Sunday, December 29, 2013

Balzac wore a Bowler too: Acquiring a Literary Hat Fetish

I have discovered, along with my unremitting devotion to literary composition, a tendency to accumulate hats at a rather alarming rate. Some of which are bedecked with feathers, and are, I fancy, rather flattering at a rakish angle - others, square and dowdy, droop in unlikely places and for which I hold little affection. Regardless of the limitations of closet space, and the unsuitable hat-climate in which I currently reside, these hats (like Bartholemew Cubbins of Dr. Seuss fame) reappear upon my cranium with accelerating frequency.

For these are, increasingly, the stock and barrel of the literary trade - the multitude of hats which the writer today accumulates, and must, perforce, accustom themselves to wearing. It used to be that we wore one - a signature fedora perhaps - a slightly battered, world-weary cranial piece that had seen us through one novel or another. The writer's hat. Comfortable, softly threadbare in all the right places - so much so that one was little aware of it being worn at all. For hitherto we only required that one - and beneath the broad brim of it we wrote with an impassioned ferocity, emitting the heated angst of life in a fluid conmingling of ink and blood upon the page (to borrow Hemingway's visceral depiction of the process). And then? We finished with a flourish and consigned our work to the trusted realms of publishing - who attended to the tedious tasks of marketing, printing, and distribution, leaving the author to contemplate the formulation of their subsequent literary work...

Now, however, writers of serious intent must accustom themselves to all kinds of cranial adornments - some of which poke and prod in the most uncomfortable of fashions. My grammatical hat, for example, leaves much to be desired, and I have the most unsettling notion that it accentuates, in glaring relief, my literary shortcomings: my comma-phobia, my hyphen-uncertainties, and the nuances that elude specific rules but incorrect usage proclaim "here writes an ignorant one!" So I pore over my Chicago Manual of Style in the vain hope that I can accustom myself to this cranial appendage that seems so instrumental to my success as a writer.

And there are, indeed, so many of them...some of which are more eagerly worn than others. My historian hat has been much in evidence as of late, and conforms beautifully to the curve of bone beneath. For beneath this bowler I spend many an hour perusing diaries, letters, historical treatises that offer an unprecedented glimpse of a time and space which is to become my world, and which will, in fits and starts, facilitate the emergence of a new narrative. Balzac described himself "much more of an historian than a novelist" and I incline to his view - or at least to the extent that my writing is predominately informed upon by my non-fictional explorations. The Human Comedy comprises an immense repository of historical detail, deftly intertwined within the narrative - methods of paper manufacture, fashions and furnishings, political escapades and small-town geography were all conveyed with scrupulous verisimilitude. So Balzac wore a bowler too! I yearn to wear mine with as much panache.

Lately, I have been the reluctant recipient of a helmet (particular to this part of the literary process) - ensnared as I have been by the  intricacies of formatting, caught in the sticky web of preparatory necessities that do little to enthrall the authorial mind. Pinioned in the mire and mesh of hyphen-placement and white-space, margins and trim, font size and style, kerning - and other aesthetic attributes I had, in truth, little desire to master. In the midst of my affliction, beneath the dank confines of metal that has a way of closing in around one's countenance until it seemed it would fasten permanently to the skull like some beast of alien appetite, I despair - would one ever be done?

And then - the marketing hat - an incommodious bonnet that flopped and flipped about one's ears in a most disconcerting manner. For even with the gratifying attention of prodigious publishing firms (of which few of us can boast) one still must market oneself. And there seems a bewildering variety of ways and means in which this must be done in modern society (I stipulate modern because I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time embroiled in the past!) For work completed must henceforth become work advertised, work marketed, work pushed and pulled and shoved (hopefully not to the detriment of said work or sanity of associated author). For bereft of parental attention it will languish and wallow, theoretically available in this medium or that but a forlorn, unrecognized thing consigned to some virtual dark and dusty corner of the cavernous Amazon warehouse ...and precisely how this is to be done - I do not know exactly. Is there a polite manner in which one can market one's work, without forceful brandishment? Without an email deluge? Without unwanted encroachment? It remains a finely tuned balancing act - one that does justice not only to the literary work itself, but maintains a modicum of respect for the author as well as the reader who comprises their audience. My hope is that one acquires a degree of satisfaction in the donning of this particular hat and wearing it well.

 For as much as we might desire to maintain a modest collection of much-beloved hats (one or two might suffice) we are now, more than ever, forced to accumulate and adjust to copious cranial attire. Far more frequently than we might like we must needs don one ill-fitting encumbrance after another as we attempt to master the variety of skills that seem a prerequisite to literary success in this the modern era. And just when it seems the task is done, formatting throws the proverbial wrench in the works - entailing, as it does, wrestling with InDesign and the erroneous snatches of html code that lurk beneath, poised to manifest in some devious fashion, compromising the aesthetic whole of the e-book version. So one must utilize InDesign to maximum effect and pick it apart with minute attention to coding when exporting it for e-publication...and so new tasks manifest and another hat reappears awkwardly perched above the brow.

But perhaps the remedy is to embrace this requisite hat fetish, this acquisition of skills - wear the various hats with as much aplomb as one can muster. For with the wearing of them, they inevitably assume an increased familiarity, become softened with use, much as the rigidity of new leather mellows into suppleness, acquiring a worn patina that is increasingly pleasurable to behold. And the hats themselves become less intrusive as the associated skill-set matures from one of initial bewilderment to well-practiced ease. Ideally. Inevitably the writing fedora (and for some of us the historian's bowler) will remain on a convenient hook, welcome accessories to coveted time - time to write, time to ponder, time to weave gossamer strands of a new narrative, time, in short, 'to murder and create'...and this fluctuating array of headgear? What can we do but make reluctant room in the closet?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hardy, Dickens and Deconstructing the Character-Driven Novel

I remain somewhat wary of literary categorizations - binding novels within an ever-tightening hierarchy of type and genre, as if they were biological organisms that can be labeled, pegged and defined, neatly nesting with others of similar attribute. While it worked for Linneaus, novels - to my mind - remain creatively elusive. While the application of specific designations to a literary work indubitably facilitates marketing, and communicates some broad notion of content to consumers, the conventional differentiation between 'action-driven' and 'character-driven' novels seems to me an erroneous one - intimating as it does
that the pursuit of one such strategy precludes the utilization of the other.

Whether from ignorance of particular literary theory, or a stubborn persistence in my own particular perspective (which tends to fluid inclusion, spanning and encompassing genres, rather than rigid categorization) I cannot say. It might simply be a reiteration of what is already blatantly apparent - that novels are more complex creatures that refuse to obediently conform to prescribed perimeters; a vibrantly-hued Jack-in-the-box that will not be contained. Across the lid of this literary box wherein Jack is wedged is transcribed the phrase (in grandiose letters) - 'Character-driven' or 'Action-driven.' The larger the box, the broader the categorical brush, the more inclusive the members, and the less useful such distinctions become. Frequently encountering this fundamental polarization between action-propelled novels or those in which characters sit firmly behind the literary wheel, I ponder upon its validity. Perhaps it would behoove me (before discarding the notion entirely) to deconstruct the particular attributes that define a literary work as one or the other.

The assumption is that these proposed dichotomies are representative of all narrative works, that each novel can and must be placed in one box or another. Unlike the gregarious wanderings of subatomic particles (which can occupy not just two locations but an infinite number simultaneously), the slimmest of novels must (or so it seems) be definitively defined according to one or the other. Choose your box.

