Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Progress on Ghosts

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 2003, it's Regina Carter on iTunes tonight, and Mocha is off elsewhere. But I had intended to write at least every day or two and now it's been almost two weeks.

So, Jan, where've you been all this time?

Thanks for asking. I've made progress on my novel, Ghost Songs of Oregon City. I'm ordering the scenes so that I'll know what to write. I actually wrote the first scene, just felt like it, and it feels like it's good. I know, it needs work, and when I come back to it, I'll have a better idea of what that work should be. But for now, just knowing when and what happens will b a big help.

Today I drafted an order of discovery for the ghosts. That was an area where I've been casting around in the swamp. But when I lay out the discoveries, think of a scene in which the discoveries can take place, figure out whether they're spring, summer, fall or winter discoveries, and build to a climax of mystery and fear, well, now they're falling into place.

Rollo May's Courage to Create has been a big help in this. He talks about the necessity of dry, uninspired work, followed by periods of rest when the unconscious can burble along on the problem. Then the breakthrough comes.

I'm tempted to think that because the book is going slowly, because I'm bogging down, it's not working at all. Wrong. May says, and my experience confirms, that flogging it is the only way to get to that creative breakthrough.

Out for now.

Thursday, November 13, 2003


I saw this movie the other night and was mightily impressed. It's a morality tale of two men who have a traffic accident and spend the rest of the day alternately trying to make peace and destroy the other.

The young lawyer, played by Ben Affleck, is driven by ambition and fear to lie, deceive, manipulate -- skate over the dailly moralities that make society work.

The middle-aged insurance salesman, played by Samuel Jackson, is driven by his frustration into a series of rages, from which he (almost) always pulls back before property loss becomes loss of life.

About midway through the film, I was watching the Affleck character melt down, going from one dispicable act to the next. My heart was racing, and I wanted to cover my eyes. I thought, this is the "pity and fear" Aristotle was talking about as the audience's response to a tragedy. Was I watching a tragedy?

The question dovetailed onto a discussion in a writers' forum. Could anyone think of a tragedy published in America since Death of a Salesman? I couldn't. Still can't. But I thought maybe Changing Lanes was one. It had the tragic hero, the fatal flaw, even the catharsis — the lawyer's thrilling but non-injury crash on the highway that left him in the same place where Jackson's car had been left early in the morning.

It ended on a redemptive note: both men learned from the experience, used it to transform their lives. That's OK with me. I'm enough of an American to like redemption.

But I wonder if that says something about us as a people. We want to see people change, not suffer the ultimate consequences of their actions. We still go to watch Macbeth, but we don't write Macbeth — or if someone is sitting up late at night drafting the next Macbeth, there are not many publishers, no screenwriters queuing up to bring it to the wider public.

Still, if you get a chance to see Changing Lanes, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Orthodox Satire

Sunday night. Well, it's 7:21 p.m., which is late afternoon in August, but it's November, post-Daylight Savings Time, and night.

I entered a writing contest for which the grand prize is a T-shirt, which shows how much I like the publication -- a Church satire site called The Onion Dome. The webmeistro, Alex Riggle, has written funny stuff about the Orthodox Church for several years now. He captures the news, skewers the factions, punctures the puffery and nails the quirks and pretensions of a great cast of characters.

For a while, I've thought, "I wish I could do that." And now maybe I will. Whether I win or even make finalist in the contest, I'm going to do more of that stuff. It's too fun not to, and the process of looking at what's funny about something as serious as our co-religionists is too healthy to give it up now that I've started.

So maybe some of my pieces will show up on The Oniondome, or maybe they'll show up here.

In the meantime, I've continued to slog away on my novel. And a slog it's turning out to be. Maybe the slog is essential to the process, though it feels as though it's a sign that the process isn't working at all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

The Cathedral vs. the Book

I enjoy bloggers with humor, who find profundity in daily events, who read the ingredients on the Can 'O' Rhetoric that is served up on every side.

Especially good at this is James Lileks (James Lileks, pronounced like "lilacs," but he probably can't help it). He finds meaning in the great icons—architecture, publishing, advertising, commercial symbolism—they tell about us.

One of the most fascinating passages I ever read was in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the villain (whose name escapes me) discusses the difference between the Cathedral and the Book. Written in the 19th century, that time of technological optimism, about the 14th century, a time of technological transformation, the narrator seems to come down firmly with the "pro-book" position.

The Cathedral told stories in stone, goes the argument, but the book will triumph over the Cathedral, because the book lasts. If you destroy one, there are thousands to take its place. It goes out to the people, whereas people must come to the Cathedral. (It's been a long time since I read the book, and I'm not clear which points Hugo made and which I made in my own head in thinking about his. Nevertheless, this is a blog, not a research paper . . . .)

I love books, and I try to write them, and the smell of paper is like perfume to me. But—

The printing press brought a new way of experiencing the world—as a repetition. Every book that goes through the printer is (within the limits of the equipment) exactly the same. The decorations are the same, line for line and dot for dot. The words don't get edited between copies 100 and 10,000. It's the basis for mass production and the basis for computers. For all the good that comes of these things, there's a regimentation in them, a means of putting people into boxes that don't necessarily fit.

I understand the value of a trademarked sign, but a strip mall in Alaska looks the same as a strip mall in Miami. Our clothes all look alike, from Moscow to St. Louis.

Again, without denying the gains, I rue the losses.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, has spurred thoughts about fascism and how it shows itself today, and perhaps tomorrow.

The point of the trilogy is that the entire human tradition of good and evil has been turned upside down. God is evil; Satan is good. All forms of Tradition are soul-destroying. There is no Kingdom of Heaven; at best it's up to us to build a Republic of Heaven--though how to tally up the elections in all these universes will be complicated, when apparently a small place like Florida gives us almost insurmountable difficulties.

In this view of morality, murder is OK if the right person commits it, for a good enough reason--one good-enough reason is that the murder victim offended the murderer. Another unaddressed murder is when the Great Leader Lord Azriel murders a child to break open a bridge between worlds. It was necessary so that he could mount his War on Heaven.

Leaving behind all the accumulated wisdom of the past (the dreaded Magisterium in Pullman's worlds), we go forward into a new existence, the world Satan (or was that Lucifer?) was trying to build when the regimented angels won the War in Heaven.

What connects this with Hitler is an observation I read somewhere on the Web that Hitler never tried to conserve anything. Yes. He believes in leaving behind soul-deadening tradition and building something new, from the ground up. He was the "Leader" who became the "Supreme Law Lord," for whom murder was simply a matter of scientific necessity. I thought, reading Pullman's trilogy, that a sensitive child of the right age who lacked a moral grounding would be more likely to become a Nazi after reading this book than before it.

But I don't mean Nazi exactly. The National Socialist design elements—the swastika, the flared helments, the German shepherd dogs, the steam engines and crematoria—are all out of fashion now. (According to a growing segment of society, apparently, anti-Semitism accompanied by swastikas is bad; anti-Semitism accompanied by kaffiyehs is OK.) But these are all incidental to the Nazi mindset.

More important to the essence of Nazism is the idea that we can cut loose from our roots, do something new, overturn the old morality, get rid of the tiresome idea that murder is bad and that God is good.