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The Codex Gigas. Matchbox to provide scale.


I didn’t get a lot of editing done early in January.  I spent too much time constantly refreshing the home page of the Washington Post and checking my Facebook news feed – I have a lot of friends who are fellow news junkies.  Given what was happening, it was hard to look away.

Which makes me think of The Big Book.

The Codex Gigas was written in the early 13th-century in a Benedictine monastery in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic.  It is 36 inches tall, 20 inches wide, and nearly 9 inches thick, containing 310 leaves of finely-written text – it’s been estimated that 160 donkeys died to provide the vellum used.  Among other things, it contains the complete Vulgate Bible, Josephus’ History of the Jews and The Jewish War, Isadore of Seville’s encyclopedia, medical works by Constantine Africanus, a treatise on excommunication, and a chronicle of the history of Prague.  Essentially everything a 13th-century Bohemian monk could want to know, all in one book.

The most remarkable thing about it is that an analysis of the handwriting shows it was the work of a single scribe. And while we can’t be sure, the chronicle of the monastery included in the book provides hints that the scribe was one Herman the Recluse.  In medieval monasteries,  recluses were monks who lived in voluntary isolation.  They were often walled into their cells, with only a small opening left for food and so they could communicate to a small degree with the public – they were often sought out for spiritual advice.  (The 10th-century nun Hrosvitha of Gandersheim also wrote a comedy play involving the question of waste disposal.)  Given the Codex’s size and complexity, it would have taken about twenty years to complete.  Between the need for apprenticeship and failing eyesight due to poor light, twenty years would have probably been Herman’s entire working life.

This is what fascinates me the most.  Herman decided to literally wall himself off from the outside world and dedicate his entire life to this one project – pulling together everything that was worth knowing into a single book.  It is a vision that today seems a little crazy, but you’ve got to admire the dedication it took.

Of course, you don’t need quite that much dedication to focus on your writing today, regardless of how strong the temptation to wall yourself off might be.  In order to write well, most writers have to immerse themselves in the fictional world they’re creating, to lose themselves in their characters’ lives and stories.  That’s hard to do when you can’t take your eyes off of CNN.

So you may need to take the plunge and cut yourself off from the news.  It helps to have a dedicated writing space, to give a sense of separation between your writing life and life in the outside world.  Turn off your wireless router, so you can use your computer without the temptation to have a news alert open in the background.  Meditation techniques may help you forget the distractions and focus you on the task at hand.  Herman was a monk, after all.

And it’s not like there wasn’t anything going on outside Herman’s cell.  The chronicle of the monastery ends in 1222, so the Codex was probably completed by about then.  In the twenty previous years, you had the fourth crusade, when Christian troops besieged and sacked Christian Constantinople, and the children’s crusade, a rolling disaster that saw thousands of children sold into slavery.  The spreading influence of Aristotle was upending the intellectual life of Europe.  Pope Innocent III excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor for invading southern Italy.  The Cathar heresy took over southern France until a particularly bloody crusade wiped them out – it was that crusade that gave us, “Kill them all, let God sort them out.”  Genghis Khan’s troops had already taken China and were rolling across Russia toward Europe.  They were eventually turned back in Poland and Hungary, not that far from Herman’s Bohemian monastery. Herman had a fair amount of news to ignore.

Of course, sometimes you just can’t ignore the news.  The best answer then is to accept the inevitable.  Perhaps you could spend your time doing other, non-writing related writing tasks.  Catch up with your emails, search for possible agents, do the mechanical stuff that doesn’t require the kind of intense focus that creativity demands.  Whatever craziness is happening in the world at large will settle down eventually, and you can get back to the business of writing.

Finally, bear in mind that your writing is as important as what’s happening in the news.  This may be hard to accept if you haven’t published yet and your writing feels like an indulgent hobby.  And writers are famous for procrastination at the best of times.  But as I’ve written before, writing is worth doing in itself.

We cannot know what Herman, walled in his cell, hunched over the page, felt about his life’s work.  He must have had at least occasional doubts about the scope of the enterprise, or his ability to finish it.  But he kept going.  I’m not the only one who finds his strange vision inspiring.  The Codex he wrote, now in the National Library of Sweden, is considered one of the great treasures of the Middle Ages.

Herman shows that, when the world seems to be falling apart, the best, most human response may be an act of defiant creation.


So what are your favorite techniques for focusing on your work in progress?  


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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