Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bad Advice, Writing, and Aimlessness

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?


Sara said...

there are when a book simply encourages me. Or leaves me feeling rested--and that's the change. There are days, with four small kids and a busy life, that I don't have the energy for my worldview to be stretched, and I'm thankful for stories that just make me happy. I can't face my questions about the true nature of all Existence on the days when I'm nearly overwhelmed just with the breakfast dishes.

that said, I love the books that grow me, too. The ones that show me something new about the world and God and myself and how they all fit together. There are a lot of days that I'd rather spend my energy on those things . . . maybe I can hire a housekeeper . . .

Katie Ganshert said...

That last That was really beautiful and honest and true.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I adore novels that leave a mark...that change me. So I'm delusional, too. ;)

And yes, yes, yes to understanding. That is essentially why I began to write and continue to write. It's an exploration, a voyage through this lifetime. And I drift on words on the page.

I've found it's a way to get me by, to push me on.
~ Wendy

Sammy Jo said...

When I started writing in my early teen years, I never thought seriously about my aim. I just wanted to create, to put words together like pieces in a puzzle until they fit just right. If people read my stories and said,"Hmm...makes ya think...", well, that was a real bonus. Thoughtful entertainment was so much better than plain entertainment.

But now I have learned what a valuable and precious thing time is, and when I read, I want words that not only entertain, but teach, and evoke changes that are so profound that I become, like you say, accountable for what I have just learned. "The Hiding Place' did that for me--I felt responsible in new ways after I read that book. I mean, any book that can convince people to feel thankful for bedbugs is a powerful book indeed!

Bonnie Grove said...

Sara: Oh, how well I remember the stage you are in right now (my children are 8 and 10). You're right, you are already being stretched in a million ways, and reading can be a fantastic escape and way to relax. Hurray for that! If you get a bead on a housekeeper, let me know!!!

Katie: Thanks for the encouragement!

Wendy: it's good to know there are people out there who are looking for these kinds of books too. So often we hear that the market isn't interested in "heavy" stuff. That readers only want light, fun books. Well, we all want those, but we also want meaningful, deep, rich stories. In fact, many of us actually think those kinds of stories ARE fun and entertaining. Thanks for being delusional with me.

Sammy Jo: Thankful for bedbugs. Wow. Thanks for that. Right now I'm reading Come Be My Light the private writings of Mother Teresa--I have a strong sense that this book will lead me a similar place of being thankful for the things I'm currently grousing about. Lord give me strength in the chastisement!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Ah, delusional! Who would want to be sane? It is so much work and insanity it so freeing! That said, I have a friend who is truly mentally ill and it is extremely painful for her and all around her.
God is all about completeness. Everything in the old testament is related to the number 7 which represents completeness.
Now I know in part (imperfectly) but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood by God. 1 Cor. 13:12b This is a passionate verse, a consuming ache that a writer has the privilege and responsibility to expand upon and decorate with story.
Novelmatters is where I get my advise about writing. And it is all of the highest value.

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta: Thank you so much for those words of love. We are all deeply encouraged by them.
Sometimes writing about writing feels like giving praise in seasons of fire. Costly. But this community is a gift to us because we come here and are healed.

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie it is always so, SO interesting reading what's in your mind. I love it.

I know exactly when I started writing, and why. I started when I was five and found a stapler and realised I could make books for myself, but it was at 14 when I read Lord of the Flies (because I liked the cover) and had my epiphany: I want to write books that show people who we are.

I don't like books that can't show me a culture, a place, an emotional state, or a sense of being in the world. I read to grow.

Anonymous said...

Oh goodness. I write short stories (or flash fiction...whatever you want to call it) for my blog. I've been told that I'm "too dark". That I need to lighten it up, make things end happily every time.

I really appreciate writing that brings me to a point of contemplating the human condition (I'm totally delusional...just ask anyone who really knows me). Sometimes that isn't bunnies and rainbows. You know what I mean? That is the kind of writing that I do. And I probably won't make a dime doing it.

I try to infuse hope into every piece I write. But sometimes the character doesn't choose the hope. Other times they really have to go through the "ringer" before they do.

If that's dark, well, okay. Is that what life is for a whole bunch of people? Yes.

