Communion Of Dreams


Take the long view.

Last fall, I embarked on a long-term project: doing exterior repairs and repainting our 140 year old Victorian Italianate home. As I’ve mentioned previously, this place has been in my wife’s family since the early 50s, and in all that time has basically been white with some color trim work. We’ve decided to change that, and here’s a little before & after from last fall to show you the difference:

I started back on this section of the house for two reasons: 1) it was fairly simple in terms of ‘gingergbread’, so it would give me a chance to work out the color scheme and get used to painting, and 2) the small, almost square window there in the corner actually needed a fair amount of carpentry work, to repair a stubborn leak that had caused some structural damage. I wanted to get that done before the damage got worse.

Anyway, I worked on it for a couple months last fall, until Winter settled in. And I got back to it in May, once the long and strange Spring turned reliably nice enough. I’m now finishing up work on the next major section, and as I’m inclined to do I’ve been posting progress pics on Facebook. And I’ve noticed a curious thing.

My friends have been posting encouraging comments as I go, which I expected (and hey, a little encouragement helps). But occasionally someone will post a comment to the effect that with all that I’ve accomplished, I must be getting close to being finished.

Say what?

Now, partly this is just due to the difficulty in getting a handle on just how big this place is. I mean, it’s no mansion, but it is a big ol’ 19th century farmhouse. It’s big enough that I can’t honestly take a decent pic to give a sense of the size. But take a look at the pics above. Note how there’s basically three different walls there. Got that? Yeah. Now, in total, this place has 20+ such walls (including the ones on the second story that are discrete from the ground floor walls. I also need to completely redo the 10′ wide front steps and railings, as well as the little side porch floor and railings. And about a third of the house has more gingerbread detailing that will take extra time.

Let’s put it this way: I’ll be very lucky if I can get it all done this year. Hell, I expect that it’ll take the better part of next year’s good weather to get it done.

And this seems to come as a surprise to many people.

But that’s not the curious thing.

To me, the curious thing is that a lot of people seem to think that working on something of this scale would be daunting. Intimidating. Scary. Whereas for me, it’s the most natural thing in the world, and not daunting or intimidating in the slightest.

Partly, I think that is just the perspective that comes with getting to my age (mid 60s): you tend to see larger arcs to life.

But it’s also because I’m a novelist. St Cybi’s Well took me the better part of a decade to write. Even discounting the long periods when I was just thinking through the novel, or was otherwise preoccupied, I still spent several years actually writing and rewriting it. I’m used to thinking in terms of taking the long view. Of working a little on a project when I can, slowly making progress, page by page, wall by wall. Here’s where I am currently:

For scale, that storm window is approx. 2′ x 8′.

I should get the repairs and priming done tomorrow, and the rest of the window frame painted on Monday. The storm window itself needs some repairs, then painting. Then there’s an identical one just out of the frame of the picture above.

One step at a time.

Jim Downey



Not brick by brick.

A number of friends and others have asked me how the writing is going on St. Cybi’s Well. It’s a natural question, but it’s a little hard to explain. Here’s the gist of what I have been telling people:

Using the Scrivener software, it really is a different process than what writing Communion of Dreams was like. It’s less linear. But it’s more balanced & comprehensive. Let’s put it this way – I have components now done in all 19 chapters of the book (plus the prelude). Some of it is just landscape descriptions, drawn from my previous travelogues. Some of it is character sketches. Or specific scenes. Or notes about something which needs to happen.  It’s different. It feels more productive. But it’s kinda hard to explain.

This morning, after I got up at 3:00 for physiological needs, as I was trying to get back to sleep I was thinking more about this (well, and thinking through some scenes for the book — I do a lot of that in the middle of the night), and I came up with a couple of analogies which may help non-writers understand what the different processes are like.

First is constructing a building. Writing Communion, the metaphor would be that I picked a nice location for my building, leveled the ground, poured a concrete pad of sufficient size, and then started building a brick wall on one corner, working my way around the entire pad brick by brick as I went, making determinations as to locations of doors and windows and whatnot according to a rough plan I had in my head.  Once the exterior wall was completed, I put a roof on it, then proceeded to do much the same process inside the building for interior walls and all that, using the mostly set exterior as a hard limit to what could be done internally.

With St. Cybi’s Well, the metaphor would be that I went to an architect/engineer, and did all the design and layout of the building in advance. Before a single footing was dug, or materials ordered, I knew pretty exactly how I wanted the entire thing to look. Then once all that was sorted, the actual construction was done entirely differently. Footings were dug, concrete poured. Then a steel framework was put in place for both the interior and exterior walls, and roof trusses positioned. Once this internal skeleton was finished, then I would start to put up sheathing material for the walls and roof, proceeding to finished surfaces.

See the difference? One feels almost organic, and makes sense to the outside observer from the very start. The other feels a little more arcane or artificial, and it isn’t obvious what the finished product will look like until well into the building process.

OK, let’s try another metaphor: art. Specifically, painting.

Some artists work in a way which seems natural and obvious. They pick a subject, usually do some rough sketches on their canvas to help get all the elements sorted out & proportioned. Then they’ll start to apply pigment according to their particular style or technique. Some of which may be a little hard to understand for a casual observer, but the basic process makes sense — you can see the different aspects emerging organically.

But there are artists who work in a completely different way. They have a concept in their head, and will proceed to do a series of fairly random strokes of paint. Each stroke is crucial, each one in the perfect place, but the end result isn’t clear to the observer until the final moments, when the last few elements are done and suddenly the artist’s vision breaks through. Like this:

 

Now, don’t try to over-think these analogies, or to take them too literally. They’re just intended to help illuminate some of the differences in process between this current novel, and the last one.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work on my building.

 

Jim Downey