Perhaps the underlying notion is that within a given novel the thematic threads of action or character comprise the structural integrity of the given literary work. When one peels away the location and its associated atmospherics, the attendant details, the extraneous threads, what lies at the heart of the novel? What element can a reader, intent on some nefarious dissection, remove without compromising the integrity of the whole (assuming for arguments sake that such a thing can indeed be done)? What provides the quintessential foundations for each particular work? What serves to fundamentally propel the narrative onward? What, if the vehicular analogy can be strained a little further, fuels the literary engine? Can it indeed be such a simplistic reduction of two?

I have, these past months, been revisiting an old friend - Thomas Hardy; and particularly several of his lesser known novels The Woodlanders, and The Laodicean. Like Charles Dickens, his works were serialized; segmented pieces published monthly by Harpers Bazaar among others. Both authors penned novels peopled with profound fictional personalities, their works (as far as I am aware) falling decisively into the 'character-driven' category. I wonder if this form of installment publication lends itself more readily to character-rich narratives. In Dickens' initial segment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one is thrust into the grim darkness of Jasper's opium-induced dreams, encounters the complacently-gullible Edwin and is left with the whimsical girlishness of Rosa; these powerfully-rendered characters, accompanied by the fastidious Mrs Twinkleton and the eccentric Mr Durdles, are the gleam and glimmer that light the way; it is these fictional individuals that loom large in the imagination, that engage and enthrall the readership while it waits impatiently for the next monthly installment. Besides the obvious difference in reading-habits between contemporary readers and those of the early nineteenth century, I do not believe that a novel devoid of such engaging fictional characters would have survived the monthly-publication interim.

In the opening of Hardy's Woodlanders, serialized in Macmillan's Magazine, Grace Melbury returns from a genteel urban academy to the rustic simplicity of Little Hintock and the quiet attentions of the taciturn Giles Winterbourne; the early chapter depicts the latter awkwardly awaiting Grace's arrival at the marketplace, his apple tree sapling beside him, eyes on the dirt, a man of the turf and hillock who possesses an intuitive understanding of the natural world but easily bewildered by the feminine one. And she! She is a 'flexible young creature...coming on tiptoe through the mud...and she held out to him a hand graduating from pink at the tips of the fingers to white at the palm.' Again, as in Edwin Drood the contrast is delightfully apparent from the onset - this moment of awkward reunion encapsulates the dilemma that will plague Grace for chapters to come - how to reconcile her acquired urban polish with the woodland rusticity of her youth, of which Giles is a part.

Implicit in this dichotomy of character-propelled novels versus those relying upon action to power forward momentum, is the notion that they are mutually exclusive. Action or character and never the twain shall meet. I defy any readers to proclaim Les Miserables lacking in dramatic dash and physicality, or to find its deficit in The Mystery of Edwn Drood (a taut page-turner, by Dickensian standards, fraught with dark intrigue). The turmoil, when it comes, is all the more dramatic for our utter engagement in the characters who comprise a part of it; no languid sighs here, nor long-winded melancholy perambulations, but action enough to bring the heart to a heated fever, to quicken the breath, send eyes anxiously scanning the page ahead - Does he die? What happens next??? The evoked anxiety of the reader exists in direct proportion to their degree of identification with the characters who are thus beset; Valjean's flight through the murk and mire of subterranean sewers, the desperate retreat of Rosa with the malevolent Jasper on her heels in Edwin Drood. So it is not necessarily so that the action of these 'character-driven' novels is of the subtler sort, or that it is confined to emotional entanglements rather than physical combativeness.

Perhaps the 'action', in these novels, actually encompasses a broader canvas; defined not only in terms of the ongoing physical momentum of events, but also supplemented by the internal ruminations and angst of a poignantly-drawn, complex character. The action of intent and motivation. In the conventional form of an 'action-driven' novel, I understand this means essentially and specifically a sequence of action-packed scenarios - much as one would expect to see in a modern Bond film - with the daring hero proceeding from one life-threatening engagement to another, with looming conflict and the desperate attempt to overcome it, being a central theme. Perhaps in these novels the dramatic plot sequence forms the primary structure of the novel itself, with characters formulated but essentially secondary to the maelstrom through which they are propelled. It is not that the characters are two-dimensional, as much as their particular roles within the narrative could be fulfilled by a certain, relatively generic type; authorial time and attention being bestowed on dramatic sequences that ideally enthrall a reader eager to escape quotidian demands. I do not mean to say that these novels are less enjoyable, or less worthy than their more literary counterparts - I merely wonder as to the accuracy of such polarizations in their interpretation. Perhaps the allocation of 'action-driven' for these novels is in fact quite appropriate, if it did not imply a dearth thereof in 'character-driven' works.

Within literary landscapes (such as those evoked by Hardy and Dickens) where plot progression cannot be imagined sans the complex creatures drawn with much authorial forethought (no generic hero-type will do) the action is just as prevalent but broadens to encompass a wider range of dramatic eventualities; not only the pant and grunt of physical struggle, but the mental agonies of Somerset as he yearns after the coolly reserved Paula in The Laodicean, or the ferocious malignity of Jasper in the quiet school garden in the Mystery of Edwin Drood, or the final death-scene of Giles Winterbourne gasping out his last in the dilapidated home he had relinquished (at the cost of his own life) for his Grace, even when she was no longer his own. To my mind, this is action of a much more powerful sort.

I do not think it is entirely a matter of length either - of spatial emphasis within the novel to one or the other; side-characters that populate Dickensian narratives are deftly portrayed with a minimum of pen-strokes. The disquieting Princess Puffer of Edwin Drood is portrayed within a few short paragraphs in the opening chapter, and despite her later reappearances within the novel, she is little-enlarged upon but remains a vividly memorable character within the Dickensian compendium. The unscrupulous Dare of The Laodicean is most indelibly portrayed via his laconic encounters with Captain De Stancy, where a brief dialogue serves the turn, or a glimpse into the mental machinations as he devises schemes to libel and undermine Somerset in his pursuit of Paula. There is no lengthy exposition of his character, or his background, but instead he is immersed within the ensuing action, his aspect vividly apparent in conversational asides. There is scarce narrative space devoted to these supporting cast members but they are indubitably critical in the rendering of each imaginative world, and give credence and incentive to the ensuing action.

Some advocating this polarization of action versus character writers even go so far as to ascribe a neural predisposition towards one kind of writing or another - not only are there novels propelled, with some degree of exclusivity, by action and others by characters, but each are produced by authors who depend upon, and utilize, one side of their brain in preference to the other.  This implies a level of biological predeterminism, but one that is, I feel, negated by authorial choice - either one wishes to focus primarily on a thrilling escapade, complete with villain and hero counterparts, a rollicking narrative entertainment which many readers enjoy; or they wish to convey fictional individuals that are more than the sum of their parts, characters that transcend the page, and whose actions (subtle, mental and otherwise) impel the forward momentum of the novel. They are not opposite ends of the spectrum, nor does one necessarily exist independently of the other - character-novels are hardly devoid of action, and there are indubitably works of escalating action that contain characters both luminescent and memorable (I found Stephen King's characterization via dialogue - from the admittedly few novels of his which I have read and those some time ago - quite superb).

