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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
–T. H. White, “The Sword in the Stone.”

After Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the book that most affected me as a child was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book is best-known through the and for the Camelot! musical and later movie of the same name in which Robert Goulet and Richard Harris played the title roles, and perhaps through the Disney animation of The Sword in the Stone, the first part of the book. However, in each of these cases, that’s like knowing a sunny day through a tanning clinic. What White accomplished was not just an entertainment – although it’s all of that – but, rather, the main retelling of the Arthurian legend for the twentieth century.

White was rather unfortunate in his personal life. He seems to have been throughly dominated by his mother in his early life, and an accusation – apparently of homosexuality and possibly true – made him unable to continue working as a public school teacher. He turned to his love of naturalism and medievalism for solace as well as a living, but remained largely solitary and introspective.

Every great re-telling of the Arthurian legend reshapes the story for its times, and White is no exception. In White’s version, Arthur is a well-meaning and earnest man who has the luck or misfortune to be afflicted by a visionary tutor. For Merlin, Arthur is a tool to attempt nothing less than a major change in human psychology, away from the “Might is Right” philosophy that seems to rule international politics to a more moral, humanistic way of life. The Round Table and the Grail Quest are both efforts to steer life in this direction. At the end of the book, Arthur is even experimenting with the rule of law, although he finds it suddenly used against him.

The tragedy is that human nature seems to pre-doom this endeavor from the start. But the problem is not just the natural selfishness of people, but the fact that they are not.

The romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere that dooms Arthur’s efforts is not simply a matter of selfishness or uncontrollable passion. After all, White says, if Lancelot had been a normal person, he simply would have eloped with Guinevere, and nothing else would have happened. Instead, the tragedy happens because Lancelot is genuinely torn between his love for Guinevere and his whole-hearted support of Arthur’s ideals. Similarly, Guinevere is a young woman married to an older husband whose ideals she can’t really share, and lacking any outlet for her energies. As for Arthur, he is warned from the start about the love affair, but turns a blind eye to it out of guilt and out of his own sense of fairness.

For White, the other element that dooms Camelot are the five sons of Queen Morgause of Orkney, including Mordred, whose father is Arthur. White devotes a rather chilling, if somewhat racist section to the sons in early childhood, showing them totally obsessed with gaining their aloof mother’s approval. Of the five, only Gareth has the imaginative sympathy to support Arthur’s ideals wholeheartedly. Gaheris is slow, Agravaine and Mordred downright vicious. Gawaine, the head of the clan, is at least good-natured, but even he has trouble thinking beyond the tribalism on which he grew up.

In short, what White manages to do is create a psychologically convincing portrait of the main people in the Arthurian cycle, making them credible to twentieth-century readers, and winning through to a pathos in several scenes as effective as anything else you can name in English literature.

But, although that alone would be enough to make The Once and Future King an extraordinary book, it contains far more. The first part, which depicts Arthur’s childhood, is broadly comical as Arthur – or Wart, as his foster family calls him – is transformed into a variety of animals to broaden his mind, a conceit that gives White a chance to put his naturalist’s rambles to good use. At the same time, Wart receives the usual education of a country squire, learning to joust and work with hawks. In fact, the whole book is crammed with medieval lore that gives the book a ring of authenticity.

Tragically, as adult affairs absorb his mind, Arthur quickly forgets his idyllic childhood, retaining only the ideas that Merlin has given him. After he establishes his rule, the whole concept of rooting out the idea that Might is Right slowly goes wrong in a series of descents that last over several decades. At the end of the book, in a scene whose imaginative power is only faintly captured in the movie, Arthur sits awake in his tent, waiting for the battle with Mordred that he knows will end in his death. Abruptly, he remembers his childhood, and wonders if his life effort was futile. The anarchistic geese, who see no borders in their flights, have the right attitude he concludes, but he despairs of humanity ever following their example. In the end, he finds a small consolation in sending a young page – evidently Thomas Malory, who will grow up write La Morte D’Arthur — out of the battle zone, so that somebody can remember the example of Camelot for future generations, then prepares to go out and die.

Having read the Arthurian legend for years, I was ripe for White’s version when I discovered it in Grade Six. I not only devoured the book, but lived and breathed it for months in my mind, even going so far as to ask a local artist down the lane to bring the description of the mews on Sir Ector’s estate to life (she refused, polite and more than a little puzzled).

