Sunday, February 23, 2014

To muse, v.: to be absorbed in one's thoughts; to engage in meditation.

My son and I, we like to spend time in different worlds.

In Skyrim, Josh's world, he has two houses, a supportive wife who says things like, Hello, my love!, Are you back home after one of your great adventures?; and two grateful adopted daughters, (Thank you, father! I will treasure it always!).  

In Skyrim, Josh is a grown man in form-fitting armor.  He has magic hands.  He used to have a loyal dog and a series of grateful helpers, (For me?  Really?  If you say so, my liege!), but I haven't seen them, lately. They may have been by a frost troll.

You can see why Josh prefers Skyrim to Wisconsin, despite the fact that both places are experiencing the austerity of winter.

My alternative world is the one that I'm writing about.  I get so wrapped up in it that I forget what month it is in Wisconsin (what month).  The other day, I wrote "August" on a check.  It's February.

However much we love to spend time in our alternate worlds, Josh and I by necessity inhabit both worlds, snapping in and out of avatars like that guy in, um, Avatar.  But unlike us, that guy didn't have to do much in the human world other than to journal about his life in the attenuated-blue-people world.

Josh and I have a heck of a lot more on our Earthly plates than he had, let me tell you, and it is hugely diverting--not in a good way.

As a parent, I must insist that Josh limit his time in Skyrim.

As a writer, I must insist that I spend as much time in my imagined world as I can, without actually neglecting any of my charges, obligations, responsibilities, etc.

This is the hardest part about the whole writing project: the jumping at warp speed back and forth through worm holes of consciousness, day in and day out.   I can do it, but it makes me cranky.  As a devoted parent, (Hello, my love!  Have you returned from another one of your great adventures in fourth grade?), I have had to dial back the crankiness.

(I often think of J.D. Salinger, these days, who wrote from a bunker in his back yard.  When he was in the bunker, sometimes for weeks on end, he was NOT TO BE DISTURBED.  For his children, at such times, he was as accessible as the man on the moon.)

In the past week, I have become aware that not only do I need to dial back the crankiness, I also have to ratchet up my awareness of the needs of those in my charge--specifically, Josh and my kitten.  In fact, my real life became a compelling subject in its own right.

The tension between the two worlds shifted, perceptibly.  The gravitational pull of Earth superseded that of Book.  At one point, the atmosphere around Book grew so thin that I was no longer grounded there.  I floated in the air, above it.  I felt myself getting lighter and lighter, floating higher and higher.

(In addition to J.D. Salinger, I have also been thinking about God, lately.  Does God feel pulled in infinite directions?   Does the heart of God break in one world and soar in another?   It would, I imagine.

As my attention shifted to the demands of my life, writing seemed less important and interesting, and increasingly superficial and chore-like.  Like when you first start working out, it makes you feel healthy and alive, and you talk about it constantly, boring everyone to death.  But after a while, you grow accustomed to that feeling of physical well being.  You take it for granted.  It's a bit of an inconvenience to get to the gym. You get the flu.... You drift.

I should explain, I have a sick kitten at home, whom I adore.  I am trying to nurse him back to health.  This is undoubtedly more involved than you're supposing.   Improvement and deterioration are running a very close race.  It's compelling, and depressing.

Fortunately, I have a muse.

Muse, n.: a guiding spirit.  a source of inspiration.

She is both real and imagined.  As a real person, I don't know her all that well.   As a character, I know her very well.   She has one foot in this world, and one foot in my imaginary world....Just like me.

She was scheduled to come over for tea.  I often considered rescheduling.  I was depressed, and my mind was elsewhere.  But I didn't cancel tea.

She sat at my kitchen table, and listened to me talk at length about the kitten, instead of the book.  She listened and empathized.  We both talked about our real lives.  We didn't talk about the book until the last minute, when I fired off a bunch of questions.   Before I knew it, and without knowing why, all was well with the book again.

I know the story I want to tell, but how to tell it is a series of riddles.  They must be answered before I can write any further.  Like in a conceptual world in a video game.  Every chapter is a moment that has to be about something.  That is the riddle.

She gets in her car, drives off to the barn to see her horse.  I might see you at the barn, I say.  Good-bye!  Thank you!  

But I don't go to the barn.  I sit right down at my computer. I write until the clock says I must stop: I must come back.  So, reluctantly, and with considerable effort, I jump, at warp speed, through the wormhole.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

Raise your hand if you thought I'd been defeated in my latest bid for literary gory.  I mean glory.  Show of hands, please.

