The Conundrum of the Workshops

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,  

Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;  

And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,  

Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”  

-Kipling, “The Conundrum of the Workshops”

At just over 80,000 words into a story that I’m hoping to wrap up in under 90,000, I can’t help feeling that a real writer would begin suffering from the Conundrum of the Workshops. But somehow I never quite get to that point. There are all these other questions in my head, from the global to the extremely local.

Does the beginning catch the reader’s interest? Does the unfolding story keep the reader’s interest? Do the characters seem like real people? Would anyone care about these characters?

Is that plot twist at the beginning of Chapter Fifteen as funny as I think it is, or will it just confuse and annoy the reader?

How can I account for that extraordinarily helpful character who walked onstage in Chapter Thirty? “The plot needed him,” just isn’t good enough. There has to be a reason he’s there.

Exactly how would sheep react to grazing a mountainside with lots of alunite outcroppings?

Do I owe the historical Roberto Malatesta an apology for blackening his reputation?

How many different ways have I spelled Hamiddedin al-Lari’s name?

And so it goes. I’m forced to admit that creating Great Art was never one of my goals. All I want to do is to write stories that will entertain both me and my readers, that don’t insult the readers’ intelligence by leaning on flamboyantly improbable coincidences, with details that are both interesting and accurate. Maybe the books would be better if I tried to think of them as potential Literature.

Or maybe not.

Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the four great rivers flow,  

And the wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,

And if we could come when the sentry slept, and softly scurry through,  

By the favor of God we might know as much—as our father Adam knew.

10 comments

  1. Thanks for that Kipling, which is new to me.

    I don’t do Art either, in writing — I do Craft. And that’s enough of a challenge, all by itself.

    And in other realms (e.g., music), I do conviviality — it’s at its most fun when done with others, wrong notes and all.

    These are all merely different takes on “communication”. Otherwise, it’s just talking to yourself.

  2. Like Karen, I don’t do “art,” although some readers have said that _Noble, Priest, and Empire_ comes close to being literary fiction. Craft is something I work on, but I don’t consider my writing fine art. I’m not a words-on-page version of Jan Van Eych, or Rembrandt van Rijn, or Charlie Russel, or Monet. I aim to be more Tim Cox – pleasant to look at, strikes a chord with some people, but not a Great Master.

    It might be Art. Or one of the “nine-and-sixty ways of creating tribal lays.”

    1. I strongly suspect that Jan Van Eych and Rembrandt van Rijn thought they were doing craft, not art (not sure about later painters such as Monet). We don’t even know the names of most medieval artists (who probably wouldn’t like that name or the current art celebrity culture).

      Just like in these modern times, I’m not sure calling a novel “literary fiction” is a compliment.

      BTW, I’m very glad a friend basically forced my family to go with her family to see a Monet exhibition in pre-pandemic times – it’s extremely cool to be able to look at his paintings both close up and far away 🙂

  3. I am really struggling with this character. I think I’ve fixed the backstory so it works, but his core arc is the rejection of the ideology he was created in. Yet I just don’t see how. And everything I dig into to understand how that works seems to be so poisoned with the current partisanship that I can’t trust any of it.

    Maybe that is the angle: a curious mind on the loose, already full of enough horrors for a life time asking why and finding no answer he can trust as true. And she ends up becoming his moral anchor almost by default because she never lies.

    Which is also means I’m going to have to be extremely careful with her dialogue. Even if she never lies, she definitely does let people draw false conclusions.

  4. An imp, possibly the muse in a costume, is suggesting that since the first book in what may be a four book series is about the Cardinal Virtue of Prudence, this would suggest that the other three books are about Temperance*, Fortitude, and Justice.

    And I say, “Hush, imp.” We shall see if the pattern arises from the stories. Or if, indeed, all four have the theme of Prudence. They might.

    ’cause building it that way may be Art but not good.

    *the Cardinal Virtue, not an intemperate denunciation of temperate drinking.

  5. But it might be fun if the imp gets somebody like Carrie Nation into the Temperance story and says, “Well, you didn’t define your terms!”

    1. That sounds Chestertonian. IIRC, The Flying Inn is about promoting vegetarianism – by promoting drinking wine 🍷 😀

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