Perhaps, as in many things, it is in the extreme reductionism where the error lies; it seems imbued with a simplicity which finds little correlation in the complexities of any given literary endeavor. I do not mean to say that any writer can simply select his or her preferred modus operandi and blithely proceed with one kind of novel or another. A writer conveys in words that which is within, the giving of voice to an internal compulsion, the narrative colored by their own particular vision, one that itself evolves and morphs with passing years. There are writers of all literary tint and hue, catering to an audience just as diverse; but each of us shares the restless imperative to self-transcribe the palpitating adventure that thrums in our blood and resounds in the beat of our heart. It is not to say an action-writer cannot delve into a character-compelled narrative, and vice versa, or even that one exists in isolation of the other, but it is a question, perhaps, of authorial motivation. Rather than isolating specifics that drive the plotline, perhaps instead we should make reference to what compels the writer behind the pen.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jung, Tesla and the Evocation of Inter-Character Atmospherics

I have been contemplating the fictional construct of characters; not their own particular complexities as such, nor the manner in which they evolve through the course of the narrative, but the effect they have on other inhabitants of their literary realm. In the process of beginning a new work my attention is primarily bestowed upon the individual rendering - transforming the skeletal shadows that exist as nebulous, half-formed notions of themselves, into the heated pulse of life with all the emotional turbidity that coils and pulses beneath the facade. In short I am intent upon the literary life-giving properties that transform a fictional individual from the two-dimensional imprisonment of page to the soaring expanse of an imaginative reality. For there are innumerable fictional characters that, for one reason or another, do not succeed - they remain flatly unengaging. Dull and lifeless beneath the turn of page, until the reader tires of their insipidities and the book is returned, barely skimmed, to the shelf. I remain fervently of the opinion that the formulation of character, with all their attendant complexities, is critical to the literary success of a novel.

For the writer beginning anew, fictional individuals are essentially conceived in isolation: each circumscribed bundles of human frailty arriving fresh in the narrative, influenced by their own particular past and propelled by their own particular agenda. Memorable characters, however, do not adhere to a linear progression through a given work, evolving according to some predetermined parameters to come to some tidy resolution. As much as I focus on the attributes, the proclivities, the mannerisms, the essential aspects of a given persona - I wonder if the greater magic lies in the spaces between; in the literary ether that permeates between one character and another.

Perhaps a visual analogy might be found in Tesla's lamps where plasma filaments extend in an arcing stream of colored light from the inner electrode to the outer glass sphere. Might it not behoove us to think of characters in this way? Not themselves so much - but the manner in which they interact with others - the electricity that arcs between; the fear and the passion - that which exudes from the very pores, exhaled in sharp breath, inhabiting the air as a charged emotive force independent of both parties. A scene of my recently completed novel (and one which emerged unaltered despite the multitude of revisions) comprised a confrontation between two protagonists, where one nursed a legacy of hatred nourished and intensified by generations of economic and social oppression. The encounter was fraught with tension; the escalating, almost primal, anger of one charged the atmosphere with a barely-restrained ferocity that to some extent defined the relationship between the two for the remaining part of the novel. Perhaps this particular chapter survived intact when its neighbors were heavily revamped due to this inter-character frisson that does more to compel and engage us than any straightforward recitation or revelation of attributes might do.

The precise nature of these atmospherics are often as elusive as they are varied, and might just as readily be defined as a languid ease than a snarling hatred. Cause and effect - the vehicle of which is not always visible to the naked eye - is perhaps all the more dramatic for being so imperceptible. Seeking clarity and inspiration in physical analogies my mind drifts to inter-cellular communication: the ebb and flow of ions, sugars, and amino acids that permeate the phospholipid bilayer; air-borne pheromones that communicate sexual desire; compounds emitted by trees suffering an insect-onslaught that evoke a similar defensive response in arboreal bystanders; or the enigmatic dark matter that populates interstellar space and can be inferred from the rotation of stars and the gravitational tug on emitted light - in short what happens between!

Jung expressed it beautifully: "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed." To expand upon this metaphor (harnessed as it is to a literary imperative), a character isolated exists and proceeds in a fashion essentially predictable (a substance inert), governed by genetic and cultural predispositions and environmental context; but when others of uncertain motive and intent intrude upon the scene there ensues the excitement of uncertainty. What Jungian reaction might manifest, and how might such a fictional synergy impact subsequent narrative development?

One of the most vividly expressive character-interactions recently perused was that between the Machiavellian Jasper and young Rosa in Dicken's Mystery of Edwin Drood. Jasper, the seeming-devoted uncle (a smilingly villainous Claudius prototype) to the ominously-missing Edwin, threatens dire repercussions if Rosa refuses his amorous advances. Assuming the presence of onlookers, (situated as they are in the school gardens) Jasper's languid poise assumes dramatic counterpoint to the brutal nature of his communication. The dominant personality in this scene exists not within the malevolent Jasper or the cowering Rosa as much as the sense of atmosphere charged, caught, and held between the two; it acquires a degree of physicality irrespective of flesh, bone, and blood, a quivering tautness that inhabits the air like an electrified charge - an emanated sense of menace that excites one and utterly oppresses the other.

Perhaps this is merely an effusive reiteration of the obvious, but words are my stock in trade...and the perpetual quest to make myself understood (and indeed to understand myself) in a cascade of verbiage is, indubitably, an occupational hazard. Self-indulgence aside, my focus, insofar as character development is concerned, has been primarily a linear one - fabricating the fictional individuals within the confine of plotline, establishing a sense of them - from whence they have come, their literary travels within the novel, and the resolution to which they will find themselves at journey's end. But much of them, indeed the elusive qualities that render them something more than words on a page, arises not from authorial forethought, as much as the engagement with a fictional 'other' and the frisson that arcs between. I have been thinking primarily of characters as a progression, wending their way through the novel - perhaps a closer examination of the dynamism that ebbs and flows between one and another, the flux and flow of engagement, might prove beneficial to a writer ever-seeking to improve her craft. Ironically, as reliant as I am upon a profusion of words, this frisson of interaction might be utterly mute, dramatically conveyed by what remains unsaid and undefined.

This evocation of atmosphere seems something key within the formulation of a novel. Not so much who or what the characters are, but how they will engage, what might arise from the mix, from the exchange, from the chemical transformation that Jung alludes to. For after all, what are we alone? Growth potentials are limited; the trajectory a relatively dull and lifeless affair. But there is magic in interaction, an uncertainty in a previously unimagined combination. The atmosphere that lies without. A poignant, and ofttimes wordless, conveyance that elicits an equally visceral response. And to take that elusive dark literary matter that pervades the inter-character gap, to shape it, mold it and keep it warm between the palms, to be dispensed as required like fairy dust - the atmospheric additive that enables literary flight.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Working out the Knots: Titles and the Difficulties of Summation

I recently completed my novel - a decade-long endeavor of wrestling, contorting, massaging and coaxing verbiage - the Muse and I sometimes operating in mellifluous concert, like creative wavelengths superimposed to new peaks, but more often at odds in a daily grind of teeth-gritted extraction; a tortured procession of words that finds literary ease only after additional toilings and perpetual revisions: the final phrase born perhaps more of a mutual exhaustion between the Muse and I; or an elusive process of working out the knots: a literary attentiveness that is reminiscent of the close-fingered deftness and focused intent required in disentangling water-swollen ropes yanked to tightness under a wind-filled sail - an undertaking made without recourse to the passage of time, requiring perhaps a year and a day. Or, in my case, in certain particularly entangled parts, a decade.

Amidst the restless search for the trailing sequence of sentences, the years have passed by with all their intervening crises, the geographical re-locations, the upheavals, the family expansions and the critical wage-earning expeditions that fettered the mind and stilled the literary pen. Characters and plot expanded like the complex whirls of a fractal, and page after page filled with the dark imprint of ink. Some paragraphs, of more ancient age than those adjacent, suggested a disparate expressive voice, an awkward shift - a younger authorial me that at times jarred and bristled alongside more recently penned neighbors. These sections were re-crafted and a few more years fell to the task.

