Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Eternal Novel-in-Waiting

Like many people with a computer, I’ve been working on a novel.

Like many people who begin writing a novel, I have given up on it as often as many people quit smoking.

So it’s curious, now that I am back together with my piano after an 18-week hiatus and could begin composing again every morning as I’ve been eager to do this whole summer, my thoughts have turned back yet again to... the novel!

It’s had a curious evolution over the years – decades, really. I began toying with it probably while I was still teaching at the University of Connecticut in the mid-70s. I know I began working on it while I lived in New York City, intent some day on returning to New England where the story was set. I know by 1980, I was drawing maps of my imaginary city where it took place, writing up capsule biographies of the various characters, doing lots of research and reading a number of those “how to write a novel” books.

These last two things can kill any inclination to write, I found: between being intimidating or telling you everything you particularly like about writing – elements that eventually become your style – is wrong (that is, “won’t sell”), it becomes just more fun to do research, writing up reams of notes about place, time, historical details, personalities and so on, than to actually write the novel.

There were, I think, 200 pages of handwritten text by 1982. Then I got a computer and learned how to use a simple word-processor to help me write some 5-10,000 words a day (that was my goal). What I didn’t learn was how to back up everything I was writing: oh, I started out religiously, saving everything on a floppy disc. But after a while, it was one of those things taken for granted. And when that computer crashed and died, it took with it some 60 pages of un-backed-up novel. Everything was in the computer and because it was an adventure to sit down and see where the story would take me today, a very stream-of-consciousness approach to writing, I had no way of reconstructing what had been lost. I was numb for a week.

Then I realized, like many people with or without a computer who begin writing a novel, I could barely keep myself awake reading through it, anyway. Some days, I thought this passage was really very good; the next day the same passage struck me as derivative and silly. Wow, just like composing music, I thought.

Since I wasn’t composing at the time, it seemed a reasonable exercise to keep my creativity in shape. At one point, I put it aside to get back to composing – a Te Deum for the 125th Anniversary of my alma mater, Susquehanna University – and then found, after that premiere, that I was unable to compose again (as it turned out, for several years). Throwing out the first draft and many of its ideas, I started over again, more or less from scratch, refining the plot – as much as it had one – and approaching the characters from different angles.

By the mid-80s, I had read all seven volumes of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” (before more recent translations decided to rename it more accurately “In Search of Lost Time”) and though my plan was nothing quite so epic and hopefully not so time-consuming, it shifted my attitude about what a novel – particularly this novel – could be. I should mention this was also around the time I was reading, in chronological order, the complete novels of Henry James (including 40 short stories) except for “The Sacred Fount” which at the time was out-of-print and unobtainable. I read another 100 pages of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and an equal number of pages of “Finnegans Wake” in those same years, so needless to say my brain, in addition to being full, period, was filled with all the kinds of things every how-to-write-a-novel book was telling me not to do.

Somewhere in the late-80s, the novel was given a title. I don’t recall what the working titles had been before, but somewhere during the 2nd or 3rd draft stage – once I got a computer – it became “Echoes in and out of Time.”

(I mention this because I came up with the title before I began working at WITF-FM which even then was a few years before we started carrying a program called “Echoes.” I also mention this because “Echoes” is a program of New Age Music and I generally detest New Age Music. It’s enough to make me want to change the title, but I digress...)

At first, the “echoes” were going to occur in a present intertwined with a story from the past. In this case, the narrator of the story was a composer – of course, since I wanted to write a novel about creativity, I figured it should be about a composer having a writer’s block (using the old saying “write what you know” and knowing that many non-musicians who’ve written about music clearly don’t) – who purchases an old house that a century or so before had been lived in by a once-famous author. In an old desk in the attic, he discovers the author's journal that clearly (and then eerily) parallels his own problems with composing.

As I aged, so did my narrator, even though it is by no means autobiographical. What began as the story of a composer coming of age in his 30s when I was in my 30s, it turned into a composer dealing with middle age and the proverbial mid-life crisis when, in my mid-40s, I was doing pretty much the same. Now that I have made it into my 50s and well into the 5th renovation of the novel, my narrator is likewise in his late-50s, facing retirement but also dealing with creative issues following a long period of creative inactivity. (And of course I'm telling myself this is not an autobiographical novel - really!)

Curiously, much of what started fueling these new approaches was the resurgence of my own composing. As I worked on first a piece for solo violin and orchestra (still untitled) and then a string quartet (which I actually heard performed), I started realizing much of what I needed to do to help my composing along would probably also help with my writing.

It was not a question of getting up and writing for an hour before I went to work – working second shift meant I had my morning and afternoons basically to myself. And though I’m not a morning person, I found if I woke up at 9am instead of noon, I could get a lot more done if I didn’t stay up until 4 or 5am doing absolutely nothing (part of the problem for many of those years was I had no idea what I actually was doing).

In the meantime, I also discovered I was much more interested in structure – how the music worked theoretically – rather than writing spontaneously. It was curious, going through old papers here in the house now that I’m moving in, to find an interview when I was a teen-ager writing pieces played by the Harrisburg Symphony, when I was saying how I had no idea what was coming next, I would just sit down and compose.

The loss of this facileness, of course, would later become the problem: I may have had a certain amount of talent but I had not developed, despite years of training and degrees to the contrary, any real craft. Rather scary thing to discover...

And so I tried to make up for lost time and training by working out a “systematic approach” to composing – keeping in mind that while “system” to some people can mean serialism, tonality is also a kind of system. If doing crossword puzzles or playing word games can keep your mind sharp, doing comparable musical exercises could do the same for my creative side.

If I mapped out the structure of the piece beforehand, I would know exactly where it would go from here before I even got there. This gave me a better chance of being able to continue writing day after day rather than waiting hours and days and maybe weeks and months for inspiration to strike.

If I was going to refine or even re-invent my musical voice, I might as well go whole-hog and change everything. The string quartet and even more so the symphony were planned in advance down to the beat where phrases would climax, much less the movements and the piece as a whole. It became a skeleton (form) on which I would then fill out the muscle (harmony) and the flesh (melody or for what in my style passes for melody).

The object is to keep the structure just as invisible to the listener as your skeleton is to the person standing in front of you, but just as necessary for everything to move and function as you are perceived and understood without the other person needing to know the physics and biology that makes you who and what you are.

And now I’m beginning to apply that to the novel.

A composer-friend of mine in Connecticut used to do these detailed graphs and charts, pages full of notes but not musical notes – numbers, mostly – but he was one of those “serial guys” and while I liked his music, this intense organization was not for me. I am nothing if unorganized. He would call this pre-compositional planning the “laundromat stage,” things he would work out while doing his laundry. I had to laugh yesterday as I realized I was sitting in my study working out the structure of this novel, filling out pages of notes and numbers... while doing a load of laundry in the basement!

One of the important things that happened somewhere between the 19th Century writer’s journal being the “echo” in a previous draft and the one I’m reworking now, is that the “echoes” have become memories of the composer-narrator’s own life. As anyone who notices, those memories that come to mind unbidden do not happen in chronological order. Nor do they have, necessarily, any direct surface association with the present or each other – it is this possible deeper meaning that prompted the invention of psychiatrists, perhaps. In literature, it is called “stream of consciousness” and has been described by its critics as the “lack of system.”

Last summer, after reading bits of Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual,” it occurred to me how to “organize” something that seems so unorganized as “stream of consciousness.”

That’s what I’ve been working on the past several weeks, now. More to come...

Dr. Dick

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