In the end, none of really knows when we started writing or why or what it was we first hoped to accomplish. We know it was a long time ago, and we never stopped, never saw a reason to. And we keep writing. Reading too. Maybe if we knew all the answers it would take the fun out of everything.
But it isn’t until we take up the mantle of writer (maybe even author) that the question of what we are writing (and reading) and why begins to be asked. By then it’s too late. We’ve already forgotten. Didn’t know it would be on the test. Happily, we’re storytellers, so we’re never left in wont of an answer.
Marilynne Robinson has been over-asked about the origins of her shattering debut (1980) Housekeeping. She answers, "I was interested in writing extended metaphors. And so I kept writing these little things and just putting them in a drawer." And in time: "I took out this stack of things and they cohered. I could see what they implied, I could see where the voice was."
A wonderful answer that is hardly an answer at all. Is Ms. Robinson merely cagy? I doubt it. If she’s anything like me (and I have no reason to think she might be), she may simply be hedging because the idea of needing to explain the genesis and metamorphosis of idea into story is beside the point. Really a question of marketing more than art.
Latayne asked us to consider what we read and write and what we hope to gain from these stories—our aim in writing them. The only answer I could come up with is: completeness. It’s a terrible answer, but it holds a universe of meaning to me. It means the novel has heft and breath.
Recently, I was in conversation with a writer friend who shared a piece of advice she’d been given by another writer friend, “Write the story that costs you the most emotionally.” I think this is bad advice. Surprised? Here’s why: Emotion is a symptom of effective storytelling, not the cause. Yes, we connect emotionally with a story we love, but we don’t connect with it because it’s emotionally stirring, we connect with it because we are brought face to face with the human condition and THAT brings emotion to the surface.
So what is completeness in story for me? It’s the story that promises to change me. Not tickle me under the chin, not make me sigh over someone else’s romance, or contemplate the sinful nature of other people. The complete story, the ones I’m drawn to as a reader and the ones I aspire to write, are the stories that promise to leave a mark. The ones that say, Warning: This story is a compass to the culture, speaks to the individual, and will make you accountable for the knowledge contained herein.
I suppose there is a fear that this idea may come off as lofty, unrealistic, or, from a publisher’s point of view, unsellable. But if I were to come up with the most honest answer about why I started writing and what I hoped to achieve, I would have to say I started writing because I didn’t understand anything, and I wanted to, and story seemed the best way for me to do this. And I keep writing because there is so much I don’t understand about the world, and story is the best way I have of asking questions I don’t have answers for.
What piece of writing advice have you received that seemed like bad advice?
Do you like novels that promise to change you? Am I utterly delusional?