writing rengeek magpie mind

July 2014

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hustle micket con is on

What my job is.

(Part 2. Part 1 is over here. Since it seems for some reason to need re-iterating, the only person I'm talking about here is me.)

So having talked about what my job is not, I know (slightly delayed) propose to talk about what my job is. this part doesn't break down as neatly into artist and craftsman, because I find that here, the tensions are in different places. Whereas, if there is a conflict in that my job as an artist is not to console, but my job as an entertainer is--I find that the conflicts that inform my job overall, as a writer, a storyteller, and whatever else I may be--those tensions tend to lie in the need to do several contradictory things well at once.

The simplest answer, of course, is that my job is to tell stories well enough that people are willing to pay to read them, but in reality it's a little more complicated than that.

First of all, and perhaps most surprisingly, my job is to read books and articles and talk to people--as many books and articles people as possible, with as many conflicting views... even views that I do not particularly agree with. And while I am doing that, it is part of my job to attempt to find sympathy for those people, to understand them and why in particular they hold the beliefs they do. Everyone is the hero of his own movie. If I remember that, I will be able to write characters I disagree with, sometimes violently, as sympathetic human beings rather than as caricatures.

Sometimes, I will really want to wash afterwards, but there you go. That's part of my job too. (I give you Richard Baines, in The Stratford Man, as the type example of this sort of character.)

My job is research. Research is talking to people. It's also reading. It's also experiencing, as much as possible, and paying attention to those experiences. I've never done a lot of traveling (I've never had the budget for it: the only foreign countries I have been to are Canada, Scotland, and England, though I hope to visit a certain Caribbean island this summer) but that doesn't mean I can't read about them and talk to people who have been there, and read the literature of folks who live there. It also doesn't mean that I can't fall upon opportunities when they present themselves--not just for travel, but for experience. (Which is how I wound up canoeing under Hartford.)

The more real stuff I run through my fingers, the better my stories will be.

My job is putting words on paper, in its simplest form, and that seems pretty straightforward. Alas, it's about the least straightforward thing I've ever done. There are two interfaces between writer and reader--writer to paper, and paper to reader--and things go strange in both those interstices. Writers are often blind to alternate interpretations of their words, or that their words are uninterpretable (the latter being my particular sin). Readers may read projectively, and always read in the light of past experiences.

And when a reader reads a text, they own it. They help create it. So part of my job is to let go of my words, and let them be whatever they become in the minds and hearts of others, even if it's something I never thought of--or with which I disagree. (One of my favorite first readers, cpolk , is a mistress of telling me the stuff that goes on in the cracks of my stories, that I never really quite realized Fred* was putting in there.)

But the tension that this creates is not a bug, but a feature. Because it leads to another tension--also not a bug, but a feature--because if I can't believe in mutually contradictory goals, why am I an artist?

Specifically, the tension between accessibility, complexity, and revelation.

I believe in the unfashionable proposition that accessibility is a literary virtue. That a good story, plainly told, has artistic value of its own. I also believe that complexity is a literary virtue... ahh, yes, you begin to see the problem, then? Complexity, layers, things that unpack, things that reward rereading and re-thinking, density and multiplicity. Which, of course, conflict with accessibility. It may be possible to write a perfectly complex, perfectly transparent book. It's certainly a worthy endeavor.

Ahhh, but then there's the third rope in the tug-of-war: the literary virtue of revelation. Epiphany, induced in the reader through the use of words in narrative. The aha! moment when you know who dunnit, or you get what the missing word in Agyar or Light is.

Because it means more to the reader if he can figure some stuff out for himself. But if he can't figure it out, he gets frustrated. And if he figures it out too easily, he thinks I think he's an idiot, and he bounces the book off the wall.

Well, at this point, it becomes evident that a certain percentage of books are going to bounce no matter what you do, but that's okay. It's part of the way the game is played. My job is to make as few bounce as possible, by somehow balancing these three mutually exclusive and yet complementary literary virtues. Somebody's always going to figure out the killer on page two, and somebody's always going to hate the way I write about lesbians**, but--well, it's a bell curve. You do the best you can.

