Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More on writing, or "In Which I Publicly Pummel Myself With Rhetorical Questions"

Another note, continuing a bit from my original post, and getting a bit more personal.

1. I know people who don't understand the concept of reading fiction. They'll watch fictional movies or TV shows without a thought, but don't understand why one would read it just for pleasure. They see literary fiction as a shameful waste of time, or something for children. One of my co-workers flat-out states that he doesn't have the attention span for such reading. "Why would I read a book that might take me weeks when I could get the same basic story from a two hour movie, without having to work for it?" Apparently he's always felt this way -- even when he was little he never really enjoyed being read to or reading chapter books on his own -- too slow, he says. It's as if he's missing the part of us that enjoys processing words, that gets pleasure from internalizing a story in ways not possible with other media. He'll read to get information, but not for entertainment. Reading, to him = work. I've discussed this subject with him a number of times, and we just don't have a common ground to start from.

I can't imagine trying to explain to him why I like to write. You think *reading* fiction is slow? Ha! But he's not even a true minority. Most people can understand writing in a journal, though they may not be drawn to it themselves; but even people who enjoy books are often utterly baffled by the concept of writing fiction for fun, simply as a hobby, with no plans to make it a career. Is this because we've put writing on a bit of a pedestal these days? Because so much amateur fiction is so incredibly bad? Because writing is such a solo activity? Because writing without an audience is an incomplete action? Or another reason entirely? People understand playing sports for fun, or playing music for fun, to an extent at least. Writing is different. Why is that?

2. (Which will cause most folks to think, "Yeesh, you need to lighten up!") Being a Catholic who passionately believes in the tenets of my faith, I have moments now and then when I struggle a bit with the morality of my own fictional writing. First of all, is it sufficient for a story to be entertaining, or should it have -- at least in places -- some underlying lessons or philosophical thoughts (not overt preaching, by any means...but some basic, hidden morals, or at the very least a sense of good and evil)? And what about content: obviously even the best of people are flawed and tempted, and a good writer needs to include that side if the characters are to be realistic. Going further, in most stories there are plenty of people -- both "good" and "bad" in the full context of the story -- who commit violent acts and other immoral acts; people who make bad decisions, sinful decisions. It wouldn't be much of a story if everyone was picture perfect and exactly alike, without internal conflict and with all their motivations and choices above reproach. If it's clear that immoral actions are in fact immoral, is it OK to detail immorality? And if so, how much is necessary to make my point, and at what point does it become unhealthy dwelling upon lifestyles and behavior that I don't condone? What about profanity? It's pretty much required to give realism to certain characters, but since I don't use it in real life, I feel incredibly awkward putting the words in my characters mouths. I feel like a child trying to use big words I've just learned: transparently self-conscious about it.

And all of this, my friends, is why sometimes I think I'd be better off writing kids' books. I often feel like my stories lack maturity as a result of my own squeamishness and concerns about writing the bad stuff. Compounding that squeamishness is the fact that playacting the bad guys is disturbingly fun. For example, last year my NaNoWriMo story concerned, in part, a serial-killer-in-the-making. I alternated between the point of view of several characters, but his sections -- rife with self-centered paranoia and the rationalization of the unthinkable -- were the easiest and most enjoyable to write. I'm a little weirded out by that. I'm sure much of it stems from a natural desire to understand people and acts that are so contrary to our own lives, but is there more to it that that, a connection with the most base and perverted part of our human nature? It was both intoxicating and unnerving. To an extent, as authors we temporarily become the characters we are writing: we try to think their thoughts, speak with their voices, make their actions real to ourselves so we can explain them on the page. It's very intimate. I suppose the feelings I experience when writing these types of characters aren't much different from the slightly guilty thrill we may get from reading mystery novels, or watching violent movies or graphic crime investigation shows; but it goes so much deeper that it can be a bit scary.

3. Apropos of nothing.... After only a week of deprivation, I gotta say I really, really miss using Bernard, the Olympia SG3. I know it's not as though I don't have four or five other typewriters I could use (Stinky, the Mojo 3000, the nice SM-9, the Classic 12, or the old Corona Standard), but I want to use Bernard. (My inner child is stamping and pouting as it screams out that last bit.) The others are OK, but they aren't the same. I'm spoiled forever. I want the weight and bulk of it beneath my hands, the smooth action of that BIG return lever, the paper feed lever, that lovely key action, the Senatorial typeface. *snif* I think I've found my typewriter, and it's killing me not being able to use it for the time being. It shouldn't be more than a few weeks at most before I get the platen back, but I am not known for my patience. I feel like I'm filled to overflowing with things I need to write, but writing by any other means just isn't quite right.


Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,

This is a fascinating topic.

You used two key phrases to describe people who don't understand or enjoy reading fiction: "without a thought" and "without having to work for it". These people are so dependent on television and computers, where everything is spoon fed into them with no effort on their part, moving ever faster and louder while they sit quiet and still, that they lose the ability or even desire to enjoy anything that takes imagination and effort. This breeds laziness and, worse, kills appreciation for other forms of entertainment like reading. I suspect this is partly generational. If your co-worker is a young person, like yourself, he probably never played purely imaginative games with his friends. Sure, growing up in the 1950s we had TV and watched it but we also played a lot. Get some kids playing cowboys and indians (I know, it's not politically correct these days) and you have the makings of creative, imaginative effort. Sides were chosen and everything was free form after that. Coastal New England doesn't look like the far west but we imagined we were crawling around the cactus and hills of Arizona or Texas. No adults. No rules. Bare hands to simulate revolvers and bows and arrows. Just the terrain and pure fun based on imagination. The unseen armies at the end of Richard the Third had nothing on us.
This may seem like a stupid, dated example but that appreciation of imagination led us to books: Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, science fiction, The Lord of the Rings, Out of the Silent Planet, Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, Clive Cussler. We had to study, and constantly thumb through dictionaries, to improve our vocabulary but that was the path to more complex and imaginative places.

