art is like life: scary

So much of the writing life—as with the rest of life—is about managing fear. Maybe managing is not the right word, since it seems to imply competence and control. But fear plays a big part in our lives, shaping the things we do and the paths we choose in life. When Thoreau wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, he was really pointing to the effect of fear (well, also of self-knowledge, perhaps). We all desire safety in one way or another, and that desire is itself a silent killer.

Lost Kings: a short story by Paul Vitols

Dead at present

My gosh, I didn’t expect to launch this post on such a dark note. My aim here is, at least in theory, a joyous one: to announce the publication of my latest short story, Lost Kings. The story is out on Amazon and Smashwords, and is snaking its way through Smashwords’ distribution network to other retailers (I see it’s up on the iBooks Store, so maybe it has finished its snaking), so I am enjoying some of the “birth” quality of that. I’m really pleased with the story and I think it’s worked out well. But I had a hard time getting myself to face the task of looking at it again to finish it. I procrastinated the task out of fear.

I wrote the first draft toward the end of 1992, in the burst of creative effort that I experienced after finishing season 1 of my TV series The Odyssey. It was so lovely and liberating to be working on something of my own again, where I didn’t have to submit my work under deadline pressure to critical eyes, and attend story meetings to listen to nonwriters tell me what was wrong with it. In that time I rediscovered the joy of writing, and sat at the Ikea pine coffee table in my living room, covering lined notepaper with my longhand script. I drafted two and a half stories that way, leaving off in January 1993 when I left for Vermont to attend a month-long meditation retreat.

I had never really regarded myself as a short-story writer; my interests and abilities seemed to point me toward longer forms. But now I had an idea of writing a series of stories based on my own life. It’s a well-known tip to writers to write material based on their own experience, and ultimately all creative writing necessarily is based on one’s own experience, at some level, but in my case I had never found inspiration in the events of my own life. I was excited by bigger, more exotic ideas; I was and am an epic writer at heart. And I did not see anything epic about my own life.

I can’t exactly say that in 1992 I discovered that epic quality in my life, but I did feel that I discerned in it something of an epic myth: that of the Holy Grail. I had always been excited by the tales of Arthur’s knights and their quest for the Grail. In the 1980s, when I first read Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God series about how human societies have been shaped by the power of myth, I was fascinated to learn our own modern Western Civilization has been spiritually centered, according to Campbell, on the myth of the Waste Land and its redemption by discovery of the Holy Grail. In Campbell’s view, we Westerners are all, whether we realize it or not, Grail seekers: we wander a land left waste by the death of God. Yes, we lead lives of quiet desperation, thirsting for spiritual life.

Things are bleak, futile, as depicted, for example, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But that’s not the whole story. The myth of the Waste Land has its complement in the myth of the Grail, which Campbell terms “the symbol of supreme spiritual value.” And the greatest expression of that myth is the epic poem Parzifal, written by the German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach in the early 13th century. In it, the world’s greatest knight, the ignorant bumpkin Parzifal, inspired by love of a woman, sets out to find the Holy Grail or to die trying. It won’t be easy, since one of the rules attached to the Grail by God himself is that it cannot be found by anyone who intentionally seeks it. Indeed, it is a task of maximum difficulty.

Parzifal’s career sketches the path of the would-be Grail seeker. And by 1992 I had realized that I was such a seeker myself, and that therefore Parzifal’s story could serve, at a deep level, as a template for my own life. Could I discern moments in my life that were parallels of the turning points of Parzifal’s quest? I thought I could. And once I saw that, the idea of a series of life-based short stories dawned on me: a suite of stories connected by this theme, this thread, as by the electrically charged third rail of a subway train. I was excited by this idea. I was inspired.

The first turning point emerged as The Thought Dial; the next one as Lost Kings. Whether it’s visible to the reader or not, these stories echo with motifs from Parzifal’s life and quest. Indeed you could say that his quest is their energy source, what gives them their sense of mission. With the stories serving this higher purpose, I set to work with gusto and drafted them relatively quickly.

Things came crashing down when I returned from my retreat to discover that I had been fired from The Odyssey, and my life took a new turn. The third story in my series was giving me trouble and I began to doubt the viability of my project. Plus there weren’t many places to publish short stories, unless I could finish a whole set and bring them out as a book. The drafts went into a file folder, and there they stayed until a couple of years ago, when I started trying to think of things to publish as e-books. I already had these stories as drafts—perfect! I could just take them through succeeding drafts (always easier than the first draft) and publish.

I experienced some fear in facing The Thought Dial after all these years, but I recalled that I had always liked the story and liked the draft that I had. So I was able to pull it out and work on it without too much resistance. Lost Kings was a different case. My last encounter with it, so to speak, had not been so pleasant. My impression was that it was an ungainly story that did not really know what it was trying to do. What was it really about? Did it really hang together? Did anything really happen in it? It was sort of like having a bad date with someone and deciding you don’t need to see them anymore.

That’s what was sitting in the file folder. I was afraid that if I looked at it, I would be reminded of why I decided to abandon this short-story project all those years ago. I think I was afraid of being embarrassed by that early effort. And beyond that was the fear that I wouldn’t know how to make it better. For a work of fiction is like life in this respect too: it’s not always clear what’s wrong with it or how to fix it.

At some point I took courage, for I did want to get my works published, and this was the next on my list. Did I really want to just forget about it and try coming up with something else from scratch? A keen desire to save labor drove me to print off a fresh copy of the story and read it again.

It had some problems, but overall it was better than I expected it to be. Indeed, I was quite pleased with it and actually eager to see what I could make of it. Having studied the art of storytelling in the years since I drafted it, I was able to bring some definite technique to bear on the story. I broke it down scene by scene and figured out what was going on in it. printed off a story-analysis form of my own devising and completed that; I started marking up pages of the story with handwritten notes; I consulted various reference and research books. In short, I got into my story and lavished some TLC on it. I also came up with a design concept for the cover and got some help in realizing that.

Now it’s published. Lost Kings has something to say; there are depths, too, beneath its still pools for the curious reader to dive into. It’s one more collaboration between the author in his early 30s and himself in his late 50s. Both of them stand by it, and they welcome you to give it a read if you feel so inclined.

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