Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Graces of Rewrite

You musn't think that the contemplative life, especially in the upper regions of the genuinely mystical parts of it, is a constant diet of the blissful. Certain adepts seem to claim such nonsense, but they are to be ignored. Or perhaps sworn at. True peace comes with knowing, admitting, accepting, that some days, some relationships, some projects will be just plain hell. Or at least part of them will.
When the "final phase" of my fiction arrived in March of 1980, I was both mightily relieved, and also hoisted to a new level of creative tension. Writing had always been work, and I had not minded the fact, but as soon as I had done my huge hatchet job on ninety percent of what followed the two good pages of March 17 and immediately afterward, I knew I was in for a new level of waiting on the Muse, with a greater responsibility for getting it right. Therefore, whenever I was able to write fiction, I came out of it with the personal conviction that after such a struggle I really would not be required to change much, come the day of the galleys. A little punctuation here, perhaps some spelling there, maybe the occasional tightening up of the language. And, in retrospect, it seems that this is precisely what Marianne and I did when we started recording, first in 90, with my oldest son on the tape deck and controls, in assorted studios, and then in the spring of 93, with all the children finally up and gone, in our own studio in what had been the girls' bedroom, with MT on switches.
I did not mind the opportunity to improve for an audio audience, and editing for a future Pope is clearly an incentive, but I again thought of the newish text as quite satisfactory and pretty much the version that would go to galley.
Hah.
From the Prologue on, in this phase, the Muse has read out a new set of directives. I remember hearing some years ago a locution: The graces of rewrite. When it came to mind the other day, I cannot admit that it sat all that well. I was afraid that it might apply in some way to the great 2200 and my entire being shuddered at the thought. I thought of what Teresa of Avila said to Jesus when her carriage got dumped in a stream. "And you wonder why you have so few real friends!" It seemed like an awful lot of ground to re-plow.
But, there was no real choice. First of all, the scanner and Word 2000 could not really talk to each other. We had success with some early chapters, but not with others. Thus the differences with the page width on the novel section of my blog. But then this turned out to be a happy fault, for we realized that typing in the text gave the best format. So now I type, and as I type I rework, actually quite happily, because I've learned that there is a significant difference between the chore of getting the story out of the author and the craft of getting it into the reader.
And the Muse does do his/her best to help. (My wife is always surprised that I think of the Muse as a He, even though I know how useless I'd be without the Virgin Mary.)
This really hit me with chapter four, which to me, marks the beginning of real story-telling. I was, I have to admit, pretty stunned at how much I found needed changing. But I got some help. For Michael's getting sat on from above, Auguste Poulain, SJ, author of the "The Graces of Interior Prayer", Routledge, London, 1950, looked over one shoulder. For the natural features of our hero's return to this planet, none other than Ernest Hemingway was editor and coach. Ernie owes me, of course, as it was his book, "Farewell to Arms", through which I had the life scared out of me. But it was lovely all the same for him to show up, as he has done regularly over the years when I've been between a rock and a hard place.
So who is showing up as I journey through chapter 5? I got to it this morning, not long after I posted #29, and again was surprised at how many changes it seemed to need. This required enough work that I was only good for two manuscript pages, and much relieved to hear the cry that lunch was served. After lunch, when I had really been planning a good walk and a stop at the government store for a little keg of Heineken, I actually flaked out on the new hammock on the enclosed porch and was made to ponder the new regime. The Heineken is mostly not for me. The hospitality season begins on Monday when little Anna, who is of course little no more, and an awfully good kayaker as well, comes for a week to hike, listen to the latest music theory, and, so she thought, sample some of Grandpa's ale. But Grandpa has been too busy to brew, and thus commercial substitutes. There are to be a lot more visiting, I hear, than just Anna.
Hemingway has a granddaughter too, Marielle, who made a movie with John Candy, "Delirious".
I've always thought there was much more truth in it than fiction. The artist really does get to kick life into action.
