Writing Tip # 5 What We Say

posted on: October 7, 2013

What We Say

My professor of a graduate writing workshop told us that it doesn’t matter what we say, all that matters is that we say it well.

Well, no. What matters most is what we say, and it’s the plot, the characters, and the wonderful writing that seduces the reader to listen.  Not that all novels should be driven by a message, or a greater understanding of human nature, civilization, or life, but that is a possible take away, if there is a take away beyond the vast pleasure of simple entertainment and escape. This is what distinguishes a book we revisit for weeks, months, years and makes a difference in our view of the world.  Art, be it prose, visual, music, or dance, should quicken and enhance our understanding.  This is not to say that entertainment for its own sake, for the exquisite pleasure of escaping our world and entering a delicious mystery, thriller, romance, horror doesn’t provide value, but I always look for both. An entertaining escape and a take-away.

Take-aways are not always happy. In fact, they usually aren’t.  Though we experience vicariously the immense pleasure there is in our world, and then rediscover the wonder of our lives. But we don’t struggle to figure out why we’re joyful. We hunt for reasons for our discontent and a new perspective to make sense out of what is becoming increasingly insensible.  Kierkegaard is correct when he says, “Life must be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards.”  This is truly the arena of novels.

As writers, if we give our characters free reign, if we listen to what they tell us, we, at least in the first draft, live their stories forward.  It’s in the second draft (or tenth or twentieth draft) that we have the opportunity to make sense of them, to universalize the individual pain of our characters as we rewrite them backwards. (Don’t we wish we could have second drafts – or third—of our own lives? Well, maybe not. Maybe the excitement is in the living forward, the unknown and the vast surprise that is life.)

Every life has tragedy. Everyone’s story, if it goes on long enough, ends in death. Yep. This is the ultimate tragedy for each of us and those who love us.  Our day-to-day traumas (separations, losses, anxieties) ultimately relate to this central fact and form the pain, the quandaries that stimulate much struggle.

All of our characters have tragedy too. This is their back-story, or the reason for conflicts that propel the plot.  We as writers reveal tragedies as shocking as rape, terrorism, kidnapping, child molestation.  Or tragedies as widespread as loss of a relationship, moving a parent into assisted living, foreclosure of a house, loss of a job.  Continual small traumas or significant disasters litter all our lives, sometimes altering their course.  This is one way books can help us out.  We, the readers, get to learn from characters.  Sometimes, they teach us about managing tragedy by example.  We are able to study how to face, understand, heal ourselves as we identify with characters.

These days, American literature sanitizes our traumas.  We fictionalize the locale to another time or planet, (science fiction, dystopian) or people into various monsters (zombies, vampires).  We criticize our own society by throwing it into a bizarre future, or turn the tragedy of our murders into enthralling mysteries.  It’s more palpable that way.  It isn’t about us.  It’ entertainment, removed from our daily heartaches and our all too common losses.  So the horror that we see around us—the threat of terrorism, the mass shooting of innocent children, the millions incarcerated and then disenfranchised, the widening gulf between a small wealthy group or corporations controlling the great mass of us— is easier to deal with as crazy fantasy than reality.  (Maybe that’s how we can think about the madness of our time without going mad. Or feeling preached to?  A displacement that’s psychologically necessary.)

This is fine. As long as we don’t lose the possibility of changing what we can. Or the lessons taught by heroic characters healing from similar traumas. Or how to avoid a character’s fate. Because believe me, after decades of listening to people’s lives as a psychotherapist, we endure traumas. People who now live lives that seem “ordinary” have been through hell. “The willingness to face traumas – be they large, small, primitive or fresh, is the key to healing.  Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.”   Mark Epstein.

I’m not being snobbish here.  “Genre” fiction can be profound and “literary fiction” can be disappointingly thin. Think of the great history in Anne Rice’s Vampire novels, the clear message of the Hunger Games so similar to Cloud Atlas, the rich portraits and social criticism in Kate Atkinson’s crime novels.  What we aim for is both learning and entertainment. However, literary fiction, which is character driven rather than plot driven, improves readers’ empathy and social skills.

So from my point of view, books can’t be “too dark”. It’s life.  We’re all going to die. We’re all going to suffer losses, disappointments, and death of loved ones. How we deal with these ordeals says eons about our characters.  Meanwhile books can provide escapes, teach us something, or provide characters who become heroes as they show us how to get through life with all it’s glories and losses.




The images in this post are from my illustrated short story, Other Lives. 

One thought on “Writing Tip # 5 What We Say

  1. Love this. I sometimes question my unwavering commitment to presenting the rawness of my characters but it’s their truth, so I do it. Thanks for the reminder that this approach has a place in literature.

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