Method to my Madness

"Though there be madness, there is method in 't."
Polonius, Act 2, Scene 2  Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Delacroix: Polonius and Hamlet

 After about 2 or 3 months of reading my first source materials, The Soul of the White Ant by Eugéne Marais and Souvenirs: My Life With Maeterlinck by Georgette Leblanc, I realized that I needed to make a decision. What was I going to do with all of this information? Did I have it in me to attempt another novel? Was there something else I hadn't considered? I turned these questions (and more) over and over in my head.

Rather than go through the various pros and cons whether or not I would start a big project (since the outcome is fairly obvious), I think it might be more interesting to talk about the plan I hatched instead. My own doubts and worries can be saved for another blog, another day. Since it's apparent that I finally did decide to write the novel, I'll just cut to the meat and potatoes of why I decided to commit. It boiled down to this:

When you're given a gift, it's rude to return it. 

And it's wrong to ignore those small little voices inside, I've learned. I knew that if I had walked away, eventually the muse would pass the idea on to the next person. Around that time, a friend had reminded me of the story about the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert's who had the experience of  having an idea "passed" to Ann Patchett. She had some personal distractions in her life and had dropped the ball on her idea. Then the inspiration just moved onto the next willing and able person. I couldn't have that happen!

It's a little dishonest of me, however, to milk this part. My brain had already started moving down the track, chugging ahead with the idea. My indecision was probably my way of allowing myself a little wiggle room, an escape clause perhaps, in case it got to be too big for me. I had serious doubts about whether I could actually pull it off and questioned why it would be given to me. Eventually, I decided that it wasn't my problem whether I had the goods to deliver or not. The idea had dropped into my lap. Therefore it was mine. I have no control over the outcome. I would just take the ride, admire the scenery and then, see where things go.

The Plan

Discipline is not a dirty word. In fact, it can be a good friend. As a classical singer, I relied on the discipline of regular practice. Daily exercises helped to refine my singing and give me a focus needed so that I could then have the freedom to express myself. Before I would attempt anything difficult in a practice session, I would always check in with myself first, see how my voice and my body were before tackling something hard. I derived a lot of comfort from that practice.

With that in mind, I knew that I needed to the develop a system for myself. There were so many layers to the developing story that I knew I needed some rules. Ah rules! Don't you hate rules? Rules aren't so bad when you make them for yourself. (And once you make them for yourself, you can break them, too.) More than anything, I needed a method to calm my madness; something to soothe the flurry of thoughts in my mind.

It didn't take long for me to realize that the answer was right in front of me. It was The Soul of the White Ant. The book would be my focus and would it would also provide my discipline. It would be my structure.

First of all, what was the structure of the Soul of the White Ant?

The Contents

In studying the contents I saw that there were 15 Chapters. The Chapters titles, starting with Chapter 1, The Beginning of Termitary, stood out in my mind. Without even reading the chapter, it intrigued me. Chapter 2: Unsolved secrets. Chapter 3: Language in the Insect World. Each of the chapter titles were so interesting. My imagination became excited.
The Life Cycle of Termites

And so I thought...since this was to be a novel about plagiarism, why not play with that? Why not PLAY-GIARIZE? I've never been one to write outlines. Generally I like to sit and write organically, seeing where things take me. For me, outlining  takes the fun and surprise out of creating and truthfully, since I didn't have a clue where the story would go, it wasn't an option for me. I know other people love outlining and truthfully, I'm in awe of anyone that is able to even do a loose one.

However, I knew if I didn't give myself some parameters, I would easily get lost. The scope of the project was already getting out of hand. So the plan was this: "Plagiarize" each of the Chapter Titles in The Soul of the White Ant and use the chapters as thematic models. I was, in effect, allowing The Soul of the White Ant to tell the story. I would surrender to it. The Soul of the White Ant would be my Queen Termite.
The Queen Termite and her minions

 For the most part, the plan worked for me. Each chapter would start with a quote by Eugene Marais corresponding to the chapter I was working on. After 15 chapters I would have to come to some sort of conclusion. That was one rule.

Before writing, I'd review the Marais' chapter, feel an overall direction in the chapter and see where things go. When I was lost, I'd always go back to the source and reread the chapter. When I was completely lost I would read and research more. It was a haphazard kind of discipline. And that seemed to work for me. In the process, I learned a lot about termites.

I also needed other anchors to help keep me grounded. There were daily routines I gave myself. They would be adjusted from time to time but I felt I needed to pretend like I was in a kind of Olympic training if I was going to see this thing to conclusion. I think that process is the topic of a whole  other blog post in itself. For now let's say this: I had a few things I needed to do before I would sit down and write. Some might call it procrastination techniques. I call it singing scales.

The other rule I gave myself: I had to keep track of the any and all progress I was making and I needed to treat myself very kindly.


Okay. That's two rules. In every creative person there's a 5 year old that wants to be acknowledged. As a 5 year old, I remembered getting stickers for good work after my piano lessons. Although it was a small thing, it was enough to keep my petulant inner child happy. One of things I've always done is keep a notebook of progress. It's nothing fancy; just a ledger of the work I do and lots of sticker rewards.

A sample page from my Notebook of Progress


I keep a lot of notebooks. Some for progress reports, some for research notes. Some are personal journals and I also have some without lines that I use for jotting random ideas without the structure of a limited space. After a while they do add up. I tend to pick silly notebooks, something fun. I like to write with colorful gel pens. However, I generally pass on the scented ones!  

With this arsenal of systems I was now ready to work. Next time, I'll look back at some of the journals and notebooks from that time and see what I discover.


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