All Writing Is Autobiographical

I loved this blog by Dennis Palumbo. I believe that he is right, that Ray Bradbury is right, that all writing is a reflection of who we are.

I believe that writing is a lungs-about-to-burst experience of something deep inside us struggling to surface, as if a swimmer too long underwater. That something is the self. It is who we are, certainly. But perhaps it is more than that.

Perhaps it is who we long to be.

“Centurion” is no exception. In earlier posts I have shared what is autobiographical. In later posts I will continue to share. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the blog and that it is encouraging to those of you who are writers making your way to the surface, to the freshness of open air, to the warmth of a welcoming sun, and to the glistening wonder of who you truly, uniquely, and remarkably are.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-palumbo/my-favorite-quote-for-wri_b_527921.html

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The Backstory to the Book

“Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion quite in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life—in understanding as in work.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

*****

That moment in yesterday’s post led me to a deeper relationship with Jesus. Several devotional books grew out of the seed that was planted in me that afternoon at the office. And several years later, the book I quoted from in yesterday’s post grew out of it.

The process seemed so organic, one growing out of the other, growing out of still another.

“Centurion” was different. I felt drawn to the story years ago—perhaps 15 years ago. I hadn’t thought about it a great deal, though, when my agent and I met with a vice president from Tyndale Publishing House. The meeting was about 40 minutes or so, as I recall. I had a number of projects I pitched, and, as it turned out, he wanted three of them—“The Divine Embrace” . . . “The North Face of God” . . . and “Centurion.”

“Centurion” at that time was just an overview of a story, a little over a page long; not a detailed outline and three sample chapters as is the standard practice. So, by the time I got around to that one (the other two preceded it), I wasn’t really ready to write it.

I wasn’t ready on a number of levels. I wasn’t ready with the research. I wasn’t ready with the character development. And, most importantly, “I” wasn’t ready.

The soil of my heart, so to speak, wasn’t prepared. Between freshly fallen leaves and soil is a transitional stage—compost—a stage when all that has died and fallen to the ground decays, gets a little rained on, a little moldy, gets the dung of passing animals dropped on it, and the burrowing of insects to mix it. Not a very appealing process, but a necessary one.

Before gestation could take place, the broken-down matter of my life with all its failures and regrets needed a season of moldering before it could nourish any life other than its own.

The beginning of that process began one day when I was working on the book. I took a break and skimmed the newspaper. The sidebar on the right-hand side of the paper announced that Mel Gibson was in production for a film, titled, “The Passion of the Christ.” My heart sunk.

A big part of the reason I wanted to write my book is that I didn’t think the crucifixion of Jesus had ever been shown in a feature film in a realistic way. Most reenactments were little more than Easter pageants, I felt. My entire first act was going to show the crucifixion the way you would have seen it if you were on that hill the day of the executions.

By the time I had finished the first act, the film came out. It was a wonderful piece of film-making—accurate, compelling, and for many, life-changing.

For me, though, it was a crisis of faith. I had wanted to be involved in the film industry since I first became a writer. And this was the story I felt sure would be what opened the door to that dream.

My dilemma was that my book would come out after the film, and so it would appear derivative. When I explained this to my publisher, he wanted me to hurry up and finish it so they could get it out as soon as possible. I couldn’t do that, I said. Then he said he could find a writer to finish it for me. And I said I couldn’t do that either.

The only way I felt the dilemma could be resolved was if I were to buy the book back. It took me four years of monthly installments, but I finally paid it off.

The years that followed were compost years, in every area of my life. I threw away most of what I had written. What little remained I put in a box. It felt like a cold-case file to me now.

I felt alone, rejected, and hurt so deeply. It almost seemed a cruel joke. I prayed. I called out to God. But nothing. I felt forsaken. A horrible feeling but a necessary one, at least for this project.

Years later, I picked it up again, and figured out a way to tell the story without focusing too much on the crucifixion (I’ll talk about that in another post).

