“On the Writing of American Spirit
By John Janda

In American Spirit, Chapter IV, Mort Lewis relives the stillborn death of his son and the soundless, breathless words they shared in parting. From his unborn son's calm acceptance of death, of not being born, Mort learned not to fear death himself. He found belief in other modes of being which precede and follow for all on this life's course.

Never having told another soul, except perhaps one, about that brief, clear exchange with his son, Mort wonders:
"How many others have stories like as strange
they never tell, stories about just little things but
enough to change how you see the whole world . . ."
One such story relates to the writing of American Spirit itself, for this novella was not planned, not plotted, never intended. It arose first in sleep, more than twenty-five years ago, as a dreamscape -- the vision of a man standing at a barred window and staring out into a western desert night. This man, I somehow knew, was accused of a capital crime which he didn't know whether he'd committed or not, but for which he would surely die himself.

Awakening, I resisted an urge to write down the dream. A re-write of an earlier, first novel, The Clamor of Fife and Drum, together with earning a living, had me fully occupied. Committing to another lengthy work of fiction right then did not fit my personal agenda.

The vision of the man at the jail-house window kept returning at odd moments, however (e.g., while I was washing dishes). No more of his story came through in the later repeat visions, but the call for me to play the role of a scribe became unmistakable. Three weeks after the initial dream I surrendered and sat down with a yellow tablet to write 'from the top' with no planning, no outline, no character descriptions, no other preliminaries.

“My name’s Vernon Eggers, and I’m ninety-two years old . . .” was the first line penciled in compliance with the instruction to write. It proved to initiate transcription within the story itself. The Marshal character was entirely new, his relationship to the man at the window unknown, as was the role he would play in the novel, but apparently this old one-time Western lawman wanted to tell the story that I'd been charged to write. Odd as that seemed at the time, I went along with his wishes. The town of Cochilla came through in his narration; the death of one young man, Jeff Landry; something of Jeff's father, J.D. Landry; and something too about Mort Lewis. But ninety-two proved to be a few years too many, for despite his claim to the contrary Marshal Eggers had forgotten how to give plain, straight evidence.

After five pages of missteps, asides and restarts, a Merciful Providence shifted the scene from Prescott, Arizona, 1926, to Cochilla Township, Arizona Territory, 1878, to show the story being told, while the Marshal's voice droned on somewhere in the background.

The first line consciousness birthed in Cochilla, 1878, raised new intimations about the seriousness of the whole effort “Mort stumbled from the end of a dark tunnel of dreams…” echoed, at least in my mind, the opening of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Traumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefern verwandelt." And I thought to myself, 'If I'm going to play at being Kafka, this story had better be good'.

Suspending all other judgment, I wrote the rest of the novel
in the bright illumination provided by E.L. Doctorow's famed headlights, wrote straight through over a period of about three weeks, daily never knowing where the next chapter, much less the whole story, was going, never knowing how the story would end. I did write very much like a scribe, while a consciousness other than my own bore responsibility of authorship, or maybe the story told itself.

The writing style which emerged was unlike that of my first novel and prior few short stories, also unlike anything I could recall having read. Terse narrative and sparse descriptions allowed imagination to fill in the details of this widely famed nineteenth century frontier setting. Short bursts of poetry enhanced chapter openings and highly charged emotional moments, while broken rules of grammar and of writing etiquette seemed, in this case, to work out just fine. I came to think the new writing style fit the subject matter perfectly.

Minor asides in Chapter I-III, twelve days or so later turned out to be important foreshadowing of events, or of Mort's growth, as evidenced in Chapters VIII-X. Major uncertainties, such as how a man might react to hearing himself sentenced to hang, simply resolved themselves.

Clearly the story was coming out 'good', much better than I ever could have planned or executed myself (pun intended).

Writing that way, so free, was also great fun. Each day brought the pleasure of new discoveries, along with surprise at the strength of my own emotional responses to the various elements of the story. Whatever the story's source, a writer shouldn't be insensitive to the drama being unfolded. What, apart from the writer's own emotional involvement and reactions, can validate the truth-content of every line, passage or scene? In the many rewrites of American Spirit over the years I've always found myself becoming very sad, actually shedding tears, at tragic turns of the story, while very much enjoying and rejoicing at other developments (e.g., Mort's emergent friendship with Jose Morales).

