. Then after the new year I resolved to work doubly hard on my novel. I picked up Chapter VI and after one day it was as though I never stopped.’

DR: ‘Let’s change course. How do you think the novel is coming along overall?’

MP: ‘Really, considering that I have never written one or even came close – the closest was my graduate school thesis, a modern-day military novel that logged about 300 pages but never really got anywhere – I think it’s going pretty well. I have worked on it at least half the year every year since 2006. I had been thinking about it in some capacity since at least 2000, if not earlier. I just needed to develop more skills and discipline to get started on it and perhaps a little bit of publishing experience to gain enough confidence. Unfortunately, none of my published work has been fiction, but that hasn’t been for lack of effort. I’ve written about 40 stories, so that’s something. My experience over the last three years has revealed to me a truth I suspected but didn’t really have enough information to confirm, namely, that anyone writing a first novel is going to school – they are involved in the ultimate OJT. No one really knows how to write a novel. No one can really teach you how to write one. I would even imagine, and I am going to have to find this out later, that even after you’ve written one you still don’t know “how” to do it. You have to just read a lot of them and decide you’re going to try to write one. And from there it’s a commitment. I figure if I am capable of making a marriage work, then I can write a novel too, if it really matters to me to write one.’

DR: ‘Are you fully satisfied with the speed with which you’re writing the book?’

MP: ‘Not even a little. But I can’t increase it too much more. I might be able to jam in more writing here and there in my day, but there isn’t a whole lot of room, and I probably would pay for it in other areas even more than I do now. The commitment to write a book that I spoke of a minute ago comes with a price tag. You have to be able to afford what it costs you. If I’d been able to write one from the ages of say, 22-30, that would have been the best time for me to do it, but I’ve always been a late bloomer, and I just couldn’t get one going. Now I’m 38 with a wife, a full-time job, sometimes a second job, and three young children. I don’t get much time to write. I have to do it a little bit at a time. There’s nothing for it.’

DR: ‘Do you think your novel is publishable?’

MP: ‘It’s up to me to make it so. I can try as hard as I can to make it so. The good thing about that is that at least some of that is in my own control.’

DR: ‘But do you believe it will be published?’

MP: ‘Honestly, I don’t know. Like they say in sports, I don’t have a crystal ball. I hope so.’

DR: ‘But surely you think about it?’

MP: ‘Sure I do. Often. But when I am writing, I have to make a very conscious effort not to. What matters is not what happens to the story, when you are writing a story. What matters is the story. And that’s all that matters. Take this analogy: I remember when Bruce Springsteen was doing his solo acoustic tour in support of the record The Ghost of Tom Joad, he would tell the audience at the beginning of his shows that he wanted to have silence – that he needed to have silence from them so that he could, as he put it “give my best to you”. That’s kind of how I feel about those thoughts. I can’t be thinking them if I want to give my best to the story itself. And as a consequence, one hopes, give my best effort to the reader, should the story ever find one.’

DR: ‘But I take it you have to imagine, at the very least, that the readers exist in order to write.’

MP: ‘Of course. Otherwise, why do it? You don’t write just to see your own words on a page yourself. You want to communicate what you have to say or tell to others.’

DR: ‘What’s the next chapter called?’

MP: ‘I’m not sure yet. In keeping with my idea of having each chapter title be one phrase, comma, another phrase – i.e., Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers (Chapter I) – I think I know what I want the second phrase to be: “Obeisance to Mammon”. That is from Scripture, and it was also quoted by FDR in a famous speech in 1932. Which, if you’re paying attention, gives you a clue of some of the timing of the next chapter.’

DR: ‘What’s my name?? Of course, I caught that. Have you started writing it yet?’

MP: ‘No, I am typing up Chapter VI and have to do some rewriting and editing first. I hope to start it by the end of February though.’

DR: ‘Best of luck. Hey, one last question. Isn’t it really egotistical to sit down and ask yourself a bunch of interview questions that you can answer, like you’re some kind of real writer?’

MP: ‘It’s really just pure fantasy, is what it is. But the way I see it, what’s the difference? Ego or fantasy? Both are essential for a novelist, it seems to me. In the words of Popeye, I yam what I yam.’