What l learned about writing was that every project has its own gestation period. Some take months; others, years. My job as a writer was to tend the growth, not to force the growth.

Rilke was right. Here is what he went on to say . . .

*****

“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

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November 17, 2013 · 11:50 pm

Where This Project Started

The inception of this novel started years ago when I was working at Insight for living, a relatively young man at 38 and a still wet-behind-the-ears writer. Here is the story in my book, “Windows of the Soul,” where I tell of the experience that started me writing about the life of Jesus.

WINDOWS OF WRITING

           

 

            “You should be writing something from your life, from the depths of your soul.  There is more in you than this,” he said, pointing to the newspaper story, “if you have the courage to write it.”

 

                                                                        Louisa May Alcott

                                                                        From the film adaptation of                                                                                                       Little Women


The main character in Little Women is Jo, who goes to New York to follow her dream of becoming a writer.  After she submits one of her stories to a newspaper editor, that dream is taken by the lapels and the smoke of a stubby cigar blown in its face.   

 

            “Our subscribers are not interested in sentiment and fairy stories, Miss,” he said gruffly.

            Jo frowned.  “It isn’t a fairy story.”

            “Try one of the ladies’ magazine,” he replied.

 

            Jo stomped off, determined to do whatever she had to do to succeed.  She didn’t care how gruff the editors were or how offensive their cigars, she was determined to make a living at what she loved.  Even if it killed her.  So instead of writing stories she felt passionately about, she wrote stories she thought would sell.  One day she received a letter from the same editor she had walked out on.  He liked her story and wanted to publish it.  She was ecstatic.  In her excitement she rushed over to a new acquaintance of hers who had been at one time a professor of literature. 

 

            “The newspaper has taken two stories, and they wish to see more!” she said

            breathlessly.

            “Wonderful!” he said.  “May I?”  He took the stories she held in her hand

            and began to read.  Slowly, his happy expression changed to one of

            disappointment.  “‘The Sinner’s Corpse’ by Joseph March.  You use another

            name?”

            Jo nodded.

            “They pay well I suppose?”

            Jo felt angry and crushed at the same time.  Why didn’t he like what she had

            written?  “People’s lives are dull.  They want thrilling stories,” she said, her

            voice quavering.

            The professor frowned.  “People want whiskey, but I think you and I do not

            care to sell it.”  He cleared his throat and tapped the page with his finger.  “This

            is a waste of your mind.  You write of lunatics and vampires!”

            “It will buy firewood for Marmee and Father, and a new coat for Beth, and she’ll

            be grateful to have it,” Jo said angrily.  Tears filled her eyes.  She grabbed the

            story and turned away.  The professor gently took her arm to keep her from leaving.

            “Please,” he said.  “I do not wish to insult you.  Understand me.  I am saying,

            you must please yourself.  You must write about what you know, about what

            is important to you.  I can see you have talent.”

            “You can?”

            “Yes, but you should be writing something from your life, from the depths of

            your soul.  There is more to you than this,” he said, pointing to the newspaper

            story, “if you have the courage to write it.”

 

Their conversation was an echo of one I had with God years ago when I was also an aspiring writer, also determined to make a living at what I loved, even if it killed me.   The echo came from the small east Texas town of Nacogdoches where I had cut my teeth as a writer.  Nothing I was writing at that time was selling, and things were getting desperate.  More accurately, I was getting desperate.

            It was then I came across an article in the Houston paper advertising a seminar for writing romance novels.  Send your money, come to Houston, and you too can become a successfully published author.  The words dripped with honey too sweet to resist.

            I went to a bookstore and surreptitiously bought one of the slender paperbacks, just to check it out.  It took a couple of hours to read; how long could it take to write?  A couple of weeks, a month maybe?  What could I lose?  How many months had I already lost with my own projects?  What was one more?

            So I sent my money, went to Houston, and spent a day listening as writers gave seductive testimonials and editors walked us through the do’s and don’ts of writing formula romance.  It was paint-by-the-numbers art, and on top of that, it was somebody else’s numbers, but it was honest work and, who knows, it might buy firewood for Marmee and a coat for Beth.  