When Mort departed Cochilla by stage coach to open Chapter X, and the Marshal's voice returned full volume to again fill the pages of transcription, that also was surprising to me, not planned, unintended. That the story began in an act of terrible violence off-stage, before the curtain was raised, and then ended in another act of violence again off-stage, recounted, not shown -- quite like classic Greek tragedy -- became obvious to me only after the first draft was finished.

Thomas Moore, in his audio recording "On Creativity", suggests the artist may know little about what his or her work represents, that such analysis is often best left to critics or others. Maybe so, but I can't resist raising the question, 'Why me? Why was I chosen to be the scribe, or how did happen that American Spirit arose from my own creative unconscious?'

Readers of this postscript have their choice of beliefs as to whether God still speaks on occasion to or through men directly, or alternatively whether the Muses really exist, or whether the human unconscious is the sole source of our own creative guidance. As Mort said of his own guilt or innocence in his storied end, “Have it whatever whichway you like, Marshal; you can do that, you know.”

However you choose, in order to become a tabula rasa on which another consciousness can write – whether God, a Muse, or our own deepest and most creative unconscious -- one sine qua non surely is the ability and willingness to get our own sensible Ego-self off the page. At least temporarily we must be able to suspend judgment, not shape the text to our tastes, censor, or intrude our precious rationality, our values or our beliefs. To write most creatively we must give up Ego – and by giving up Ego, also give up control. One reason I was able to write American Spirit was that I had learned earlier how to get my own Ego-self off the page and out of the way of the writing.

I'd learned how to follow.

My first novel (Clamor . . .) retells events experienced a few years before on a college campus. I'd planned a thinly veiled retelling of an age and a few days which registered even at the time of occurance as sufficiently interesting to be the subject of a novel. God, a Muse, or my own precious unconscious, humored me through three chapters of the first draft, then raised up a NEW character, one who never had appeared in the real world and times being recreated, had no hand in the events being retold, but who now knocked hard at my writer's door and demanded entry to the story. He made known what he wanted to do to one of my borrowed-from-life characters -- alas something damaging. But if admitted, he would.

I stood aside and let him open Chapter 4. With that the story became truly a novel, truly fiction. It also became much richer, as story, as a moral tale, as a new reality with almost as much emotional depth and complexity as the old, not to mention its possession of a new hard edge. By my act of surrender, I think I also became a writer.

“My name’s Vernon Eggers . . .”? O.K., have at it, old man. Show us what you’ve got.

To be able to write American Spirit there were other prerequisites, too, however. As a graduate student and sometimes instructor of European history, with a focus on 'The History of Ideas,' I was well read in modern European literature. Kafka has already received mention; I also saw in American Spirit traces of Tolstoy, Mann, Proust, Hesse, Zweig and Joyce. Emersion in modern European literature certainly helped 'prime the creative unconscious' for the production of similar work, or maybe it was 'chumming the Muse'. It certainly also helped shape the work. For all its western Americana trappings, American Spirit still reads to me like European literature. "Camus," one writing-group friendly reader kept saying of American Spirit during chapter-by-chapter reviews: "It's really a lot like Camus." 'Yep, Missy', as the Duke might have said, 'you've got about the right of it'.

Roots in a literary tradition inspire both form and content. American Spirit is a novella, a literary construct more popular in Europe than in the U.S. God, or the Muse, could not fail to see, or my creative unconscious fail to note, my preference as a reader for that literary form. If one's primary reason for reading, or for writing, is the exploration of ideas, rather than pleasuring or distraction, novellas are ideal. They beg to be read in a single sitting, which maximizes the emotional impact of events, ideas and characterizations, and advances the cause of their logic. My favorite book of fiction of all times is Solzhenitsyn's, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. So I was chosen, or inspired, to write 'Three Days in the Life of Mort Lewis'? That makes perfect sense to me; 'write what you read' applies.