I could go on and on. But my point is this; my desire is to see Christian fiction continue to point in the direction of action and contemplation. Not, as Bonnie put it, tickling. Christianity isn't a feel good lifestyle. Or at least it shouldn't be. And, I believe, our writing should reflect that. There is a cost to following Jesus. Let's be accurate in representing that in our art.

(sorry for the semi-rant)

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, I remember the moment, too, and like you, I was around five. I remember standing in the kitchen, almost tall as the counters, the black and white tiles under my feet, the evening light slanting through the windows. I made up a little story about a girl and her dog, and then felt totally amazed at myself for having done it. Didn't tell anybody, just carried in my heart the secret knowledge that I was now a writer. And never forgot.

The book at fourteen (I think) was Franny and Zooey. Oh - and Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall. Ever read it?

Susie, please, rant away.

Megan Sayer said...

Kathleen I love the scene you painted here with so few words, it really inspired me. I thought about it a lot this afternoon, and then found myself getting cranky because...well, because my WIP is driving me nuts, and your little girl story was just so succinct and beautiful...

Anyway, I stopped myself short mid-grumble and had a "What would Kathleen say to me right now" moment. It was great! First you told me to stop being so hard on myself, and then you came up with some brilliant ideas on things to do to help improve the areas I'm struggling with. Wow! You make a great imaginary friend! Thanks!!

And no, I'm not familiar with Walkabout. I feel like I'm drowning in TBRs at the moment, but I'll look it up : )

Megan Sayer said...

Oh, and I have to tell you this as reminded me...

I must have been about seven, old enough to come out to the night service in our little Salvation Army church.
Every Sunday the sergeant would ask who had a testimony about Jesus that they'd like to share that week. They were usually a bit dumb. I was pretty confident in my storytelling ability, so one Sunday I thought I'd show them all how it was done. I stood up in my seat and told this awesome story - it had a visit from an angel, and sleepwalking, and talking cats and everything! Sat down so proud!
I was a bit disappointed that my story didn't get as big a clap as the others. It wasn't until years later that I thought about it again with a more adult perspective and don't make up stories in church.

Latayne C Scott said...

I have gone through a period of self-evaluation recently and realized how many choices in purchases I have made because a relative said it was wise -- and I know now that they were not good choices for me.

Similarly, Stephen King said you should never use a thesaurus and for years I felt guilty for doing so. Until I realized that was bad advice for me.

And whoever it was who said you should stop writing each day in mid-sentence so that you'll be able to jump into the flow the next morning -- don't even get me started. The few times I've done that because I was interrupted, it took me FOREVER to remember what I was going for.

At least I'm not predictable -- even for me.

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: That's fantastic that you can remember the who/what/when/where of your writing. I, meanwhile, struggle to recall yesterday's dinner. I'm amazed! Thanks for sharing that story.

Susie: Life is not a bowl of roses, this is true. I'm reading Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of Mother Teresa. She suffered just as much as the people she spent her life serving. Not only because she bound herself to them, but because she was called to "identify with Christ on the cross when he called out "I'm thirsty". In this, she spent most of her years on earth suffering what she calles "darkness". A spiritual dry place where she could not feel the presence of God no matter what she tried. We think we want light stories that point out how God will come and give us whatever we want and we will be happy. Nonsense.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts. And keep writing those flash fictions just as they come to you. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Katy: You amaze me. Truly. Mwah.

Latayne: I remember reading Steven King's advice about using a Thesaurus, and thinking: But do you think in essence or in the concrete? I usually have the five senses experience or the feeling I want to express, but I need the precise word. Usually one that expresses movement, but not always.
Different strokes, really. I do think that we shouldn't go fishing for words for the sake of using a "fancy" term. But I love my Thesaurus!

Nikole Hahn said...

I think it's very dangerous to write a book that promises to bring about great change. Because if it doesn't no matter who is to blame the reader comes away disillusioned and no longer a fan of anything else you write.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nikole: The point is to write a book that will change YOU--not setting out to tell other's what they need to do to change. It's writing the book that asks the questions you are certain "everyone" is dying to ask, or wonders about, or wants to see changed.

But you are right, it is dangerous to write this sort of book. It means you have to delve deep into your personal well of mercy, and test the true depths of your love for others. And it means you can't flinch.

And one would never write a back cover copy that reads: This book exists to change the culture. No. But one prays that one's work does indeed stand the test of time because it does speak into the culture, and touch the deepest parts of human life.