Unlike Arthur, I’ve never forgot the story of his early years, or his effort to realize Merlin’s vision. Looking back, I conclude that the book seems to have played a large role in establishing my social and political leanings, and every few years I like to return to it. Each time, I find new pieces to appreciate, and I’m reminded yet again that the literary canon is not the only source of artistic excellence.

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In the summer between grades five and six, I discovered the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The encounter inspired a love of fantasy and science fiction that endures to this day.

I was always precocious reader. By the end of Grade 1, I was devouring the Hardy Boy books. by Grade 2, I had discovered Alexander Dumas and historical fiction, and I first read Moby Dick in Grade 3. This precociousness alarmed my mother, who had at least one conference with my teacher, and eventually decided that, if I came across anything remotely racy, I would probably just skip over it. It also meant that I was so busy reading works like Mutiny on the Bounty that I missed a number of children’s classics until in the early years of high school, including Harriet the Spy, The Wind in the Willows, and, of course, Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I was a first generation book addict, with nothing except the occasional suggestion from the school librarian to indicate that I was missing a wealth of treasures. I wouldn’t even have known The Wizard of Oz except for the movie and the fact that I played the Cowardly Lion in the class play (a most moving performance, I thought, in which I had a mane that made me look like a dandelion, and developed the business of wiping my eyes with the tip of my tail when I pretended to cry),

I do remember hearing my brother talk about his teacher reading The Hobbit to his class. And in grade five, I saw a black and white sketch in a school book club catalog showing Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, and was intrigued. What were the Hobbits mentioned in the caption? They didn’t seem much different than humans to me. But, at the same time, stripped to a couple of sentences, the plot seemed ludicrous.

That summer, I came across a paperback three volume set of The Lord of the Rings with the abstract cover full of banners and snake-like heads. But the price was high for my allowance, and I put it aside. That was at The Bookstall, where I lived during many long summer afternoons of my childhood.

The owner seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm, and tolerated my horde of unbought treasures. Yet, every once and a while, his patience thinned, and I had to make at least an effort to buy what I had reserved. Cunningly, I said that I would take the first volume, figuring to satisfy the owner’s strange insistence on making sales without too much financial damage to myself.

As I rode home on my bicycle, I stopped every few blocks to read a page or two. By the time I got home, I was thoroughly hooked, and descended to the downstairs basement that I was using that summer to read stretched out on my bed.

That was on Friday afternoon. I must have had dinner and other meals on Saturday, but what I mostly remember is constantly shifting position on the bed, physically restless yet so unable to put the book down that I might been a fool of a Took snared by Sauron’s glance in the Palantir.

The experience remains vivid now, and is the main source of my contempt for those who dismiss Tolkien as an archaic or mediocre writer. Those terms might apply to all but the best of his poetry, but, for me, Tolkien remains the universal standard for atmosphere and building tension. Opening with the forced cheeriness of a children’s tale, Tolkien slowly drops those tones, until suddenly, without realizing quite how you got there, you are in a middle of an altogether more dangerous story, and are afraid to go to the washroom without turning on the lights in the hopes of warding off the Black Riders. And that night, I heard a cat’s yowl a few yards over that left me lying awake, half-expecting to hear the sound of horses’ hooves coming down the street. The Black Riders might be looking for hobbits, I was thinking, but they would probably be just as happy with children.

Twenty-six hours after I bought the first volume, I had finished it, and was ready for more. I spent a sleepless night in anticipation, and cycled down to The Bookstall only to find that it was closed on Sundays. I’m not sure how I lasted the day, let alone the night, with my tormented thoughts that somehow the other volumes might have been sold in my absence, but on Monday morning I was on the doorstep at opening time. This time, I bought both the remaining volumes, having learned my lesson. Two days later, I had finished both, and was seriously debating starting again – something I have almost never done at any age.

For the rest of the summer, I was wild about Tolkien. I read his other works, including The Hobbit, but most of them were like methadone to a serious addict – satisfying, but missing something. I drew my own maps of the areas beyond the edges of Tolkien’s maps, and searched the story and the appendices for hooks to hang a story on. I fantasized about one day backpacking to Oxford and meeting Tolkien in his study. But none of it was enough. In desperation, I started branching out into other fantasy and science fiction writers like Fritz Leiber and Robert Heinlein, and so a lifelong taste was born.

My appreciation of literature has broadened since then to include the classics, foreign literature, graphic novels and selected mysteries. Yet for all the discoveries that have delighted me, none quite compared to those four days in which I read Tolkien for the first time.

