Sunday, September 30, 2012

Does Fiction Serve a Purpose?

Ever since people started reading stories and writing poems,  they have been asking whether or not literature serves a purpose. I guess we like to know if we're doing something useful or not--or at least know we're wasting time if we are.

The debate has usually centered around whether we should read in order to be entertained or read in order to learn something useful. "Escapist" literature is considered nothing more than entertainment. "Didactic" literature is meant to instill a lesson.

  • Mystery, fantasy, romance, action/adventure stories are usually categorized as escapist.
  • Allegories, fables and parables are generally thought of as didactic.         
Is one better than the other? Should we opt for pure entertainment? Or should we always try to better ourselves through our reading?

I'm all for self-improvement. For years I couldn't get enough of books about improving my body, mind and spirit. 


When I read fiction, I never want to be bogged down by a speechifying character giving me the author's views about politics, religion or the social order. Nor do I want a story to be distorted to make the outcome fit the author's philosophical views.

When I read a story in which someone is trying to convince me to believe something or change my opinion about something, I become annoyed. I want to talk back to the writer. I want to defend my position. Sometimes I get mad. Mostly, I want to put down the book. And I usually do.

Because the story and the characters do not hold my interest. The book is merely trying to sell me something. I'M NOT BUYING!

So, you might ask, does this mean I read for pure escape? Are the best stories the ones that take us away from our real lives into an imaginary landscape of aliens or detectives or impossibly beautiful women and handsome men?

I need to escape sometimes. If I didn't get away from the immediate demands of my life, I would be unpleasant to live with. But only up to a point--IF I CAN'T ENGAGE WITH THE CHARACTERS, I CAN'T STICK WITH THE STORY.

You know those action movies, the ones with special effects? The ones where bridges blow up, buildings implode, characters leap twenty feet in the air? One high-speed car chase follows another?


Maybe it's the the absence of testosterone in my body, but my eyes glaze, I lose track of the plot, and I start writing my shopping list in my head. I can't stay engaged unless the characters seem to have real conflicts, real emotions, and real relationships.

Maybe the issue is really always the same, whether it's escapist or didactic: the characters and their reactions to their situation have to resemble how we would feel and react. Or at least how someone we know would.

So it's not really and either/or issue. A story has to entertain me so I don't feel I'm being lectured. But I also have to feel I have a stake in the outcome.

That doesn't mean I have to come away from the story with knowledge I didn't have before. I don't expect to learn how to bake an apple pie or build a bookcase from reading a story.

I don't even (necessarily) need to feel I've learned more about the court of Henry VIII after reading an historical novel set in his England. Or more about China before communism from reading a novel  set in 1930's China. Though those are very nice outcomes.

What I do need, however, is to feel that
          •  I have been in the presence of the shifts and tides of human nature
          • I have witnessed the ways in which human beings influence and affect each other through their interactions. 
          • I have been enriched through seeing the workings of the human psyche, the human soul.
For me, reading stories is always about getting to know people. And fictional people in the hands of a good writer are real. At least they convince us they are real which is the same thing.

So: is it the purpose of fiction to entertain or to teach? Maybe it's both.

When I read a good piece of fiction, I come to understand myself better. At the very same time, I get to escape from myself for awhile.

It's the best of both worlds, don't you think?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Inspiration?

Here's something that most fiction writers I know struggle with: should I write stories based on my own life? After all. the experts tell us to write what we know, and what do we know better than our own life story?

It's an interesting (and difficult) question. Unless we're writing well-researched historical fiction, we know we'll get in trouble if we create stories in exotic locations, about cultures we are unfamiliar with where characters experience things we know nothing about. In general:
  • Housewives are probably better off not writing war stories.
  • Career military officers should probably stay away from cozy English mysteries centered around domestic life.
On the other hand, staying too close to home creates its own pitfalls. Writing about our own dysfunctional family will create hard feelings. 

