I've reached a comfortably uncomfortable place in my work on Soul Weather. I have revised (and drastically cut) the chapters written on my sabbatical in 2011 according to the way I now see the novel. I have thought harder--though I am not finished thinking--about its structure, and added some scenes that reflect my new thoughts on how it might be built. I have read my notebooks over a couple of times; only these have allowed me to create the bridge from six relatively brief chapters to over 70 single-spaced pages. I know my characters better. During my original work five years ago, I did reams of research on ceramics, including taking lessons throwing and glazing pots. I'm a terrible potter, but I know how it feels to work on a wheel and can say how delicious it is to have mud growing up through your hands--even it if turns wonky at the last moment. But two characters who have developed more fully are demanding that I learn a great deal about things I know nothing about.
Briefly put, I follow Lee, a potter with and MFA, and three university students, Samantha, Dana, and Chrystal (who will be replaced in January by an as yet unnamed Ph.D. student doing work on animal languages) through about a year living in the same house in Regina's Cathedral neighbourhood. I would like to be able to call this a "condition of Canada" novel as I ask what might make these young people "at home" in their world: What ideas? What futures? What weather? What relationships? What world views? What societies? What technology or lack of technology? It's set in 2011 because that was the year of the Occupy Movement and because we were only three years out from the stubborn "Great Recession," which seemed to have intractable effects on everything from jobs to the self-discipline of university students to our action on the environmental challenges we face.
So my comfortably uncomfortable moment right now finds me doing two things: reading and revising. Samantha is a history student working on the proposal for her Honours Paper on Simone Weil. So right now, I'm reading Oppression and Liberty and trying to figure out how she could write about such a compelling but unsystematic thinker as an historian. I am in essence going to have to come up with a viable research question for her. At the same time, Dana, whom everyone thought was a girl--but who is a short, hirsute, well-tattoed young man with a gift for barbequeing anything--has shifted from Business in Saskatoon to economics at U of R and has discovered that "neoliberalism is the bully in the room," as he tells Samantha. I haven't started doing the research that will flesh out his ideas: I'm trying to do one thing at a time--a luxury that is one of the lovely benefits of retirement. (That's not entirely true: I'm working on some poems about nineteenth-century naturalists and am also deep into Thoreau's miraculous journals.)
Because not all of the scenes have the girding of these ideas, I'm writing that material now, very slowly, and then revising both it and the pages preceding it with coarse-grained sandpaper vigorously applied. This intense revision makes me very aware that every choice I make, from plot to word, is bound up with my worldview and the worldviews of my characters.
This fact was powerfully and uncomfortably brought home by a novel I read last week--though which book doesn't matter. Everything went wrong: mothers died, fathers-in-law were brutal, husbands indifferent, the weather wasn't working in the farmer's favour, pregnancies ended in stillbirth or were unplanned, beloved sons were discovered to have epilepsy.
I am looking onto the windy back yard, where the birds have come for their afternoon tea. There is a house finch, ruddy against the wind and snow, at the feeder; a nuthatch is walking down the tree trunk in front of me: surely everything in the world isn't entirely fucked?
Between the ages of 16 and 40, I was gifted with regular, deep, despairing depressions. I was also gifted with a wonderful psychiatrist who taught me to understand myself and those difficult, dark times. The result is that I have wrestled very self-consciously to acquire the habits of mind that feel "sane" to me: curiosity, gratitude, generosity, kindness. I suppose that were I forced to sum up my worldview, I would say "So much goes wrong in the world over which we have no control: history, weather, physics, chemistry, time. We can't control the outcome of the war in Syria, nor we can change the result of the election in the U.S. We can't control storms or earthquakes. When it's slippery, we might fall and break an ankle, or a car out of control might hit ours. We may be subject to cancer or bipolar disorder. And certainly we age inexorably--though there's coffee to spur the energy I don't always have, and aspirin for stiff knees. If we are subject to all this, we can at least be kind to one another, be curious about one another's challenges, be grateful for kindness or wonder or love, give generosity back to the world and benefit ourselves while helping others."
So I will never write a bestseller, a book that confirms our sense that disaster is waiting for us everywhere. Which leads me to take yet another leap in this blog. (Yes, I noticed I was making the earlier ones.) When Veronica and I were visiting Quebec City, we spent our final day at the Musee National des beaux-arts du Quebec. We are very slow museum goers, so we chose our exhibits carefully, going first to see the Bonnards, then to study their fabulous collection of Inuit sculpture, and finally to stroll through the gallery to study the "stark, haunting images" of Jean-Paul Lemieux. At the Musee, they organize his work chronologically, showing his early struggles, his folk-art attempts, his nearly giving up altogether until, in a single painting, he found his voice--the way he saw and spoke to the world.
The chronological presentation of Lemieux's work shows a skilled painter in pursuit of his voice--almost losing hope, and then, miraculously, finding it. Seeing the changes in his work, in combination with revising old drafts, made me think more usefully about voice and style. Perhaps there are enough all-out-disaster novelists out there, and my sense that human beings can strive to be kind, grateful, curious, and generous has a place. Besides, there's another chemistry of worldview in a novel: all the characters should definitely not share the author's worldview. If character X has his or her own particular history, his or her own temperament, his or her own particular set of external influences, what conclusions about the world might character X draw? That is the question that lies behind all my crazy reading. I'm not only reading Simone Weil, I'm trying to read it from Samantha's perspective, and so understand that perspective more fully. Thus the novel becomes a conversation between me and my characters. Only then does it become a conversation between me and my readers.