One of the very best things about working with other writers is that it makes me think seriously and in new ways about my own writing. I have to understand more fully why I make the decisions I do, the kinds of strategies I use to organize chronology and voice, when I sit in scene and when I do exposition. To use Michael Polanyi’s formulation, it makes my tacit knowledge more explicit.
In the past couple of days, I’ve had two different experiences with two different writers that have led me to understand my motivations for writing, why those motivations are individual rather than universal, and why some projects take off while others bump along and never rise.
The first was that I read a novel in manuscript, and wasn’t ever able to engage with it. When I reported that back to the writer, he laid out a long explication of his own motives for writing, what he was trying to accomplish, and other books that had done similar work. And it made my own motives more clear.
And then yesterday, a friend forwarded me a call for “short stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.” And although it sounds like an interesting premise, I could recognize quickly that I wasn’t drawn to it. But why not?
The book I’ve been working on for the past half-year, for instance, has remained inert. Well crafted, but inert. And I think that it’s because it came from a seed stock that is, for me, sterile by default. It’s a novel about an idea, a concept-driven book that fits together like an interesting puzzle. And like a Rubik’s Cube, it offers no emotional life for me. I’m discovering that I have to start with an identifiable individual who deserves my compassion and generosity; then I can write. Without that person who needs my assistance to have their story told, there’s no story.
So this contest, interesting as it is, wouldn’t draw from my strengths. It wants to be a story about ideas. It’s designed to be a story about ideas. I don’t have enough lived sense of what the year 2200 would be (nor, I guess, enough interest in it) to find a character there for whom I can be generous, and so this story, in my hands, could never rise.
I think this dooms me to never writing “literature.” I write stories, which are different. Literature is about ideas. Literature advances the discipline. Just as some sociology is primarily a forwarding of sociological theory, some literature is aimed squarely at literary theory. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that… )
Yesterday’s email update from Random House was about one swath of spring 2021 books, prefaced with the headline “Feel-Good Fiction.” The subhead was “Find some comforting reads for stressful times. These are the novels to reach for if you want charming characters, sweet storylines, and good vibes.”
That’s where I’m headed as a writer. I have to find someone who deserves my generosity, and then I have to tell their story generously.
Because I’m compulsive, I sat down this morning, opened a new Word document, and did a strategic analysis of all the novels I’ve worked on in the past seven years. There are nine, plus the book of short stories, plus the nonfiction. But I just focused on the full length novels. For each one, I asked the following questions:
- Who is the protagonist? Name, age, defining characteristics.
- How is the protagonist stuck? How has he come to be in a rut and unable to grow? How have his dreams been forestalled, or been achieved and still found wanting?
- What’s the mechanism of change? How does the ice break to start the avalanche of the story? What cracks the stability open? (To quote John Gardner, there are only two stories: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Both are a rupture of stability.)
- What’s the adventure? What big quest does the protagonist have to take on in order to ride his way through the disruption? And how does that quest enable him to become something greater than he currently is?
- What’s the soup? That is, what are the big questions or themes that come up for me as this person navigates this context? What does the story come to be “about?”
I could answer all five of these questions easily for each of the first eight books. But the ninth book, the one I’ve been chipping away at for the past seven or eight months… the ONLY answer of the five that was convincing was “the soup.” It’s a book about ideas. It’s an architectural novel, in which each of the suites of a new small office building become the scene of someone’s dreams and desires: their new business, their growing career, their next steps and setbacks, the randomness of capitalism’s rewards. Not one of those protagonists has yet risen to the level of care; they remain avatars, types, puzzle pieces to be sorted into logical order.
I think that book #9, for me, is fatally flawed, because it started with the wrong question. It’s doomed to be literature, and will never become a story. And that realization gives me permission to set it aside, and to look for 9b.