The S houshold should have a black spot on the front door, to warn off anyone disinclined to catch the plague. But this might deter the various delivery men bringing the Christmas shopping, so all that has been posted is a terse threat to anyone who dares to ring the bell and wake the baby. After two weeks of being coughed and sneezeed upon by three virus-ridden children, I have developed my own viral yuckiness, and then bacterial grossness, and have not left the house, except to go to the doctor’s, in, ooooo…ever so long. However, on antibiotics and sundry other wonders of the modern pharmaceutical industry, I decided to attempt a bit of housework today, a bit of sorting out, a bit of clearing out, and what interesting discoveries there are to be distracted by when one isn’t really invested in the task at hand…
In amongst spare teaching handouts, folded into books, tucked into folders and between the pages of old notebooks were reems of paper covered with bits of stories. I knew these were there, of course. I come across them regularly, but this time I decided to consolidate old drafts into one place, and found I had several hundred pages of fiction written over the past twelve years, much of it from that period in my life when I was working hard at being a failed philosopher.
Back when Mrs S was newly Mrs S, she was living in St Louis, Missouri, while Mr S was working in London, and attempting to finish up her PhD in philosophy…quickly. Three years of postgraduate coursework, undergrad teaching, and four written comprehensive exams (in Ancient, Medieval, Modern and Contemprary philosophy) into the degree, Mrs S was facing the next hurdle: oral comprehensive exams. These are a fairly big deal in the program: two hours of examination by a panel of five senior professors in the candidate’s declared area of specialisation. Mrs S was being examined on Ethics, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, continung through Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard, and on to some modern virtue thinkers like Alasdair McIntyre and feminist thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Claudia Card. There was even bit of TS Eliot & Dante thrown in. Given the breadth of the material, and the level of expertise expected from an oral exam candidate, the prudent and correct thing to do in the days and hours leading up to the ordeal would be to make and review systematic notes on central arguments, controversies and themes, refamiliarise oneself with key passages and have a practice question or two with one’s director of studies. But Mrs S had been spending a lot of her time writing cheap romance — she was still ostensively trying to be a philosopher, and so committing the time effort to anything less fluffy seemed somehow less defensible than writing a page or two of drivel here and there, in between marking essays and reading serious, work-related texts. Now, despite a nagging feeling that she was totally unprepared for whatever was going to happen that afternoon, and because she copes with stress primarily through dissociation, Mrs S spent the morning of her oral comps attempting to write a credible sex scene (if credible is the right word), as this was all that her tawdry romantic fiction was lacking. An hour or so before she had to leave she was siezed with a mild sort of panic, which did not spur her to do any actual work, but did motivate her to get off the couch and go bake some muffins, in case the panel of her ethics exam committee was bribable.
The lesson to take away from this whole sad tale is that if this is how you prepare for a major exam academic philosophy may not be your calling. Sadly, Mrs S did not get the message that she had already chosen writing over academia for her exam went surprisingly well, though she was quite short with a usually-beloved professor who asked her a question about Deontology and Utilitarianism because she was so over that whole pseudo-controversy she just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to think about it any more. After the exam they all had muffins and in due course the letter arrived saying that she had passed, with distinction.
So, conveniently forgetting the three and a half years of actual graft that had gone into that result, Mrs S mentally shrugged and took this surprising result as vindication of her ever-diminishing attention to matters philosophical. This is of course directly responsible for her less-than-successful attempt to actually write a dissertation. She got as far as outlining an argument (after a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus), that the proper end of moral philosophy is not knowledge of ethics, per se, or the discovery of decision procedures, but the formation of the soul; and so because only a very great fool would think that philosophical essays can properly form the soul, clearly the philosophical essay is not the correct form for moral philosophy. So let’s spend some time looking at Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday instead… There are days when Mrs S would still like to write this dissertation, but given the monumental mess she made of her course in the end, this seems unlikely. The subtext was, after all, ‘Go away. I just want to write novels,’ and philosophical dissertations really have no business having subtext of any kind. What Mrs S will write, someday, is a post on why all novels, indeed all literary stories, are works of moral philosophy, whether they intend to be or not, and even if they intend not to be. But now we have had enough philosophy for one day.
And if you are wondering: No, Mrs S cannot write a good sex scene. Or at least not one she would dream of publishing. Look elsewhere for your smut.
Of the great stacks of writing I unearthed, there were scenes and even whole chapters from projects barely developed, or now abandoned, as well as no fewer than four earlier incarnations of various parts of The Artist and the Serpent. There are long tracts from another fairly advanced project, tentetively entited Tenebres (after the Benedictine Holy Thursday candle-lit prayers), which I cannot decide whether to continue or not. It is weighty and theological, though, I think, a grippingly good story. It has TS Eliot epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, and an underlying meditation about the nature of marriage and human brokenness. A light adventure of detective fiction it is not, but rereading it has reminded me that some of it is actually fairly good. Then there are various riffs on characters that have not yet been incorperated into any story, paragraphs rewritten in different voices to try and find the right ‘fit,’ whole chapters written in completely different settings or even centuries than those in which the stories are now (in my mind) set, some scenes I would never now use for plot reasons, and some that are so stunningly, laughably bad that I should probably burn them (but won’t).
For at least a half hour I was discouraged by all this. Hundreds of pages, a small subset of what I have actually produced, written over more than a decade, and I have no finished product, nothing that I can publish, nothing that seems to justify the great volume of paper and ink consumed or the hours lost in another world. But I have rallied, mostly because there is definite progress to be observed in all these pages. My schedule is wonky, but the process is there. (I just don’t finish well without a firm, externally-imposed deadline. A professor from my undergrad days recently requested that I actually finish a novel before he dies. I would love to oblige. I just need something a bit more precise to be getting on with. My husband despairs.)
All that self-regarding revelation aside, this blog has been helpful, for when I feel I should be posting, I procrastinate by writing what I should actually be writing. In an attempt to make it do even more for me (personal blogs by their nature are not really audience-regarding) I am adding a new page called Scribblings (at the top of this page, next to the About and The Artist and the Serpent pages) where I will sometimes post bits and pieces of fiction I’m working on. The longer these stories are just sheets of paper in a folder that no one else is allowed to read, the longer all of this will take. One way or another, I shall persuade myself there is enough external pressure to require results. The first post on Scribblings is the discovery I made that most interested me. (Of course, I’m having a major plotting crisis with my main project so I am very prone to distraction…) It is the opening 1400 words of the first book in a series of four that I plotted one weekend a few years back, having given myself the writing prompt “write a YA series that’s better than Twilight.” For hypothetical marketing purposes I have called the books Out of Time, Out of Place, Out of Synch, and Out of Love, and I have decided that a bit of time travel would be more my thing than vampires and werewolves. When I came across this opening, I thought “Hmmm, I’d actually like to read the rest of this book…in fact I’d like to actually write the rest of this book.” My next challenge is to find a passage in The Artist and the Serpent that makes me think the same thing. (170 pages in and I hate it at the moment. HATE IT.) In the mean time, if you fancy a spot of fiction, click over to Scribblings and give it a go.