And perfection is for the gods.

And I'm an agnostic.

So writing is a sort of elaborate confidence game where the object is not to get something away from the person you are conning, but to get him to accept something--hopefully, something good. And it's also a sort of incomplete and fractured telepathy.

Now, I said previously that my job is not to console the reader--for that, we have consolatory literature. Literature that pats you on the head and tells you that everything is going to be fine: that good triumphs over evil, that true love will find a way, and that the fluffy doggie never comes to an unkind end***. I tend to find consolatory literature dishonest, and so I don't write or read it. However, I do think that my job is to offer catharsis and also to show the kind of characters who make me feel stronger--active, capable people like me who have agency. As you know if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, I was an adult before I understood the idea of character identification****, because I had never been presented with a character I could really identify with.

When I was, I fell instantly and passionately in love with him, because dude, that's me. And the fact that people like me (like me in a variety of ways) have always been presented to me as the other, as somebody without a subject position, and here's this guy with whom I have so much in common and he's a point of view character who is not just there to validate the heroes--in fact, he's a hero himself--well, it's been a vital tool for me in screwing my own bedraggled psyche back together in a form that is a little less drafty and easier and more comfortable to live in.

So I think my job is to be as honest about fictional people as I can, to consider them as subjects rather than objects, and to allow them their dignity. I try never to bring anybody on stage just to be evil, or to provide a foil or a support for the hero or heroine. My job is to bring that level of care to everyone I write, because somewhere out there there's a twelve-year-old kid who is going to be hurt if I don't--or maybe even when I do, but again, perfection is for the gods.

(I think the character with whom I had the strongest sense of caretaking is Lily, in Whiskey & Water. But it applies to everyone I write. They may be fictional, but I made them, and I am going to make them unutterably miserable***** and so I owe them.)

Another part of my job is to move the reader. I alluded to that above, with catharsis, but it's more than catharsis. It's the exaltation of story, and that exaltation brings strength. Of course, again, not all readers will find strength or exaltation in the same thing, and the best and most honest way I can try for that is to write what brings me strength, catharsis, and exaltation. Which ties into my literary kinks, and of course the thematic core of everything I write.

Because I am a human person, and what kicks me in the gut will kick a percentage of other people in the gut as well.

Anybody who's read more than two of my books can probably figure out that the thing that appeals to me more than anything is death-or-glory stands and inconceivably complicated ethics--the sort of situation where there are no really good options, and absolutely no safe options, and nobody's coming through unscathed or unbloodied. There is no interventionist universe in what I write: nobody is going to save anybody from the consequences of his mistakes. The good are not necessarily rewarded commeasurate with their goodness. But people usually try to be their best selves, or at least the protagonists do, and I think that's what's necessary for me to really like a book.

On the other hand, I think there's strength and comfort--though not consolation--to be found in that, and thank god my fan mail supports the idea that sometimes what I write is helpful to folks, because (I've said this here before) the whole reason I write is to be read, and the whole reason I am here to write is because somebody threw me a rope once upon a time+.

Am I ever going to get it exactly right?

...not until I'm among the gods. And as you may recall, I remain an agnostic.



*Fred is Damon Knight's name for the writer's subconscious mind.
**When my mother hates the way I write about lesbians, I'm going to seriously consider that I may have jumped the shark. And yeah, she'd tell me. 0.o
***At least one reader emailed me to make sure the cat survived Worldwired before he would finish reading the trilogy. Yeah, I don't blame him. I'm still sad about spoiler and spoiler.
****Not to be confused with character empathy or character sympathy, which are different things.
*****Pretty much everybody I ever write, yeah.
+The book that most memorably threw me the rope was Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which probably saved my life more than once. It irritated my brain in ways that helped me learn that things I had internalized as absolutes as a child were not true at all, and gave me a metric for integrity and compassion. A deeply uncomfortable and deeply powerful little story, disguised as a fairy tale.