Later, when it's available from the BBC, we'll get to watch Michael Palin's DVD, wherein he travels through the places wherein Hemingway lived and wrote. Thus Michael pays homage to his favourite writer.
I don't think I can say that EH is my favourite. For one thing, I'm very fond of and grateful for a galaxy of authors, poets, and playwrights; for another, he simply did not cover all the bases I've felt drawn to run around. But, in the summer of 56, he was unquestionably the perfect teacher for me, and he did bring home, right to my face, France, Italy, and Spain, countries with a mostly Catholic culture, and in Spain, the landscape and language of the Carmelite mystics. This gave God a tremendous amount of room in my soul for creating a sensibility I certainly needed but just as certainly had no other way of discovering than through the boy from Oak Park, the man who not only couldn't stay home, but who also never gave the land of his birth a major novel. In that sense he may have been an honest prophet, punishing America for its adherence to the thought levels of Calvin and the philosophers of the Age of Reason.
I actually tried writing a letter to him after my summer in the woods. Perhaps all that axe and machete work and months in a tent made me feel that I had somehow caught up with the simplicity of "Big Two Heart River". I did write a letter, in fact, but it felt a little stupid, and I didn't send it. It probably felt stupid because I could not say - because I then did not really understand my vocation - that I was already praying for him and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Circumstances had brought both of them to me that year of discovery, at just the right time. I needed them, I knew that I needed them when they fell into my hands, and I had the wit to take them up and try to learn the art they awoke within, because, basically, I had rarely applied the principles of poetry to my prose. To no small degree, I was inclined to write stories like a reporter, more concerned with facts than with a pleasing style. Yet, to have mercy on my youth, I have to ponder that this ungainly method may have been necessary to get at the facts of what it was I was born to write about, that is, the life of perfection, which is something no one has ever come to by making style and poetry his main priorities. cf John of the Cross' always applicable introduction to The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
You know how blog dating works. The date for this baby is July 26, which date in the unfolding of my universe provided the substance of the inspiration for this piece, the spirit of which arose out of my re-tackling the first two pages of chapter five. But today is the 27th, with, in the liturgy, the gospel of the pearl of great price, which would indicate that if I value the labour of the original text, wherein I spent 2000 pages learning how I write, I will sell all my human fears of honest work and try to bring the thing off worthy of its substance. And that, of course, means nothing other than the discipline of the poet.
And guess what? My journal judges the situation precisely. Solomon should have been so lucky.
See this, for Sept. 27, 1990. "Very sweet memories of UBC - the last year - before I got up, of Bellevue Drive, and the phrase 'The graces of rewrite' came to mind, brought, no doubt, on the usual wings. I thought "but I haven't even drafted a text" and then remembered all the little notes and sketches of the autobiography I began in '73. It ain't over till it's over, and it ain't begun until it's begun."
As John of the Cross insists, God's intimations are infallible in themselves. Our problems with these come from our attempts at interpretation. Yesterday I was specifically involved with drawing an accurate picture of the house I lived in on Bellevue Drive from October of 58 to the very end of June, 59. This is the house, with its indescribably happy memories, that I used for the home of Angus and Yvonne Cameron, and as I sailed into chapter five anew, I knew that I had more work to do to get it right. So, this time, poetry. The graces of rewrite had nothing to do with the '73 sketches, as valuable as they might be. It was the inspirations of 1980 Someone was gunning for, ten years later, with almost twenty years to pass before they applied.
Aristotle said that a poet loves his own words. I've always felt that this did not apply to me, as my mind was more on the substance, the Word Himself, that the Greeks never knew. (Well, until Paul rode into town.) But now I have to admit that Aristotle just might be right. Again.

1 comment:

Dan Nicholson said...

The thing that I hate about my muse (whom I always think of as female) is that she doesn't come through for me until I'm right on top of a deadline.

She occasionally fails me, and I end up writing a column of drivel, but more often than not she comes up with some fine words to express how I feel about an issue.