the diary thing 
gl-glassWOKE UP THIS MORNING, after drifting half in and half out of sleep, and realized that I'd just dreamt two scenes from my novel, a strange dream half movie and half words on paper. Ignoring the cats begging for food, I took out my notebook and wrote the scenes out longhand. It would, of course, have been faster to type, but I somehow needed to struggle through the uphill effort of pen on paper, and the inevitable aching hand afterwards. 

I had, of course, heard of these kind of things happening -- inspiration striking at the oddest moments, or when the mental defenses are weakest. It was hugely gratifying to know that, even if I still haven't been able to commit a solid block of time to the book, my imagination is still working at the details, measuring the plot as it grows, following the characters as they tread and re-tread the path of the plot I long since decided upon.

I had hoped to spend this winter devoting all my time to the book, but when the grant I'd hoped for didn't arrive, I realized it would be a harder slog, working on freelance pieces and stealing time to try to finish the novel by spring. Taking a page from my friend Dennis' work habits, I'm hoping to get a couple of hours at least, every morning, for the novel, before K. goes to work. Maybe an hour or so after she leaves, with the balance of the day spent working on freelance work. It won't, of course, be a rigid schedule, since deadlines and research and interviews will doubtless interfere, but if I can develop a habit, a solid, comfortable habit of work, and the feeling of progress, I know it'll get done.

K. is reading the first twelve chapters now -- the draft I sent in to the OAC with my grant proposal, with instructions to pick out everything that seems jarring, unlikely, or anachronistic. When she's done, I'm hoping to take another run at the first half of the book, re-writing as I go, building up a head of steam to head into the final stretch. The two scenes that came out of this morning's half-sleep would be key to that last half. I'm feeling optimistic, just right now.

I FEEL, SOMEHOW, LIKE I'm letting my characters, and particularly the narrator, down. He has such an awful trial to go through -- two pivotal moments before he's even turned twenty-five -- and I've kept him hanging on and off for two years. I know how it will all end -- not very happily, I'm afraid -- but I have to take him there, and let him get on with his life. 

It helps, of course, that the narrator is, in some part, me. Me, transposed back over fifty years, in the same city (for at least half the book) and not dissimilar circumstances. It's a common enough trick -- inventing people wholesale is hard enough without taking complete leave from your own mind and feelings, at least for the first time out, with a first, lengthy piece of fiction. I've lived with him long enough, though, to start sensing the differences -- he can be a lot more callous than I ever could, at his age, but a bit more skillful at hiding his motivating, yearning ambition. 

It's nice, as well, to take a trip through the past, through a time that endlessly fascinates me, through his eyes. It helps, of course, that I walk the same streets as his 16-year-old self does every day, yet it's somehow becoming more appealing to imagine London in 1944 as he makes a lunge forward in his life. I can see why fiction can become a habit, regardless of how successful you are. 

I've already started imagining his life after this book ends. A sequel, maybe, but only after the story about the Fascists, stolen art and a Catholic aesthete.

"Drunkenness is nothing but voluntary madness."
- Seneca

The novel again, and some politics. Also, I get drunk, and puke my guts out like a schoolgirl after too much Tia Maria.

TUNED INTO "NIGHTLINE" with old Ted Koppel a couple of days ago and found Ted chatting with a panel of secret service types -- two each from the CIA and the National Intelligence Commission -- about the prospects for world conflict in the next few years. The consensus was a kind of neo-Malthusian fear of population explosion in the "developing world" (unfashionably called the "third world") leading to immigration pressures here in the "developed" world. 

It's an old story, and a favorite one for nationalists on both the left and right: We're going to be swamped by an influx of foreigners, whose strange ways and economic cluelessness will destroy our civil society and drag down the economy. Of course, none of the spooks on the panel had the tactlessness to actually say any such thing, but the implication was clear -- trouble ahead; we warned you.

