Thursday, November 17, 2011

Are These The Only Truths I Believe?

I tried to write this post last week but it didn't work so I deleted it and now I try again, taking a shot at my topic from a slightly different angle. We'll see how it goes this time. The difficulty seems to be that I don't know where to start this discussion.

I'm working on a new book, which is no surprise because I'm always working on a new book. The big theme of the book seems at this point to be doubt. Self doubt, I guess. The male lead is having a sort of middle-age crisis of confidence and he takes steps to combat his self doubts, steps that have tragicomic results. Nobody gets dead in this one, though, which is a real departure for me. More on that anon. The female lead is having a crisis of faith, which I also see as a sort of problem of self doubt, as in possibly when people lose religious faith, they don't doubt the religion so much as they doubt their own relationship to that religion.

So clearly the conflicts in this one are not the sort of man-versus-man or man-versus-society conflicts I've been writing about, and the plot developments aren't going to involve a lot of violence. As I say, that's a change for me. Is this post going anywhere? Yes, but slowly. Hang on.

One of the important questions I ask myself while writing is "What am I thinking about that makes me write this?" Another way of saying that is "What about this material interests me and/or makes me uncomfortable?" I always look for that stuff and try to relentlessly follow it through the narrative, because that's always the best stuff in the book. So for the male character, I'm following threads that have to do with disappointment and fear and pride and a sort of American machismo. For the female character, I'm following threads that have to do with ambition and hope and community. I see that the guy has doubt about his past while the woman has doubt about her future, sort of. Though it's more complicated than that.

Anyway, I am struggling with how to present this material, with how universal the themes are or how idiosyncratic and therefore requiring a lot of explanation to the reader. I'm also struggling with the idea of truth in a story.

Some of you already know that earlier this month my literary agent and I parted company. We had two novels out on submission this year and neither of them sold to publishers, and when I sent her my most recent book my agent declared that she has no idea how to sell it so perhaps she's not the best agent for me. Fair enough and no hard feelings, but it of course gets me thinking. Possibly the reason my novels that were on submission weren't picked up is because the truths I was illuminating in them aren't particularly welcome truths. After all, both books are pretty bleak because I don't have a particularly cheerful outlook on life. We all end up dead, after all, and lots of horrific things are happening all around us and most of the things we attempt will be failures, most relationships don't work out, etc. I think those are true statements.

But are those the only truths I believe? Don't I believe other, less determinedly grim truths? Why don't I write about those, too? I'm reading a book of short stories by Thomas Mann, and one of the stories, "Disorder and Early Sorrow" is, despite the title, one of the most luminous, beautiful and love-filled stories I've ever read. Why don't I lean a bit more in that direction and a bit less in the direction of such bloody-minded works as "Hamlet?"

I'm also reading the collected letters of Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being. It's fabulous stuff because O'Connor could write a good letter and she's bluntly honest and funny and thinks deeply about writing and reading. It's also got me thinking that perhaps Ms O'Connor had a very narrow field of vision in her work; she was trying to do essentially one thing and one thing only in her stories, and if you don't like her subtext you won't like her work and pretty much I think that you either love or hate O'Connor's work as a whole. This is the danger of having only one or two truths you are pursuing in your work. Maybe. This is all provisional, as usual.

Anyway, my whole writing world is in flux. I see that as a good thing, because one likes to grow and surprise oneself, yes? I don't quite know how I'm going to handle any of the themes of my new novel and I don't quite know any more how I feel about my previous work, but I keep writing and I'll just see what I write when I've written it. This post doesn't do any of you any good at all, I know. But it's what I've got today while Davin recovers from his post-birthday hangover.


  1. Stepping away from your comfort zone is a worthy exercise. It facilitates growth and will strengthen abilities you have but may not be wholly aware of.

  2. I struggle a lot with this also. Sometimes reading my own work makes me sick because I tend to write with the same bleak tone. I too have asked myself if that's the only view I have of life. Thanks for writing this. I hope you're successful in branching out to other truths.

