Anatomy Of A Novel In Progress
By Rob Mohr
(Ed. Note: For several years, Mr. Mohr has been the Ojo’s superb Art Critic, and during those same years has also been one of our magazine’s top writers and poets. What follows is his “battle plan” for the writing of his first novel whereby he will join with those scribes that face “the loneliness of the long-distance runner” in the struggle to not only immediately capture the interest of a reader but then hold him for several hundred pages. We think our readers will be interested in what goes into this arduous process.)
“Our life is but a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” —Annie Dillard
After a three-year-struggle—sorting out ideas, sifting through emotions, and writing an unending number of scenes, and some thirty chapters—my novel, tentatively named, Bolivia Darkness, has reached a place where the characters are alive and taking charge of their own lives. Caught within the novel’s web, I finally comprehend the lonely corner writers are driven into, the complex scope of the work required, and the difficulty of bringing feeling and emotions to life. On reflective days, I wonder why, yet even then, on some significant level, I realize this seemingly unending project is my life’s most important work.
My writing happens within a spontaneous process where I join fragments from experience and memory in a complex yet unified story. Maria Popova calls this the organization of “an endless rabbit hole of discoveries.” Inside that warren, sensual ‘seeing’ collides with my unsatisfied desire to understand who we are, and why we exist. Memories, emotions, experience, and sensed understandings exist in a state of disarray, like a house in complete disorder, but then collide in a single creative flow that goes where it will be driven by its own consuming force. Only then does my input begin to find stable form in scenes and chapters that awaken and surprise even me. Jerome Bruner called this unifying of experience and memories, “a creative process that is antic, and serious, and silent ... one which pulls up biological taxonomies from within the mind.”
Stories and story-telling have long been the way our experiences, and the information we catalogue may become a comprehensible whole able to impart wisdom. My novel, as an expanded story, too long to recite, adds poignant reflection on the profound perplexity of living. It is these reflective and creative roles the novel format provides that have led me to create a multifaceted story which focuses on the characters’ emotions and motivation. My intent is the creation of a dramatic novel that provides insight, and that sensually expresses the characters’ state of being while critically questioning the meaning behind their actions.
One of my great challenges has been to create effective dialogue which avoids being idle conversation, and has the power to move and enhance the story. Dialogue must carry the action, foreshadow what is coming and reveal and give life to each character. In my novel, Maria Helena says to Mark, “You live in the past.” The narrator tell us that Mark’s reaction was to instinctively deny the truth she had touched, but the weight of her words, coupled with her tone, became the catalyst for his transformation. “Yes,” he answered, “I feel the cold of one frozen in place.”
The story evolves from the interactions of four principal characters that are connected by diverse circumstance. The primary male character reflects much of my own experience and the minutia collected from my lifetime of reading and exploration. He is motivated by emotion, progressive understandings, and his struggle to forego ego-centric life in favor of community. Three of the four principals are each, for different reasons, torn between two futures that seem impossible to resolve. Tension abounds. Driven by circumstances beyond their control, the characters evolve and move to new levels of awareness and understanding. The resulting story (and back-stories) are filled with contrast, sensuality, and the essential threads that insure continuity.
The structure of my story does not lead step-by-step through time, but rather, as Alice Munro suggests, “becomes a house where you go inside for a little while and wander back and forth.” Within this structure, scenes and chapter are governed by a psychological flow that both challenge the reader while maintaining a sense of discovery that pulls them forward. The whole, in part illusion, is filled with challenge, deception, and mystery.
The story opens when Mark MacLeod is trapped in Bolivia during a right-wing revolution. He is incorrectly identified as a communist agent, and pursued by Colonel Alfredo Ovando Candia who is emotionally driven to eliminate any progressive threat to his vision for Bolivia. Maria Helena Abana, director of a Bolivian community development agency that provided Mark access to work within local communities, convinces her brother Joaquin to hide Mark at their family hacienda in a high mountain valley above the small village of Santa Lucia de Milagros. She, for unexpected reasons, decides to stay and care for Mark at the hacienda. From there the story explodes outward into the broader reality of Bolivia, and inward as the feelings, sensibilities and needs of the characters emerge. While this outline is sequential, the novel flows like a twisted psychological river full of cascades and waterfalls.
Within the novel there are three back-stories. The first focuses on Mark’s marriage, his work with marginalized communities, and his active participation in an earlier revolution. The second reveals Maria Elaina’s self-doubt and sense that her life is incomplete. The third uncovers the tense story of Elizabeth’s, Mark’s wife, inner resistance to their life together. Each creates dynamic interactions, challenges to relationships, and conundrums that force difficult choices.
At this point my characters have personality, purpose, dreams, quirks, and emotions that reveal both shadow and light in their being. My task, as novelist, has become the creation of the space and environment in which they live, and on the literary side, to merge the precision of poetry and the adventure of intuition within a perturbative blend of sensual and intellectual passages that unify as a meaningful whole. I love letting my imagination have free play to create new worlds, and new ways of being human, and to understand more completely what it means to love.