Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Writing From the Heart

This weekend I traveled to glorious Vancouver, BC to see a show by Canadian rock band the Weakerthans. I rode the train up from Seattle and, as I knew the trip would take at least five hours, I packed along the book I'm currently reading: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon. It's a collection of essays, mostly about books and writing. I haven't read any of Chabon's novels, so I can't speak to his general modus operandi, but I get the impression that Chabon wants to write to some higher purpose, to produce Works of Literature and Vast Meaning. Yes, Maps and Legends has as one theme the idea that literary writers should feel free to embrace the forms and conventions of genre fiction, but I also felt the whole time I was reading this book that Chabon wanted to dazzle me with his prose and his depth of thought.

I can understand that impulse, because when I think of the ideas I have for my planned books, there is a sort of reach for historical and thematic sweep, for Big Ideas and Grand Statements. I have been thinking that I don't plan to write any sort of small books (by which I don't mean anything about the length of the book). I wasn't really aware that I had such plans until about 30 minutes into Saturday night's set by the Weakerthans. Most of you have probably never heard or heard of this band, and that's fine. I'm not trying to sell you on their music. But I had an epiphany, as I say, 30 minutes into their show.

One of the things I love about the Weakerthans is the simplicity and honesty of the song writing. These are tales of lost love, of lost cats, of lost jobs. Stories about returning to your home city after failing to make your mark elsewhere. Stories about visiting sick friends in hospital. Short stories that are true, common stories, all of them told in a clear, honest voice. Not to say that the language, the lyrics, are simple or simple-minded. John K. Samson is as clever as the next song writer but that's not where the power of his songs lies. What draws me in, and what drew in the audience at the Fabulous Commodore Ballroom, is that Samson clearly is writing from the heart, and he believes in his tales and characters.

So there I was, standing on a dance floor with a thousand other people, a cold pint in my hand, having an epiphany about literary values and the power of simple honesty. I have long thought that in order for a story to be a good story it must say something true, reveal something about us as a species or our times as they are, or some other truth. There had to be a revelation of some kind. This is of course one of the tropes of the modern short story: the epiphanic moment. I still think that a story has to tell a truth of some kind, but I no longer believe that what I write has to be Big and Important. I am beginning to think that I can approach my stories, my themes, my characters and more importantly my audience, with some humility and address them more quietly. I begin to think that it's possibly just as good to say, "This is interesting" as it is to say, "This is important."

All of which has, I continue to discover, changed the way I intend to write my next book. It will be more intimate, less sweepingly historical, and--I hope--better than my original plan would have allowed. This gets back to the idea Davin explored here a couple of weeks ago, about immanence versus transcendence. I wonder if a lot of writers, even if they aren't consciously aware of it, seek some kind of transcendent values in their work. I had no idea that I was attempting to write Grand Novels until I wondered what it was that I liked about songs by the Weakerthans. Now I don't want to write about Big Ideas. I just want to write honestly about things I care about.


  1. Scott, this was beautifully written and expressed, thank you. Talk about coming from the heart!

    Yes, I came to this realization, or "epiphany" a long time ago. I used to think that the epiphany the main character has a in a story had to also be a huge, transcendent thing for the reader, too. Not necessarily.

    It is the small, close-to-the-heart realizations that mean the most to me. In my first book, it's the simply journey of a girl who realizes nobody can choose her happiness for her. In my second novel, it's the three main POV characters realizing they have strength where they never thought possible.

    Small, seemingly insignificant and obvious ideas. But it's in the way we tell them, and in the journey that matters.

  2. Hmm, as usual I'm at loss for words (perhaps a sign of my intellect). I'll take your advice:

    Scott, I enjoyed this post, and you've given me much to think about.

    P.S. Pretend this is a grand comment, aimed at impressing you.

  3. I think this is really interesting concept, and it's hard to express it clearly. I know I've had trouble in the past. On one level, it seems simple, but as I've mentioned before, one of the hardest things in writing is to free yourself from outside influences. I think sometimes ego or lack of confidence can cause us to write insincerely. We try to impress people, or we think that we have to say something grand to be worthy. Writing from the heart doesn't seem like it will satisfy anyone other than yourself. But, I've come to believe that satisfying yourself is the only thing that other people will be impressed with. They can sense sincerity.

    When I was in graduate school, I tried to take a writing class, but I wasn't allowed to since priority was first given to undergraduates. I was able to sit in on the first class, and the teacher said that her only goal for the ten weeks was to get students to write from the right source, the heart. I never forgot that. It's a simple lesson that takes a long time to learn.

  4. Perfect, especially for a newbie.

    I keep trying to pour something bigger, more grand into my manuscript... Like Glam said, turning the epiphanies into sweeping and far-reaching revelations rather than intimate and meaningful moments for the characters.

    Simplify... a mantra in my daily life that needs to transfer into my writing!

  5. Davin,

    No doubt: fear limits writers.

  6. I realized that I was having problems planning my next book because I kept asking myself, "Is this idea big enough?" Now I'm just asking myself, "Is this story compelling? Do I like it?" It's a much better approach.

    I wish I could describe the sudden knowledge I had Saturday night, my thoughts about literature and Chabon's book and my own work all sliding into a new shape when I had the simple thought that I really like the band that was playing, and I like them because it's all so sincere and personal. Small stories, certainly, but not insignificant.

  7. Uncs,

    What you're saying makes more sense to me than it would have had I not read Red Man, Blue Man and discussed it with you.

  8. ???
    There's dialog about my story happening behind my back??? I'd love to hear your comments, good or bad, Justus. I'm curious.

  9. Intimate stories are the best! They open up my eyes and make me fall in love with them.

  10. Scott, I love the way you expressed this. I really believe that our writing has to come from the heart. I also used to think that I had to give the reader some great sweeping epiphany in reading my writing. Transport them away in grand phrases and scenes. Now, I'm stepping back and realizing that when the simple things are simply wrought they can be more powerful. I've been having a lot of epiphanies lately.

  11. Mariah, Have you heard of a writer named Banana Yoshimoto? She writes very intimate stories. I recommend her novella, Kitchen.

    Thanks, Justus!

    Lotusgirl, I think you're right that not trying to be big can sometimes be more powerful. In a way, as soon as you try to be big, you become smaller than when you just let things be the way they are. Trying to encapsulate something with words diminishes it, and the biggest concept has to be unspoken.

  12. Banana wrote Kitchen? Davin, are you okay?

  13. Thanks for the recommendation, Davin. I'll be sure to check it out! That is, after everything else I feel I must read as well...

  14. Lucky you to get up to Vancouver B.C. I love that area, especially Stanely Park.

    I get your idea and will listen for the mundane details of life in everyday stories that matter. I can imagine you hearing a lyric about something small that mattered and how that formulated your current thinking. Very cool!

    I'm curious if you are a part of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. I'm going to the PNWA conference again this summer.

  15. I think when you write from the heart, when you just write what you want to write, without planning any big moment of revelation or epiphany, it will be natural and at the meantime, you can get something big out of it. Because big revelation come from little things.


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