Comments

wow
(standing ovation)

Quiet Admiration

There's no really good or coherent way to say this, but I seem to like reading your writing about writing than your writing itself (at least, the stuff I've read so far; is it weird to say that it's obscurely daunting to read the work of folks who can loosely be called friends?).

I suspect that's because I "get" the nonfictional character "eBear," who is a writer of interesting things, doer of interesting things, and entertaining pet-blogger, better than I do other characters.

*rubs temples, puts on tea*
Last week I was commenting to my wife that the dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys in the novel I'm working on is that the good guys rise above their expectations of themselves and the bad guys don't meet their own expectations.

I've gotten to a point with my writing where I love all of my characters, even the objectively monstrous ones, because I feel like it's my job to love them enough to let them be true. But just because I love them doesn't mean I won't do horrible things to them or prevent them behaving abominably to each other. I've long been a fan of the Kurosawa quote from your last post. The quote I've most taken to heart, and use to constantly challenge myself, is Terentius. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. Being a man, nothing human is alien to me. (Which I first came across being used as a maxim by the great photographer Jan Saudek.)

Also, I highly recommend the documentary Protagonist by Jessica Yu. It has an interview with a real person who was doing bad things and did not think he was being the hero of his own movie. He knew he was the villain.
Good post.

I definitely agree with giving each character the respect they deserve. Another way I like to look at it, is that when you get down to it, we're all a lot more alike than different.

Strip away race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and religion. We're all people who know what it's like to feel love, hate, sadness, joy, loss.

I think the world would be a better place if everyone understood that.
Thank you. This gives me a lot to think about regarding my own goals as a writer.

My most immediate thoughts:

I put Accessibility before Complexity; although I value complexity, and will read and re-read books that offer me many layers of understanding, I have never loved a book unless I found it accessible.

I value consolatory fiction (if I understand what you mean by this) for the message that things *can* work out, that there can be happy endings, as opposed to saying that this is inevitable. Not 'everything is going to be fine,' but 'things do sometimes go right.' The better romances that I've read show this happening in a world where things are often very wrong, and the protagonists have suffered some of the worst of it, and go on to show that it doesn't always have to be that way. To my mind that's a perfectly honest and valid take on things.

Yes, that.

Part I didn't resonate with me. As you said, repeatedly, *your* job.

But this one does, in ways that will require long pondering. Thanks.
The Last Unicorn totally changed the way I think about literature and fairy tales. I wouldn't call it my favorite book, but it still informs the standards I judge any other book by.

That, and I identify with Schmendrick more than is probably good for me.
That a good story, plainly told, has artistic value of its own. I also believe that complexity is a literary virtue... ahh, yes, you begin to see the problem, then? Complexity, layers, things that unpack, things that reward rereading and re-thinking, density and multiplicity. Which, of course, conflict with accessibility.

This makes me think of most contrapuntal endeavors I've heard in music. I can usually identify the opening of a fugue because they start out simply. Their subjects have to leave space for their countersubjects, which then leads to complexity. However, no matter how complex they become, all those elements still have to work within the framework of the original simplicity. They get most of their stresses and strains from the interaction of the notes against each other, whose melodies have to work both independently and with each other.

It seems like a similar process, or at least a close metaphor.
At the risk of invoking the dreaded Keanu....whoa. Thank you for writing this. This resonates with my art, albeit in a different key, and I think I really needed to read this. *adds to memories*
Bear, you are a paladin, and paladins go into dark places and fight scary monsters, and bring only themselves. Magic swords and scary monsters being all aspects of the self, as well as of everything else.