            I titled my story, A More Congenial Spot, from a line in a song from Camelot.  I decided to write under a pseudonym.  It would need to be a woman’s name, I thought, something enticing, maybe something like that ad campaign for the perfume Jontue.  Remember?  “Jontue…Sensual, but not too far from innocence.” 

            Now what name would that be?

            Jessica.  Sounds pretty sensual to me.  Now how about the innocent part?  Jones?  Nice alliteration, but no, too common.  Johnson?  Too stable.  Needs to have an exotic feel to it.  St. John?  Hmm.  Jessica St. John.  That’s it!

            Man, is this gonna be easy or what?

            I spent a day brainstorming ideas and started getting really excited.  

            She was visiting Ft. Worth with the kids and called me, asking me how the writing was going.  In the course of the conversation Jessica’s name slipped out.  I knew then I had to come clean about my literary tryst.  Although Judy didn’t discourage me, I detected a tinge of disappointment in her voice. 

            The next morning I read over what I had written, and each page became a window showing me something.  Was it something about me?  No, it was about Jessica, not about me.  It wasn’t my story, not really.  It was what people wanted to read.  People’s lives are dull.  They want thrilling stories.  What harm was it in simply giving them what they wanted?  It was honest money.  It wasn’t drugs, wasn’t prostitution.

            Or was it?

            The French writer Moliere once said, “Writing is like prostitution.  First you do it for love, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.” 

            Was I? 

 

*****

 

Was what I did wrong?  All I can say is, it was wrong for me. 

            It was a wrong turn at the crossroads between the survival of the body and the survival of the soul.  Too many wrong turns and one day you or I might wake up wondering where we are, how we ever ended up here, so far from what we once so passionately loved, so far from who we once were and once thought we would become.  And one day we wake up and look at ourselves in the mirror and realize we have nothing to say anymore.  What’s worse, we don’t even care.

            Every day each of us comes to similar crossroads.  In our thought life, our social life, or spiritual life, our professional life, in our life as a husband or a father, as a mother or a wife, as a son or a daughter, brother or sister, friend or neighbor.  And every day we have to decide which way we’re going to turn.  Love and money are two roads that often intersect our path.  Love of truth and the expedient safety of a lie are two others.  Love thy neighbor and a got-to-get-to-Jericho schedule are two more. 

            Love is often the long way around to get to where we are going.  But I have come to believe it is the right way around, and in taking it I don’t think we can go too far wrong.  

            But this I didn’t love.  I didn’t love the story or the characters or the whole cheapening experience of being seduced by such a drop-handkerchief kind of mistress.  And so at page sixty eight I stopped.

            That I stopped writing the book said something about me, I thought.  Something in my defense.  That I started it in the first place said something, too.  Something I’m not sure I wanted to hear.

            Whether we write formula romances or a thoughtful note to a friend or a few infrequent “Dear Diary” entries, what we write is a window into who we are.  For humility’s sake I saved the manuscript, every now and then I taking it out of my files, dusting it off, and taking a good look at who I was not too many years ago.

            My face still flushes with embarrassment each time I look at the manuscript with its white-shouldered margins yellowing with age and its smudgy type that looks like morning-after mascara.  I get even more embarrassed when someone else looks at it.  But I felt compelled to show you as I hope you will feel compelled to look, because all that is shown us at windows of the soul is not pretty to look at, and all that is told us is not pleasant to hear. 

            The heroine in the book is a woman who meets her romantic interest in a library, and the following paragraph describes their first encounter.

 

            As she bent down, she saw through the space between the top of the books

            and the next shelf, the tawny slacks of the man she had just glimpsed.  She

            froze, though she hardly knew why.  Her heart began to pound within her.

            He stopped a moment as if perusing the shelf on the other aisle.  His masculine

            cologne pushed its way through the books and took her senses off guard.

