Renewal, or Resurrection?

In last week’s post we discussed the leftovers that a writer leaves behind her when she dies, her many projects that just never quite got off their feet but which served, undoubtedly, the very worthy cause of providing practice, ideas, procedures, and the struggle, the endless struggle, that we all appear destined to go through in our writing lives whether such ever produces a pay off or not. Jumping off from that topic are two related subtopics which I think warrant some consideration and will therefore be the subject of this week’s post.

First of all there are the dead projects which suddenly rise up, phoenix-like, on their own. By chance I happened to read this story in The Japan Times: On Sunday about five volumes of the translated works of Osamu Tezuka (writer and illustrator of the Astro Boy and Black Jack comics) that quite literally gathered dust for a quarter century before an American publisher picked them up. If you click on the link above you can see a photo of a very pleased looking Frederik Schodt, who spearheaded the 1978 translations that were still somewhat ignominiously tucked away in a drawer in Tezuka’s offices when that picture of him at a signing for his nonfiction book on the world of Japanese manga was taken in 1983. (Coincidentally, Tezuka’s monumental twelve-volume Phoenix is itself now available in English.) What happened in those twenty-five years when Schodt and his associates’ laborious translations lay dormant? Quite a lot, naturally, the upshot of which for them was that the world turned in such a way that Tezuka’s work became of interest to a wider audience and happily there were all those translations just waiting to be read. Things could of course have gone the other way and those translations might have unceremoniously been tossed into the burnable garbage pile when Tezuka passed away and his Takadanobaba, Tokyo, offices were cleaned out. This is a reminder that the work we do needs to be appreciated by its producer for itself, not necessarily for the results that it may (or may not) engender.

Which brings us to our second point, that of the work that can only be seen as dead as things stand from our current perspectives and viewpoints. While chatting with my brother over the weekend he brought up a past practice novel of mine which he generously read. I can’t remember the context of the conversation nor why he might have mentioned it but the book, for all its many flaws, seems to have stuck with him. What my brother could not get over – and which, I imagine, ruined the entire story for him – was the lead character’s decision to have a monkey’s tail surgically attached to the base of his spine. That was done in protest to certain political events taking place within the book and was, from my point of view, one of the hooks within the plot intended to throw the reader and keep them turning pages. My decision to write that way was very strange, I recognize, but then that book was written during the first of the George W. Bush years and the world was filled with many strange and inexplicable events; someone literally giving themselves a simian’s rear appendage somehow made sense. I cannot now imagine that novel of mine ever seeing the light of day but my work on it was highly instructive, as were the reactions of the two or three people who read it.

Schodt no doubt considered his translations dead until they weren’t. I most certainly consider my work dead too, but then we never know how the circumstances in which our writing is received will change. Books have their own lives after all, and sometimes those lives will not begin until very many years after their author has died. In such cases the author may not seem to benefit from the manner in which the world shifts, but to make that judgment would be to overlook the importance of the process and focus exclusively on the results. Writing is pain, deep pain, and must be worked through to achieve growth; that has nothing to do with being widely read and even less to do with being paid. As we cannot possibly predict the shape and form that the world in which we and our works are embedded will take what we are left with are two features: our ideas and our struggles. There may be merit in revisiting old works and pulling out core plot devices, character traits, relational quirks. There may be merit in revisiting old works and renewing them wholly, building them again with much of the scaffolding still in place but told in a fresh way. Then again, there may not. Regardless of the life or death of what we do, what we create, it is the doing it that drives us on and that contributes to our improvement. Such thoughts are of little comfort when we’re trying to put food on the table, but then our world may shift in that area too and we may be lucky enough to be alive to see it.

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