But the word-hunt is, at last, over - for this novel. All now is quietude. The pen has been laid aside (the black one at least - awaiting the attention of the editorial red), and the simple words that adorn the last page finally are in accordance with the parental mind: 'The End.' Having suffered from the delusion that these two words signify the completion of the work, I have spent the last few months in the torturous mire of needful summations - acquiring a title; the one which had accompanied an earlier version of the work now seemed an ill-fitting appellation - and so subsequently began months of list-making, opinion-seeking, potentials written in and many more firmly crossed out. For the title is critical, is it not? A few words that entice a bookshop browser (virtual or otherwise), a short phrase that elicits a response...a tendril, a wisp, a light suggestion of something substantial to come. A literary come hither that might coax a pick-up, or a turn of page...the quick scan of an opening sentence or two. And of course there are innumerable restraints in the formulation of said title - erring on the side of short and pithy, uniquely unlikely to be muddled with another work of similar title, some loose connection to the theme of the narrative or a primary character within. For perhaps it is the condensing wherein the difficulties lie. Take this mammoth of a literary beast and reduce it to a scattering of words, distill it (as an alchemist of old) into something that glitters within the pen-calloused palm of one's hand. It perplexes me somewhat - that comparatively months can result in page after page of dense text but weeks upon weeks might yet be required to come up with a mere smattering of words.Three or four will do.

And it simply must be done. The novel without is a rather forlorn thing. Unnamed. Unfinished. And I begin to realize what a title contributes to a given work - it assigns personality before anything more is known. Just as olfactory stimulation quickens the salivary glands, the enticing scent promoting subsequent hunger, so does the naming of a book awaken the curiosity of the imaginative mind. Not only does it appear a succulent dish with its neat glossy binding and intriguing cover art (saving that angst for another post!) but the title itself emits a singular aroma - one that weaves a tantalizing thread of half-formed questions within the browser's mind, and, if successful, initiates a hunger that can only be quenched by reading the novel. A satisfying literary meal will, like well-loved dining establishments, be recommended and passed on. Of course the work within must rise to the occasion of the titillating title - otherwise it will be consigned to the bin of only partially-satisfied, the author to be avoided, subsequent works eschewed.

But perhaps I assume too much - perhaps, as was recently suggested within a Historical Novel Society newsletter, the title need not be so functionally encumbered, need not, in short, serve so many masters; indeed, the author contended that the title is an acolyte of the marketing god - seeking merely to entice - to enthrall - to incite purchase irregardless of contextual meaning or associative parallels within character or plotline. It complements the suggestive cover art and sells the novel. And that is all. So when I tax neurons unmercifully, engage in long fruitless list-making, wax lyrical (and not-so-lyrical) about underlying meanings, the whys and wherefores of title-fit in regard to the contents of the novel - perhaps I am missing the mark. Perhaps I should take my cue from Shakespeare's Juliet and be assured that like the rose the novel will still smell as sweet.

For of course like all writers I yearn to compose anew - the next novel waits impatiently for my attention, kicking its heels in the dusty outskirts, and like a quivering hound before the hunt I scent the promise of it, heart-quickened and breathless, fingers twitching in anxious accord. For the spinning of a new narrative, weaving a world and populating it - another glorious adventure awaits beyond the horizon, knots and all.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Imbuing Literary Life: Galatea and the Anthropomorphic Tendency

Glancing back upon previous posts I am struck by the compulsion to anthropomorphize elements of the narrative environment: cursors flicker with bestial intensity; disparate thoughts of doubt and uncertainty are given bone, flesh and insidious intent - lurking as sly Golems or Pragmatic Critics in the cluttered confines of the literary mind; blank pages experience existential angst, yearning for the literary inscription that confers meaning.

Insentient objects that comprise my writing world are particularly prone to the receipt of such life-breath: ascribed with nefarious motivations to stall and thwart if the narrative is not proceeding well, and imbued with all the mellifluous ambrosia of the literary gods when it is. It has always been so - cars are named, computers cursed (I remain of the opinion that a good kick to the tower can solve all manner of tech-related ills), and houses redolent with the emotional vibes of their inhabitants. Flowers, bedraggled and aphid-infested, are necessarily distraught, their healthier companions a jubilant juxtaposition to their miserable fellows.

But perhaps this tendency comprises the heart of the matter. For are we not, after all, endowing our work, our clustered sequences of ink on page, with the quickened heat of life? With a vigor imbibed under the authorial pen? Where our imaginative practice of granting malicious purpose to cursors, pages and fleeting doubts perhaps serve a useful function. For we are gathering thoughts, accumulating utterances, hoarding phrases all to the intent of fabricating a fictional character, some aspect of a self; shaping with words the curve of jaw, the mobility of expression, the feverish, ferocity of an emotional intensity. In short we, like Pygmalion, are sculpting our Galatea and infusing her with the enigmatic flush of life - a faint blush beneath the marble, like the ghost of a face under a thick mantle of ice. The engaged reader releases her, and the literary work takes wing. For the bibliophile forms a critical partnership in this dance of two - as authors are Pygmalion to their literary work, receptive readers are the Venus that facilitates the final transformation from the cold immobility of marble into the warm receptivity of woman. For the narrative (flat and austere between the confines of cover - unread upon the shelf) becomes something else with the perusing of it.  Indubitably, the unopened novel contains all the subtle literary skill and nuances (unlike Schrodinger's cat it's existence is not in doubt) but for the reader who has yet to crack the spine, the glories of it exist as an expectant promise, a gleam in the parental eye that portends life to come.

This practice of ascribing malevolence to inanimate shadows, expectancy to binary-flickers, and depth and desire to the blank expanse of a white page (tendencies that alone might seem bizarre manifestations of a disturbed mind!) all operate in service to the Muse. Irritated cursors and disconsolate pages are the minor minions:  literary lackeys that facilitate a flexing of synaptic pathways, the exercise of which habituate us to the breathing of life into insensible things. They comprise the shadow characters that precede the actuality - the suggestion of what will be fully rendered within the narrative.

And this seeming-innocuous imaginative play hearkens back to childish days, to younglings immersed in their fanciful selves: a strewn coat in the dark metamorphoses into the humped silhouette of a nocturnal serpent, the damp leaf mold beneath a glimmering canopy of green becomes the provenience of fairies, gnarled tree branches are transformed into the seaweed-bedecked prow of a pirate ship. So when we, as adults, imbue the mundane objects of our quotidian surrounds with personality and intent, we are stripping back the veneer that conceals and subdues our own whimsical perspective. A habit that perhaps enriches, however subtly, our subsequent work; accustomed as we are to perceiving vigor in the glacial cold of marble or the inert stolidity of dark ink across a page. For we are life-givers by nature, this is where our yearning lies - to capture the elusive flutter of vitality, the quintessential quickening that comprises human engagements - caught like an exotic butterfly in our enveloping net of words.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Next Novel: Cursor Battle, Momentary Stall and the Accustory Blank Page

After a decade of focused intent the deed is done - the novel completed and set aside; it undergoes another journey of dissemination (one in which the painstaking parental pen has no part) flung out to the virtual skies, buffeted by the vagaries of public opinion; at times, doubtlessly, utterly indiscernible in the dark pall of sullen cloudbanks, but perhaps, if I am lucky, to light incandescent in an intermittent stream of appreciated receptivity.

