Christmas cards with dark skies, golden stars and men in camels in silhouette. I’ve always liked Epiphany. ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ is one of my favourite carols. I realise a virgin birth is miraculous, but what appeals to me is the magic of the Magi. They saw a star and they followed it, and they found where it was leading.
The attraction to the Magi grew as I did my researches into the Renaissance and became ever more impressed by the figure of Lorenzo de’ Medici. His birthday was January 6th. That must have pleased his grandfather – thrilled him, even – given that he, too, had a great liking for Epiphany and had founded the Company of the Magi (sometimes called the Company of the Star).
For me the significance of the kings or wise men is that, despite all their knowledge, they had the humility to kneel before a baby. Knowledge plus humility equals wisdom. They marry ancient philosophy with Christianity, the new dispensation.
I’ve been dwelling on them a lot this week. In my hubris, I not only thought I was near the end of my novel A Gift for the Magus, I went ahead and announced it. It really seemed to me that between St Stephen’s Day and Epiphany, I would tie pretty bows in its hair and greet the new year with nothing to do. Not a bit of it. Because I also had the idea that I would like to read it out loud to David, especially the all-important first thirty pages, and as soon as I began, and he said, ‘Yes, that’s very good,’ it became glaringly obvious – to both of us – that it wasn’t.’I think it’s a bit wooden,’ I said. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘now you mention it… And while we’re being honest…’
‘Time for restructuring’, said an astrologer friend apropos the heavens, about an hour after I’d taken the momentous decision to scrap the first chapter. It was something of a comfort to learn that my woes are universal.
The first thirty pages are all-important. Most agents and publishers don’t read any further; they certainly base their decisions on those pages. If a novelist spends three years on a novel, and one of those years is on the first thirty pages, that’s just about right.
There is so much you have to do. You have to set up the story, introduce the characters, give what backstory is absolutely vital, and all this while jumping straight into the action (in media res, as Horace would say) and then running with it, like one of those people who has to tell you all about her neighbours and talks about them without any thought or consideration that you’ve never heard of them before (nor never will again). I have a cousin like that, and what I don’t know about the people in her street could be written on a postage stamp.
So here I am, in what I thought was the last week, feeling as if it’s the first. Each evening I read to David for any hour. He trips me up on every other word, thought and idea. I mark the glitches and spend the next day curing them all. Then I read him the next chapter. Well, we were getting into a bit of rhythm there. Hmmm, thought the universe, can’t have that. And so my Mac died.
Now Macs are immortal, or so I was told, and never give you any grip, and back up everything. This one doesn’t. This one is an instrument of the demons (or angels – can’t always tell). It dies on me by wiggling its plug out of the back. One moment it’s turning itself on from sleep mode even if all I’m doing is just passing by; the next it’s just a big black screen, and to get it to wake up, I have to kill it by pressing its power button. And everything not saved is gone forever.
Of all the times I’ve been shown NEVER TRUST A COMPUTER and SAVE, SAVE, SAVE, YOU STUPID WUZZ, today the lesson went home. Because this morning I found I’d lost the fruit of two of the hardest, most sustained days of my entire writing life. I think I’ve retrieved everything via human memory, but it doesn’t feel quite so perfect as it did last night.
I’ve come a long way from the Magi. But Epiphany means, I think, ‘showing of the god’, or revelation. And here at this time of eclipses and bright planets, I think I have had a taste of that, of being able to see if only through a glass darkly.
Following the star doesn’t mean an easy passage. It means picking yourself up from every stumble and going doggedly on with no assurance whatsoever of finding what you think you might be looking for. You do it because you have to, because wisdom tells you to, and you just keep going.