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.]


  1. We are a hodge podge of voices and who's to say the early one wasn't the best? It's hard to know oneself whether the "evolutionary trajectory: has led anywhere more valuable. Just a few thoughts of many I had while reading this. It is very well expressed.

    1. Thank you - for your visit to my humble musings and for your astute point - it is entirely a subjective endeavor at the end of the day after all...but I simply have to think that the gradation of time equates to improvements in the literary voice otherwise I fear I would lose heart entirely! Thank you again for perusing my piece, and for leaving a comment!

  2. Dear PJ, I would embrace the Golem as an alter-ego who can do no more harm than good as you would allow; and once or twice on the tread mill will give him the idea who is boss! The Golem may only be jealous that the younger voice has grown longer, stronger, leaner and meaner, so the obvious counter for the Golem is to attack the most vulnerable areas of your psyche that only he would intimately know... set him straight and teach him to be a good critic, a loving partner, and a humble muse. :)

    1. Dear Shari, utterly brilliant point - I am quite certain he can be outrun insofar as the treadmill is concerned 0 and can you imagine a greater shock to the irascible fellow than if one turned around and said "Well you are quite right indeed!" I am sure his irritability stems from his own recognition of his relative impotence after all. Poor fellow! Thank you Shari for visiting and for, as always, your wonderful comment!!!