            She breathed in its fragrance and gently closed her eyes to the intimidating

            scent.  Suddenly she became aware of her own fragrance, and she wondered

            if her perfume had met his nostrils.  And if it had, she wondered, though she

            knew not why, if it had the same effect on him.  She felt like a little girl hiding

            among the books.  She would tell herself later, how silly, but for now his cologne clouded her thoughts.

 

            Kinda makes you wanna puke, doesn’t it?  All that masculine cologne muscling its way through the aisles of a public library.  Intimidating unsuspecting women.  Sending their hearts pounding, eyelids closing, thoughts clouding…though they know not why.  Sheesh.  How clouded were my thoughts when I wrote that? 

            Not clouded enough to keep them from asking me some pretty soul-searching questions.  Thoreau warned that “a man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.”  Was that the cost I was paying, my innocence?  Is this what I had worked so hard for, sacrificed so much for?  If I was going to die trying to make a living at writing, I didn’t want it to be here, no matter how congenial the spot.  If I was going to die, it was going to be for something I loved, not for some street-corner flirtation.

           

*****

 

My life as a writer started with writing children’s books.   A More Congenial Spot was the first book for an adult reader that I started.  The first one I finished was Intimate Moments with the Savior.  The project came to me two years after my fling with formula romance.  I was working in California, co-authoring Bible study guides, when the printer sent us the final copy of the page-layout before it went to press.

            We got the copy in the morning and had to turn it around by that afternoon.  The copy editors were all combing through it for misspelled words, misplaced commas, things like that.  At this stage in the production schedule, called the “board stage,” you can only make minor changes because the text is precisely spaced on the page.  If for some reason you needed to take out a paragraph, for example, you would have to replace it with one of similar length, otherwise it would throw off the layout of each page and therefore throw off the pagination.

            After lunch I was told by the rights and permissions department it would cost fifteen hundred dollars to use one of the quotes in the study guide.  It was a beautiful quote, and I hated not to use it, but I knew the budget was tight, so I opted to replace it.  But the quote was almost a page in length, and I couldn’t find anything that would fit. 

            It was now a little more than two hours before the deadline.  I strummed my fingers, looked at the clock.  By five o’clock I had to have something on that page.  The only way I could think to solve the spacing problem was to write a poem of my own.  That way I could make it just the right length to replace the other one. 

            The subject of the study guide lesson was Mary breaking an alabaster vial of perfume and anointing Jesus during the week when he was taken away to be crucified.  So that is where I started, looking through a window at the home of Simon the Leper, where Mary and Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, and his disciples were all gathered.

 

*****

 

Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him.  “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

            While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.  She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

            Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.”  And they rebuked her harshly.

            “Leave her alone,” said Jesus.  “Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them out any time you want.  But you will not always have me.  She did what she could.  She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  (Mark 14:1–9)

 

*****

 

Some people have a romantic view of what the life of a writer is like.  They think writers go out and sit by the sea with their notebook and pencil, muse awhile, write awhile, spread out the beach towel and tan awhile, muse awhile, write awhile, tear the ragged end off a loaf of French bread, smear it with a little Brie cheese, sip a little Chardonnay, muse a while longer, write a while longer, and at the end of the day, savor what they’ve written like an after-dinner mint on a serene walk home.

            The truth is, writing is mostly blue collar work, not much different from that of a stone mason.  At least, it’s that way for me.  Everyday I go to work where I pick through a rubble of words, looking for one that will fit, hoping the mortar will hold, that the work will stand up.  I go back and forth from the word pile to the work site all day long, looking for the right words and the right places to put them.  And at the end of the day I dust myself off, wash up, and go home. 

            Hardly a day at the beach.  Especially on a day like today with a five o’clock deadline heating up on the back of my neck like a sunburn.  Instead of tearing off a piece of French bread, I was tearing off my fingernails an anxious bite at a time.  I jotted notes on a legal pad, picked up a word here, a phrase there, discarded some of the things, set others aside.

