Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Secret Progress Report

Back when I was writing book proposals, I even
created my own book cover. Now it's a blog series logo.
I've been working on several writing projects for at least twenty years.  Not all the time--lots of words have poured out, been published or sent out into cyberspace, including a lot of sentences I wrote to earn some money.  Nevertheless, these big projects have been difficult to complete.

One of them has been called Soul of the Future for a big chunk of that time.   The idea of this approach to writing about the future first came to me while walking down Murray Avenue to my apartment in Pittsburgh in the mid 1990s.  By then, a decade or more after my book The Malling of America was published, I'd realized that I could probably not depend on a decent book advance or even expenses for articles, to finance travel and so on for another book.  As I had no institutional support (university, foundation, etc.) and was unlikely to be offered any, and I still wanted to write a book, I would have to figure out how to do it without the expense of travel.

That certainly meant a different kind of book from The Malling of America.  Or pretty much any of the articles I'd published over the prior 20 years.  It took some thinking to come up with ideas I was interested in exploring, within those limitations.

So when I was idly wondering why so many movies about the future were apocalyptic, and that I could think of only one widely known utopian story from the recent past, a number of  questions and ideas came together, and I realized I had the makings of a book.

I did considerable research, and piled up drafts that didn't quite work.  I would stop at the point of exhaustion which accompanied discouragement, especially when the need to pay attention to paying work became acute.

  Meanwhile, we'd moved to Arcata and life went this way and that.  I kept computer files of my work on this project by year: some folders had lots of chapter drafts, some had little more than new outlines and notes.  I had a file cabinet full of notes from the old days of paper, and piles of notebooks. I did in fact publish essays and reviews related to this project, but I could not really get going on the project itself. There was so much to tell, and I couldn't find a way to tell it all.

Lately I realized that if I was going to write an entire book, especially at my age, it would have to be, not a daily battle, but a daily joy, or at least obsession. It had to be something I was eager to do every day.

To do that, it would have to establish a narrative momentum that carried me along, before I could carry along any readers.

Recently I think I've got the momentum to go ahead with it.  And it came partly from a similar source that propelled me to write the final draft of The Malling of America.

The key that time was Moby Dick. My editor was demanding a first person narrator, and I could not figure out how to do it.  Finally reading Melville's actual prose, I realized that I could create a first person narrator who was based on me, but wasn't me.  He was a somewhat more naive and focused observer. (More like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby than Ismael or Leopold Bloom, but they were in the mix.)  Plus I lumped a lot of trips to see malls into one voyage. Melville probably did something similar, though I'm sure he made up more stuff than I did.

From that point the writing went quickly and well.  Of course, I had a long magazine piece, pieces of other magazine articles, lots of notes and tapes and several years of writing multiple drafts behind me.

This time the key was a biography of Charles Dickens by Michael Slater. I paused in reading Dickens' novels (my first post-retirement reading project)  to read this long biography that meticulously linked his activities with his writing.

  In addition to novels, Dickens was doing a lot of journalism.  I also knew that he'd published the novels in serial form, in magazines.  But the biography made it clear how thoroughly he did it that way.  He wrote literally to deadline.  His early novels hardly even had a plan--he was winging it.  But even later when he worked them out in advance, he was writing chunks of the novel, and seeing them published in a monthly or weekly magazine (usually the one he was editing) before he wrote the next chunk.

I don't edit a magazine but I do have full control over my blogs.  Recently I'd found that it was easier for me to write for my blogs than otherwise.  I improvised, things came together, the process and the prose flowed.  I revised, of course, though that's apparently not a bloggy thing to do.  But my blogs are pretty much unique anyway.

Another longstanding project--related to this one--was Soul of Star Trek, which is one of my blogs but which was always supposed to mainly become a book.  So in Star Trek's 50th anniversary year, I experimented in writing chapters for what might be a book, but as blog entries.  It seemed to work.  I'm sure I would change things when it comes time to actually make it a book, but the basics are there.

So I applied this idea of writing for periodical publication by blog to Soul of the Future.  I've written three posts, one of them quite long, so far.  The latest one, on 70s futurists, was the most satisfying.  I know it's basically about the best I can do, and except for minor revisions, it's finally done.  Because a lot of it derived from articles and drafts that go back to the 70s themselves, that was more like a 40 year journey.

Simply conceptualizing this as a series of posts gave me a voice, and I came up with a narrative strategy.  Just for the first several chapters, but hopefully one thing would keep leading to another.

So I have a narrative working, at least in the sense of one thing leads to another, or one answer leads to another question.  Tom Stoppard has said on several occasions that the basic task of the writer is to manage the flow of information received by the audience.  That's the secret difficulty a lot of writers have.  Jo Rowling once said she had a hard time with her first Harry Potter draft--she had so much of the story in her head, she was trying to tell it all in the first chapter of the first book.

I don't like to talk about works in progress, and I do believe they can be jinxed. But I'm not too worried about being thrown off by responses, or lack of them.  No one reads my blog.  I mean, literally no one reads this one, and very few people read my Dreaming Up Daily blog, where these posts are appearing.  As discouraging as that can be at times, I know in this case it's for the best.  It's why I resist drawing attention to myself through Facebook or twittering away or instanagramming.  I don't need a lot of noise.  I don't need to please anyone, or a lot of anyones.  At my age, this isn't going to be the start of a great career.

Still, I need to publish, to see what it looks like, to experience that feeling I remember: the words are out there, written for those phantom readers you can only imagine, and written with the likely criticisms of other writers and editors in mind: flagging sloppy research, bad diction, unjustified claims, misspelling.

No, at this point I just want to record this progress report for myself.  I'm doing it here because it looks better on the blog than on the word processing page.  (I love adding photos to the drafts, even if I couldn't afford to publish them in a resulting book.)

The reader(s) in my head, that's something else.  This blog's for you, too.

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