Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Anguish of a Writer

The last month or so, I've been struggling with an old novel of mine, editing it for a new release. The struggle has been one of extreme doubt – should I really publish this book again, or let it continue its merciful sleep in oblivion?

It's a stone age story I wrote already in the late 1970's, which was published in Sweden in 1982 as Evigheten väntar (Eternity Awaits). See the cover of the book above. Already the title reveals its weakness – a tendency towards the overly sentimental and melodramatic. The text is quite pretentious at times, with wordings that reek of poetic gluttony.

It was intentional, in a way, since my aim with the book was to explore what kind of meaning stone age people found for their life, and how their brains, already at least as big as ours, perceived their world. They did not just live their lives, but indulged in them, marveled at the wonders of the world around them, and meditated their own beings with amazement.

Still, that made the text heavy with exaggeration and sticky with ornamentation.

So, when starting to edit the novel, some 30 years after it was written, I went through quite a lot of anguish. Could this firework of a text at all be edited into something readable?

I did what I could, without changing the novel into some other story. It was an edit, not a rewrite, although the idea of the latter was sometimes tempting. I made a number of little changes on just about each and every page, and still it felt thick with the kind of sentiment that almost turns itself into parody.

Several times I considered giving it up, and turn my attention to another script instead. I have a few to choose from. But with a persistence that got its energy from frustration instead of any strength of my character, I carried on until the last page. The script had gotten quite messy from all the marks of my pen, and it took a while to type all the corrections into the Word file.

I made a PageMaker file of the text, still very unsure of its quality, and started sketching on a cover design. That was some kind of comfort. I always enjoy making the book design, deciding on typography, caring about page breaks, and so on. That can be more pleasing than writing the book. It was certainly the case with this one.

When I was ready with that, I printed the whole thing out on paper, to have one last editing session with it. This final reading I usually do on restaurants, coffee shops, train rides and such, just to get out of my home.

On a local restaurant that I frequent regularly, a friend got curious about the manuscript and asked if he could have a look at it. This friend is a priest, struggling with his daily professional duties, which can be grim at times, as well as with his own faith and its collisions with the flawed institution that is his church. I value his opinion, since he has put in a tremendous effort to reach it.

Now, he opened the script and read the first few lines out loud. They contain a very comprised creation myth of sorts, as told by the book's main character, and how it sort of leads to his own birth and emergence in the world. It plays on the word “föda”, which means both breed and feed. Here it is, in a rough translation from the Swedish original:

I am.
Now, I command my spirit.

Mountain breeds sand, breeds soil. Soil breeds the trees, which breed all the animals. The animals breed the people. People breed people and nothing more.

People bred me, Imri, the last. I remember how I slipped out of the embrace of my maternal flesh. It was cold, but light came and warmed by body. The sun dried my skin.

And so on.
The priest was pleased, and so was I. He said several kind words about the poetic expressions and found them delightful. To my surprise, so did I. For a few months, I had worked so hard on the editing that I had forgotten to taste the words and let them get to me. Now they did.

He read a few sentences here and there in the manuscript, and we both felt the pleasure remain. Not only did the decorated text make sense, but I found that it was enjoyable. It was not over the top, at least not more so than needed for the story it had to tell.

What I had not been able to discover by myself was obvious through the medium of my friend's reading. Actually, he could have done it in silence, and it would have worked the same. When I allowed him to read it and watched him doing so, I was suddenly aware of the text's qualities and my belief in it. My anguish disappeared and I thanked my frustrating persistence, which had all along known better than my mind did.

So, now I will hurry to get the book published. But I will change the title – and the cover.