And if they can't appreciate reading, how can they understand the impulse to write? They lack the creative urge or spark because imagination is something that happens to them, something to be observed, not something they control or create. They may understand playing sports or music, which has its own value in learning, persistence and practise, but it isn't creative. It's a learned physical skill. (Writing the music would be creative but that is as rare as the desire to write fiction.) And I fear they lack the fortitude to pursue something that is very private, like writing, for its own sake and personal satisfaction.

I'm not just knocking young people. I was young once and a jock and a musician. But that didn't keep me from writing or taking a creative writing course in high school. The difference is we weren't inundated with substitutes for creativity.

As to your concerns about detailing evil or sinful behavior, you are facing something that has bedeviled (pun intended) writers for centuries or longer. I haven’t read Milton’s Paradise Lost for many years but I remember well that Lucifer was a much more interesting character than Christ. Why? Because Lucifer made choices, good or bad, he did things and took action. The Christ character in the poem was so proscribed in what he could do he seemed pale and weak by comparison. (At least to twentieth century eyes.) It is the choices made by our characters that give them dimension and appeal. The hero isn’t virtuous if he has never been tempted. He has to make the choice to do good or ill and it can’t be too easy or there is no tension in the story. The Greeks had the word agon, meaning conflict, from which we get our current word agony. No story was complete without the element of agon. That conflict may be internal or external or both but it has to be there or the story is dull and flat. And the greater your villain/temptation, the greater the protagonist must be to emerge victorious.

I wish I could offer some sage advice about the SG3 but I have less patience than you do, so that’s no good. The only thing I can think of is to have a back up SG machine just in case something happens to one of them. Not much help, huh?



CStanford said...

As a Mormon, I can completely understand your dilemmas about writing fiction. I think maybe I've tended to write fantasy because it was a way for me to write characters and stories that don't conform to my faith. Even so my longest-enduring fiction project has a lot of strong influences from my religious beliefs.

This year for NaNoWriMo I plan to write a story set in the real world with a protagonist who's not Mormon, and it's a big stretch for me. That makes me think I have a lot of work to do if I want to be a good writer, which is after all why I'm doing this.

I have thought maybe I should just go ahead and write all my stories about Mormon characters, like Chaim Potok, being Jewish, wrote about Jewish characters and gave us all literary treasures in the process. But it would be presumptuous of me to think I could write like Potok. Still I think there must be a place for authors whose dedication to their faith leads them to portray characters who share that faith and show parts of living with that faith that others might not otherwise see.

Strikethru said...

I think all people who like to write have their own moral restrictions that are hard to write about. I'm a mother, for example, and can't go anywhere near the topic of any sort of harm coming to children in any way, which eliminates a lot of topics to write about, being that we live in kind of a crummy world.

Good thing I have no time (or self-discipline) for fiction writing anyway!

Elizabeth H. said...

Just throwing more thoughts out there...I think writing fantasy or science fiction (or a hybrid thereof) can be freeing sometimes, in that it open doors to writing moral stories without making them overtly religious. Tolkien's works are a great example: he was a devout Catholic, and his faith is almost certainly reflected in his works, but not in a way that makes them morality tales or obviously Catholic. Because they take place in a fantasy world, that works well. And then there are CS Lewis' books, which again, are filled with moral themes, (far more blatant than in Tolkien) but they can be read as pure fantasy as well.

Not that I can write anything like either one. I wish. I'd give a lot just for Lewis' descriptive capabilities.

I suppose every writer works within their own limitations (limits of talent, of knowledge, of moral boundaries, etc., etc.), and there are elements of self in every writer's work. But accepting one's own voice as a writer is easier said than done.

Duffy Moon said...


(My numbering system is in no way related to your numbering system.)

1) I think the fact that you are a religious and morally-centered person will inform pretty much everything you write, even without your intention. I think maybe it’d be beneficial for you to not worry about it; it’s obviously such a big part of who you are as a person and as a writer (I can call you author, actually: you’re a WriMo! All WriMos are authors!) that you couldn’t eliminate it if you tried.

2) I just finished reading “Empire of Lies” by something-or-other Klavan. His main character is a Christian man with a pretty sordid past, who is faced with a horrific scenario. Along the way he acts in some pretty horrific ways, but all of his actions are in some ways informed by his beliefs and world view. I really enjoyed it. For another example of this (and thanks to Jeff for jogging my memory) Lewis himself wrote a pretty violent and depraved scene in Perelandra (with a gruesome battle-to-the-death between Ransom and Weston-as-embodiment-of-evil). Of course Lewis was able here to avoid the problem of the evil being so much more interesting than the good by nature of the fact that, while Weston was pretty clearly supposed to represent Old Scratch himself, Ransom was a morally insecure mortal, doing the best he could with what he was presented with.

3) It’s completely natural to miss your typewriter. Mine were gone for almost three months getting re-rubberized. It was worth the wait.