Friday, July 29, 2011

Useful Writing

I recently realized that I can do multiplication in my head until I get to the 7s, 8s, and 9s. Anytime I multiply one of them by any of the other two, I have to stop and think. Why? Because I can remember being very excited about learning multiplication tables up until I got to the higher numbers. Then I lost interest.

Similarly, I am an okay touch typist with letters, but have to look at my fingers to type numbers. As a teenager with no manual dexterity, learning to type was a humiliating and taxing experience. I finally got all the letters mastered but when it came to the numbers I figured I’d be writing non-mathematical things. I lost interest.


My first novel is unfinished. I lost interest. And I don’t believe it would be resurrect-able without major work, because it’s a suspense novel about a kidnapping, dependent upon the isolation of one of the characters in an age before cell phones. The first thing today’s reader would ask would be, “Why doesn’t she use her cell phone?” The novel isn’t useful.


The poet Marge Piercy emphasized that she wanted her poetry to be useful.


“What I mean by useful is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom wall and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we most fear, in the small release of cadenced utterances. We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives.”


I lost interest in numbers because they didn’t seem useful to me.


Join me in the recesses of our own hearts, each of us. By what rubrics, on what bathroom walls, do we find proof that our writing is useful, according to Piercy’s definition of usefulness?

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't feel I can speak for my own writing because I'm still roughing it out.

Generally speaking, writing that reaches deep, that becomes truly useful is hard to do. I've read tons of books, but literally only a handful hand that kind of impact. It's not something you achieve by simply sitting down and writing a book.

BK Jackson
http://www.bkjackson.blogspot.com

Sara said...

The books that are useful to me are the ones with good characters. I read and re-read my favorite books in part to spend time with my friends--to again live through them with their growth and to understand myself a little better and better be able to give myself some grace. If the main characters of a book aren't people that I enjoy spending time with, it doesn't matter how beautiful the prose, how profound the themes, etc. So in my own writing, the question of whether I'm enjoying the time I'm spending with my characters is profoundly important. (No anti-heroes here, please!)

sally apokedak said...

Can't your character lose her cell phone or get it wet so it doesn't work?

As for writing things that are useful...

I don't know about bathroom walls, but I stumbled upon a facebook wall a couple of weeks ago, where something from one of my blogs had been quoted and liked by several people. I wasn't tagged in the posting so I felt a little like I was eavesdropping. The thing that stood out to me was that the material quoted wasn't well written. But it was true--straight from the Bible. I pulled several things from one passage and listed them out using bullets to show the thread that wound through the passage.

And it was, apparently, useful. Truth is useful. Showing people things they knew but hadn't quite been able to sort out is useful.

In my YA novels I'm trying to write to myself at sixteen. The novels are embarrassing to me because I was a silly girl. But I hope that speaking honestly, showing truth about the way we want to be cherished and protected and powerful, is useful to girls.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Not a numbers girl at all! In fact, they scare me some.

Loved that Piercy quote. A good deal why I keep coming back to read your words, ladies!

~ Wendy

Nicole said...

I can't do numbers either, Latayne. Have to stop and look at them.

Useful . . . like touching fabric that takes you back to a secure place; like presenting a fragrance that reminds you of something treasured; like revealing emotion that you thought no one else could possibly feel about that particular event . . . like taking the odd path and daring to write what happens there.

Ashten said...

I don't know about your novel, but I will speak to the fact that a good story - no matter the era in which the story takes place - gives moral or otherwise useful lessons that span generations.
I personally prefer stories of a time before cell phones...but I know that's a personal preference. Regardless, I gain great useful lessons even from those wonderful old classics that have survived the ages of technological advancements and social change...just like the Bible, no matter the historical setting, the truth of the human condition is unchanging because we are made in the image of an unchanging God. I think elements like cell phones or pinafores or locamotives are simply the tools in which different brands of readers are captivated...and oh how very many there are; but it's the voice and the moral of the story that makes it stand the test of time. I think to determine the usefulness of the story's pieces, one would have to consider seriously the audience one is hoping to reach.
As for your story sweet Latonya, why couldn't your character have forgotten her cell phone or have a dead battery (a very real issue for this woman I assyre you!)?
I love how you novel matters ladies stimulate my brain each day.

Marcia said...

Latayne, great question, as it causes us to take a step back and look at what we are writing and the effect it has on the reader.

I enjoy reading something that encourages me or takes me a step further in my faith. Something that causes me to think, "Yes, I CAN!" Something that gives me hope.

And Sara, I agree with you about characters, too. If I feel a common bond with them, or if they fascinate me, I'll want to make a return visit.

P.S. No math major for me, either. :-)

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne how come you don't just set it in the '80s? You can throw in some Reagan references and a bad perm, and everyone can nod at all those other funny little quirky truths about "the way things were". It can be an "historical"!

Seriously though, books that I have found useful (and I LOVE that definition so much I am printing it out and keeping it) are the ones that illustrate subtle nuances of character that people keep to themselves. It's easy for people to talk about big feelings and reactions, such as My Friend Died and I Cried, but it's the little truths that are so valuable...My Friend Died and I...washed the car...wouldn't change my underpants for a month...refused to do sums with the number 7...
They're the little, people-watching truths that become memorable because they resonate in the souls of people who have had that feeling of needing to wrestle some form of control back into their lives and turn back the clock.

Latayne C Scott said...

BK, I agree with you. There are many books that I enjoyed reading -- for entertainment or edification -- but so few I quote.

Sara, I never thought of a book's usefulness as being assessed by its good characters. I think that's a good point. However, I've sometimes learned the most from the characters I love to hate. . .

Latayne C Scott said...

Ashten, Megan and Sally -- maybe I could resurrect that novel -- with the plot devices you offered! Thanks!

Latayne C Scott said...

Sally, kudos to you for being quoted! Whoo Hoo!

Wendy and Ashten, a tip of our collective hat to you. We keep writing these posts for people like you.

Nicole: Cool writing.

Marcia, I think the "hope" thing is what keeps any reader coming back to Christian fiction -- when he or she could read anything in the bookstore or library,

Megan, did you write those things about a friend dying? You sounded like Bonnie.

Guess we don't need to worry until we find out all our menstrual cycles synch. . .

Megan Sayer said...

I sounded like Bonnie? Thanks Latayne, that's high praise.

Of course, it could be that Kathleen was right the other day when she said how she used to think nobody actually lived in Tasmania. I could be just one of Bonnie's fictional creations...

Ashten said...

Megan...I think you hit the nail on the head! I definitely love to read about the REAL stuff people do...the stuff that's shocking because no one in the world likes to talk about those things and yet not-so-shocking because they're the very things we do! And it's such a comfort...like Sara said in the beginning...those people become our friends in a way; because they're so honest!

Megan Sayer said...

Ashten - thanks! You have no idea how much that encouraged me today : )

susiefinkbeiner said...

{GASP} Megan, are you saying that you aren't real?? Wow...your my first Tasmanian friend AND un-real friend.

Fiction that moves me often serves as a shovel to my face. It knocks me right on my patootie and asks if I'm listening now. Then it teaches me more about how life is for others, how the nature of God is reflected in the mundane and the average. It causes me to stop, contemplate and usually makes me smile.

Fh57 said...

In Caleb's Crossing, what were the moral dilemmas Bethia and Caleb faced? Also how did they deal with their moral dilemmas?