But now another thought-stream rises to the surface, a turbulent suggestion of fictional possibility...and the germ of the next novel is born - a rather small and indistinguishable thing as of yet, but imbued with the most glorious of potential. My literary focus shifts across the oceans, and backward fifty years in time to the mid-eighteenth century: the nutmeg hangs heavy and ripe beneath glossy leaves, cloves scent the winds, and the Europeans do bloody battle in their wallowing carracks seeking to dominate access and supply of a few dried seeds that grow nowhere else in the world.  A remote time and place that shifts and blurs in my peripheral vision, replete with an energetic frisson as if the past has been whispered in my ear, made manifest in a pictorial stream of sensory impressions - for I do not write the past as much as I perceive it from the vantage point of utter immersion. I taste it on my tongue, inhale it through my pores, feel it with a visceral intensity - and then attempt the oft-arduous task of depicting it in words - to cast it in black and white upon the blank page in the fervent hope that such sensory ferocity can indeed be so translated.

Several such scenes have come to rather satisfactory fruition. In a torrid of writing, in a frenzy of flying fingers and racing mind, the characters begin to take shape. It is, however, an outline of them, an alluring shadow, hinting at the elaborated dimensionality of flesh in chapters to come; an authorial promise made most solemnly, a pledge to the attentive reader: "Bear with me - there is something marvelous yet to come!" I have not seen yet how these disparate threads resolve, but the unraveling of it is a gradual and intermittent affair - coming in tentative half-thoughts, gossamer threads that glide through the recesses of my mind in the dim hours of half-sleep, or in a rush and noise of great enthusiasm, and I will fly to the computer - hunched and tense, laboring over word selection....feeling the performance pressure, as if the characters themselves examine my efforts from the shadows with crossed arms and critical gaze...

Then abruptly: a stall, a standstill, a grinding and unwelcome halt. The cursor blinks; the steady repetitive monotonousness of that perpetual wink - as if a literary eye opens and closes in sly commiseration. Well? the cursor seems to ask: Well? What now? What grand procession have you planned? For some it is the blankness of the oncoming page that terrifies....what does one fill it with? I find that I do battle with the cursor, the rhythmic flicker waits like some preternaturally forbearing beast, enduring in imperturbable silence, craving a succession of words. I will emerge triumphant, even if ten long years are required to do so. The beast (of which an infinite variety populate my literary world - indubitably preferred to the placidity of beauties) will be fed...and hopefully, at the end of such endeavor, conclude that the procession was worth the effort after all.

For the cursor pulses to a cadence echoed within our imaginative selves...poised on the brink, hesitating, searching, pondering, waiting, then in a burst of intensity, a spill of words, a gushing torrent that paint a scene...then a momentary stall, and the cursor again waits in silence...long-suffering, unwearied. It is appeased by a paltry offering, by a hasty phrase, incomplete and lacking in substance; for the cursor knows that while it hungers for words, you must be satisfied with the coherent quality of the whole - and those passages that linger unsettled in the authorial mind will be revisited, and unceremoniously booted or spruced up with all necessary spit and polish like a recalcitrant child before a grandparent's visit. For the writer will not settle. It is part of the authorial contract with all prospective readers - a commitment to the highest levels of literary ability. Perhaps then, the cursor is less an unfriendly accusatory than it is a patient ally - waiting, in magical symbiosis with our own literary sparks, to bring to leaping fire the marvelous narrative that dwells within.

Perhaps the conventional literary angst that revolves around the blank page is of a similar nature - and that the page also can be visualized in a more affable light: waiting with all eager expectation for the spill of ink that is to come...for inherently the cursor, or the page, find an existential angst in the blankness, emptiness, nothingness of un-inscribed space - and yearn to be written upon, to find the languid ease of an onward narrative flow, to facilitate a literary work, to ultimately be something more useful, more substantial, than an absence thereof. What is it that intimidates us about the blank page, the steadily blinking cursor? Is it the empty sterility of a broad white expanse? Perhaps it is the hovering expectation of meaningful fulfillment? The relentless quest for a literary achievement that silences our inner critic? That of all the sundry things written before, this phrase, this passage, this scene, this novel, has something worthwhile about it - a literary contribution worthy of the years of painstaking labor required to bring it to fruition. A pressure, however unconsciously felt, that gives pause to the pen.

As long as we have air to breath, and food (wine, and coffee!) to sustain us - we will be yet again and again drawn to the computer, wrenched out of quotidian tasks, the keyboards pulling with the unremitting gravity of a black hole (for do we not disappear to daily life when deeply engaged?)  For inevitably (given our own obdurate perseverance in the literary task) the tome will, one day, be done. And the blank page will thirst no more, and the cursor will finally be replete. And we? We will be the happiest of mortals.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Linguistic-Numerical Divide and the Quest for Literary Validation

Having traveled the dark and dismal road of agent-submissions, increasingly burdened by a plenitude of form-rejections that steadily compile, accumulate and weigh heavy (my Golem counts them with ill-concealed glee), I have stumbled upon an unexpected truth. A truth that, like a child seeing the vast expanse of sea for the first time, widens horizons in a sudden realization of infinite possibility. It is indubitably a  subjective truth, but it is in the hope that it might prove pertinent to others that I expound upon it here...

Discerning literary agents, publishing representatives of the stiff and uncompromising ilk (as such they seem to us poor writers) are, in reality, quite a distinct species. A necessary one. They fulfill a critical function, as do we. Storytellers elaborate upon a theme, weave a fanciful discourse, cast a literary spell - words are our stock in trade, our currency, our estimation of self-worth: casting a critical eye over our previous sentence we ask ourselves how well that sounds on the tongue, how effectively we have communicated that particular emotional nuance. We do not need our Golem to whisper snide disapprovals in our ear - we are, indeed, our own harshest critics. It is words that validate us or cut us down to size - that scene you wrote at two in the morning in a frenzied burst of inspiration that is retained through draft after draft because there is something improbably perfect in it! And of course the profusion of passages that are worked and reworked until mind and pen are utterly weary of them.  But it all comes down to words. Just as cytosine and guanine make up essential nucleotides in the construction of the double-helixed DNA, so do conjoined words comprise the essential life-giving element of a writer.

Agents and Publishing houses, however, operate from a distinct premise - as with writers they are instinctively geared towards the survival of self. The evaluation of fitness, however, is an economical one. They must sell to survive; while we work in the aggregation of letters, in the sequence of words - so must they examine with all due intensity the numbers. For publishing houses, and subsequently agents who must woo them, are rightly concerned with the dimensions of things: the number of words and pages, the cost of printing, the depth, width and weight of shipping containers to transport said works, the trends of sale - all of which comes down to an association of numbers rather than letters.  That is not to say they do not appreciate the fine hue of this letter or that, or the artistry inherent in this particular collection of words, but they are prohibited from prioritizing such a subjective leaning, lest the Board, peering disapprovingly over graphs of revenue projections, should darkly mutter: "Yes, that is all very well, but the sales trends for this such a novel do not bear out your optimism!" or: "too long....too literary...the demographic too marginalized!" The numbers simply must concur for the Board to acquiesce. For they too must survive. And for an author untried, unproven, and uncertain - it is the numbers that provide the necessary bolstering, that tempt the Publishing House to take the requisite gamble - number of blog hits or twitter followers (assuming the length is suitably confined and the genre a well-selling one). For they do not like to hold their breath and hope as writers tend to do, this particular species prefers a degree of certainty, the solidity of evidential precedence, before they take the plunge.

