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.