They'll know it's about them
  • Even if we disguise them by changing their names.
  • Even if we change events around so they don't exactly match what really happened.
    • The main character's aunt kills his uncle instead of his cousin.
    • The main character's father is a doctor, not a lawyer, and has an affair with his patient, not his client.
No one will be fooled by these cosmetic changes. And the people close to us will see themselves as nothing more than fodder for our creative mill. Besides, they'll be offended at how we portray them. 

Because, believe me: they don't see themselves in the same unflattering light we might .

And yet, our stories have to reflect who we are, what we've experienced, and what we've learned about life. Without something of ourselves infusing every line of our story, our writing has no soul, no heart, and no reader will feel a responsive thrill of recognition.

We can't write the literal truth because we want to "protect the innocent" (or not so innocent). Nor can we squeeze the life out of our stories by ensuring they offend no one.

So how do I handle this dilemma?  I tell the emotional and spiritual truths about my life.

To do that, I have to place my emphasis on the internal landscapes of my characters, and these internal landscapes represent psychological places I, or people very close to me, have been. 

But, you might say, 
  • you've written one novel about a movie star, and you ain't no movie star.
  • You wrote a novel about Lakota spiritual practices, and you have never even met a Lakota medicine man.
True. But I have experienced the emotions and dilemmas of my main characters. And as far as the settings are concerned, I did a lot of research.

  • I can create the external landscape through research.
  • The internal landscape--the psychological landscape--comes from me.

Right now I am writing a novel about a college girl and a pimp. I know a lot about being a college girl--I used to be one. I know nothing about being a pimp. But this pimp suffers from feelings and conflicts that I do know a lot about: 
  • Loneliness
  • Discontentment with his life
  • Feelings that are in conflict with "the rules" for success
  •  An inappropriate  love.
So that's how I deal with the need to be "real" in my writing without telling my actual life story.

How do you do it?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Artist in My Life

I live with an artist. He is a talented painter named Rufus Chalmers. Here is a sample of one of his pieces.

We not only live together, we work together in the same room. It's not that big.

It used to be my office, the place where I could create and think and process and, hopefully, come out at the end of the day with a few effective pages. I furnished the room with a desk, my laptop, a sofa and some bookshelves.

Now the front half is my space and the rear half is Rufus' studio where he has an easel, art supplies, the pieces he's working on and his computer. All my furniture is still here.

Did I tell you the room isn't that big?

I never thought I could share my space. I thought I needed silence and privacy to do good work. A door that closed to shut out the rest of the world--which for a long time consisted only of my two Siberian huskies. Well, okay, I didn't shut them out of my office. They used to lie at my feet or under my desk. They still do.

Some of Rufus' pieces are pretty big. This one, for instance, takes up a lot of space. He hasn't finished it yet.

Did I mention the room isn't that big?

Now here's the interesting thing. Everything I thought I needed isn't really what I need. Not that I want a loud party in progress as I work--I value the silence. I can't write without it. But I've learned that having another creative person working in the same room actually helps me do better work. I think better. The writing flows better.

First of all, I get to try things out on Rufus. I can say," Will you listen to this scene and tell me what you think?" Not only do I get the benefit of his opinion, I get to hear the words out loud, get a better idea of how well the scene reads.

Second of all--and I never thought I would say this--I benefit when he interrupts me to ask my opinion on his progress. I get to ask him questions, see how his mind works. See how he solves problems.

When he's excited about his work, it helps me stay excited about mine. If something inspires him, it's easier for me to get inspired.

It helps that we like each other's work.

I don't know how it would be if we were both writers or both painters. Maybe a competitive element would creep in. But as it is we work well together. Writing is very different from painting. Perhaps it is in the differences that we enrich one another.

By the way, did I mention the room isn't that big!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How To Do It, Part 2

Last week I wrote that, while  outlining the plot of a novel is often advised and works well for some writers, it does not work for me. Afterward, I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about how people are given formulas for how to do many things in life.

  • My grandmother used to tell me: "There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything."

When I was a child, I believed that. I carefully followed her exact directions on how to iron a blouse, always starting with the collar first, then the sleeves, then the buttons, and so on. I remember being surprised when I watched an aunt of mine do it an entirely different way. I was even more surprised when it turned out just fine.

It occurred to me then that maybe what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for someone else.

So how does this apply to writing?

  • It's a truism that good writing is about rewriting. The magic doesn't happen without careful revision.

I agree with that. Like many writers, I am horrified at the idea of sharing my work until I've gotten it "right." Not only do I want to be sure I've chosen the best, most economical words to tell my story, I want to make sure that every scene contributes to the whole, that every character is fully realized, that every plot point makes sense, that the story moves inevitably from its beginning to its conclusion.

  • However, many experts also advise against revising until the first draft is complete.

The theory is--and I think it's true for many writers--if we get bogged down in revision too early, we will become discouraged or stuck. In looking for the exact right word we will lose sight of the story's flow.

Not for me. For me, revision begins as soon as I put down the first sentence. I cannot move to the next sentence until I'm happy with the first.

This sounds tedious, I know. How can I ever get anything done if I spend all my time going back and back and back?

To be honest, I don't know. Maybe I'd be a better writer, at least a more efficient writer, if I followed advice and completed a draft first.

But I can't. Quite literally, I can't do it.

Here's how it goes for me:

  • During the first draft process, I read/revise what I did yesterday, then move forward, revising wording, order of events, or sentence structure as I go. By the end of the day I usually have four or five pages I'm happy with.
  • Halfway through (or sometimes sooner) I reread the whole novel up to then and revise whole sections as well as word choices, sentence structure, etc. Here, I'm looking for wordiness, imprecision and vagueness as well as character and plot development.
  • When I have a draft, I go through the same way again looking to sharpen the writing and sequence events more effectively.
  • Now I put the manuscript away for a time, maybe a few months. I let it "rest."
  • When I pick it up again, I may restructure the entire story, changing up characters, reinventing the plot, etc.
This is not pretty, I know. But it works for me. I'm not making a case for working this way. But it seems to be the only choice I have. I cannot keep my hands off my work even when I try--even when I tell myself I haven't time to muck around.

I don't know about you, but I have to follow my instincts when I write. Even when someone else thinks there's a better way. There probably is. I just can't follow it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How To Do It

I've been thinking lately about the way I put my novels together. Mostly I've been thinking about it because I don't do it the way I've been told I should.

Where do I go?
For example. Many experts advise writers to create an outline before starting a novel. This way the writer creates a map of how to get from the beginning of the story to the end. Getting from A to Z is easier if you know all the way-points in between.

But what if you have no idea what Z looks like? Or worse, you don't even know where A is?

I usually begin with an idea, something simple. For example, Bear Medicine began with an image in my head of a woman who had suffered a terrible tragedy. I wondered how she could climb out of her despair and confusion and whether she would need to discover her own spirituality before she could be whole again.

I didn't know what the tragedy in her life was. I didn't know how she would discover a spiritual path or what the path would look like. I didn't even know if she would find happiness in the end or be defeated by the despair she began with.

I didn't know until I began to write.

And halfway through, I still didn't know where she would end up.

I'm like a mole burrowing in the dark, digging tunnels as he goes but never knowing where he'll end up when he runs out of burrowing room.

Once, several years ago, I decided I should probably create a novel the way the experts said it should be done. So I wrote an outline.

It took days. I felt uninspired.
What happened?

In the end I had twenty or so chapters with detailed bullet points describing what would happen. I had carefully constructed the track for my train to run on.

The story felt lifeless.

When I began to write, the story refused to follow the outline I'd so carefully prepared. The train jumped the track almost immediately.

The novel I'm working on now involves a pimp and a college girl who becomes entangled with him. I am getting close to the end. My college girl is in danger. She and her friends need to escape a situation that may result in injury or death.

Day before yesterday, I knew where they would go and what they would do to try to escape. Yesterday when I sat down to write, damned if one of my characters made a suggestion that never occurred to me. It was a much better idea than the one I'd come up with myself, so I let her have her way.

Yes. My characters talk about the story and how it should go. They don't talk to me so much. They talk to themselves and to each other. I seem to be around to carry out their wishes.

Does outlining work for you? It does for many writers. I just don't seem to be one of them!