Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Longer Desert

Well, there it is.
Blog post 37, a short story, or at least the first installment. "To Hunt the Lions", Canto One. I had labeled it "Philosophers All", but I had to cut that in favour of a numerical designation in order to minimize confusion.
My first published short story in fifty years. The first and last time my fiction was in print was in the spring of 1958, and I have rarely been inspired to try a short story since. In fact only two finished tales come to mind. Though they were not printed - I tried to publish with one of them- they were very useful exercises in their own way, each in their own right worthy of a footnote that would be a story in itself. The big push was always for the novel, so I could get all those spiritual symbols lined up and functioning. And for no end of other fiddling, in so many adventures outside the strict confines of my various writing rooms. Lord, there have been so many rooms. But, almost in the beginning, I worked long, hard, hours both studying and writing the short form. Somerset Maugham was the first author of my own choice, after high school, and I can recall feeling so pleased to step into the discipline of taking on a model. A few years later I wrote him a letter, and received one in return. I scrawled my signature, did not type a clear version, and on the reply he called me Mr. Key Lamb. My penmanship has rarely been better than that of Thomas Aquinas, unless I was dealing, on the blackboard or marking papers, with my students.
I thoroughly enjoyed the discipline of the shorter pieces. A short story is not unlike a song, something to be presented in a brief space. You're in, you're out. You make an impression. You may not say all that much but you say it in such a way that someone just might pay attention. Maybe I'll write a short story about the first time Shawn laid eyes on me. I noticed her, later I could tell her I remembered the costume she'd chosen for the New Year's party. She came as a nurse. But there were a lot of people at the party and we did not then exchange a word. It would be a full year until we spoke. But she noticed me, and my roommate. We seemed to be the only people there that were actually having a thoroughly good time. The kilts may have had something to do with it. She said I had looked great in a kilt.
Nonetheless, I've never worn one since, although many years ago I studied the chanter, and at the moment I'm practicing the Scots accent for some recording of stern wheeler stories at the end of the month. "Rhotic", they call the Scots dialect on You Tube. That's because you rrroll the r's. Rrrob Rrroy MacGrrregorrr. Just think Sean Connerrry, John Hannah, Billy Boyd.
But back to the short story, and the joy of writing one. Ulysses was away from home, from Ithica, for twenty years. Moses spent forty years trucking the Israelites around and across Sinai. And that seventy years the Hebrews spent in Babylon probably did not include one mature adult who had to twiddle his thumbs for seven decades. It was God who had to twiddle his thumbs, waiting for the habitually traitorous "People of God" to go through sufficient punishment for ignoring the prophets.
Of course I've not twiddled my thumbs. But there's been a little pocket of something missing in my soul, because I really did love the short ones, and, in a sense, they loved me. I suppose "The Axe" was so much of a vision piece because it would have to hold me to itself for so many years.
So I think I have created - or non-created- some kind of record. The gold medal for the longest silence. Well, in the genre. Not many people can think of me as silent by habit.
Medals are not irrelevant. Those are the things they give out at the Olympics, for one thing, and the Olympics are coming to the turf adjacent to Howe Sound in 2010. Interesting that #37 should be set on its shores. Perhaps there are a few people coming who read serious stuff, who look for, even expect, the transcendental in literature. The Muse was no doubt waiting for the coincidence.
I remember, in first year English, Doctor Creighton devoting an entire lecture to actually asking us our definitions of literature. He drew a lot of blanks, of course. In grade twelve you study a lot of literature but you aren't really asked to define it. That would require philosophy, especially metaphysics, and BC high schools did not then teach philosophy, nor do they now. Did he count out for us the five transcendentals: being, oneness, truth, goodness, beauty? I don't remember. Such a list would probably been a conceptual shock for me, even though I most certainly had pretty vast experiential knowledge of all of them, but I do remember that Creighton brought the concept of Spirit into the discussion. I hadn't thought of that either, although I always got a great deal of spirit out of reading anything that took my fancy, and I also by that time got even more out of the process of writing. I suppose the being of the things I named on the page leapt back out at me.
That is, the being had that effect in the moment of the writing, because I was working with the Muse in draught mode, and the Muse wanted to encourage me to keep up the process. But so often when it came to reading what I'd done I found it lacking. It wasn't Hamlet, it wasn't the opening paragraph of "The Sun Also Rises" or"The Idiot". And if there was a good first line, there was not often an adequate second.
And there was another problem, when you look at it from the the vantage point of more than fifty years later. If "The Axe" was genuinely inspired, then so was the very first short story I wrote, but of course did not publish, for the Saturday Evening Post. The idea came while I was waiting for the bus, on my way to the first Ubyssey party of the autumn of 1954, and it contained two college football players, one of whom would at the climax of the story refuse to tackle a running back from the opposing team, even though such a withdrawal from contact would ensure that the lad with the ball would score the winning touchdown, because he knew that the other player was actually in no condition to be in the game and tackling him would only aggravate his injuries. The missed tackle was not obvious, because he who designed it was in fact a very good athlete, and could make it look as if he had just missed. There were no boos from the crowd. Thus the embryo of Jacob Cameron, with the other player of course Michael Thurman, who knew what Jacob had done. Those were not then their names.
So, if you submit to the laws of inspiration, you realize some of the obstacles to my making an early career as an author of short stories. As with the two young men who were on the yacht in my first version of that tale, I was being moved to probe the history of the characters who would be the cornerstone of a very large dynastic series, exactly the opposite of what Poe, Chekhov, de Maupassant and so forth were all about.
But I never tried to use "Jacob" again until the autumn of 57 and "The Axe". I came up with other characters, other predicaments, for the briefer tales, and always, always, stayed away from the core of what I knew with absolute certainty I would eventually make my life's work.
Now, there is always the possibility of a great distinction between what the writer habitually thinks and what he writes, just as there are profound distinctions between the actual personality and character of an actor and the roles he or she plays. I don't think this distinction was ever greater, in the history of developing authors, than in my own, yet I always knew that there would come a day when everything, no matter how seemingly disparate, would come together, first in fiction, in novels, and then within the ordinary autobiographical form, but only after I was first published as a novelist. I was made to realize, in those first weeks at UBC, that I would have to write an account of my life with Christ. I was at that time given only one topic: how Providence would look after my finances.
My own peculiar sense of the waggish now ponders why Jesus was being so "commercial". Did he not say, "Man cannot love both God and Mammon?" Why did he not suggest a loftier topic to focus on than the funding for my board and room? He made no reference whatsoever to any of the purely spiritual, and in their own small way, supernatural, events he had been quite regularly walking me through. Nothing about the displays of light, the ligatures, visions, interior words. These alone would have rendered no small harvest of incidents wonderfully adaptable to the episodic form. But, although I most certainly was taking notes at the deepest possible level, I had no ideas for a form that could take the notes to the next steps. In terms of practical production, I had a head as divinely blank as any Buddhist could hope for. There was a massive amount of images going in, but nothing coming out except pieces of journalism for the Ubyssey, and the occasional essay that inevitably felt like anything but an exercise in verbal aesthetics, and of course the yacht novel, which was a deliberate avoidance of the huge complexities of campus life.
This condition of the short story potential was to last for a long time. But now it is over, so much over that this weekend past I emerged from the hermit's study to hear a reading and talk in Nelson by Jack Hodgins, an author from my own generation. It was a grand hour in every respect. I was mostly reminded of the fall of 74, when I met John Stark, come to our town to do Chekhov's "Seagull". Do some things take a long time? Oh yeah. The Leacock story he asked me to adapt for the stage in those weeks opened last week in Santa Monica, California, by now, as far as I know, a musical.

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