Numbers that reassure them do but bewilder me. It is not that I do not understand their imperative, I simply to do not elevate it to the same degree. For intrinsically we are not mathematicians - we are writers and words are both the air we breath and the sustenance that nourishes our literary mind. And whilst one does not begrudge publishing agencies their economic imperative (for they must also veer clear of monetary deficiencies and economic red-ink) is there any wonder that there is such a frisson of unrest between the two? A disconnect felt more acutely, perhaps, on the writing side of it - seeking as we are entrance to the hallowed halls of traditional publishing. Or are we?  And this is where the unexpected Truth emerges from the dusty hinterlands like the fiercely guarded  treasure of a grouchy leprechaun. We covet traditional publishing approval because it serves as a widely recognized and esteemed form of literary-validation. We made it - in a stringently competitive arena - one of the select chosen few - and I do not, indeed, belittle such an achievement! I have naught but happy pride for those of my literary colleagues who have pursued such a course and been successful. I cannot claim such happiness for myself - but have found a different kind of joy - one which is perhaps more long-lasting and less dependent upon the vagaries of Publishing Trends or Editorial Idiosyncrasies because it is rooted in the essence of the writing self. It is, in short, the realization that a specific agent-publisher-acceptance is not the validation I seek.

In the dark, in the deep quiet pools where ofttimes truth malingers, I have always known it to be true - but only lately has it been recognized by my conscious self: the only validation that matters is that which we provide ourselves. And the growing awareness that there is a fundamental divide between writers and the agencies that seek to represent a select few of them; one who devour words with an insatiable appetite, and the other whose heartblood carries numbers which inevitably and indubitably, it seems, (from agent perspective) trumps words.  Is it any wonder then that entire books are written on the intricate art of  query letter composition alone? That formulations of synopsis are elaborately treated in this Indispensable Self-Help book for authors or that? For are these not the accepted mechanisms for crossing that linguistic-numerical divide?   Writers and Agents are each curiously dependent upon the other - but working within a divergent dynamic, framed by a distinct objective. For some lucky few common ground is found, but for the vast majority of us, we are stranded: with the wordsmiths peering out across the expanse of horizon at the number-sleuths who occupy the island "second star to the right and straight on till morning."

But then being so fortunate as to employ self-publishing options if the need arises (as indeed it does for most of us)  -granted with all additional fiscal and marketing management - we have the ability, utterly on our own, to give our novels flight! To send them out into the literary ether, proudly adorned with ISBN code and self-defined cover art. For where does the pleasure lie for a writer? In the agonized interlude as one awaits the interminably delayed response (if made at all) from an agent? Or, having secured one, the fearful apprehensions regarding sales performance - will they, with a delicate yawn, decide this genre, this style, this author, is not quite their thing when the graph lines dip a little lower than expected? Is THIS where the ecstasy is to be found for the inveterate teller-of-tales? Or perhaps it is the marginalized royalties where the fun abounds? Not that the pragmatic writer expects such economic bounty (we worship at the altar of words rather than numbers after all, do we not?) but there is something to be said, perhaps, after a decade of laboring to enjoy a slightly higher return on however slight an income stream - if only because it enables greater freedom to write rather than give unsquandered time to the cog and wheel, the bureaucracy that plumps the purse but does little to fulfill our passionate yearnings - or to satisfy our essential need for words strung together in an intrinsically unique way. 

Quite simply when one discovers the validation lies here - in the process of writing - in that delicate harmony of mind and pen - in the fluid expression of what lies deep within; in that crafting of the quintessential phrase which survives revision after revision because it retains some semblance of the literary divine about it; a sweet spot which evokes a heart-glow like no other. That is where our validation lies - and if we must needs seek our own methods of sharing those literary gems then so be it. For perhaps we need not be quite so hard on ourselves when we understand that agent-procural oft requires nothing less than a concurrent and unsurpassed fluency in both languages (words and numbers), and one perhaps, given certain popular trends, not even to be devoutly wished for. For if we can write, if we can formulate a phrase that gives us delight - if we can string them together in the weave of narrative - in the creation of a fictional world that pulses with life - is that not ALL? Does that not comprise the pleasure epicenter? So it was my stumbled-upon truth. One that doubtless does not hold for all - but perhaps for some. I have  (like Dr Suess' Sneetches) words inscribed across my belly, but unlike his covetous creations, I have no desire for species conversion - for the acquisition of numbers - because there is no joy for me there. My particular double helix coils and winds, scripting the genetic makeup, with all attendant mutations and base omissions, and surpluses, the complex convoluted curl that is me - all of which finds its base in A through Z.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hemingway, the Beast, and Bleeding on The Typewriter

I have seldom used a typewriter but often lament it's passing nonetheless. There is a romanticism inherent in the tapping of keys, in that echoing resonance of click-clacking that evokes a previous age;  this absorbed intensity of writer hunched, the crumpled discards littering underfoot, the furious symphony of pounded keys that echoes the tumultuous haste of the literary mind: a Hemingway moment poised over the typewriter as bombs thundered in the streets outside - the ferment of war, the thrum and pulse of a quickened literary imperative; a darkened alphabetic imprint implying a forceful keyboard jab, the damp brow, the fleeting fingers, the quick catch of breath...when writers described a moment in all its intensity before it was gone. One can readily imagine the drops of sweat, blood and absinthe that marred Hemingway's pages (metaphorically or otherwise), that accompanied the feverish vehemence of prose that hammered out beneath his keys. As he himself said: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed."

Somehow the interaction now, between writer and vehicle of prose, seems, comparatively, a rather mute endeavor; the quiet hum and whir of computer processing power, the silent acquiescence of a pristinely effective delete function, and the intangible narrative product that exists in the dark obscurity of binary code. It is there somewhere, encoded in ones and zeros, in dusty company with other long-forgotten files and jpgs. Saved and stored, it exists in the abstract - it cannot be seen, let alone bled on. But of course Hemingway was referring to the figurative outpouring of everything that is essential within us - to get down to the steady beat of heart, the visceral muscular heat, the lifeblood that nourishes and sustains...the darkly pulsating warmth that resides within. It is about becoming acquainted with the darkest parts of ourselves, the unacknowledged failings, the ignored and unclaimed, the proclivities we deny, the secrets we bury deep. In short - letting loose the beast that resides within; for it is only when we have a passing knowledge of these subterranean undercurrents, these sluggish Stygian marshes, that we can attempt to write them. To find the words that capture, entwine, and depict the beast- which is, in essentials, an emotional, bloody, visceral thing. For we are attempting a portrayal of humanity, are we not? And when pushed to the brink, when cornered and threatened, do we not bare our teeth and snarl? Retaining some instincts of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, our last common ancestor with chimpanzees....

It is not an easy thing - to recognize or depict - when something is so deeply felt and hardly understood; the translation of which seems more appropriate to a Viking-growl or the fierce facade of Gothic warriors, then to words. This collection of letters in of themselves seem fairly mundane articles, poor conveyers of what seems a much greater thing. Perhaps it is the attempt of such that Hemingway refers to.

And as for typewriters - this poignant yearning for past things might also be indicative of the technologically-driven rate of world-transformation. Life oft seems to hurtle forward at an unimaginable velocity - the nature, shape and manifest inner workings of binary chip technology rapidly transforming into something else...nanotechnology, virtual reality...three-dimensional...touch pads...e-books... perhaps the typewriter is a stable iconographic image of the engaged writer - the hunched absorption, the auditory scales of keys forcibly punched, the intensity of prose sounding out an accompanying rhythm in flying fingers and furiously working mind. Click click clack. Perhaps the writer's innate tendency to retreat is a psychological reaction, in part, to the perpetual haste, the onward rush of things. For when we stop to muse, to ponder a word, to savor it on our tongue like the literary equivalent of a fine we not ease that headlong momentum just a little? We take deliberate pause. There is time to catch one's breath so to speak.

