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.