My first attempt at a novel followed a Steinbeck binge, my next-in-the-series of fiction-groupie crushes that began with The Iliad, went through Jack London, Saul Bellow, John le Carre, On the Road, and others, and picked up later with John Irving, Elmore Leonard, Nicole Mones, Cormac McCarthy, and Simon Mawer; I’m currently hot for Ian McEwan. That “first novel” failed through lack of discipline. I’ll try to explain why.
There had been two women in my grad school class of ninety-six. At our graduation, there were forty-four women in the incoming first-year class. By anyone’s clock, that’s a rapid change. A year later, I was teaching at a university in New Zealand and saw that the male-female mix there was freer than in the States, and more organic. Rather than someone trying to engineer a formula, it just allowed for the trends that society seemed to want and expect; broader female participation in professional life was one of them. I became interested in this gender-related evolution of ambitions and values.
This led to my clumsy, faux-Steinbeck first scene (first on paper, not first in the novel; story scenes rarely come to me in the order that’s best for storytelling). Then I started thinking. At the outset of a novel, that is not necessarily a good thing. Thinking too much can thwart creativity and pervert the paths and direction of my characters. Still, if you plan to communicate with others, writing does, at some point, require thought. (I may have been slow to learn that.)
Since we are all men and women of our time and place, I thought about where I was: New Zealand, a small, agricultural nation “behind” the rest of the West, and out of view unless you’re digging around for it. So the idea raised its head: an upstart young woman (Trena) embarking on life through education in an obscure, unnamed agricultural country. In the end, I set the story in Eastern Europe, late 19th-century, as the Industrial Revolution lumbered slowly out of Britain and across the Continent. (By 1970, when I was in Yugoslavia, it still had not arrived in the provinces.)
Halcyon Home is the name of this novel, and it’s crap. I never could get to the nitty-gritty of Trena’s brain and soul as a young woman of that place and time. I still like some things the story had to say, and some my phrasing and imagery, but mostly it’s poorly assembled, clumsy, and suffers from an unformed motivation on the part of the writer. I could easily spend the rest of your life explaining its flaws, but it was a lesson, not even yet fully learned, on the discipline of writing.
By discipline, I don’t mean the rules and requirements as learned and taught by others, but the discipline of dedication, of devotion to “the project.” Yes, the finished project results from a process, but the process is only that, a method, a strung-together series of steps going from where you are to where you hope to be, and, in fact, to where you actually end up. In finished form, though, it’s the project and its concept that are the (Un)Holy Grail you are pursuing by means of the process. For Picasso, paint on canvas was the process, but Guernica was the project. He failed many times in the “process,” in the steps to completion, but his marriage to his motivation, and to the discipline of getting those ideas before the eyes and minds of the public, led to one of the heroics pieces of 20th Century history as well as art.