Perhaps the typewriter is gilded with the sepia-brush of nostalgia, belonging to a golden age of something impossibly pristine, and this is why it maintains an unsurpassed literary significance (or perhaps this is merely an archaeologically-driven idiosyncrasy of my own particular mind); that it must inherently be bygone and bypassed to be so appreciated. When we see a writer sweating over the keys in a movie...the pages impatiently torn and crumpled, the ink-stains, the blots, the smudges...does one not, even for a moment, wish for that visceral closeness with the text? With words that can be tangibly smeared, that seem more intrinsically a part - and thus reluctantly parted with; grimaced and winced, a pained tortured affair - as if we were wringing words from their preferred abode of quiet-ether to the solid imperfection of ink on a page. Coercing them with gritted teeth and determined mien, a bloody-forced progression, words shoved and contorted, bribed and coaxed until they spill out upon the page like animals in the circus obediently lining up for the opening act. The beast within. Does Hemingway tame it with his blood-sacrifice? Or does it merely cooperate for its own amusement?

So if it is all about the beast, and perhaps the portrayal of it (blood-spilling seeming a requisite to the process) then the crux is less the mechanism (typewriter) than the implied emotional investment behind it.  Indubitably writers today are similarly intensely engaged in the literary endeavor...perhaps, for us, the emotional ferocity of typewritten novels might stem from the frustrations of inadequately inked-keys, or the half-hearted effectiveness of the white-out function, or the reams of paper crumpled on the floor in a visible reminder of literary failure. It is not that I do not appreciate the quiet efficiency of the computer, I just wonder whether the ferocious click-clacking of an intense narrative immersion facilitates bleeding Hemingway-style to a greater degree....whether somehow the beast is himself attuned to the clatter and rhythm of keystrokes; if he is, to a greater degree, repulsed by our stark efficiency, by our quietly humming immediacy and our limitless electronic databanks.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Punctuated Equilibrium, Evolution of the Literary Voice and the Return of the Golem

I have recently reverted to an old manuscript, a dug up fictional narrative penned decades ago…born of a youthful pen; a novel bound and intertwined with all the exuberant enthusiasms and awkward mis-managements of a newly empowered voice. The first novel! The vibrancy of fresh growth is there, the seedling that carries within its cellular structure, within its convoluted nucleic coils, the recipe for a mighty oak. I approach this early work with some degree of trepidation; gingerly handling the pages, and perusing sections with a dubious eye, with all attendant winces and grimaces…but there are parts that capture me…that hold me enthralled and keep me coming back to this early work.

The trepidation stems from my intent to modify and modernize; to bring my early narrative up to present modes and manners of expression, to take the literary voice of a youthful me and upgrade it so to speak. My resident Golem, of course, is doubtful that such a thing can be accomplished. "Modify the voice?" his sibilant wheeze echoes through the dark neural cavern in which he resides. "You may as well start over....a juxtaposition of literary sensibilities, a hodge-podge of writing styles...a narrative mess!" He emits a disdainful snort, shaking his head in impatient irritation at such foolishness. Then a head cock to one side, a slow insidious smile and a gleam of delight in those large luminous eyes - his volley has struck home: he sees my hesitation, my fear that he may indeed be right.

[A whispered aside in regard to the Golem (despite unerring night-vision he remains auditorialy-challenged) - he made his unwelcome debut several musings back, lurking in the dark recesses of my literary mind, hovering protectively over his cultivation of all things rank and gross in nature: the stringy weeds of suspicion, self-doubt, mistrust and fear. And whilst I do my best to tend meticulously to the internal garden, I oft turn unawares to catch a gleeful Golem tending a thigh-high weed gone to seed. While, you dear reader, have only just become acquainted with the irascible fellow he has been an unwelcome tenant of mine for as long as I can remember.]

To revert to the conundrum of conflicting literary voices: musing upon the evolutionary trajectory of one's engagement with verbiage, upon the uniqueness of our literary vision - does it progress smoothly onward in a crisply linear fashion? Indubitably improving to some degree with each pondered literary phrase whether read of another or of ourselves composed? Is it a process of accumulating certainty, the gradual acquisition of narrative deftness? And indeed what precisely is meant by voice? My academic focus in early years primarily encompassed science and history, but it was literature that has consistently sustained and nourished the emotional heart…the after-hours haven, the door-firmly-closed to all intrusions: Dostoyevsky accompanied by the exquisite strains of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik comprised my rapture.  As such I am not well-versed in conventional definitions for certain literary phrases….and in my ignorance make instinctual assumptions that may very well fall far from the appropriate mark. I will rely upon my more informed readership to warn me of any grievous errors in this regard. But it seems before one can postulate the growth of a thing, one must first define it; so my untutored description of the literary voice: the subtle nuances of expression, the manner in which the writer transcribes the mental processes of their mind be it with a paucity of words or an elaborate sentence construction, a turn of phrase, or a certain stylistic manner that renders the narrative particularly unique. Perhaps voice simply denotes the manifestation of a unique literary style.

Given this particular definition – and the assumption that an author at any given time possesses only one expressive voice – how is it shaped and affected by time? I find myself pondering biological theories of punctuated equilibrium, whereby evolutionary forces act with accelerated velocity, perhaps in a time of tumultuous environmental change, upon a particular organism to promote rapid speciation subsequently followed by a long hiatus of genetic stability. One of the most dramatic examples of expeditious evolutionary change took place 500 million years ago as evidenced by the Burgess Shale fossils. Various organisms survived while other more complicated, and seemingly much better suited to their environment, died out (Gould introduces his theories in his book The Wonderful Life which are intriguing if not uncontested). And the majority deck of evolutionary cards were replaced by another and the rules of the game altered to accommodate a novel paradigm; a dramatic shift followed, perhaps, by a indeterminately lengthy period of lethargic status quo. An equilibrium punctuated by fits and starts, a surge of frenzied activity followed by a longer interval of quiet quiescence….

I wonder whether our own literary voice evolves in such a manner. Certainly at times I feel the focused intensity of the craft, immersed and embroiled in the literary endeavor heedless of passing time or needful sleep….and subsequently, inevitably drawn away from the page, and the pull of the narrative by not always unwelcome quotidian demands. Years of snatched interludes here and there, a writing hour or two squeezed between obligatory duties....then abruptly a glorious expanse of opportunity presents itself and the literary work consumes us with a ferocity of guarded time and growled admonishments for all to stay away - a weekend closeted away with the laptop and piles of books, the quiet of uninterrupted time - where the narrative flows, the plot takes shape and the characters breathe upon the page. Time to muse, time to ponder, or in T.S Eliot's immortal words: 'time to murder and create, time for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate...and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions..' (although the latter probably less to be wished for!) Time simply to write. And does not then our literary voice benefit from such focused attentiveness? Would it not, like the environmental upheavals that can escalate the evolutionary process, contribute to the fine-tuning development of our own expressionistic form?

So why the terror of imminent immersion in a youthful work? Why has the Golem successfully induced such skittish apprehension? Is it because to re-write such work, to edit it, one must inevitably regress, re-occupy the space and time in when it was written? One must perhaps find a certain resonance between the lines, a murmur regained, the pulse of the piece, before proceeding. And then there is the singular conundrum of reconciling one voice with the younger version to the final manifestation of something indubitably improved upon. I am afraid that the process of molding and refashioning an earlier work will prove more intractable than writing fresh from the shining expanse of undemanding white – where no words have gone before and no images remain ingrained upon the recesses of our authorial mind. My Golem peers over one shoulder, and hisses with unmitigated jubilation: “It will become a jangled confused thing!" And I worry that this early novel, this rather simplistic piece that I have some affection for, that retains some intermittent literary merit, will be transformed in the fire of my evolving literary haste – that in this current focus on writing, on producing, on crafting, on working the words, wringing each poetic nuance from them until they seem to hang dry and exhausted on the page – into something it was never meant to be.

