Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some Notes on Discovery

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, replete with the conventional, scientific, and political wisdom of the time, sent two men forth on a journey of discovery. They did not accomplish the intended discovery; instead they produced a trove of information which they recorded in maps, drawings, diagrams, and journals, many of which were published in book form. The Journals of Lewis and Clark are a continuing part of a legacy of discovery and or history. If there were to be an historical equivalent of the Mount Rushmore Memorial, the carvings would represent DeTocqueville's Democracy in America, Crevecoeur's Letters from An American Farmer, and most prominent, The Journals of Lewis and Clark.

These three books are iconic models for writers of fiction and nonfiction. They remind us that however tangible the end of the journey seems at the time of beginning, life and, if you will, nature have other plans: things evolve, change, mutate. The sheer force of discovery affects the final result. Discovery and the fear of the road are the creative fuels rarely mentioned in text books or classes in which the artist is forged, honed, given their edge and vision.

The process of discovery halted the production of my personal favorite of all novels; it became mired down for nearly ten years in a bog of self-doubt, guilt, imagined social pressure, and the actual social pressure of the author's lifestyle. Although the author had experienced several previous successes, his own view of his best work, at the time of his starts-and-fits approach to this troublesome discovery was a book almost no one remembers, The Personal History of Joan of Arc, a work I had to force myself to finish. Were we to go off on the tempting digression of my personal favorite of all novels, Huckleberry Finn, I could argue that some of the voice and attitude of the author's earlier work led him to these moments of discovery, drew him along with taunts from the Sirens, and led him to a platform of being the conscience of his country, a platform he mounted again from time to time, but never in fiction.

One of the things you discover is the narrative voice for a particular work, answering as you go the questions, Who is telling the story? Why that or those person(s)? Another thing you discover is the true intent of the narrator(s); add to that the reliability or naivete of the narrator(s). Yet another thing you discover is your own intent: was this narrative constructed to satirize, revise, praise, topple, explain? And if your choice were the latter, to whom would you be explaining--yourself, perhaps?

Another thing you may discover has to do with standards: have you created such depth and layering, such individuals and conflicts that you are fearful to set forth again, lest you fail to live up to your own standards. You may discover that setting forth at the time of day of your working preference, your beverage of choice close to hand, your animal of choice nearby, the worrisome presence of comfort nagging away, inducing you to check some favored news source or perhaps worse, some Internet game or crossword puzzle, some compulsive or obsessive task you set yourself in avoidance of launching forth on the project.

Add this to your discoveries: the surprise of encountering the ending you never dreamed of, the ending that validates the entire project, the ending that you weren't saving up to use on some special occasion as a demonstration of how bright or clever or fast on your feet you were, rather instead the artistry of discovery forged in the fear and darkness of your own crucible, validating you to the most important reader of all--yourself.


Matt said...

Well said. Your note about "the most important reader of all" reminds me of a lecture by novelist/memoirist Wayson Choy. He spoke of the concept of "the ideal reader", which is an independently governed consciousness within the writer - not just a voice, but a mind that (to put it simply) wants the writer to not cut corners, not cheat him, but rather live up the "ideal reader"'s expectations of the writer.

A very swaying concept when you're working on the ending of a novel.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Your blog is a kind of Journals of Lewis and Clark for me. And whenever I post a post, it takes me about ten hours of revisiting and revisiting to get it right, until it ends up being and totally different post than it was the first time. I can't seem to take that journey off-post. For some reason it has to be on the blog, even though anyone who reads it early won't see the finished product. It has to finish itself, without a plan, with shifting voices. My other writing? Hmph!