When, shortly after, I began to have my first crushes on the girls in my class, the feeling wasn’t strange at all. I’d already experienced that intensity of emotions in the pages of three paperback books.

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“All it takes is some grains of faith,
A few kilowatts of sweat and grace.”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of the most persistent myths among wannabe writers is that they need to be inspired to write. However, professional writers know better. For them, inspiration is less a form of divine grace than a habit of mind. And, in some ways, it’s less important that the sweat of regular, disciplined work.

Oh, most professionals know the joy of being in what computer developers call “The Zone,” that trance-like state where you can see the whole of your current project laid out before you and can seemingly do no wrong. It’s a heady feeling, and probably explains why Isaac Asimov, when asked if he would rather write or make love, pointed out that he could write for twelve hours a day.

But here’s the secret: Work you do while inspired isn’t always flawless, or even better than what you write when the words come slowly. Sometimes, it’s complete junk. It just feels easier. Later on, you may even have trouble telling what you wrote while inspired from what you wrote while sweating every syllable.

That’s the main reason why most professional writers don’t worry about inspiration, or wait for it. Often, of course, they have no time to do so; for most of us, a deadline is the surest cure for writer’s block around. But, more importantly, it’s not reliable, and professionals soon learn from experience that it’s also over-rated.

Instead of striking a pose and waiting for the Muse – that favorite pastime of wannabes more in love with the image of the author than with writing – professionals soon learn to cultivate a state of mind where they are always watching for potential material. Writers of fiction are looking for plot elements and characterizations, or maybe the odd turn of phrase. Non-fiction writers like me are always looking for subjects that they can turn into articles. After a while, the search becomes automatic, a little piece of you that sits back and observes while the rest of you interacts with the world. Some writers even go so far as to keep a notebook or PDA at hand for jotting down notes, although many prefer to keep notes mentally.

(Personally, I think that mental notes make for richer material, since they can make new connections with the rest of the contents with your brain, while written notes just sit there lifelessly, but that’s just me. You might be different).

Once you have the habit of looking for material, you will rarely have trouble finding something to write about. For instance, I can almost always find four or five topics that relate to free software with an hour or so of thinking and browsing the Internet. Give me a free afternoon, and I can find enough topics to fill my quota for the month. As the American fantasist Fritz Leiber once wrote, “It’s part of my entire adjustment to life, to view things from the perspective of gathering story material.”

This approach to inspiration is one of the key differences between amateurs and professionals, but it’s not the only one. Just as importantly, writers write. It’s only amateurs who spend their time waiting for inspiration, or talking about what they plan to write. True writers sit down regularly – usually, daily – and write. They may be in different moods or states of health from day to day, and they may write more one day than another, but they write.

Why? Partly because Asimov’s joke is true: even if you don’t want to go as far as he did, writing is more fun than almost anything else. But, just as importantly, writing is like any skill or activity from singing to playing a sport: it’s easiest with practice. The more you write, the less effort it is. When you’re in practice as a writer, you no sooner have an idea than you start seeing seeing what points you can make about it and the gaps in it that you need to fill – to say nothing of the structure that you need to express it. Sometimes, how you develop an idea may change dramatically as you work with it, but, if you’re in practice, then you can usually see the possibilities early on.

Just as a trained runner often needs less warmup than a Sunday jogger, so a professional writer finds the act of writing easier. That, really, is the reward of disciplined work – although if you’ve never written regularly and long enough to experience it, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Of course, sweat also comes in with revision and editing. Possibly the best advice I’ve ever heard from a writer is Robert Graves’ comment that a writer’s best friend is the wastebasket. Many pieces of writing are made by careful editing or destroyed by its lack.

But editing, in my experience, is a far less desperate an activity than writing itself. By the time you get to editing, you know you have something to build on and improve. Compared to writing the first draft, editing is not nearly as harrowing – it’s usually just a matter of putting in the work. Editing is more an analytical process than a creative one, so in general it’s less mysterious than writing and easier to learn, even though it’s no less important.

These comments will seem obvious to most working professionals. However, I am equally sure that wannabe writers will read them, nod solemnly – and then go right back to their old habits of waiting for inspiration.

But if you’re ready to write seriously, then maybe they will reassure you that you’re doing the right thing. The romantic myths about writing are lovely, but they’re not a substitute for pragmatism and hard work. They no more make a successful writer than the myths about personal romance make for a successful marriage.

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