Long may you continue, and thanks for being you. You will do what your spiritual Chief Rabbit says and/or die trying. We can't all say the same.
Awww, a reader emailed you? I admit, the part that got the biggest reaction out of me out of all of the Harry Potter books was (spoiler) when Hedwig the owl met a sudden death. :( Fuck Dumbledore, he knew it was coming. ;D (/end spoiler)

All of what you wrote, it's a very deep and complicated chunk of LJ to digest. I think I get it.. at 3:20 in the morning. But:

So I think my job is to be as honest about fictional people as I can, to consider them as subjects rather than objects, and to allow them their dignity.

This this this this so much. That is why I like your books. You're very inspiring by the way.
Hedwig, frankly, had more personality.

Readers do write in--some to complain, some to congratulate or share. The letters that matter the most to me are the ones from folks for whom a book was a lifeline in rough seas, as it were.

(Aww. Thank you. I keep saying I want to write the blog that would have helped me when I was a young whippersnapper. It's very nice when it works, just a little.)
HAHA... XD I laugh because it's true.

Well, then I'll be honest. There's a couple of note books I have, where I jotted down ideas (during my active duty days, and long shifts over seas) for a graphic novel that I day dream about working on one day when I am a little more educated, and a little more refined regarding my artistic skills. Anyway, reading your blog, especially posts like these that I can identify with makes it a lot less intimidating.

I don't know if anything will ever come to fruitation, but at least I'm trying again - and it's like finding a part of myself that I forgot about because of Iraq.
Oi. Yeah. I went through that about halfway through my not-very-good marriage, and, well--

Okay. Here's a thing, and I apologize in advance for the unsolicited livejournal advice. :-P

Go ahead and work on the thing you think you're not ready to work on. For me, at least, the only way to learn is to do, and the lovely thing about writing is that you can always go back and fix it later. It's not a performance art.
Don't apologize, I appreciate it. :D And I am sorry to hear about your bad marriage.

I need to reformat my laptop, and re-install photoshop. Once that's done, I want to start working on a story board type thing - pdf format. Some thing I can show the friends I go to for advice, and get more advice. Some thing I can look back on after I get more learnings, and maybe some day... I'll have some thing I can present as a finished product.

I just hope that reformating my laptop, installing photoshop, waiting for classes to start, ect aren't all subconscious ways I am dragging my feet again.
Oh, of course they are. I mean, why do you think livejournal is so full of writers and artists? Procrastinating seems to be a vital part of the creative process.

*g*

(Is that your art in the icons, by the way? I have no eye, but I think it's nifty.)
Nah it's not. Though I do admire the style, it's so care free. I had some art uploaded to the intertubes, but I can't remember where I put it, and it's out dated. Like 2005. Oh wait, in the scrapbook here how convieniant of me. Oh wow, looking at it is a little embarassing but I'll share:

http://pics.livejournal.com/beyondfake_0/pic/00003r5b

I'm still trying to get away from the Anime looking style, but I guess I naturally start drawing that way because I have been since I was 14 and drew my first fanart of Sailor Moon.

I think I was trying to flesh out the charcter with her hair done up, focusing on her hair paticularly, and having fun doing it. I can't offer any excuses for the wonky eyes XD...
I think that's actually quite pretty. Though I am not exactly an expert. *g* And of course, confidence of line is something you just get by drawing a lot, or so I am told. (There is a metaphor for writing here...)
^^; Thanks. :D

That metaphor could be applied to a lot of things. But you know, validation via peers really helps one boost confidence signifigantly. Haha.
the lovely thing about writing is that you can always go back and fix it later. It's not a performance art.

That really is the best thing. Sometimes the stuff that was wrong needs to be thrown out completely (with a "what was I THINKING?"), but sometimes it's like . . . like the rock that you throw into the crystal solution, for the crystal to grow on. It's ugly and lumpy, but necessary, even if the crystal grows in a completely different direction, and you cut the rock off later and it winds up looking like it was never there to begin with.
"I believe in the unfashionable proposition that accessibility is a literary virtue."

Ah, crap. She's right.

But I knew that.

Those paragraphs. I must read them again and again.

Oh, my head.

Shouldn't induction of epiphany be better understood by now? Can't somebody just explain to me how- oh!