But my creative literary voice, relatively dormant in early adulthood, will now bide by no constraint.  It  is perhaps personified by the opposite of the skeptical Golem: a boundlessly optimistic, fast-moving thing that yearns above all for completeness of expression. It will be heard, and it will take pursed lip and narrowed eye to the early novel, it will trace through paragraph and plotline and it will flood all with red editorial ink. To be improved. To be tweaked and coaxed into some semblance of literary betterness. To reflect itself as it currently feels itself to be –  a more worldly perspective (albeit perhaps a tad life-tarnished and unduly cynical), a broader slightly elevated literary sensibility born of countless books read and writers encountered…

Which begs the question: is the older voice indubitably one improved upon? Is there nothing in the adolescent version with which to recommend itself? Perhaps there is a fresh innocence in that unlined exuberance of expression - one in receipt of which literary agents, critics and publishing firms might smile condescendingly over their pens, shake their heads in collective sorrow at the ineptitude of novice writers….too much too soon, verbiage overshadowed by a descriptive generosity that mires one down, characters that tend to caricature or a certain narrowness that inhibits transition to three-dimensional expansion: to that feeling of inhaling the same literary air or traversing the same landscape in glad literary company! So what is there in that early voice but the alluring promise of what is to come? If the voice is nurtured, encouraged, fed a well-seasoned diet of literary greats, engaged in intellectual exercise of focused phraseology, in the deliberate coupling of words and phrases that together evoke something else entirely, combined with all the multi-dimensional vibrancy of an imaginative mind - what is not possible indeed? And the youthful voice hides its own treasures - a literary reflection of a different kind of perspective - perhaps imbued with a simplicity that resonates with a power of its own. Perhaps my younger voice might prove instructive to the wearied, and at times, convoluted laboring of the older (this muse being a case in point!)

So the Golem is consigned to his dark corner,  grumbling and muttering dire predictions of abysmal literary failure; I pay him no heed. I have a book to work on.

[Golem-related postscript: I have recently exchanged correspondence with a gentleman of philosophical persuasion who is mired in his ninth year of a profound treatise on the meaning of life, wondering with some dismal futility whether this errant literary child of his would ever grow to maturity, and indeed whether he is keeping fruitless company with Sisyphus and his ever-laboring stone.  Perhaps he too habors a dark-lurking Golem nourishing a garden of nasty nettles. I have, however, discovered a wily weapon effective against Golem-intrusion: he can be quelled by a look. A direct gaze of compelling conviction accompanied by the stern proclamation: "I can do this and I will!" - will indubitably send him scurrying. The Golem, I have found, also cannot abide salty rain (which also does wonders for inhibiting weeds) so sweaty exercise of any persuasion is highly to be recommended.]

Friday, May 31, 2013

Dragon-Tamers, Dante's Inferno and the Writer as Literary Navigator

What is an author? Not merely a penner of fancies, a fabricator of fairy-tales, but, in the greatest of literary traditions, a navigator of the reader-trodden byways of their own fictional work. One who has not only traveled this way before but possesses an intimate acquaintance with each slight curvature of road, and with far-seeing omniscient eye winks at our fresh innocence; navigator and map-maker who holds the world in the palm of his hand. Uncharted regions were, in medieval practice, inscribed with the phrase hic sunt dracones (here be dragons) referring to claw-footed beasts of ferocious intent, horned men and monstrous serpents that lurked beyond the horizon; mythical miscreants expressive of the disquietude associated with the dark unknown quarters of things.

The author, however, has not only plumbed the depths in the intimacy of literary creation but has tamed the dragon that slumbers in the far-reaches. For like Virgil who guides Dante through the nine circles of hell he possesses vast knowledge of all things; yet we the reader are struck to the marrow by each new revelation, tentative explorers of a bright new world where all beyond the page remains, for a time, shrouded in the dark expectation of yet-unread.

In present-day versions of the Inferno particular punishments may have been reserved for the compromised writer: one selling without soul, the mindless purveyor of literary tripe (and doubtless for this narrator who arrogantly assumes the prerogative of judgement!) The Virgil-author accompanies us through the turn of page, through the concentric circles of punishment, and the accumulation of gathered understandings. In the sixth circle lies the city of Dis, entrenched and entombed within the Stygian marsh; here the epicureans are trapped within flaming tombs. The linguistically wily, the users of flattering verbiage occupy the ninth circle to which the two poets descend on the back of the winged monster Geryon. These misusers of language are mired and steeped in human excrement, evocative of words utilized in life. These escalating bands of  inventive torture function not merely as a form of divine retribution but serve as the warped gratification of a destiny readily chosen during life. That is not to say all fictional works find analogy in the grim shadows of Dante's inferno - merely a mechanism expressive of the dramatic human plight that lies at life's core, and the oft-times torturous trail that we follow passing through it.

So perhaps writers, manipulators of words, guide the Dante-novice as well as occupy the rings through which they pass. They themselves inhabit the narrative, permeate the prose, breathe beneath the skin of each character, infiltrate the landscape just as they draw us through it. The author occupies all spheres simultaneously: the disembodied voice, the Absent One whose perspective filters through the prose like an incarcerated divinity behind a gossamer veil; the omniscient repository of wisdom particular to this literary journey. They are the one who take us to the brink of some hitherto unimagined literary expanse, whether it be the moons of some fantastical world or the prosaic routine of white-collar modernity - but there is always something under the surface. The placidity, the comfortable conformity, is inevitably disrupted. For the ongoing narrative is a dramatic one, and our guide will see us through the pitfalls and the predicaments. This, after all, is the furious admixture of life - the convulsive tempestuousness of character interaction set amidst a vividly imagined panorama.

Conrad's The Secret Agent opens with a simple description of a rather dilapidated storefront, Balzac's Lost Illusions with the antiquated tools of printing-presses that will prove so instrumental to S├ęchard's trade, Dickens' Oliver Twist in the grim workhouse located within the town of Mudfog, but with each one feels the authorial hand taking our own, astutely aware of the journey in its entirety; but for us the path ahead is darkly shrouded - just our ever-present attendant beckoning us onwards, pointing out environmental features, providing the contextual immediacy within which the plot will begin to unwind like Theseus' thread before us. As Virgil guided Dante, so Lord Krishna counseled Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita - an epic narrative that like the Iliad formed a battleground allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of life. The text itself is designated smiriti or 'that which is remembered' as opposed to texts divinely revealed - thus diminished by its mortal origins but to my mind imbued with the poignant wisdom and courage that escapes Gods of Old, the Immortals who intrinsically comprehend neither courage nor sacrifice in the face of impending death. For the writer a text remembered is perhaps the most sublime achievement of all, implying a centrality of collective pertinence if you will, a literary representation of humanity's most prevalent of themes: a reiteration, a recognition, a renewed awareness of the central questions of what it means to be human; a literary echo that, like Jung's archetypes, resounds through subsequent reading generations.

Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan's ragged fur, passing through the center of the earth and emerging in the opposite hemisphere beneath a star-studded sky. Just as we traverse the literary peaks, precipices and verdant valleys of a narrative work, the author travels a path beside us, resides within the characters we encounter along the way, and imbues all with a feverish expectancy for that which is to come. He (or she) is a whisperer of wisdom, a distant parent, a conjuror of magic, a God...a revealer of uncomfortable truths; or perhaps merely a silent companion, a shadow glimpsed in peripheral vision...of substance so intangible as to be barely there - a ghost in the literary machine.