January 2018 . . . .

“Almanac Entry”

It’s 64 degrees Fahrenheit in our living room — because I’m stubborn, mostly, and also because no one else is home at the moment and I don’t need it to be particularly warm to type here. (It’s cooler outside, but still November-ish sunny and I’m considering changing venues for writing this document.) I have a cup of tea — cream and sugar, thanks — and it’s helping me maintain appropriate body warmth. I have a sweatshirt on, also, but the sleeves are rolled up, figuratively and literally. Today has been a very good day.

It started off iffy enough. (I like that last sentence a lot. Say it out loud, three times, fast.) For reasons I cannot easily comprehend, although “tired” leaps to mind, I went to bed at 7:30 last night. Fell almost immediately asleep, woke up ridiculously early this morning and got to work. I’d thought I would read — I mean really read, for a few hours. Serious, uncompromising consumption of text, like so many folks I know say (on Twitter of all things) that they are able to do. “I blasted through that book this weekend. No kidding, man, you just have to reeeeead it!”

Other than the unnerving feeling I have that the dialogue above seems excavated from a dim and crusty tomb from 1978, what I’m thinking right now is that I rarely have the opportunity to lay track like that, end to end. Something always trips and falls in the way. The phone, meals, laundry, someone needing a ride somewhere. Someone needing a ride home from somewhere. Someone wanting something off a high shelf. (How do things get on those high shelves, anyhow? It’s not me, is it? I don’t think it’s me.)

The world conspires against reading, and by direct association, writing. Society is interruptive by nature. Interruptions always take precedence. We not only let them, but we seem to embrace permitting them to unhorse us from our appointed tasks. We are motivated to look at our phones, at the news, at the weather, to ensure that we think we know what’s going on right now.

I recently received a rejection notice from a publishing house to which I had submitted a novel, intended for the YA audience. They were very efficient and forthright. And kind, by the way. One reason, they admitted, for not selecting the piece for publication was that I spent too much time at the start of the thing developing the character and setting. My storytelling did not immediately get down to business. As you all know, this function of writing is referred to as in media res, which is Latin for “just before the bomb goes off.” Sam Spade’s lovely young thing pitching a mystery at the door of his office was chapter two. Chapter one was some poor slob being pitched from a moving train.

Back in the day, I was taught that this was just one option of many for an aspiring author. If you wanted, you could always spend a little time getting to know Odysseus and his family, or the Spartan king and his pretty new wife, Helen, rather than having Achilles spearing some giant Arcadian in the shoulder in the first paragraph, although that sure would have grabbed your ancient Greek therapeia (attention!) And if it seemed they were going into a lot of detail about who and where and when and why, it’s because there were only three books in the whole world and the Iliad was one of them and the Odyssey was another and we think the third one was about some hunter fellow named Gilgamesh. So there was something to be said about having a semi-captive audience to your narrative stylings. It took a young short story writer named Moses to come up with that pithy phrase “In the beginning . . .” and launch a heck of a yarn about sin and redemption. But even his prose contained a fair bit of miraculous window-dressing before it settled down to spinning a coming-of-age story.

Speaking of coming-of-age, if we but leap forward a few centuries or so, we find the first lines of a saga where Our Hero is described by the poet as a baby! What is the point of that? Is the baby even doing anything . . . Herculean? Nope. Just being named and catalogued. And that’s the whole point. We know the story, we even know how it ends. We don’t just want to see the baby, either. We want the labor pains. We ought to demand the thing, warts and all. If some scop is going to stand up and shout “Hear Me!” after a big meal and a lot of drinking, and even knowing that it’s an oldie but a goody like Beowulf, well, starting at the very beginning whets our appetite for a good long winter’s tale.

My point is Gone With the Wind doesn’t begin with the burning of Atlanta. Catch-22 has no bombings on the first page that I recall. War and Peace launches not in the middle of a battle, for crying out loud, but rather a very personal struggle for place at the grownups’ table, and a fair amount of French that you need to look up on the footnotes page. Anyhow, there is much to be said for getting to know people before you put them in harm’s way.

There are rules for writing a novel, but no one knows what they are, to paraphrase another Somers(et Maugham) type. Or maybe they’re not rules, but . . . aspects of narrative that readers are currently in the mood for. But if all stories start out the same way — then how do we differentiate between them? The level of immediate excitement? The increasing violence or terror or sex or other fascination-factor splashed onto the page by an ever more exhausted author stable trying to please a jaded, slippery-sloped readership? Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

Maybe I’ll try again, tonight. I’ve a lot of very good books on the nightstand. By the way, my daughter is reading King’s It. She’s on chapter three. Tells me she’s a little bit bored because right now it’s all about adults. She asks me if they all kill themselves. I sigh. You’re on page fifty of a thirteen-hundred page novel, sweetie. Give it a chance.