Jan 22, 2013

What can Abraham Lincoln teach you about writing?

This one's dedicated to Amber-Lee.

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
— Abraham Lincoln

Axeman. War President. Family man.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the 16th President of the United States of America.

He was assassinated at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, a Good Friday. Well-known stage actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Lincoln, did not know that Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant a few days earlier, precipitating the end of the Civil War.

Booth's father was curiously named Junius Brutus, after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of Julius Caesar's assassins. When you look back, all these little nothings appear as omens, don't they?

Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated. His handsome, 26-year-old assassin would be found in hiding and killed 12 days later. However, Lincoln's extraordinary death does not define him.

Illustration by Jason Heuser, a.k.a. sharpwriter

Lincoln didn't ride grizzly bears, nor did he tote an assault rifle as shown above.[1]

He was born on Sinking Spring Farm, Hardin County, KY (the historical Hardin County now forms part of LaRue County). Sinking Spring cost Lincoln's father Thomas 118 English pounds, or $575. That would have been $8484 in 2011 dollars, which doesn't sound like much for a property that included a family dwelling, a handful of outbuildings and a good water source.

Abraham lost his mother at the age of nine. No-one's quite sure what took Nancy Lincoln; it was either milk sickness, brought on by drinking milk from cows that had ingested white snakeroot, or it was tuberculosis.[2] One year after Nancy's death, Thomas Lincoln married a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, who treated Abraham with affection and encouraged him to read and improve himself. Abraham would support Sarah until the end of her life, growing closer to Sarah over the years than to his own father. Thomas was not a man of learning, despite his onetime success and good standing in the county.  

Thomas and Nancy Lincoln were Separate Baptists, an offshoot of the First Baptists that opposed alcohol, dancing and slavery. The Lincolns moved north across the Ohio river to free territory, ostensibly on account of slavery, although the weightier motive, as Abraham once remarked, must have been his father's losses.

One Denton Offut gave Lincoln his first adult job ferrying goods by flatboat. At the end of a three-month journey, Abe arrived in New Orleans, where he witnessed slavery in action. It was Spring. He walked home.

Flatboats in New Orleans, 1873
Woodcut by A Measom Jr.

So, what can Abraham Lincoln teach you about writing a story, novel or play?

"Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition."

Pop culture has put the word "awesome" on a pedestal for good reason. Everybody I meet wants

a) to be awed.
b) to be awesome.

a) doesn't require much effort on your part. Just buy a movie ticket and go see a movie that changes the way you think or shows you things you never thought possible. Or find a restaurant where the goulash is so good that a spoonful has the power to make you remember half a dozen past lives.

b) that's where the sweat of your brow comes in. I was going to say "creative abilities" as well, and surely they count, but. There is a "but." I'll tell you what I'm thinking: A written page is worth a thousand words cloistered in your mind. Ten draft pages beat five eulogies lost in a poem's dream.

The current definition of awesome: Promotional poster for the upcoming monster-brawl movie, Pacific Rim.

Ideas without execution don't get you very far. Now let me share a mysterious perception that's been taking hold in my mind -- it seems that if you execute plenty and often, and stop worrying too much about your inadequacies, the ideas will take notice and find their way into everything you do. Eventually.

My definition of awesome: Mutant Scholar, by Joel Hustak

You can go with minimalism, maximalism or find an artistic approach that works for you — so long as you get to that particular place where the light of truth shines so hard and raw that you can't help telling yourself, "This is it. I found my true North." Then comes the hard part, navigating without a compass. You just have to do what they did in the olden days and follow your stars.

Two things outlast the ages: stone tombs, and the words you leave behind. 

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

In many ways, outlining a novel is like playing chess. You have to think several moves ahead and your plays need to make sense. Consider this: Would anyone sacrifice a queen to capture a pawn? Do you suddenly declare your bishops can move sideways as well as diagonally?

(If so, I must ask: Are you five-years-old?[3])

Long-form writing needs preparation. I should know. I tried it three times and three times I gave up because I hadn't bothered to come up with a solid outline, not even the bare bones of it. All I had were some vague ideas about protagonist, antagonist and setting. Geniuses like E. L. Doctorow or William Gibson can pants it if they like.[4] It doesn't work for me and probably won't work for you.

Working from a detailed outline may not be the intrinsically superior method. However:

I'd say you have to know enough about your story world to feel at home in it.
Not so much that you end up killing all the narrative possibilities at your disposal, though. To be clear, it's 101% OK to write exploratory drafts. It's fun! New ideas crop up as you make room for the unexpected, new and much-needed characters emerge from the fictive mass, new problems and strategies present themselves. Just like in a game of chess.

The chessboard is a matrix for countless plays and permutations. Without the chessboard, your chess bricks are meaningless. Without an outline of some kind, there's no telling where your story should go. You can't decide what to get out of your story because there are no boundaries. And a story needs them.

The mystery, magic and wonder of the novel is that you have to sharpen the ax, fell the tree, cut a board out of it, polish it, paint the pattern, create the pieces, define the rules... And only after all that gratifying work does the labor of storytelling begin.  

From the "awesome" Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)...

... to Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal in Lincoln (also 2012). Two conceptions of spectacle, two modes
of storytelling. One for complete idiots, another for people who like painstaking - if sentimental -
renditions of times past.

Neither one perfect in any measure of the word, both movies stand as symbols of Abraham Lincoln's
ability to inspire.

[1] I absolutely must refer you to sharpwriter's other masterpiece, the mecha-Roosevelt. The French invented the word nonpareil to praise delectable works of this nature.
[2] White snakeroot contains a poison, tremetol, which is not inactivated by pasteurization. Read more about it at the National Library of Medicine - Medical Subject Headings page. (Fortunately, milk sickness is now quite uncommon in the developed world.)
[3] Because you'd love this.
[4] Doctorow writes beautifully, but his ideas are sometimes wafer-thin; Gibson has come up with intriguing, premonitory notions of life in the information age, but his diction lacks a certain grace. I can't help but think — what if they spent a little more time planning and a little less just exploring? Their work often reads like half-polished drafts. ...I use the word geniuses without irony. I may not like what they do but I respect their body of work.

P.S.: By "stop worrying too much about your inadequacies," I don't mean anything like "don't try to improve" or "be content with average." 

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