Monday, May 9, 2011

On Mortality

Sorry, not an update to the adventures today. Still waiting for Lauren to return.

Instead, I want to talk about something that occupied my thoughts for a good long time during the trip. Namely, death.

It's a fairly common stereotype that men (when compared to women) have a strong drive to leave something behind for people to remember them by. Leave their mark on the world. Forge their legacy. Etc.

And, as far as I'm concerned, it's true. I don't really care (at the moment) about all of the explanations for why this is, be they societal or evolutionary or conditional or divine. Whatever. Fact is, I'm scared of dying without leaving an impression on the world, and I care about what people will think about me once I'm gone.

Now, ultimately, it's not going to matter to me. I'm going to be well-away from this place with no means whatsoever to see the results of my work. But that's a writer's lot in life regardless. Except in a very limited sense (our friends and families, fans at conventions, and the internet) writers don't get to see the reactions to their work. It's a true thing for most artists, I suppose. (Except for musicians and stage actors. Lucky dogs.) So, as far as that goes, I am more or less content.

(Also. No. I don't care what you say or believe, you will not be able to look down from heaven to see how things are going on Earth. One, you wouldn't want to because of how depressing the comparison would be, and two... Actually, I only need that one reason to be satisfied.)

What I worry about now, though, is my own opinion of my work. Of course, as you're working on a project, you think it is both brilliant and crap, depending on the day and how recently you watched a good movie or read a good book. But when it comes to the finished product... well, I want it to mean something beyond just good fun.

Okay, backing up now, because I know I've sped ahead of where I want to be.

Let's talk about books.

There are only a few kinds of books that last: foundational books of a genre, books that interact with external literature, and subversive or controversial books. That last one is kind of cheating, because they usually end up forming their own genre based on the subversion, but I digress.

In fact, depending on how nuanced and focused you want to be with the definition of "genre," the only kinds of books that last are foundational books of a genre. Everything else is just popular fluff that pads pockets until the next subversion or innovation comes along. But saying such a thing would be the height of elitism.

Once again, backing up a bit. Think about it. Any book that has been around for over one hundred years (or looks like it's going to last that long) in some way, shape, or form spawned hundreds of imitators that often weren't as intelligent or well-written as the original, even if they might have been more entertaining.

Examples. Everyone loves examples.

The Lord of the Rings created the sword and sorcery epic, and the decades following its release were filled with books that were trying to capture that same magic or, in some cases, criticizing some of the elements of Tolkien's masterpiece. (Funny thing. Often the critics were better writers than that imitators.) Brandon Sanderson has an excellent article about Tolkienesque fantasy that you can read on his website.

What a lot of people don't realize, however, is that Tolkien was also responding to centuries of myth and tradition -- as well as linguistic development -- as he created his world. He grew up and worked in the Oxford tradition, and so he was a very well-educated man. His work reflects this and engages with the old epics on an intellectual level at the same time that it engages with its audience on an emotional one.

Frankenstein is one of the foundational works for the monster-horror genre. Again, countless imitators have tried to either come up with creatures of their own, or have simply taken Frankenstein's Monster and have tried to tell a better story with it. Some have been more successful than others, I suppose.

Again, though, people don't seem to realize that Mary Shelly's creation didn't just spring up out of nowhere. She was incorporating ancient tales of Greek and Jewish myth, borrowing from such disparate sources of inspiration as Prometheus and Golem lore, while also combining these with popular scientific advances of her day (galvanization being the most prominent participant in her story). She actually wrote the story as a commentary on her society's fascination with the limits of science -- a fascination that may have even been greater than our current one. She was a woman who, in her own way, was involved in and attuned to society's development, and she used her work to comment on it.

These are just two examples. There are countless dozens more. Homer. Jane Austen. Shakespeare. The list goes on. Few of these people were the only ones writing in their genre, but they were writing it better than everyone else around them, and so they have persisted.

What does this all mean for me? Well, it has led to a focal shift for me. Before, I was brimming over with ideas and my goal in life was to get them all down on paper. Now, I'm trying to reign that in a bit.

I'm still brimming with ideas. I probably always will. But the problem with mortality is realizing that you're never going to get to do everything that you want to do. And so I must prioritize. I have to work at choosing the best ideas from among the stew. I need to try to cram as many of the best ideas into a single project as possible. I want to weave an intellectual depth into my novels without destroying their emotional fabric.

I still don't want to be a Tolkien -- that guy who's known for doing that one big thing, because he didn't do anything else. But I'm quickly realizing that I don't want to be a Stephen King, either -- prolific enough to build a bridge from here to Mars with the number of pages he's written, yet most of them are only so much chaff. I want to write consistently enough to produce work regularly. Yet I want to take the time to apply the care and attention each project needs to really come into its own. I don't want to "phone it in" on any of my work. I don't want to be embarrassed or ashamed about any of my work. I want each piece to be a contender for inclusion in my "legacy."

Sure, unlikely, I know. I'm still young, with a lot to learn, and I've yet to publish... well, much of anything, really. But this is where my mind began to shift as I looked upon the ruins of other men's work. Flavian's Amphitheatre. Michelangelo's David. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Shaskespeare's Richard III. All masterpieces. All markers of their legacy. And I'm sure they all took way more time than they wanted.

So, here's to taking my time, and not losing sight of the goal. Higher quality. Not higher output.

End naval-gazing. You can look forward to more stories of our European adventures soon. And I'll likely have some less-personal posts coming up over the next few weeks. So thank you for listening while I got this out of my system, and please stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment