This is a continuation of a series of posts on what the various stages of writing a novel can be like, the pros and cons, the inner feelings and thoughts, using my second work in progress as a source, together with a pinch of more philosophy. In my previous post on April 28th I judged that I was around 70% of the way through ‘After Black’. Now, it’s August – so how far along am I now? Well, thanks to, metaphorically speaking, coming up against the rock of Sisyphus, and taking the peak word count limit into account, I’m still at the 70% mark, between a rock and a hard place. Why? Because things began to get tougher. The amount of material I am dealing with began to demand checking back for continuity flow for many characters (and no, I can’t leave that for the final editing stage – it’s just not a Lynne thing ;>)) And since the story is set in 1990, but with a significant amount of vital back story to address involving family member characters born around 1920, with a heavy focus on the 1950s, I find myself tying myself in knots over birth dates, death dates, and other important life event dates which I need to be on top of for family scenes/narrative, and for where the characters’ respective life stages would be in relation to one another – the kind of woven-in biographical detail that readers might notice if I make mistakes. Since it’s not in my character to pay these much mind in my personal life, I’m having to be extra vigilant to get these details right with the help of a calculator (my mental arithmetic is unreliable at best) and crumpled sheets of character notes that are accumulating more and more coffee stains as I check through them over and over. There is the simplicity of one point of view, but there are around 44 characters, which I think has contributed to the complexity of continuity.
So I have been feeling stretched to the limits mentally, and every time I have come to my laptop to do a session of writing, it has been very slow going and a hard slog, with my resolve and stamina sorely tested. And this is where Sisyphus comes in. And it happens to be a story which has always really appealed to me because it is so visual to the imagination. And I was thinking, that maybe every writer comes to a stage with their ‘work in progress’ where the going gets tough, and which actually may resonate with the story of Sisyphus and his rock. And that it can happen at any stage of the journey through the writing of a novel or other substantial form of creative work.
The story of Sisyphus can be seen to be an existentialist one, which was interpreted by Albert Camus, in his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942. It concerns a Greek myth featuring the mortal King, Sisyphus, of Ephyra being punished by Zeus for his crafty deceitfulness and ego-driven machinations and for presuming to think he could outwit the Gods. The punishment metered out to him was for him to have to roll a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down when he and the boulder were almost at the top of the hill. Poor Sisyphus has to go back down the hill and repeat the attempt, despite the fact that the same thing will happen over and over again for eternity. He will never reach the top of the hill with his boulder or see it roll down the other side of the hill. So the story is seen as symbolising laborious futility, useless effort, and endless frustration, which is where Camus comes in.
Camus asserts that Sisyphus personifies the absurdity of human life. ‘Myths are made for the imagination to breath life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise a huge stone, to roll it and push it…the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it…At the very end of his long effort…he watches the stone rush down in a few moments towards that lower world whence he will have to push it up again towards the summit. He goes back down to the plain.’
But it is the returning to the plain at the bottom of the hill stage which interests Camus. He argues that Sisyphus has a ‘breathing space’. When he leaves the heights of the hill and gradually sinks to the abode of the Gods on the plains, he is superior to his fate, he has risen above it. When he returns to retrieve the rock, he can rise above his fate by deliberate choice, by his mindset, and that makes him stronger than his rock. ‘His rock is his thing’ (and for that I read purpose). His descent can be joyful instead of sorrowful, despite his repetitive burden of apparent futility, and ultimately Camus concludes that ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’
Okay, so back to the novel. How does this more positive take on the story fit?
Now, obviously I’m not comparing myself to this heroic gentleman from Greek myth too closely, but in a sense I have to keep rolling my boulder up my hill with each writing session, despite being overloaded at times. The boulder is the writing, the hill is the novel.
‘Take a break’, you might say, but I can’t risk stopping the routine as there is so much weight I have to carry (or details I have to keep in my mind) to proceed further. The rolling back down stage kind of corresponds to when I have finished a session, where I can relax and tell myself that I have at least got a bit further on! ‘But the boulder rolls back down’, you might say, ‘you don’t get it over the summit’. Yes, but each time the boulder is pushed up again, it makes a different track on my hill and a different bump when it returns to the plain – each session therefore will make some kind of difference, some kind of progress – at least that’s what I’m telling myself, anyway!
Okay, I’m done with philosophy for quite a while now ;>), but please feel free to share your experiences of being at this sticky stage with your creative WIP
Top one is ‘Sisyphus’ by Franz von Stuck (yes, that’s ironic name for you!) A symbolist painting from 1920. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom one is ‘Fine Wind, Clear Morning’ by Hokusai (1760-1849). A woodcut of Mount Fuji. Image courtesy of RawPixel.com