Monday, December 14, 2015

The limits of art; the boundaries of obsession

By Lars Trodson

Something in me didn’t even want to pick up the book.

Something felt unfinished; I wasn’t focused when I wrote it but I didn’t want to admit that. I'm talking about when my second novel, “Tide Turning,” came out. I did not feel the rush of excitement I felt with the first book. Not because the experience of having a novel published was old hat, it was rather because I just didn’t feel I had done a good job. I felt I had let everybody down. I was half-hearted about its very existence, and when people who read the book said that it didn’t quite work, I tried to suggest that they were looking at it in the wrong way. I said they perceived it as a mystery when they should be reading it as a character study. That seemed to help some, but I knew, deep down, that even that approach would not explain away the book’s shortcomings.

I was torn by my lack of enthusiasm. Something in me understood it, even empathized with it, but I did not want to admit I had failed. 

Admit I had failed? But even as I hoped the book would receive ravishing reviews and sell well, something deeper inside me slightly wished for a quick slide into complete obscurity. Then I wouldn’t have to answer to it or try to get people to buy it when I knew they were probably just throwing their money away.

The book, as it sat on the shelf, represented, to me, a maze of typos, mistakes in chronology, missed opportunities.

It wasn’t that the book was a chore to write. In fact, it was the opposite. I enjoyed every minute of it because I felt I knew these characters and wanted to work with them once more.

But I had an idea in my head that stubbornly would not let go, something intensely personal and private, and it completely overwhelmed everything else.

Ten years ago my son died, and just as it is for the child in the Langley stories, his name was Jesse and he had a disability. This is the part of the book that is quite deliberately autobiographical (almost nothing else is, aside from a compilation of details and minute experiences that are weaved throughout). And what I wanted to do with “Tide Turning” was to do the impossible, which was to bring Jesse back to life and give him a new family and a new start. This was a powerful, almost all-encompassing motivation — it went beyond passion and into an area that I am not, on the whole, familiar with: obsesssion.

If I look back, I think there was something in me that believed I could do it; that I was performing something like a miracle, because I could see those scenes with Jesse in my mind: the closing scene of “Eagles Fly Alone” when Jesse is running across the field with his parents, and then later in “Tide Turning” when he was born. These scenes are, if I may be forgiven a slight self-congratulation, well-etched because I had no trouble seeing them so clearly. 

I agonized over every word in the final chapter of “Tide Turning” because I wanted to make sure that what I felt was conveyed, I wanted to convey the importance of this little person.

The fact that I thought I could actually conjure up Jesse is wrapped up in how I feel about the promise of what art can do, which is to transform the viewer or the reader or the listener. But your obesssions should never obscure the meaning of what you are trying to say. If your obsessions lead you, as the creator, and your audience as well, to clarity then it is worth the trip. And of course I am not talking about the obsession that leads to the creation of art. But if the ideas you are obsessed with overwhelm everything to the point where the things you want to say are obscured and reduced.

That is what happened to me.

I was so focused on that notion of bringing a child back to life that I lost the thread of the story. I neglected other characters. I let some of the story languish. And then the worst thing happened: because the book didn't deliver on the whole, I ended up doing exactly the opposite of giving Jesse more life. No one — almost no one — noticed. I wanted this beautiful child to be seen by the world, but as a result of my own failure he never truly came to life. And so the book sits on a shelf, this hauntingly incomplete idea — haunting because I was so invested in it and it was the one I deeply wanted to come out right. 

There was a lot I wanted to say and a lot of emotion I wanted to convey, but instead I was left with this artifact I was vaguely embarrassed by. It was not just a failure but some sort of wreck. I should have put the same attention to detail that I put into certain scenes into every page of the book. And therein lies the problem; I had let this one aspect of the book completely envelop and destroy the other worthy aspects of the story I had created.

The book came out. It received a nice review or two in the press, and a handful of nice remarks on Amazon. But I never embraced it. 

But I never, ever forgot it. I have long felt that I should accept the finished product because I told myself that was the best I could do with it at the time. But that wasn't true. It wasn't my best.

So I slowly, slowly returned to the manuscript. It was almost like returning to a scene where some kind of trauma had returned. I opened the file of the manuscript as one would gingerly open a box with a toxin in it.

When I realized the box wasn't going to hurt me (too much) I also recognized it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. But it was bad enough. Yes, there were some typos and some things out of order, some contradictions, and most importantly — this is what I had neglected — there was a major plot thread that I had never followed through on. There were ideas that should have been more thoroughly connected so the reader could better understand the overall thematic architecture of the piece. It wasn't that I didn't know how to do these things, or didn't realize they needed to be done, it's just that I didn't bother with them. Now I can tend to all these things.

So, without shame or fear or embarrassment, I am returning to the manuscript to tie everything together. Then I’ll find a way to get the book back into some sort of accessible format for readers so that it will at least be available.

I am quite prepared that no one will care, and I don’t mean that to pre-empt continued disappointment  in the work. But I will have purged this obstruction. It is rare for me to try to create something wholly for myself, because I approach art with the idea that it needs to reward its audience with some kind of satisfying emotion (whether pleasure or pain). The time that people spend with a work of art needs a payoff of some kind.

Lesson learned?

Art can be many things. It can be illuminating, frustrating, beautiful or ugly. 

But the one thing art can never be is unfinished.