            As I worked, I found myself slipping into the story, sitting among the disciples as they watched Mary, catching their reaction in the corner of my eye, then turning to Jesus to catch his.  What did Mary see about him that day that the disciples didn’t?  What did he see about her that they didn’t? 

            For a long time nothing. 

            Then something deep inside seeped to the surface, rimming my eyes with sudden emotion. 

            And suddenly I have the right eyes. 

            Tearful eyes. 

            And through the blur of those tears, everything, paradoxically, became clear.

            After two hours I finished typing the final draft, sent it down to our typesetter who spaced it on the page and sent it out to the printer, just in time.  The following vignette is what I wrote.

 

*****

 

Broken Vases

 

The aroma of extravagant love.

So pure.  So lovely.

Flowing from the veined alabaster vase

            of Mary’s broken heart—

A heart broken against the hard reality

            of her Savior’s imminent death.

Mingled with tears, the perfume became—

            by some mysterious chemistry of Heaven—

Not diluted, but more concentrated,

Potent enough behind the ears of each century

            for the scent to linger to this day.

 

Doubtless, the fragrance, absorbed by his garment,

            as it flowed from his head,

Accompanied Christ through the humiliation of his trials,

                                                the indignity of his mockings,

                                                the pain of his beatings,

                                                the inhumanity of his cross.

Through the heavy smell of sweat and blood,

A hint of that fragrance must have arisen

            from his garment—

Until, at shameful last, the garment was stripped

            and gambled away.

And maybe, just maybe, it was that scent

            amid the stench of humanity rabbled around the cross,

            that gave the Savior the strength to say:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

 

And as Mary walked away from the cross,

The same scent probably still lingered in the now-limp hair

            she used to dry the Savior’s feet—

A reminder of the love that spilled

            from his broken alabaster body.

So pure.  So lovely.

So truly extravagant.

 

It was a vase he never regretted breaking.

Nor did she.

 

*****

 

When I finished, I sat back and rested a moment in my chair.  Then something remarkable happened.  It was as if a fragrant whiff of Mary’s love had come through the open window of that page and breezed through the stuffy rooms of my heart with such potency I could almost smell it.

            Since I am a writer and since writing occupies so much of my time, I tend to sense God speaking more often in that area of my life than others, but maybe that’s just because that’s the area of my life where I am the most attentive.  All I know is, He meets me there.

            He also met the wise men there, where they worked.  In the night skies with a sudden star.  He met the shepherds there.  In their fields as they kept watch over their sheep.  And He met me there, too.  In my office as I watched over my words to meet a five o’clock deadline.

            He met me there and brought me to a window in the Scriptures and showed me an intimate moment that Mary had with the Savior.  It was a moment so pure and so lovely it brought tears to my eyes. 

            And something else.

            It brought a project I would end up spending the next six years of my life writing, a series of devotional books about the life of Christ that began with Intimate Moments with the Savior.

            Going from Texas to California, you have to pass through Death Valley.  Going from A More Congenial Spot to Intimate Moments with the Savior, I had to pass through a Death Valley of my own.

            It’s not the route I would have chosen.  But it was the route God used to take me from a more congenial spot in my relationship with Him to a place that was a more intimate one. 

            And en route, He transformed the cologne of a formula romance into the aroma of extravagant love.

           

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One of the Reasons That Drew Me to This Story

Our faith is based on an NC-17 event that took place two thousand years ago at a public place where many of the people gathered there had come solely for entertainment. Even though it was our Lord who was crucified there, we don’t want to look. The scenes are filled with R-rated language, full-frontal nudity, and violence that is both grotesque and gratuitous.

I would never want my children to go there and be exposed to such things.

But I would want to go there.

I would want to stand with John and Jesus’ mother and the other women who stood there, watching, weeping, wondering how such a bad thing could happen to such a good man. I would want to be there to pray for him. I would want him, when he had the strength to open his eyes, to see that he was surrounded by the faces of those who loved him. And I would want one of those faces to be mine.