  3. The best literature is about all the dark truths that cause pain in our daily lives: unfidelity, grief, death, depression, jealousy, and the list goes on... what's wrong with those publishers?

  4. I meant to write "infidelity", sorry for the typo.

  5. Rick: Maybe. Sometimes. But I'm not stepping away from my comfort zone. I'm just pausing to wonder what else I think about, sort of.

    Laura: The thing is, life is suffering for a great many people. But there are lots of times when I'm extraordinarily happy. But I'm not really interested in a literature of happiness; what I'm really moving towards is more a literature of neutrality, like Chekhov wrote. And I just don't like to be narrow minded. Also, I want to write about things now that I never dreamed I'd write about. Wavering religious faith isn't a blood-and-death kind of topic, but it's a good one to think about, maybe. I'm saying "maybe" a lot today.

    Julia: I agree that the best literature engages with those topics, but the stories don't have to be airless and relentlessly bleak. Though if you look at Jhumpa Lahiri and Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning story collections, those are not happy stories. So huh. Anyway, the word from the Big Six is that readers aren't buying unhappy endings, which are just "tragedy for the sake of tragedy." But this is not a post slamming Big Publishing. This is just me wondering aloud what it is that I'm interested in writing about these days.

    I just finished a sort of postmodern detective story that my agent had no idea what to do with. I think about it myself and I look at the people who publish mysteries and I also don't see how it fits with anyone's line. But I'm turning my back on the five novels I've written to date and starting fresh with the book in progress. Otherwise, you know, my head will explode.

  6. "I see that the guy has doubt about his past while the woman has doubt about her future"

    I think this line of thinking captures the differences between men and women, and what drives their self doubt. It is something I'm trying to relate in my womens fiction trilogy.

    But you've got the basic premise down, and all you need do is create a circumstance where they can each work through the emotion. Not all of their life issues need to be resolved; just the one thing that is keeping them from moving forward.

    Is it a death of a spouse or child or parent creating the self doubt? Are they suddenly divorced, or jobless, or some survived some natural/unnatural disaster that forces them to look closely at their previous coping skills and change them?

    I've read some of your writings on your blog Scott, and I know you have a gift for deep, emotional characters. I know you will achieve a balance of sensitivity and hope in your new characters.

    My first novel had a professional editor give it about a 3 hour read; and his conclusion was that while the story was realistic, it was too negative and didn't show reasons why the MC would remain in the bad relationship, or fall in love with the best friend. After letting that devastating news sink in, I re-read the novel, and decided it did require a bit of "fluff" occasionally.

    Like you, I don't see the world through "happily ever after" eyes, and I have problems with satisfying endings. But maybe you could look at your previous two novels again and add just a bit more hope; see the brighter side in some scenes. Doesn't have to be sappy, just optimistic (just a tad).

    And with these new literary characters, you may be able to add some memories, or have them witness something uplifting occasionally so they do have hope for the future as they resolve the current crisis :)


  7. You know that I am basically Pollyanna On Steroids, and that it is hard for me to get the appeal of tragedy without hope, so I'm not the best person to address your concerns. All I can say is, it's a good thing to explore more territory, and it sounds as if you are willing to do that. So go do that.

    And good luck!

    --Alex MacKenzie

  8. I think more of my work started having happy endings as a result of the neutrality you talk about, Scott. When someone approaches my stories, I want them to not know if it will be a happy or a sad ending. I want to try to reflect life in a way that sometimes has happiness and sometimes has sadness. In the end is death, so I end up focusing more on segments of life, in complete pieces where happiness can exist temporarily.

  9. I'm not per se interested in ways of making my stories less bleak; what I'm doing is seeing if I want to write about stories that are not tragic in the way my stories usually are tragic. Chekhov's stories aren't generally tragic, but they aren't generally uplifting, either. That's really what I'm after, I think, and it better mirrors real life. And I take it back: even if Chekhov's stories don't have tragic endings, they are about the tragic comedy that is life, and they pull at your heart when you read them.

