The great obscurian novel
I just got this email from Word Press:
I skimmed it as I usually do with their posts, just to find out if it was anything earth-shattering.
Have you seen this? It invites us to spend November writing the great American, or whatever, novel. The challenge is to write every day and make it to 50,000 words in one month. I guess that must be the length of a decent size novel. I have no earthly idea.
When I read a book, whether it is fiction (which I rarely read) or non-fiction (I especially like biographies) I like it to be no less than 400 pages, with only a few pictures and small print. I don’t want to waste my time, usually, with a cursory treatment of any subject. That is why I used to love 1000 page masterpieces when I was reading fiction, mostly in grammar and high school.
My mother was a teacher when I was small and so I learned to read by myself, somewhere around age four. I still have the book too, entitled, Around the Clock Its Fun to Tell Time by Lora Z. Jackson, from 1937. It belonged to my grandmother. By the time I was seven, I was reading adult level literature. I specifically remember my mother having the O’Henry series which I read to the best of my abilities and a set of Sherlock Holmes. So by the time I got to high school, only the longest, most complex books were left to explore and I loved them.
Since I no longer read them, I am not confident that I would have talent for writing novels either. For one thing, I am not sure most people can write a novel about a subject with which they are unfamiliar. Remember in Little Women, where Professor Baer tells Jo that she should stop writing whodunnits or whatever and write about her own life, and that was the impetus for her highly successful books? I think that probably applies to most people.
If I were to write a novel about my own experiences, my life to date, it would look like — well — this blog! I talk all the time about things that have occurred or are happening in my own, actual life. Why make it fiction?
So that leaves me with some other kind of novel. Aha! The only form that would interest me is a slightly fictionalized docudrama type saga set in the Dark Ages. In fact, my preference would be to write about the 11th century in Byzantium. At one point, I considered getting a degree in history, focusing on the wool trade along the Silk Route. How’s that for obscure? I have quite a library of books on that time period and geographic location. If I were to do a credible job, it would have to focus on women (a subject I know fairly well, first hand, after all) but, as you may suspect, less was left to us about women in that particular time period almost anywhere in the world, let alone the Middle East.
In fact, that is why they are called the Dark Ages. Not because people were backward or primitive, quite the contrary and especially in Byzantium, where commerce, art, music, food, and even math and science were quite advanced, especially compared to Western Europe of the same time period. But rather, they are referred to as being ‘dark’ because so little information is known about them. ‘Obscure’ would be better. All the more reason for me to delve into that area and time. As anyone who has picked a dissertation topic likely knows, the more that has been researched in a particular subject area, the greater the difficulty coming up with something original and worth studying.
So, if I were to embark upon so ambitious and presumptuous a project as a novel of value about any period in history, anywhere on earth, this would be the most interesting to me, specifically.
Commercial, is also key. Who would read this? Only someone with my peculiarities of mind and imagination, I am afraid. Other than Houghton Mifflin, what publisher on earth would get excited about a wool herding heroine living in Constantinople in the year 1000? Think about the book tour. Other than Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers, who wouldn’t I put to sleep immediately?
Still, if I were to start on this (not saying I would either, let’s be crystal clear on this), I would love to find a character like Empress Theodora, wife of Justininian I. Rarely is there a powerful, exciting, beautiful, exotic, strong woman about whom so much is known, from that time period and place, who hasn’t been overdone. The love story and rise to power of Theodora and Justinian would rival almost any modern action thriller. I am surprised that the people who did Gladiator did not think of following up on it with something about this dynamic pair. Had I the scholarship in this particular time period, as a trained historian, I think this would make a great novel and then blockbuster, with the right team doing it.
Back to me and the November writing challenge. What amused me most is that they don’t seem to question that any one of us out here has the talent to write. It would seem to me to be elementary that if you are not a master of your native language, to start with, with a solid knowledge not only of its grammar, structure and power, but of its history, poetry and cadence, you have little business attempting a great novel of any kind. How many of us are sure we can write?!
What they focus on instead (am I right?) is whether you can take on the seemingly formidable task of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Really? Is that all? Forget about what my writing strengths or weaknesses may be in terms of the beauty, clarity, and magnetics of my prose, wordiness is no problem! If volume were the key, the class chatterbox would be Shakespeare or J.K.Rowling!
I giggle about this to myself almost every time I sit down to write this blog. Because, no matter the topic, I always think, ‘This will be quick, I only have a few thoughts to share’, and then before I know it, I have batted out 1500 words almost non-stop.
So, let’s unpack this here, just focusing on my little blog and hubris in thinking that I have something worth hearing and can phrase it in such a way that anyone will derive value from reading it. In one hour, I can usually crank out said 1500 – 2000 words, set it aside until the next morning, clean it up a bit and let it speak for itself. For good or for bad, that is the only way I can manage to post every day. I just get my idea of the day (I don’t do these in advance) down on paper, so to speak, and let the chips fall where they may.
One of the reasons I don’t think too much about my blog as a vehicle to anything in particular is that I want to be free of goals here. We have endpoints, expectations, and pre- and proscriptions in so many areas of our lives. Somewhere there has to be what the Hindus call a ‘leela’, a place to play with our minds engaged but free of the constraints that come with every single other area of daily functioning. I am sure I hear many of you who are writers, or who want to be novelists, shuddering at the thought that someone might just be putting down their unedited, unpolished thoughts impromptu, unconcerned about the path to immediate communication, tight text, vivid images. Who was it, Edmund Wilson, ‘make each word tell’?
So many subjects capture my attention and interest, I want to be free to cover whatever is fresh for me, in the moment. This is probably the only place where I can truly ‘be here now’ as Werner Erhard used to shrewdly advise. Everywhere else, I plan and think and over-think and then plan some more and then fret that I have not prepared to the ‘nth degree. Here, Beth Byrnes is live and raw, with all her shortcomings on full display.
So, no, I will not be seizing upon the November Novel challenge, with all respect to WordPress and the many brilliant bloggers who do have the right background, training and genius to do this and entertain as well as inform all the while. Not because I can’t get the required 1,666 words down on paper every day (without perishing of hunger and sleep deprivation in the doing) but because I am better at getting that kind of material out and into the public domain when no one tells me I must. My thoughts flow from wanting to share them, not feeling I have to transmit them flawlessly and with any reward or award, whether praise or prize. No future fame, legacy, or real estate in history motivates me to do this. It is simply the fun and venture into the unknown, that draws me to sit here and tell you what matters to me today — when there are a hundred other things tugging at my attention — because you are people I value and you have been good to me too.
If I get nothing more out of this experience than the future amusement of my older and wiser self looking back on all of it and saying, this was so ‘two thousand tens’ of me, just like fringe bangs and finger curls, tunics and leggings, vegan diets and xerigraphic gardening, it will have been totally worth it.
By the way, check out this great novel about Theodora that just came out this year! Dang! Had I only been a little quicker and smarter, I might have been the next Dan Brown. Maybe I can do the Broadway musical instead.
Images: Beth Byrnes archives, Wikipedia, Amazon.