I would want to be there so I could look into his eyes, and so he could look into mine. I would want to be there to tell him how much I loved him, and hope that, at some point, he would have the strength to tell me. I would want to hear what he had to say to God who had forsaken him, to the ones who had cursed him, and to the ones who had crucified him.

I would want to see how he suffered and how he died.

Because it was for me that he suffered and for me that he died.

I would want to be there so I would never forget what happened there.

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November 15, 2013 · 4:58 pm

Introducing the Main Character

In introducing the main character, I am trying to accomplish two things. The first image of the centurion reveals something of his innocence. His skin is smooth and bears no scars. There is a great quote, either at the beginning of the film, “Platoon,” or on its movie poster, I can’t recall which, that says: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” I’ve never forgotten that line. And just as we saw the main character’s innocence lost in that film, so we will see the centurion’s innocence lost over the course of his career. His skin is one of the visuals I use to show the lingering effects of the battles he has fought and of the losses he has incurred.

The skin is also a visual that I use to age the centurion. His scars, like so many age-marks, map the terrain his life has traversed. The older he gets, the more reminders he carries of how far he has traveled from home.

As the centurion dresses for the day’s duties, his garments distinguish him. The strength of the Roman Empire was embodied in its soldiers, especially in its centurions, which were a cornerstone of the army. I will come back to this image at the end of the book, where I use it to externalize a transformation that has occurred in him.

http://www.interestingarticles.com/business-sales/all-work-and-no-play-the-roman-centurion-1228.html

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November 14, 2013 · 8:45 pm

Theme Music for Centurion

A few years ago, I heard this music in a restaurant and immediately fell in love with it. I asked about it and learned it was from from a group called ERA. It has an epic feel to it, and there was something noble about it, like the hymn of some ancient race that had long since died out, leaving behind only this song for others to remember it by, and maybe, just maybe, by it be inspired in some way.

I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to it, and each time it resonated with me in ways I can’t explain.

Amazing how music can do that, don’t you think?

The more I listened to it, the more I felt it would be good theme music for a soundtrack if the book ever became a film.

Though it is an instrumental piece, I just learned only minutes ago that ERA had written lyrics to the music, which I found quite compelling. Suddenly I knew why the music resonated within me. I’ll let you read the lyrics, then I’ll give you a peek into something I wrote later in the novel, and you’ll see why I felt the music a kindred spirit.

I Believe

One day I’ll hear
The laugh of children
In a world where war has been banned.

One day I’ll see
Men of all colours
Sharing words of love and devotion.

Stand up and feel
The Holy Spirit
Find the power of your faith.

Open your heart
To those who need you
In the name of love and devotion.

Yes, I believe.

I believe in the people
Of all nations
To join and to care
For love.

I believe in a world
Where light will guide us
And giving our love
We’ll make heaven on earth.

I believe in the people
Of all nations
To join and to care
For love.

I believe in a world
Where light will guide us
And giving our love
We’ll make heaven on earth.

Yes, I believe.

I believe in the people
Of all nations
To join and to care
For love.

I believe in a world
And giving our love
We’ll make heaven on earth.

I believe

Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/era/i-believe-lyrics/#EJsyBopUxItryf1e.99

Now (I can’t tell you how excited I am to share this!) here are my words. The centurion has just returned to Alexandria, the city of his childhood, and he goes to the library that became the womb to so many of his childhood dreams.

*****

Lucius goes to the library alone, feeling the company of other officers an intrusion on this most sacred of places that occupied so much of his childhood. As he enters, he takes a deep breath. In that musty moment, his youth comes back to him. How he loved the woody smell coming from the honeycomb of shelves that held scrolled papyri, loved the luxuriant feel of leather parchments, loved the slightly cool sensation of clay tablets warming in his hands. He especially loved the codices, books of folded papyrus with holes bored in them near the edges and their wooden covers, all held together by leather thongs. The wood, smells of forest. The leather, of herded cattle. And the papyrus, of marshes around the Nile in summer.

