In 1961, Irving Stone published a novel called THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. It was about Michelangelo, and as I recall the film staring Rex Harrison and Charleton Heston centered largely on the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Now I’m not trying to equate my writing to Stone’s, by any means, but his title so accurately nails the creative process artists of all kinds go through. So that’s the theme of this blog post: the agony of starting a book and the ecstasy of hoping that what I’m writing might prove to be good.
Finally, after much procrastination, I’m starting a new book. Not just proclaiming it, not just thinking about getting around to it, but really working on it. I’m always excited about the prospect of a new project … until I actually have to start it. Then I loathe it. Why? Because the beginning process of a novel is difficult. It forces me to stop goofing off and plant my backside in my desk chair. I have to think about plot, not in some vague formless way, but specifically in terms of how I’m going to set up the first scene, how I’m going to introduce — or re-introduce — characters, and how I’m going to get the plot rolling. It means that while I’m thinking, evaluating, criticizing, and trying my best to come up with terrific ideas while simultaneously poking holes in them, I may also be writing a draft of the opening scene. Maybe not the scene in its entirety. Maybe just a scene fragment. Chances are the draft will be deleted, but it’s a way to figure out what might work and what won’t.
It means the story and characters are going to start haunting me, taking up my thoughts, disrupting me from remembering some key point to a lecture I’m about to give at the university. It means that I could become a hazard in traffic, because when I’m really plotting hard in my head I sometimes pull into my garage with no conscious memory of anything I passed while driving home. It means that I’m going to be cranky, because I always get short-tempered and irritable when I’m starting a book. I’ve accepted that. It’s part of my personal creative process. But it’s hard on my family, dogs, and … students.
(Okay, the students can take care of themselves. The dogs don’t deserve it.)