Sunday, January 20, 2008

On writing a war novel - Part 3

Last January I posted parts 1 & 2 of my thoughts on the subject of writing a war novel. I explained my motivations for writing such a novel in part 1. In part 2 I showed how, after writing 90,000 words in a first draft, I had come to the conclusion that no novelist, no matter how talented, could accurately convey the true sense of the experience as it was actually lived by the participants.

I have not read War and Peace (it's on my Bucket List), perhaps one of the greatest war novels ever written, but I have read numerous other great war novels: Catch 22, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Thin Red Line, A Farewell to Arms, The Red Badge of Courage (to name just a few). Plus, I have read countless non-fiction memoirs and histories about war. I did not fall into the trap of copying or imitating any of these works. Whatever I wrote would have to be unique to me and my experience in Iraq, but would be universally understood and interesting to the readers (hopefully numerous) who undertook the time and effort to read and understand the words that I had written.

I have been thinking about and writing this novel for three and a half years. My efforts during this time were not continuous because I had other obligations to fulfill. This undertaking has taught me some things about writing and about myself and I want to pass some of this knowledge on to you.

At the meeting of the Tallahassee Writers' Association last Thursday night Michael Rychlik, a local author and English teacher, spoke to us about his latest novel. He arises every morning and writes at 5 A.M before he goes to work. Someone asked him about writer's block and he made an interesting (to me) comment. He said that he always had something to write if he had thought about it beforehand. This was very insightful to me because I immediately recognized this as the source of some of my own episodes of writer's block. I had positioned myself before a blank page with a similarly blank mind and been frustrated when no words had come forth.

This weekend I decided to use this insight in my own writing. I am halfway through the second draft of my novel and I desperately needed some insights into how I was going to weave the disparate characters and themes that I had introduced in the first half of my book to a consistent and coherent end in the second half. I decided to sit down and think about how I would resolve this problem.

I tried to assist this process based on my own experience with attempting "deep and profound" thinking. I knew that I did my best thinking on the screened back porch of my house. The abundance of trees, the scampering of squirrels, the sounds and movement of the birds (I often hear a hoot owl couple conversing) has the affect of clearing my head and allowing the onset of a reflective mood. I also knew that the casual care and maintenance of a lit cigar increased the reflectivity of my thinking.

I am blessed and cursed with the personality that requires that once I have decided to do something I am not easily dissuaded. On Friday night, with the knowledge that my wife would be gone until Sunday and that I would be home alone with the dog, I set aside Saturday afternoon in my mind as the time in which I would tackle the great, remaining issues in my novel.

Saturday dawned rainy and cold. In fact, at my appointed time Saturday afternoon the rain was considerable and the temperature on my porch was 45 degrees. Undaunted, I bundled up and headed out (no sacrifice is too great for my craft). When my cigar had expired and the cold had finally driven me inside, I had done a lot of thinking but had not resolved any of the issues confronting me. For the thirtieth or fortieth or maybe fiftieth time since I had started this project I wondered if I was ever going to figure out how write this novel.

Last Friday the Wall Street Journal (the source of all knowledge and wisdom) had an article on the scientific research on sleep. One quote caught my attention: "...the Harvard Medical School tested 56 college students and found that their ability to discern the big picture in disparate pieces of information improved measurably after the brain could, during a night's sleep, mull things over." Folk wisdom and experience ("let me sleep on it") indicated that this was the case but I was comforted that modern science was able to validate it just the same.

The next day, Sunday morning, with little expectation of success, I turned my mind to the issues that had defeated me before and within a period of ten minutes had resolved them all. Two minutes into that ten minute period I raced to my computer to write down all these revelations. Those ten minutes were unbelievably exhilarating and rewarding.

Immediately afterward I wrote this post to document and share the experience with you. The task of converting those revelations into sentences, paragraphs and chapters still awaits me. But I can now see the end of my journey. And better yet, I know that I would get there.