Not yet, my erstwhile friend, not yet!  Soon, perhaps, but not yet.

As I thought, having a private blog where I can post excerpts from my first-draft for a small group of adoring readers has been very helpful.  It fends off an insidious sloppiness and inspires me to look at my work with greater objectivity.  And it is another motivation to write, (in addition to my own powerful motivation to tell the story).

Posting a chapter, or what will become the basis for a chapter, is very satisfying.  Once it's posted, I see it differently yet again, and I make further corrections.

Needless to say, once the link to this post is on Facebook, I will click on the link myself and make even more corrections.  It's a perverse process of publication and self-correction.  (Hence, my hyperbolic title, let a hundred flowers bloom, referring to Mao Zedong's campaign of encouraging everyone to express themselves openly, and then sending the dissidents to self-criticism camp.)  (It's an absurd comparison, but I have to pepper my prose with historical references, now, and it's about to get worse, so hold onto your hat.)

Charles Dickens' The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was written in twenty serial installments between 1836 and 1837.  It was the first writer-reader relationship of its kind.  Dickens heard his readers' (they were legion) response to what he had just written, and he knew that they were eager for the next installment of the story.   Would the public have been as hungry to consume a 784-page novel as they were to consume the piecemeal portions that continually whet their appetites?

Could he have written the 784-pages of The Pickwick Papers without his readers' enthusiasm and energy?
His very first published book was a collection of sketches that he had submitted to various magazines for publication.  On the strength of those sketches, he was hired to write the captions for artist Robert Seymour’s humorous sports-themed illustrations.   Dickens "captions" were so well received by the reading public that they superseded the illustrators.  The tables were turned: the illustrator supported the author.  And then, I don't know why, perhaps he took succession terribly hard; the illustrator took himself out of the picture entirely.

I think that the immediacy of Dickens' relationship with his readers as he was writing influenced his writing enormously.  (I don't offer this forth as an original thesis, I'm just sayin'.)   I feel, when I read Dickens, a particular devotion to his reading public, and a quick search on Google finds his own words, confirming:

Literature cannot be too faithful to the people, cannot too ardently advocate the cause of their advancement, happiness and prosperity.  --Charles Dickens

Shakespeare also had a close and immediate relationship with his audience.   Far from being holed up in a study, Shakespeare more likely wrote from the wings, or in the otherwise empty box seats at the Globe.  He probably revised as he directed.  It is certain that his actors played a role in rephrasing Shakespeare's lines, perhaps even inventing lines, that we attribute to Shakespeare solely.

The audience imposed criteria on Shakespeare's work:

  1. It had to amuse the ordinary and disenfranchised people as well as the rich merchants, Queen Elizabeth, buccaneers, humanists, Catholics, and Protestants. 
  2. The greater part of the audience stood on their feet for the entire play--and spat, or threw rotten tomatoes at the stage if it failed to divert their attention from varicose veins, arthritis, sciatica, lice, consumption, or the consumptive cough of the bloke behind them, spraying it on their neck; never mind: itchy scalps, festering sores, fallen arches, or the chills, fatigue, and "a vague sense of apprehension" that accompanied the mysterious-terminal-Tudor sweating sickness.   

Shakespeare's motivation was clear enough: worm-and-disease-infested tomatoes and putrid-stinking garbage, or absolutely-they're-going-to-love-it-don't-worry-get-out-there-effing genius.   

All lines that did not fall trippingly off the tongue were ripped out of the mouth, with the sentiment of   castaways bailing seawater out of a leaky boat.  In the interest of money and art, and in the spirit of fear and survival, Shakespeare's scripts were forged in a lousy, itching, desperate, diseased, powerful, decorous, and above-all deserving audience, and shaped into transcendent poetry.

There are those who say that Shakespeare was too low-born and humbly educated to have been himself.   Instead, he had to be a noble, or at least a favorite at the Queen's court.  Such a candidate would have written in secret, far from the madding crowd.  Alone, without benefit of tomatoes, he would have written great literature for art's sake, without hope of credit, legacy, or agenda.

Yeah, right.  Tell it to the hand.  There is no single person smarter than a whole audience.  (It's true: there was a study done sometime in the late nineties. I heard it on NPR.  It concluded that a group of people was almost always smarter in the aggregate than any single smart person.)

So, yes.  I am still writing the book.  I'm on Chapter Ten.  According to my adoring, hand-picked readers, it doesn't suck.  However, I have noticed their attention flagging in the last two installments, so I guess I'll have to step up my game.

Reverence is fatal to literature.  --E.M. Forster