In his Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. AD 46–c. AD 120) kept apologising for taking the reader off-road, into side stories and arguments which, he thought, didn’t bear directly on the main narrative. Avoiding digressions was, for the story-teller in him, the ultimate challenge. And the more he apologised, the deeper he plunged into them.
Staying on track, maintaining the heading, as long as one knows what the heading is, is as difficult in writing as it is in sailing. The genius of a Homer, a Virgil or a Dante, just to pick my epic trinity darlings, was to sail their narrative vessel across a huge expanse of literary space, an ocean of criss-crossing portolan lines, as many opportunities for digression, wandering and smarrimento, as Dante would’ve called it.
Every junction is a temptation, a what-if, the Sirens calling out to the author in more than one alluring way. Only the bravest can say no, only the most seasoned seafarer can bound himself or herself to the mast and ignore the seductive yet trecherous songs.
All eyes on the compass and on the lodestar, when darkness, wind and spleen threaten to pull the ship off-course. A good story requires both rigging and steering, traction and direction, if it is to avoid torpidity and aimlessness.
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