Our contributions to literature – a feed into the collective consciousness?

When I think about all the hours that I have put into writing, all the novels and stories published, and an equal amount unpublished and probably never to see the light of day, I wonder whether it has made one dint of difference to the oceans of literature that surround us and keep increasing exponentially every day.

Let’s face it, we all circle around universal plots, which Wikipedia describes in the following article: The Seven Basic Plots
And we keep re-hashing the same plot, albeit from our experience, in our voice, hoping that it has enough novelty to stick out from the rest. We believe that we are extending the outer regions of the universal plot we have chosen. We add newer technology into the mix, exotic settings, complex characters, and when reality is too dull or frightening, we go off into fantasy where we can order the world according to our morality and pain threshold. Or we flip around and invent diabolical acts that we would never desire in our own lives – the more diabolic the better. And all the while we are plagued by nagging thoughts: “Has this been done before? What is the limit of tolerance before a reader tunes off? Or are there no limits? Are we limited only by our imagination? ”

I have come across books and stories that have eerie resemblances to my own work, that were published around the same time as mine. I had not read or copied from these works and I am sure their authors are in the same boat; it was as if there was a collective consciousness operating at the time that we were all plugged into from different vantage points to create these works, each in their own voice, but each moving towards a common centre. Or were we caught up in a trend of copycatting the first book that came out and stretched our imagination in a certain direction? I can think of the detective novel that hasn’t stopped being “adapted” since Edgar Allan Poe started writing his “disturbing” stories; I think of the vampire genre that hit a renaissance with the release of the Stephanie Meyer books; and the Jane Austen revival, thanks to film and TV adaptations of her novels. But these newer iterations, copycat or not, have stretched our concept and expectation of those plot types. I’ve seen the detective novel change with the advent of fingerprinting, and later with cell phones, then DNA mapping, and now that ubiquitous snoop that takes the fun away from sleuthing: the CCTV camera. I would be bereft if a modern detective novel did not have all these newer props; I would say that it was not “realistic.”

And yet, despite all this evolution, it is only a handful of authors who are universally read in their respective genres today—even if they do not do much to extend their branch of literature— thanks to effective marketing engines powered by astute investors, while the rest are relegated to an amorphous bubbling sludge from which some periodically pop and gasp “read me, read me,” before slumping back into the collective consciousness (we hope) that houses the evolving Seven Basic Plots.

So what is the way forward? Delude ourselves that we are furthering the cause of literature and continue to churn out tame derivatives of the Seven (should we rename them The Seven Deadly Sins?) or troll around for a clever marketer who could find an angle to “position” us above the sludge, or hold our pens and cast out for that truly genre-bending idea that will start another movement like Poe, Austen and Meyer? That, my dear scribes, is the 64,000-word question!

The Dead-ends in Life

When I think of the dead ends I have followed over the years and the amount of time I spent on walking those futile pathways, I must have wasted much of my life. Let me itemize a few of these duds that would not offend friends or family (the rest, you will have to imagine!):

1) Earning four academic degrees, none of which I have any recollection of putting to practical use, except on my ever changing resume. I use Microsoft Office applications more than any other, and these tools I taught myself
2) Trying several times to immigrate to the wrong country (whose name will remain unmentioned) and then, by freakish accidents, ending up in two places I never knew I would ever live in. Dubai in the 80’s was pile of sand attracting only labourers and housemaids; I ended up there for seven years, like Ulysses on Circe’s island seven times over, until I was panting to get out. I then landed in Toronto which had hitherto only been a name on those old paperbacks that claimed “this book is published simultaneously in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland”; well, I thought, at least they read in Toronto—must be a nice place. And it was! Why did I take such a circuitous route?
3) Reading hundreds of books, many of which did not advance my understanding of this world one iota, especially the formulaic fiction that everyone was reading because these books were “so cool, and recommended”
4) Writing dozens of stories and novels, only a few which have seen the light of day. The others are making good doorstops or keeping the Post Office solvent with their to•ing and fro•ing
5) Sending out hundreds of job applications and attending dozens of “play•act” interviews only to find employment through the people I had known all along and hadn’t asked
6) Joining, forming, or playing in many music groups, all of which finally collapsed on their own success, leaving me holding onto my lonely guitar, back at square one
7) Pursuing the dot•com phenomenon. Oh, weren’t we champions of that promised new economy during those heady days of the new millennium, creating new business models by the day, taking inventions out of every basement crackpot and trying to find customers for them, and finally imploding when the banks and venture capitalists cut off their financial pipelines.
8) Rebounding to pursue this social networking thing now (Hello! Who’s out there? Are you listening? Do you even care? Do you wanna be my friend? No? THANK YOU!) No one knows where SN is heading, or how it will end. Will it be another dot•bomb?
9) Joining volunteer movements in order to make the world a better place. Instead, this planet has become worse. Oh, you egotistical sod, you were but a solitary spermlet in a sterile ejaculation that could never transform the elusive egg!

I could go on, but I would only end up depressed. A wise man once told me that Planet Earth is not a place for accomplishments but a place for learning hard lessons, often making one end up empty handed but spiritually enriched. If that were the case, I must be well on my way to earning a PhD in this joint soon. But I wonder if I will ever use that credential either?

Creative wells run dry – or do they?

This week I completed the first draft of another novel. This one came out very slow, as if I were pulling out a premature baby, yet unwilling to be born. I have never suffered from writers block for too long to be bothered by it in the past. But this time, I wondered whether I was indeed heading for an overdue dose of that clap.

In the last nine years, I have written enough material for an equal number of books, three of which have been published to date and the others are lying in queue, biding their time to be born without cannibalizing their predecessors. I put this prolific surge down to the suppressed years when I pursued every other endeavour but writing, when I was gathering my material, my experiences, that I was to later fictionalize in the nine books. But now the well seems to have run dry. But has it?

I recently met a well known and respected author who blew me away when he told me that he had written over 180 books over the last 25 years. I clung to his every word during our meeting, trying to figure out how “he done it.” And his advice to me was that the fallow periods are also ones of creativity: when the mind is recording impressions, new experiences, and characters, and storing them away for later use. So, he concluded, never consider the writer’s block as the beginning of the end of the writer, but the beginning of a new beginning for the writer.

New experiences, eh? Does this mean that I have to take up bungee jumping, sky diving, wade through dissolute sexual escapades, experiment with drugs and fall dead drunk on the street more than a few times? I think not. I don’t have the energy or the tolerance for those antics. Should I get people to tell me their stories; put an ad in Facebook: “Tell me your story, and I’ll exaggerate it into a novel, confidentiality assured, fame not guaranteed, royalties—doubtful”? Or should I invent a genre character, like a detective, who I can bring back time and again, into the same milieu, with more or less the same number of dead bodies, with slight modifications to the character list and scene sequences, and assure myself of a string of novels long enough to last into my retirement and beyond? I could even create a plot wheel, like Edgar Wallace did, and spin it periodically when blocked, to see if it lands on “dead body # 3 found in library,” or “purloined letter discovered on suspect,” or “diamond tiara disappears at ball.”

Or should I just accept silence as a rite of passage and continue to observe the world more intently, stilling the mind from chatter, watching life that contains all the possible plots that have been hitherto concocted in literature, picking only the ones that make sense to me?

My prolific author acquaintance gave me some good advice that day. The Block is the start of a new beginning, when what has been written before is less significant and likened to apprenticeship school, a stepping stone towards what now can be written with more depth, texture and meaning.

I am not sure how long this dry spell will last, but I am content to ride it out with my eyes wide open and not miss the cues when novel # 10 begins to stare me in the face.