Friday, September 16, 2011

Working the Quill

A Report from Phase II of What Was Formerly Known as the Melville, PA Project

I have been at sea, metaphorically, working on a first draft of my book on Herman Melville for almost eleven months now. At the time of my last missive here concerning the project, Returning to Port, I had drafted an Introduction and not a whole lot else. I feel the time has come to provide another update on the project to the legions of readers who, no doubt, are waiting impatiently for the end result, so they can launch on their own adventures with “Uncle Herm,” as I like to call him.

I have said before, and will repeat in the Intro to my book, that my goal is nothing less than single-handedly sparking off the “second Melville revival.” However ambitious that is, the pressure falls on me to produce the book that will achieve it! No one ever got anywhere by thinking small.

What a massive task writing a book is! I have tried to do it before. And have succeeded at least in completing a couple drafts, but of books that up until now have remained unpublished. But I know, at least, how much work it takes to write something at an extended length and to put in the effort to bring it to some kind of close. For the current book, I have been writing since late October 2010, and while it has not been easy to find the time or to organize my thoughts and words, I can report happily that the discipline has been there, for the most part, to work steadily for most of these eleven months.

Andrew Delanco, author of the great biography Melville: His World and Work, which I draw on pretty heavily in my own manuscript, has observed elsewhere that when you write a book specifically about another person, you feel like you are living with them. To some extent I can now vouch for that statement’s accuracy. While I don’t feel so much like I have been a roommate of Herman Melville’s that man certainly has been in my head for quite some time now. And I hope that has led to some growth and development of my understanding of writing, literature, and the world around me. Maybe even of things beyond the world, such as God.

Here is what I have produced so far: the aforementioned Introduction, which I would describe as “unsalvageable” at this point, meaning that it has to be re-written, but it served as a starting point at the time I inscribed it. After that, since I conducted my reading experiment with his work over the course of one year, I decided to organize the main body of my book into twelve chapters, each named after the corresponding month of the year. Hence, the first chapter is simply called “January,” etc. A small note informs the reader of the works I focused on during that month, and some of them, certainly, overlap from one month to another.

In each chapter I provide my own individual and non-scholarly reactions to the works I read that month. In some places I draw connections to my own experiences; in others I draw bridges between Melville’s stories and recent offerings from popular culture, usually movies, that have occurred to me – at different points I have referenced such diverse works as the writings of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe; the films The Untouchables, Dead Poets Society, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; and musicians like Bob Dylan and heavy metal gurus Mastodon, who based an entire album on Melville’s Moby-Dick.

To date I have completed “January” through “June,” and at this writing I hope to wrap up “July” in the next two weeks, which means the book is over halfway finished. That’s not within the one year that I said all along I’d allow myself, but that goal was highly ambitious to begin with, and I knew it to be so. Being over the halfway point is still pretty good – I will take it. I feel like I am within sight of the end, which is when the real work actually begins…..

An interesting literary challenge for me in the next few months will be how to push the book through these last five chapters. This is because it took me only until July 2010 to finish reading all of Melville’s novels, and the short stories I could find. From that point on I read two biographies, one contemporary novel that was clearly written in the tradition of Melville’s work, and then re-read Mardi, Melville’s third novel, a second time. Whereas the entire book so far has been driven by reflections on his books, now I have to write a compelling story about Melville’s life and the way my own life has informed my study of his, in a way that continues to engage readers’ attention.

What sort of book is it? It’s a little hard to say, which I hope means that it’s a unique take on a time-worn subject. I know of at least three major biographies of Melville, as well as a number of smaller-scale ones; there are almost endless titles that approach his work critically, which have come in a fairly steady stream from the early 20th century on. What can I possibly add to what’s already been said? The answer, in a nutshell, is my own story. Since many, many people have tried to become writers, but no one else has shared my own personal path, only I can connect my own experience to Melville’s. The question is, can I make that combination interesting to any other reader?

The title of my book has undergone many transformations so far, and may continue to, but the one I am going with at the moment is Forever Voyaging: One Writer’s Apprenticeship With Herman Melville. Hopefully that title can generate some interest in the book’s contents. It’s really about two things: it’s about Melville and his work, from the point of view of someone who is trying to do the same job. In that sense, the book is a kind of apprenticeship; hence the current subtitle. I can’t do a real apprenticeship with Melville, and I am not accomplished enough to be invited to one of those high-end writing communities like Yaddo or Bread Loaf. So I have undertaken my own personal course of study, with the man who wrote what I believe is America’s finest novel as instructor.

The other thing that the book is is a kind of literary memoir, a chronicle of my own writing journey – with its numerous failures and few successes – and an attempt to examine closely what this craft of fiction writing is really all about. I explore my own writings, unpublished though the great majority of them, how I wrote them, what worked and what did not and the lessons I learned. And I examine the potent idea of failure, in writing and in other aspects of life. I dig into how learning to write stories with value and meaning is one way to power through failures and teach oneself how to heal from self-inflicted wounds and achieve success – or die, someday, still making the attempt. As singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee put it in his brilliant song about baseball-as-metaphor for the creative arts, called “You Give it All Your Heart:” “We may not make it out of the bush leagues/But that’s not why we’re here.”

When I reach the end of my book, I have a plan for an Epilogue, in which I will attempt to sum up the whole project and take a last look at how I can move forward. The last segment will be called “From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee: On Melville and Overcoming Failure.” I plan to explain how I take heart and strength from Melville’s example, a man who experienced failure and despair again and again, who tragically outlived both of his two young sons, and who died largely forgotten – but whose great writings later vindicated his life’s work a hundred fold.

That title refers to the astounding moment in Moby-Dick, the famous third day of the hunt for the white whale, when Ahab bestraddles the small boat he is on, grasps his own harpoon, and sails straight into the white whale’s grill. “I spit my last breath at thee,” he howls, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee!!!” I hope not to be in hell when I do it, but this is the way I want to attack everything that stands in the way of delivering a return on God’s investment of talent, however large or small, in me.