    Which is why we read tragedy, so that we'll appreciate life while we have it. Tragedy is the most humanizing of all dramatic forms. I think arbitrarily happy endings and "hero's journey" tales actually belittle life and the living of it, and that's why I don't read that sort of literature. Which is a long and pointless aside, I know.

  10. Similar to your last comment, Scott, I wonder if what you're getting at is like Gardner's reference to a "moral" fiction: "Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations."

    It would be interesting to see what would happen if your writing explored the "noblest" qualities as well as what makes you uneasy.

    BTW, would you consider publishing those novels yourself? I'm curious what a postmodern detective novel would look like. How similar to Blade Runner is it?

  11. Carrie: I respect Gardner's idea about "moral fiction," and in a lot of ways I agree with it, but I pause at the idea of the "noble" because that, to me at least, smacks of moralism which is what Gardner has argued against. I don't want to write any sort of didactic works, and I can't think of any "noble" fiction that I think isn't preachy. But yeah, something along the lines Gardner was getting at. Really, though, I'm not sure exactly what I'm after. A different sort of truth than I've been pursuing, and while Shakespeare and Camus have been, I guess, my model thus far, I might be looking more to Chekhov these days, but I'm not quite sure. No idea what I'm doing, to be perfectly honest.

    I've got no interest in self-publishing at all.

    Bladerunner is one sort of postmodern detective. Paul Auster's mystery is another. The works of Borges are a third, and there are more. My book is sort of a play on the classic "golden age" detective of the 1930s, where the detective is aware of the tropes of detective fiction and comments on them dismissively while following them herself. There are a bunch of allusions to other detectives, and to metafictional ideas about mysteries including Hamlet-as-detective. Really it's not as out there as some folks get, but it's not a straight mystery at all. Anyway, it's on the shelf with the previous books. My focus is on the thing I'm writing now.

  12. Well, when it comes down to it, the point you made about Flannery O'Connor is true of every artistic medium. Either the story resonates, or it doesn't. There are degrees of this, and some things are generally considered more universal than others, but it all comes back to the same division: either you like it, or you don't.

    Whether your work is universal enough, or true enough, or happy enough isn't the point. The point is, someone just has to like it. And especially when shopping it around in the standard means, it also requires someone to believe they can sell it for a profit; those two things are not mutually exclusive.

    All my favourite stories have sorrows in them. Half my favourite stories have terrible, depressing themes. And even a good portion of my most absolute favourite stories don't even have a happy ending. I'm an enthusiastic, bubbly optimist, and that's why I love tragic entertainment. It's touching on things I don't (thankfully!) experience frequently. It's sad, and I love it. It holds truths, but it's fiction.

    I'm also an over-thinker, so believe me when I say the following advice is some I probably wouldn't be able to take, myself. However, the central truths in any story are secondary to the storytelling itself. Don't think so hard about the meaning and the explanations and the other mucky business. If there are truths, and they serve the story, then you will include them. If there are not, or they fit with the tale you need to tell, then it doesn't matter. It's okay to just write whatever you want and figure out the meaning later. You never know, the story might turn out to be something you didn't anticipate. ;)


  13. Interesting. I've asked myself this too because, so far, all my books start out depressing! I like happy endings, so I try to bring it all together in a way that is happy or at least leaves promise of happiness in the characters' lives and still fits the story...but each one has started out with something sad for the MC. And I've wondered if that's because I'm actually a sad person.

    But the opposite is true. I'm normally a pretty happy, opimistic person. I love my life. I wouldn't change anything in my past because it might mean I don't end up where I am now.

    I guess we'll see what the future holds for my writing.

  14. "the central truths in any story are secondary to the storytelling itself"

    Hmm. "Storytelling" is a pretty loose term. I see all the components of a narrative as being bound together, though I've never been one to concern myself with what English teachers would call "theme." Still, the ideas that interest me within the writing are the story, and the storytelling is merely a method, never an end in itself.

    So I guess I would say that the examination of actual life is more important than storytelling, and that good storytelling is a tool, not a goal. Or something. Mostly I'm just grumbling because every new book creates unique problems and for a long stretch they seem insolvable.

