Monday, September 08, 2008

Literature and the Writer as Teacher

I found the following comments by John Updike very interesting and want to talk about it. Updike says:

The writer as hero, as Hemingway or Saint-Exupery or D’Annunzio, a tradition of which Camus was perhaps the last example, has been replaced in America by the writer as educationist. Most writers teach, a great many teach writing; writing is furiously taught in colleges even as the death knell of the book and the written word is monotonously tolled; any writer, it is assumed, can give a lecture, and the purer products of his academic mind, the “writings” themselves, are sifted and, if found of sufficient quality, installed in their places on the assembly belt of study, as objects of educational contemplation.

I find this interesting, as a writer and an educator. In classes, especially college classes, students want to know why certain stories are studied in class and what makes something literature. I think Updike answers those questions. For something to be considered “literature,” academics have to sift through the story, pick it apart, and find deeper levels. If it stands up to that, it can then be canonized. If it is not found of “sufficient quality,” then it’s considered popular writing and not worthy of academia. One thing that Updike doesn’t mention that is part of the process today is worldview. Living in a postmodern age, critics want the story to reflect their beliefs.

Some may ask, what does it mean to be postmodern? The best definition I can find is from PBS. “Postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.” Everything is relative. There are no absolutes. What’s right for you may not be right for me. For religion, this means that there is no one truth. All religions have some truth and we should pick and choose which parts of the religion fit the way we see the world. So, for a story today to be considered literature, it needs to be skeptical of any claims and focus on the relative truths of the characters.

Another part of the quote deals with the writer as educator. Now a lot of us are in the education field, which is a nice fit for a writer who isn’t able to write full-time. People today don’t want to read a story just for the sake of the story. This is the information age; they want to be taught something. This is one of the reasons Crichton is one of my favorite authors. He teaches while he tells the story. However, inevitably, readers want to know that an author is saying, what is the point, why did he/she write it? Publishers want us to be an expert on the topic we are writing about. Once at a writer’s conference I pitched a young adult novel to an agent. Her first question was: why are you the person to write this book? The question threw me off a little bit, and had I known she was going to reject the book, I might have said what I thought - BECAUSE I WROTE IT. It’s not non-fiction. I don’t have to be an expert. My job is to tell a good story. In her defense, she was just asking the question of the time. You hear a lot of talk in author circles about platform. The bigger and stronger the platform, the more likely a publisher and reader will take a look at you.

Here’s a last thing to think about: you have to be an expert in your field, but in a postmodern world, everything is relative, so it’s okay to think you’re an expert when you’re really not; you just have to make people think you are. And as a fiction writer, isn’t that what we do? We create a world that is believable, we speak with authority about that world, and we let people see the world through the eyes of our characters. So through that writing our worldview should come out and when people ask us what the story is about or what we meant by this-or-that, we can answer them and perhaps give them an understanding of some absolute truths in a provisional world.

The excerpted is from “Why Write?” by John Updike, from Picked-Up Pieces Copyright 1975 by John Updike and published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Could You Be Emily Bronte?

In 1847 Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights. This novel has been studies and proclaimed for the last 150 years and her place among the greats is established. Her life was cut short when she died a year later from a tubercular condition. She was definitely raised in a home that promoted the arts, just look at her sisters Charlotte and Anne, and she wrote poetry. So, she probably could have created more novels had her life not been cut short. The question that this brings to mind is - could you be happy with a writing career like Emily Bronte’s? When your life come to an end - whenever that is - would you be satisfied writing just one novel that is remembered for all time, or would you feel cheated?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Writing What You Know

James Baldwin in his “Autobiographical Notes” said, “One writes out of one thing only - one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”

This mantra has been taught over and over to writers - write what you know. While I mostly agree with this, I don’t completely buy into it. Of course, it’s easier to write what you know. The topic is something familiar to you, you know the ins-and-outs, and you can speak with authority. I think this also goes toward your interests. If you want to write science fiction, then you need to read science fiction.

However, I differ from this mantra on this point: if I write fiction, I have the right to write about things that are not part of my personal experience. As a male writer, I have to get into the heads of female characters. I am never going to be a female, and it’s not something I can readily experience, especially the thought processes and emotions. Right now I have a serial killer in my story. I’m not going to kill someone so I can write with more authority. My point is that writing only what you know takes away from the imagination. The imagination is what truly creates art. Without the imagination, we would only have non-fiction stories.

I’m not saying that an artist never uses his or her own experiences. We do in every way that we can. I can’t be a woman, but I may have a female character based on a woman I know. We’ve all seen enough violence on TV and in the movies that we have experienced it enough. Also those emotions I put with the character ultimately come from deep within me. That, I think, is what Baldwin is getting at. We dig at those emotions and give the story everything we can to create a piece of art. To be true art, to have a deeper, lasting effect, we must force from our experiences everything we can give, to give the reader something that is at the same time familiar to them and yet foreign.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Creating a Work Space

We are going to be moving into a new home in a couple of weeks and I get to have my own study for the first time in six years. The plan is to have my library and writings things all together in one place. So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I want things set up and how I want the study to be functional and help me get the most out of my writing time. I know it’s going to be better because I can shut my door and be alone to write. No more distractions, except for the fact that the study is just off the living room. But that shouldn’t be too big of a problem since I do most of my writing after everyone has gone to bed.

I came across part of an article by Annie Dillard. The article actually came from her book The Writing Life. I’m going to buy the book because it sounds like something every writer needs to read. In this article, Dillard talks about her study (at the time) - a pine shed. She says, “The study affords ample room for one. One who is supposed to be writing books. You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers and spades.” Interesting that the study in my old house, until we turned it into a room for the kids, wasn’t much bigger than a toolshed. Then again, neither was the house. Anyway, Dillard goes on to say, “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window.”

While my new study is much bigger than a toolshed, I can see some of the points Dillard is making. My desk will face the wall, so I have fewer distractions. I may hang some of my published works in front of me for motivation and moral supports. Still, I want to be surrounded by books, to be inspired by those who have traveled this road before me. If I need to reference something, or review how a certain author tackled a plot issue, I can just walk over and pluck the book from the shelf. If things go as planned, I will have two desks in the study - one for the computer and one for the writing. I’m excited about this new workspace that is away from the normal traffic of the house where I can have papers and notes all over as I work toward finishing my works. Hopefully, I’ll be able to complete Alter of Death over the next two months, then move into something different and fresh for the National Novel Writing Month frenzy.

So, what is your workspace like? What are some of the things you like to have around you?