In content, American Spirit appears initially to focus on death and dying, those most unfathomable of all life's great mysteries and treated as such in many European novellas. If you liked American Spirit you'd almost surely like Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, and maybe also Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. I certainly did, long before American Spirit was conceived

At a deeper level, you'll maybe agree American Spirit is really more about life and living, with death treated as just one more natural event, like birth, in an endless progression of natural events – a vision made more comforting if the process driving that progression is understood as being in tune with our choices, at least partially under our control, and influenced by our awareness of future prospects every bit as much as propelled by forces from our past. In Mort's thought and parlance, he became aware of 'reasons ahead of him (in time),
pulling' as well as 'reasons behind him (in time), pushing'. Such, he
thought, was certainly true of his meeting with Hannah Barton and later, he came to believe, of his shrouded-from-memory encounter with Jeff Landry.

Readers of American Spirit and of this postscript again face a choice, to accept Mort's assessment of how life's key events happen, with prescience by all parties to those events contributory to all outcomes, or to maintain a conventional, quasi-materialistic interpretation (i.e., all events being propelled, like billiard balls, solely by being rammed from behind, a la Locke and The Enlightenment). I'll stand alongside Mort Lewis on this one. I learned from writing his story to see the world his way. Writing from trust, letting a story tell itself and experiencing such success, worked wonderfully to build more trust in every other area of my life as well, including trust that if God, Tao, All-That-Is, or the Muse driving this project desired, publication of American Spirit surely would follow. It was clearly too big an effort to serve for my edification and pleasure alone. I am most grateful that the story didn't find a publisher before – efforts of the last few years didn't change the story's message but have improved the presentation.

Trust equates to faith, the faith of Job, of pilgrim Christian, and of Mort Lewis awaiting not execution but the moment after execution, the moment of deliverance from the tribulations of this life and the rebirth and renewal of spirit. Faith of necessity assumes and reckons with more than just the course of this our fleeting temporal existence. Faith provides assurance that we all will be re-born, will be re-newed, yet again. Without that assurance, life would indeed be a wasteland.

Which brings us to T.S. Eliot and his protégé, my mentor, Dr. James Donohoe of the Department of History, University of Arizona. Dr. Donohoe didn't teach Western U.S. History, he taught his passion for art and his love of literature while explicating European History, from the ancient Greeks through World War II. With that, he affected my life profoundly.

American Spirit owes much to James Donohoe on the microcosmic as well the macrocosmic scale. In one lecture on 'The History of Western Civilization', his signature course, Donohoe touched briefly on the great French classical poet, Nicholas Boileau (1636-1711), who in The Art of Poetry enjoined that nothing was worthy of publication until after the seventh rewrite and that poetry intended as art must be fashioned so that every line displays attractively on every page. My rewriting of American Spirit again and again was informed by, and confirmed for me, both of Boileau's points. It's a pleasure to identify my indebtness to Boileau and also to Dr.James Donohoe.

My final acknowledgment and note of appreciation has to be for the natural wonders and unique beauty of Arizona, in both state and Territorial days. In my view of American Spirit, the natural settings – the soil, harsh climate, desert and mountain landscapes – collectively constitute another character influencing the story as well as helping to shape the human characters of the residents of that wonderful time and place. In my view, American Spirit could not have been 'set' anywhere else in the world and, except for the great experience of growing up in Arizona, and loving Arizona, I don't believe I could have written this story at all. Learning from and echoing Marshal Eggers at the end of his narration, I also am very much beholdin'.
- Finis -
Postscript to the Postscript. . .

Meaning's depth is bottomless, endless. The deeper we go
the more opaque it becomes and the less dependent on details, particulars, facticity. Decades after 'scribing' AMERICAN SPIRIT its meaning re-emerged again for me in this poem.

"What almost no one wants to know, accept, admit . . .

Responsibility for our own life
         begins before conception,
         before birth.

We choose our culture,
         the time and place into which we're born.
         We choose our parents, knowing in advance
         their strengths and weaknesses, both.

We later may choose to miscarry,
         share in the decision
         to abort, or not.

Scary, isn't it? Taking responsibility
         for our whole life,
         for our saddest experiences,
         for our losses and regrets;
         but we certainly could have chosen
         another way, another time, or other people,
         with which or with whom to interact.

Prescience/foreknowledge reigns,
          except when we're in denial,
          when we do lack faith.

Why do we choose all that we do?
         For experience, for growth, for self-evolution,
         with no concern for any issue of loss.

Whom do we have to blame?
         Only our higher self.

Let's each learn from our misfortunes,
         our mistakes, our success.

That's what Life is truly about.


John Janda 5/5/2010