  15. I think this post helps me out quite a bit, Scott! I love this line:

    I always look for that stuff and try to relentlessly follow it through the narrative, because that's always the best stuff in the book.

    I strive for this in my work, as well, because it's where I really find the meat of my story. I think Cinders has an unwelcome truth in it. Thirds is just happy and beautiful. Scales is filled with delicious unwelcome truths and uncomfortable things. I think that's why it's taking me so long to write it, honestly. I don't know what Monarch is. The Breakaway is like a combo of it all.

    I think my focus with what I've written so far has been trying to mirror reality as I see it. That simply brings unwelcome truths, I suppose.

  16. Michelle, one of the things I like best in your stuff is how you don't try to fit the story into a predetermined form with a given sort of outcome. That's why some readers didn't like Cinders, but it's a strength in my opinion. Your writing flows from your ideas, not into a format.

  17. Hi Scott. I did not mean to say that we are slamming Big Publishing, but the fact that those two publishers did not accept your novels does not mean that readers will not be interested in them. Feel free to visit one of my latest blog entries about rejections and you will understand what I mean through concrete examples. In other words, don't give up on them just because two publishers rejected them. Many pieces of work were rejected many times by publishers and when they were finally published they became best-sellers. Cheers.

  18. Julia: It's not that two publishers rejected my books, it's that a bunch of publishers rejected my two books. Anyway, yes certainly many works that were rejected many times went on to become successful and well know. But most books don't get published, as we all should know. Anyway, I'm not looking for any "buck up, old son" reassurance (but thanks, honestly, for your comment and I don't want to seem as cranky as I likely do). I'm negotiating my relationship to my own writing, not my relationship to the marketplace. The rejections of my books might push me toward wondering about what sort of truths I write about, but the real epiphany came through my reading of O'Connor's letters.

    For what it's worth, my planned future novels are probably even less "commercial" than the ones I've already written.

    Anyway, this comment thread is too much about me! I want everyone else to talk about if they question the scope of their writing, if they think about the range of ideas they present.

  19. I'm sorry it sounded like a "buck up, old son" reassurance to you. I didn't mean to do that. I just expressed my opinion.That's all. I tend to write about the dark side of humanity-not necessarily in a bleak way.I sometimes find new themes and insights after crafting a story. I don't like to preach, of course. They just happen to be there when I analise them, so my writing is also a journey of discovery, new insights and even hope.

  20. And,yes, I do question my own writing, but I find different paths and ideas all the time to keep me going and creating. There is always more under the surface.

  21. I'm really coming across as crankier than I am. I don't know what to do about that.

    Possibly this entire post and train of thought are really my way of seeking reassurance that the book I'm writing is worth writing. Until now I've avoided writing about the modern world because the concerns of today all seemed to be frivolous and shallow. Or perhaps the concerns aren't frivolous and shallow, but I don't see a lot of my contemporaries treating these concerns in a way that isn't ironical and sarcastic. I'm writing about religious faith as an irreligious person, and I'm writing about a sort of midlife crisis as a person who doesn't believe in midlife crises, and I want to respect my characters and their difficulties; I don't want to think that real people going through this are figures of fun. Et cetera. None of this is quite what I mean.

  22. Within this context, storytelling is, well, the art of telling a story. And to that end, a well-told tale isn't reliant on internal truths or deeper meanings.

    On one hand, you could discover a story that is full of very important philosophical elements, but it fails to deliver its truths in a compelling fashion because the storytelling is lacking. On the flip side, you could find a riveting story with no thematic challenges (moral, personal growth, whatever fits), and it would be an entirely valid read just because the storytelling has imparted a sense of something greater.

    Storytelling goes beyond knowing how to string words together in the proper fashion. Examining life is only as effective as the method it is told through. You can make any subject worth reading if you're adept at storytelling, but someone who lacks the intricacies of the art will do an injustice to the ideas within their writing. I wholeheartedly believe that, in the sense of actually writing something worthwhile, the delivery is the most important consideration. All other elements are interchangeable depending on what direction that specific story leans.



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