Of course, the stunning lack of originality inherent in this analysis isn't too shocking, especially when you consider how low the American intelligence community's stock has fallen in the last couple of decades, beginning with revelations of ham-handed meddling in the affairs of sovereign countries (prompted by the exceedingly liberal interpretation of the Monroe doctrine that seems to justify any kind of jiggery-pokery in any country south of the Rio Grande and north of Antarctica.) Their woeful handling of the fall of the Eastern Bloc and a gobsmaked inability to predict the near-nuclear showdown between India and Pakistan a few years ago were the final nail in the coffin, as far as trust in the efficacy of the intelligence establishment goes; where we once quaked in fear at the mere mention of the CIA, and nodded raptly at paranoid thrillers that imagined them silkily infiltrating everything from the White House to newsrooms to little Johnny's Atari, they now show up as Simpsons bumblers, shaking their heads in shamefaced dismay as one of their own is exposed as a double agent. ("I always wondered how he could afford a yacht and a Jaguar on forty-five grand a year. I figured it must have been the covert action department's hockey pool.")

Certainly, the experts that turned up on "Nightline" looked more like backroom research jockeys than Le Carre "Smiley" types, the kind of quivering nebbishes who left academia when the NIC recruiter came around, grateful for the regular salary and ecstatic to be free of faculty in-fighting. I couldn't help but wonder why they'd been hauled from their cubicles in the basement of the south wing and onto national television, even after midnight, except as part of that old publicity exercise: With a new administration in the White House, the spooks and moles have to make a bit of a stir in the public eye if they want to get anything like public support for their next round of policy recommendations.

Besides the "foreign hordes" story -- always a gift to network types who just pull out the file footage of teeming streets in Calcutta and Kinshasa and zealous hordes of flag-burners in Kabul and Tehran -- there was the "dwindling resources" angle, trotted out mostly to legitimize genetically-modified crops as a desperately needed front against famine. Since a booming oil industry, and the relative decline of OPEC as a petroleum bogeyman since the bad old days of the 70s, precludes any use of that particular scare story, the emphasis was on a commodity now being spoken of as more precious than oil -- water.

One of the head spooks pulled up a nice, remarkably subtle little map for Ted, that showed the continental United States, over the course of a few decades, turning from a lush red to a parched yellow as watertables dry up and increasingly thirsty populations (those foreign hordes obviously don't replace leaky washers or conserve their flushes) leach the country dry. And you thought California was in trouble with power deregulation?

K. and I perked our ears up, though, when one of the spooks mentioned Canada as being "particularly blessed" in terms of water resources. Well, you've got that right, Mata Hari. One of the reasons nobody wanted to build Sunset Strip down the centre of Moose Jaw was winter, that great seasonal water bank, and the fact that the top third of our country is permafrost and muskeg, basically frozen mud running underneath the sparse summer grasslands on top of the Precambrian rock. Water -- hell, yeah, we've got water. In lakes and rivers, in glaciers and frozen in the arctic wastes running for thousands of square miles. Sure -- nobody really lives up there, but it's ours, regardless, and after all, at least we didn't build our country's second largest population centre in a desert.

So there it is -- the water threat, with a sideways glance up at us. Hell, Canadians have been known to throw a fit over immigration every now and then, thanks mostly to conservative MPPs on the west coast and the reactionaries that get hired to write op-eds for the major dailies, but we never panic about water, except perhaps the acid rain scare of the 80s (which still persists, even though its newsworthiness was played out long ago.) In the end, though, we're a country of immigrants and a country of water which, if you judge the future by episodes of "Nightline", makes us the country of the 21st century. Hooray for us!

FIRED BY MY OWN BRAND of "irrational exhuberance", prompted by a few new writing assignments, I headed over to my buddy Dennis' place the other day while K. was out on the town with his wife, Andrea. The third leg of our unruly tripod from the Spanish trip last summer -- the insidiously evil "Los Bob" Ward -- was also present, and while our original plan involved a few drinks Chez Bock before heading out to a bar, we ended up spending the rest of the evening there, increasingly drunk as the night wore on.

In fact, I didn't leave till six in the morning, after puking my guts out and passing out on the couch. A truly dignified performance, fuelled by the evil chemistry of absinthe and grappa. That's right -- the "green fairy", the notorious -- and banned -- fuel of crazed poets and deranged expressionist painters, and the toxic eau de vie produced by peasants everywhere from the leavings in the wine press. I had no one to blame but myself, and my taste for hard, hard alcohol. I finally stumbled off the couch, unsteadily making my way out to the street and into a cab, and arrived home to suffer through a queasy, listless weekend. While I'm relating this story, I also know I have no expectation of sympathy in any form, whatsoever. Solemn vow -- I'll never do it again.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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