I’ve been sick — though on the mend — and while I have been able to play with my somewhat malfunctioning computers, I haven’t been commenting much or been able to blog or push the publication of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, Book Two: Chasing Dreams forward as rapidly as I’d like. So far, I think the launch date holds, but I’m going to miss a few notional days off while playing catch-up. I enjoy what I do as a writer, so that’s not a huge burden. If you don’t enjoy it, why do it?
Recently, there have been some posts here at Writing About Writing reflecting people’s needs to fit themselves into Schools, or Movements, or Post-Something Nouvelle Ethnic Style or some such nonsense. Much of this angst comes from people who are enrolled (or have been) in academic programs in which the emphasis is on criticism and analysis. I think this emphasis comes at the expense of producing truly original and creative work.
Once one begins writing to a specific set of rules, one immediately stifles creativity. Romance, a huge market, has “authors’ guides” that are highly detailed and specific. Those who love to write them, love to read them, and like writers of sonnets or haiku find their creativity is enhanced by fitting the stories they love to tell into specific forms. Nothing at all wrong with this. I’m fond of mysteries. Mysteries have conventions. The challenge isn’t trying to fake Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie. The challenge is to find your unique and original voice within the conventions.
But writing to please critics, especially academic critics? That’s something different.
First, the writer is now starting with the assumption that these critics know what they’re talking about! This stifles the writer’s own ability to critically analyze her or his work. Periods, movements, schools and all that good stuff, can best be analyzed long after the fact in the context of their times and places. It’s not really possible to analyze something you’re in the middle of in quite the same way. Nor, may I add, do many works that have extreme importance in terms of literature hold up all that well as enjoyable things to read.
Second, the writer is immediately and automatically derivative. The writer isn’t writing something original within formal genre guidelines. The writer is writing to please a particular critic who thinks Toni Morrision is the bee’s knees (which she is) and therefore wants the writer to sound as much like Morrision as humanly possible. Which isn’t going happen, because Morrison is original, creative and incredibly talented. She sets the rules, she doesn’t follow them. The writer can never, ever succeed because the writer has lost her or his original voice in trying to mimic somebody else.
Third, the writer has lost touch with the primary function of a writer. Writers are story-tellers, entertainers. I am a Stephen King fan, and not because I love every single thing he’s ever written. I don’t. What I do love is that he tells stories, and his insights into the writer as a teller of stories have helped me enormously in pursuing my own fiction. “What happens next?” is a King aphorism I steal constantly. King writes well. He takes care of the practical business of making sure his books shine editorially and are enjoyable reading experiences (whether one likes that particular book or not). He does not show contempt for his readers by using bad grammar, failing to proofread, leaving giant plot holes and so on. He likes his readers. What he mostly does, from the simplest of his horror stories to the books that I think will hold up as true literature, is tell us a story.
King a is a story-teller, and so, at our best, are we all. We’re not self-conscious pundits trying to forcibly rub people’s noses into our Cosmic Insights. That doesn’t work; it can’t work. Why would anyone want to make that a goal?
When we write fiction, we are writing stories. We are crafting adventures in the three great plot domains of person against person, person against nature, and person against self. We layer these adventures, the challenges, these changes. We weave them, we watch them grow. They leave our hands and take on lives of their own.
If there is some Uber-message, let someone else find it.
For now, come, sit down, and let me tell you a story.
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