It was like sniffing a goblet of aged wine, where he could smell the earth from which the grapes had been harvested, with all the fragrances in the loamy soil, the moldering leaves, the broken twigs, the darkness, the moistness, the sweetness. It was all there in one whiff. And it was wonderful.

Lucius touches an ancient scroll, then moves his fingers from one to another, slowly, reverently. He has missed the feel of Egyptian papyrus, something he has forgotten. The texture is smoother than what he encountered in Syria and Judea, because the process for making it is more painstaking and the raw materials more pure. It is as if the reeds along the Nile, from which the papyrus was made, grew up knowing the value of words in shaping ideas, the value of ideas in shaping citizens, the value of citizens in shaping cultures, and the value of cultures in shaping history.

At his fingertips lie shelved the greatness of three cultures—Roman, Greek, and Egyptian. The Egyptians were better farmers, he had concluded as a boy. They were better breeders and more awe-inspiring builders. The Greeks were better thinkers, better writers, better at almost everything. But the Romans, the Romans were better soldiers. They were, in fact, the best the world had ever seen. As a boy, he stood in awe of their stories, dreaming of the day when he would be old enough to join their ranks.

These shelves were the safe harbors that launched his boyhood dreams. Dreams that caught the winds of adventure and made chesty sails of his slackened years in Alexandria. How he loved the sea—the sight of it, the sound of it, the smell of it. It is what separated him from distant lands and, at the same time, what joined him. He was just a voyage away from anywhere. How many voyages had he stowed away on in his imagination so many years ago? So many he can’t remember.

He sees a scroll of Gallic Wars, written by Julius Caesar himself, a chronicle of his military campaigns, battling the barbarians, from the Germans to the Britons. It was the first book that set his young mind to dreaming . . . of the greatness of Rome . . . of the glory of war . . . of going off to sea.

His hands move across the numerous scrolls that make up Virgil’s Aeneid, which extolled the greatness of Rome from the day of its fabled beginnings. Then his eyes fall on Livy’s monumental work, History of Rome. How he loved Livy as a boy. Fragments of stories come back to him. He remembers one fragment where Terminus, the god of boundaries, had refused to be present at Rome’s birth. Its citizens interpreted this as an auspicious sign. So did Cicero, who concluded in The Republic, “The empire of the Roman people shall be extended to the farthest ends of the earth.”

Lucius suddenly realizes that he has helped fulfill this prophecy, having returned from those far reaches and extending the Empire there.

It had seemed so noble. It had all seemed so noble. Once.

The man in him wonders. Will a day ever come when men will clash with words rather than swords, and weaker ideas will fall in battle instead of fathers, sons, brothers, friends?

Or is it the boy in him that wonders such things?

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November 13, 2013 · 9:22 pm

Opening Paragraphs of the Novel

When I start the story, I do a few establishing shots to set the time and place. Structurally, I am taking the reader from the general to the specific, first introducing the land and finally introducing the main character.

All four of these shots take place shortly before dawn. First we see a few pink streaks tinting the underbellies of clouds in the eastern sky. We follow this hint of color to the walls of the holy city. We continue to follow it to the walls of the Temple. Then to the walls of the Roman fortress that adjoins it. All of these lead us to the room in the fortress, where we are introduced to our main character who is getting ready for work.

Here is how the opening of the novel reads.

*****

Dawn came as a pale brush of pink across the eastern sky. It came quietly, without flourish, but it came quickly, giving dimension to the featureless landscape and color to the somber collection of grays left over from the night.

         Jerusalem caught something of that pink in the stone walls that surrounded the city, something of it in the walls of the Temple, and something of it in the walls of the Fortress of Antonia that adjoined it.

         In a room in that fortress, a centurion dressed for the day’s duties . . .

*****

And, if you haven’t been to the holy city, here is a video clip to give you a better sense of what this looks like. I have been there three times over the years, and the way the stone work catches the pre-dawn colors is truly arresting.

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