There’s got to be the morning after

I remember the day my old high school staged the musical “Oliver” on what was then the national theatre in the old country. We were ecstatic, we had hit the big time – we were stars! On the morning of opening night, our producer, who was also the school principal, summoned the cast into a mass and issued us a sermon on “looking beyond.” He said, “Tonight, you will reach for the stars and you will delight your audiences. And this euphoria will continue for the run of the play. But the play will end one day, and you will wake up on the morning after the cast party, bleary eyed and lost, your fame vanished. Look beyond the play to what it would have done for you and to what you would have learned from it. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Shakespeare – the play is NOT the thing.” I was a bit pissed off at him then, but I understand the wisdom of his words now.

For now, as I prepare my fourth novel for publication, I am thinking of “the morning after” and am full of questions. Is this tome yet another contribution to that growing graveyard of books that my generation seems determined to proliferate, just as we have done so successfully with nuclear weapons, garbage dumps, and data storage clouds? Is it going to make the world a better place? Will I become a better person for releasing this creation into the world?

How many hours of imagining, drafting, writing and re•writing went into this baby? How many query letters left unanswered, how much alcohol consumed to dull the emotional pain of being ignored, how many epithets hurled at the Maker for giving me this cross, how many prayers offered for a single acceptance when the rejections “quite overcrowed the spirit” and the whole world looked like an uncaring place?

And like our play “Oliver,” for a few weeks, or months, perhaps years, people may continue to read and talk about my novel; some may e•mail me with compliments for giving them an enlightening read, others will send me hate mail for having raised some better•buried skeletons in the closet. And after that flurry of activity, the book will be forgotten, consigned to the slagheap of literature where all books ultimately reside. I may feel in good company if I see a dog•eared copy of my novel at a book sale one day, rubbing shoulders with a tattered copy of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

And how will I feel on the morning after? After all this is over?

I know what I will do, what I have to do. I have no option. I will move on to write another novel, and another, and continue to litter the world with thoughts, ideas, creations and stories. Dissipate the anxiety through creation. That will be my response to the morning after syndrome. For to stop is to look down into the abyss … “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller (or writer) returns.”

I wish I could meet my old high school principal now (he passed away recently) and thank him for the caution he gave me during my formative years that prepared me for this “crisis of creation” and allowed me to arrive at the only remedy.

Experience & Setting

When you live in different places, and later try to write about the experiences you had in them, how much do you paint from the external and how much do you bring from within? Which is the better way? Which conveys a better sense of place?

When I commenced writing my latest novel, Milltown, someone lectured me that I hadn’t lived in a small town in Ontario long enough to write about one. After all, I hadn’t gone to school in one, never worked in one, hadn’t played hockey and gone drinking with the guys on Friday nights, never had sex in the back seats of cars at drive•ins when I was a randy young adolescent – how dare I write about life in a small town? I pleaded “guilty” to all those experiences, guilty for having committed them all somewhere else (except perhaps the hockey – would cricket count?), and “not guilty” for having perpetrated them in a small town in Canada. That said, they were no less thrilling wherever I had experienced them – be it in a big city, on a tropical island or in a desert oasis.

When writing about settings from within, the danger is that you also bring back the experiences which occurred in those places. Therefore the experience and the setting become inter•twined, and inseparable, and the experience is non transferable to a new locale. The writing may be more authentic, but the writer is stuck in his time and place warp.

Therefore, for this novel, my settings are written from the outside in, just as “method” actors do, just like landscape painters turn out masterpieces by sitting in a location and absorbing the scene in all its permutations and in all weathers and at all times of day. I am writing setting by observation, while transposing experiences from within, wherever they occurred, because human experience is universal.
That is why I like writing setting from the outside in, because I can transplant the experience, whether it was drinking with the boys or having sex in the back seats of cars, and place it wherever I want it – either in a big city or in a small town. I just have to change the props, but the experience and the emotions behind them, are still the same.

Setting is important, for without it, characters have no context, history has no colour and the stage has no backdrop. But setting can be separated from experience because the latter is transportable, the former is not. I bet you an orphan boy under threat for his life feels the same fear (i.e. experience) today that Oliver Twist did in his day; the present•day orphan probably has more solutions (i.e. props) at his disposal to alleviate that fear than poor Oliver had, because his setting is different.