From Dogma to the Unknown

“Moving from dogma to the unknown is … a movement from dullness to aliveness, and life becomes an exploration, a celebration.” Inspiration can come from unexpected directions. The other morning this line from Catherine Ingram’s Passionate Presence (Gotham Books 2003) led me into a reverie not about my spiritual practice but about the resistance I’ve been meeting in a writing project.

This is the beginning of a column I wrote for a journal of the Historical Novel Society in 2007, but I could have written it this morning. Apparently this is a lesson I’m still processing.

“Moving from dogma to the unknown…” — as I move from years of researching Joan of Kent and her marriages (dogma), to writing the novel about her that has been my goal, she is leading me into the unknown. This is the case no matter what type of novel I’m writing: if I’ve infused my characters with sufficient life they will take off in their own directions, forcing me to drop opinions that prevent me from following them. I’m usually delighted by the surprises I encounter as I move from outline to narrative.

But I’ve discovered that this is tougher when I’m writing as Emma Campion, novels based on historical figures whose actual stories inform the “plots”, than when I’m writing as Candace Robb, crime novels that happen to include some historical figures but are built on plots of my own creation.

Five years ago Ingram’s words helped me see the source of my anxiety in writing about Alice Perrers, and it’s still true about my work with Joan of Kent. In the course of my research I’ve become friends with quite a few historians who are working on Joan and the court of King Edward III, and each time they uncover something new, instead of being delighted I break out in a sweat. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life revising this novel!

And no one is expecting me to. I’m writing a novel, not Joan’s definitive biography. (I don’t even want to think of what it must be like to be a biographer and suddenly, at the last moment, realize that a new bit of information changes everything!)

I’ve heard that perfectionism is the root cause of procrastination—we are certain that if we wait just a little while we’ll have all the facts and do a better job. Does this sound familiar?

Ingram’s statement reminds me that the very act of stepping off into the unknown is “a movement from dullness to aliveness, and life [read writing] becomes an exploration, a celebration.” The truth is that in the marvelous alchemy of imagination and history I’ve discovered my own Joan with whom I’ve communicated over countless cups of tea. She is now the one revealing her story to me.

So this was a happy reminder. My desk is still piled high with books, and articles, and I’ll be dipping into them all the way past the edits and into the page proofs, but my Joan is already scheming with Prince Edward and falling in love with Thomas Holland, and I am committed to seeing her story through to completion.

%d bloggers like this: