Diagramming Babel (Part 1)

Greg Frost and I were having dinner with Janis Ian once when something one of us said made her exclaim, “Writers have even bigger egos than musicians!”

We both nodded complacently. “Of course,” Greg said.

“Musicians have to be able to play well with others,” I explained.

So, as a typical writer, I confidently expect that whatever civilization comes after ours will revere me as a saint. And when they place my statue in their cathedrals, they’ll have no trouble assigning a symbol to it (like Saint Agatha’s bells or Peter’s keys) so people will know who it’s supposed to represent. My statue will be holding a notebook, because that’s what’s almost always in my hands. There are people who have known me over a quarter of a century and never once seen me without one.

Three of my notebooks (the Scribbledehobbledehoydenii as they’re collectively monickered) were dedicated to The Dragons of Babel, so I went through them to see what I might post. Among the scribbles and sketches and coffee stains, I found plot diagrams. Lots and lots of plot diagrams.

This probably leads you to imagine me as being terribly organized in a crisp and Teutonic way, projecting laser plotlines across the vast emptiness of prosespace. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I was doing was not so much plotting the way forward, as trying to figure out what the heck was going on. I invented my own diagram structure with lines representing each character so I could plot their comings and goings. Sometimes the diagrams helped keep track of who was in play and who wasn’t. Sometimes they helped make clear exactly why a section wasn’t working. Other times, the novel was going fine, and I simply didn’t bother with them.
Marianne (my wife, the love of my life, and the “M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts” mentioned in all of my book acknowledgments) finds these things fascinating and baffling all at once. “Do they really mean anything?” she’ll ask me occasionally. Oh, yes, I assure her. I couldn’t write the novel was going without them. She trusts me, and so she takes my word on this.

Marianne also thinks that other people will be interested in seeing the diagrams and thus getting a glimpse into what we ink-stained wretches call, with varying degrees of bitterness and bemusement , “the creative process.” I have faith in her judgment. So that’s what I’ll do.

I’ll post the second one next Wednesday, a week from today, and keep on doing so until I’ve run through them all or else my readers’ patience, whichever comes first.

Reproduced above is the first diagram. Now for my explanation of what it says.

Diagram 1. This is as crude and inchoate as they get. The diagram was made in 2002, three years and something like six notebook pages after I decided to write the novel in 1999. This is a gestation period that even an elephant might feel horrified pity for. I was trying to figure out what the novel would look like, feel like, be about . . . So it turns out that The Dragons of Babel, like Ymer arising out of the primal chaos of Ginugagap, began as almost pure abstraction.

From top to bottom, it says:

returning from Burning Man, Dave Brown found Las Vegas overwhelming.

No Control

A human construct must be imperfect

NO UNITY
NO AGREEMENT
NO SINGLE THOUGHT
NO SHARED CULTURE!

people pray

Not all of Man’s works are good

people pray

The Problem of Authenticity
A City is Built on Restraint as Much as Ambition
A sonic tower, moving within time
In such an environment, how can you pray?

people pray

Wilson Goode baffled by Marianne
RANDOM MOTIONS
Social Structure Reflected in the Physical
conflicting impressions

people pray

Drunkard’s Walk “I thought yr old man was God.”
The city as sorting mechanism
sustaining music
* TENSION & RESTRAINT
The foundation of this city is an unacknowledged courage
“If you don’t work, why are you here?”

people pray

BLIND STRUCTURE:
How many?
“A billion windows and not one eye”
This is Davy Crockett’s Buffalo: Too Big For Any Man to See

annotations:


“I thought your old man was God.” At my Aunt Helen’s funeral, one of my relatives reminisced to another about another his father, a fireman, dropping by for a cup of coffee after a big fire, streaked with soot and smelling of smoke.

Wilson Goode is a former mayor of Philadelphia, and it was on his watch that the confrontation with MOVE occurred and we became the only American city ever to bomb itself. Marianne and I met him at a church breakfast at Roxborough Baptist Church. Funny story. Remind me to tell you it sometime.

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