Monday, January 07, 2008

What right, forsooth

"Or relearn something."--my real-world, neither writer nor piratical chummy John

As a way to begin a conversation, recently I've taken to asking people what they like to read, and once they tell me I usually ask why. I ask these questions generally expecting not to have read what they've read; instead I ask with a mind toward thinking about my own writing.

So one time when I asked my chummy John what he liked to read, he told me some books that I'd heard of but hadn't read, including, but not limited to, the Grapes of Wrath. And I tried and failed to say what genre they were in, and he said that he liked to read books that made him feel as if he'd learned something, or relearned something, or that just generally had a point.

I've been thinking about that. I've been thinking about my own writing, and I've been wondering what there is, if anything, to be learned from my stories. I never write with a mind toward educating the populace. I know of at least one instance when I specifically deviated from putting a lesson into my story. I had the excuse that the point of the story was almost the opposite of the suggested lesson, but there you are. I generally just write with an eye and an ear toward "the story", and just telling it.

But then, I've also had the experience of folk reading my stuff and coming back to me with all this inner meaning and analysis which I meant naught into it. So, yeah. Whatever.

I don't really know. Literature is mostly meant, I think at some level, to be an exploration into human nature, not really more or less, just complexly so. And if I continue to strive for quality then this purposes of representing the human animal in trueness and deep complexity will indeed instruct those reasoning individuals my readers on the subject that literature explores at some level. (And that was possibly the most complicated sentence I have written for months.) But I've never set out with that educational intention.

Back to my quote. After speaking with my chummy John, I went off by myself and for a long time I thought. And pondered. There was definitely some pondering. I thought about what my not necessarily brilliant with words but well meaning chummy John was really trying to get at, and additionally I deviated from it a little and evolved the idea, and I came to the question: What justifies this? Why does this story have a right to exist? Not comparatively, but standing alone, why does this story exist? And I tried to apply this sort of vague question to my ideas, to the stories I'm working on, one in particular that I'm getting pretty wrapped up in.

So far I haven't been able to answer. I feel sort of giddy in a sort of subvocal, bass violin, fresh-baked bread smell, sort of way with this question. I told my little brother today, "Just say things that matter," when I was starting to argue about something for the sake of arguing about something. And I feel like, even if they don't educate, I don't want to ever tell a story that doesn't matter.

I have no answer the the question, "What justifies this?" The story that I tried to apply it to is eighteen pages long, and will probably be a novella, or a novel, so it doesn't need to answer that yet.

Taking a page from Ali-demon's blog, here are interactive questions: Do you try to only say, or write, things that matter? Do you try and educate with your writing? Hope that people come away feeling like they learned something? Or are you just whatever about it all? Or some of it all? How do you feel about llamas in the new year? Or in the old year? We're not particular.

3 comments:

Debbie said...

I think that sometimes if you try to hard to put a message or "meaning" in your writing, it comes across stilted and preachy. If you write from the heart, your viewpoint will be evident without your even trying.

And people will always find their own messages in your writing. One critique I received on a short story started with, "It's obvious that the seawall represents ....." and finished with a brilliant bit of symbolism that I hadn't included. I just smiled and said, "Ah, you got it."

Nickel Halfwise said...

Wow, you're really getting serious now.

I love reading things where I'm sitting there saying to myself "That's exactly how I feel" and feeling the pleasure of knowing that there are other people out there who feel the same way.

There are few people who can successfully write a story with a particular lesson. When I've tried, the story becomes dead. I always find it amazing how many things come out subconsciously though; for instance my last novel I wrote was meant to be just a story, as I was trying to get away from even half-conscious attempts to insert lessons, and yet the point that I think came through is very true, very powerful.

As for people coming back to you with inner meaning about what you wrote, is the story you had me read among those?

Jenny said...

Strangely enough, I think the only way you can put 'meaning' in a story and not sound preachy is to ask the question behind the 'meaning' (like "Is cheating on your spouse ever okay" and you already know your answer is "No") and then explore all possible answers to that question. Inevitably, you will probably come up with a scenario that is interesting, ripe with conflict, and, in the end, can be answered only by the reader and what they bring to the story.

Basically what Deb said, only this is a colder logic to approach the actual writing.