Trivial and Insignificant, But Important Details
Time was when the toughest part of writing was staring a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. It’s not much different looking at a blank screen on the computer. James Allen, the English philosopher, in one of his books, devoted the entire first chapter to “beginnings.” He wrote, “Most beginnings are small, and appear trivial and insignificant, but in reality they are the most important things in life.” We could have the greatest idea and the greatest plot in the world, but unless we make a strong beginning, the idea and the plot have no meaning, and there will be no fruitage. Whereas a modest idea and even an incomplete plot often produce success when companied by even an “insignificant” beginning. Even the smallest of actions, the ones James Allen called trivial and insignificant, can lead to great success. Consider Sir Isaac Newton’s principle that a “body at rest tends to main at rest and a body in motion tends to remain in motion.” This definitely applies to the action principle in writing. Once I’ve taken the first step (even a baby step), the next step seems easier to take. When I begin writing a book, I like to compare it with my building a seventy-foot schooner, a task everyone told me was impossible. When I was working on the transom, I would never walk around to the bow of the ship, for I would certainly become disillusioned. There was so much more to do, and it might make me feel I could never complete the job. But I did complete it, even though it took me years. The same applies to writing a book, or a short story, or anything. I get started, and the rest falls into place, in time.
I have to admit, the unfortunate thing about my being a writer is that I can never turn off. There is no five o’clock quitting time. I am forever working out plots in my mind.
I did very badly in college, and I think I now know the reason. When the professor was lecturing, I was turning his words into a plot, and I would soon be lost in my own reverie. But now I question, how important is a plot?
Dictionaries tell us a plot is basically a storyline, the arrangements of events in a story. It’s what happens in the story. I find I can make a story most interesting when I introduce a subplot, and it becomes even better when I have a couple of subplots. My duty as a writer is to make the story as believable as possible, regardless of how implausible it may seem in real life. Plots can take on a wide range of subjects: tragedy, comedy, romance, satire, poem, short stories and novel. Quoting from Clifton Fadiman, author, critic and member of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, plots can be plot-driven or else character-driven. In the former, the storyline itself is the main thrust, which is the opposite of the latter, the character-driven plot. I try to make my characters the focal point.
The question that arises is do histories and biographies need plots? Writers of history record real-life events. His• tory books, we conclude, do not need plots. I believe that is what makes history dull, the lack of a plot. However, if we inject a plot into history books, we can make them interesting. Instead of facts becoming isolated events, we must attempt to give them objective connections. Authors must give their history books a theme.
I attempt to do the same when I write a biography. It’s often said biographies do not need plots. I disagree. For the past ten years, I have been putting together the notes for the biography, Painted in the Tropics. It’s the story of Swiss artist, Theo Meier. Theo followed in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin and went to Tahiti to paint. Disillusioned with Tahiti (the girls were reluctant to take their clothes off), he went to Bali where he lived and painted for twenty-two years before finally settling in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. His life is a string of events, all certainly exciting and dramatic, but in the end, my biography was lacking a plot, something to hold the events together. It dawned on me one day that Theo is the last of his kind. In this day and age, no one can do what he has done, nor achieve what he has achieved. With this in mind, I created a plot. All the events in the storyline must lead to that conclusion, there can be no other artist like Theo Meier.
As a young boy, I became fascinated with Robinson Crusoe. Here was a story about a person who was pure fiction. Clifton Fadiman, whom I mentioned previously, stated that Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is one of the most famous books in the world. Yet, he declares, Robinson Crusoe has no plot. Why does it not need a plot? Because Defoe wrote it as a daydream, a perfect daydream, “systematic and wishful thinking” Fadiman called it. When you examine the storyline, you have to agree with him. Robinson Crusoe satisfies all those dreams of boyhood; but in reality, they affect men, as well. Look at the concept: every male dreams of being completely self-sufficient, with control of his own private domain. He likes the idea of success through the wholesome primitive use of muscle and practical good sense. And, from Fadiman, “doing all this in an exotic setting quite remote from his dull daily habitat; and finally of living in a self-made Utopia without any of the puzzling responsibilities of a wife and children.”
That, however, does not mean plots are not necessary. What would our world be if we couldn’t dream up plots?
Travel writing was my way to get started. It became my forte but I did not let it become an end in itself, only the beginning. I learned to parlay travel writing by using it as a stepping stone to other writing that I wanted to do-essays, histories, short stories, books. But the lessons I learned along the way didn’t come easy.