Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Swirling Chaos of My Mind

I wonder sometimes whether if I truly understood at a very detailed level how my mind worked, it would make me a better writer (or musician or martial artist or whatever). I suppose it probably would, but I also feel like I'm light-years away from that kind of understanding so I don't expect to really attain a meaningful level of it in my lifetime. I do keep trying though, in the hopes that some sort of self-improvement might result even just from a partial self-knowledge.

Today, for instance, I ended up in a place I didn't expect, and the path by which I got there was meandering. I liked where I finished, though, and I rather wish I could replicate it on demand. Let me show you what I mean.

I started out listening to a new original song by the Terrible Musicians. Hang on, I need to digress...

Funny side story - I was first introduced to Scott Burnside and told, "He's a Terrible Musician." I couldn't see that the words were capitalized, so I responded, "Oh really? Man, me too. I really suck." It was sort of embarrassing to learn that that's just the name of his band and that he's actually quite good. Now, back to our tale!

I listened to the band's brand-new song, called Samhain. I was vaguely aware that it was a seasonal festival associated with Celts or Druids or Wiccans or somesuch group, but the song and it's name inspired me to do a little research about it just to satisfy my curiosity and fill a gap in my knowledge. Before long, I'm reading all about it on wikipedia.

And then it hit me... Some of the people in my novel would surely celebrate a harvest festival, and given that I've established that bonfires are a central part of their regular weekly festivities, it stands to reason that their harvest festival would look very much like a traditional Celtic Samhain. But wait, there's more! Because the people in this population aren't Celtic at all, and they would have brought various other cultural precedents with them and surely would have integrated them into their celebration. After all, they're not intentionally celebrating Samhain, it's just that all harvest festivals in agrarian populations are going to have much in common, and this group's penchant for bonfires would have made them look even more similar to Samhain, just not on purpose and not exclusively.

So off I went to investigate other cultural celebrations of Autumn-time. My first attempt was to find a corresponding Puerto Rican celebration, but there doesn't seem to be one. However, I have some Mexican characters available, so I incorporated elements of the Mexican Day of the Dead into the celebration. And of course the story takes place on American soil (though not any America we'd recognize) among people who are, at least in part, ostensibly Christian and/or Catholic, so the secular celebration of Halloween and the religious celebrations of All Saints Day/All Souls Day had to be incorporated as well.

So a song lead me to explore one holiday, which lead me to explore three more holidays (if you count the Catholic holidays as one), which lead me to develop my very own fictional festival for my novel. Before I knew it (well, okay, it took an hour or so all together), I'd taken notes on how the four holidays influenced or mirrored (in the case of Samhain) the celebration in my novel, how it had come to be, any changes it had seen over the years, and how it specifically might be referenced in certain parts of the novel. I then went on to write a 1,700-word description of the festival from dawn to dusk.

None of this will ever be in my novel. It would get, at most, a passing reference. It's remotely possible that a chapter of the novel might take place on this day (much of the action in the first half of the book is occurring in Autumn, after all), but even so a very, very small percentage of what I wrote would find its way into the book.

So why bother, you might wonder? Why not spend that hour (or more, probably. I wasn't keeping track) actually writing or editing the novel, instead? Well, that comes back to how my brain works. I don't just crank out my novel a sentence at a time and then move on. I constantly fine-tune my ideas, often because I've missed something REALLY IMPORTANT that would have been painful had I not caught and fixed it. I come up with various ideas well in advance of when I'd ever use them - everything from simple explanations for how certain characters think or act all the way up to very lengthy prose passages that could, in theory, be dropped right into the novel when I get to the right spot. In other words, I'm all over the place. Usually my thoughts are focused within a few chapters of where I'm currently working, or else they may jump to a major plot point that I know I'm going to need to nail perfectly for the whole book to work.

And sometimes, as today, they delve deeply into stuff that has no obvious purpose. I can't explain it. I think part of it just comes from my desire to really feel like I'm working with an actual place - to know all the crevices and dark corners. Tangential to that is the fact that sometimes, as I explore those dark corners, I come upon something I hadn't planned to find, but which I feel will make the book stronger if I explore it in the narrative. This may or may not be such a case - it may be that knowing about this festival will lead to a really meaningful passage in the book, or it could easily be that it will make absolutely no difference. If I knew my mind better, perhaps I could predict more easily which it would be. Until then, I'll just keep making stabs in the proverbial dark and trusting my gut along with my brain, to lead me in the right direction.

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