January 7th, 2007

book and glasses

On writers and writing - or, what we owe, take two

"The novel is a realm where moral judgment is suspended...from the viewpoint of the novel's wisdom, tha tfervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice - accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac - tha's your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it." Thus Milan Kundera, in the essay collection "Testaments Betrayed".

This quote sprang to mind particularly, a few months ago, I think I even blogged about it, when I read a comment on some anonymous blog waxing indingnant that the writer of said blog "could not tell what the writer [of "Embers of Heaven"] actually thinks about communism". I am not sure how knowing this would have helped the reading experience - the writer is, or should be, effaced from the writing at this point, the reader is supposed to be reading a novel, a work of fiction, and not a pamphlet on ideology or a manifesto of any sorts. Like I said back then, my job as a writer is hopefully to get the reader thinking, not to tell that reader what or how to think. My own role in events portrayed within a novel is limited to being a recorder and a teller of the story - I, as a writer, sit outside of time and space, above the little world I have created, merely describing it. If passions are glimpsed in the actions of my characters, they may or may not be MY passions - they are what was triggered in THOSE particular characters by the particular circumstances that they were placed in. Would I, personally, have reacted the same in the similar circumstances? That's a moot questions, because more often than not I have never been in similar circumstances and you cannot know what you will do if you are walloped by a particular combination of events and emotions until and unless you are so wallopped. Would YOU, the reader, react the same way? I doubt it, simply because you are yourself, unique, as all of us are. And the book you are reading is not meant to be an instruction manual of what you are supposed to to if you should find yourself in the midst of a war, if you have just been mugged, if you have just discovered that your significant other has been carrying a long-term affair with someone else for long enough for their love child to have started high school. You may have skated close to similar circumstances yourself, and there are aspects of my characters' reactions to those things that you might find painflly familiar or else you might reject utterly - but that is baggage that YOU, as the reader, bring to the book. It is not my job, as a writer, to provide it.

That's the writer-reader covenant - there's the story, friend. I wrote it, you're reading it, but the things that I put in it may not be the things that you take from it. And that's fine, so long as you take what you see as being valuable. My story does not NEED your eyes to make it whole, to make it real, to make it exist - it already IS - but what it is not is quite alive, not until a reader kisses it and makes its sleepy eyelids flutter, and then makes it sit up and take stock of the world. And every kiss is different, and eveyr world to which it wakes is different. There's the magic of writing, right there. The words are the same - sitting there, on the page. But wrap the words around story and give them as a gift to another mind and heart, and the thing changes even as you look at it. It's alchemy. It's the Philosopher's Stone. Every story might be potentially gold - but it is lead until a reader's eyes transmute it.

We owe each other, readers and writers. We owe each other.

But these worlds we create, the writers amongst us, what of them? What is a writer, really? What does a writer DO? What makes a writer a writer?...

Orhan Pamuk, he of the Nobel Prize fame, says this: "A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man - or this woman - may use a typewriter, or profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I do. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time, he may rise from his table to look out the window at the children playing in the street, or, if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or even at a blank wall. he may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete - after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward. To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy." (read the full article, "My Father's Suitcase", in the 25 Dec 2006 edition of New Yorker Magazine)

That's a familiar picture. Sit down, stare at screen, open the door to the back store rooms of my mind and their jumbled contents which I swore I'd tidy up as a New Year's Resolution ten years ago and which I will never tidy up because without this wonderful clutter I would never find anything I wanted ever again. Pick up an idea. Marry it with a completely unrelated thing. See what comes up. The What If game, familiar to so many of us.

What do I owe myself? I owe myself the freedom to rootle around in that magic store room and come up for air with magical dreams. If I choose to use one of those ideas in a story I put down in a solid form, the debt begins to pass - and I owe it to the story to make it whole, and real, and able to survive on its own once the reader's kiss has woken it to life. Not only do I owe a reader a story, *I owe the story something*. I owe the story my attention, my insight, my passion, what craft I can bring to whittling it into shape, and finally my blessing when I release it into the world, still dreaming, still asleep, until it wakes in someone else's hands and mind. I owe the dream. I owe the words. I owe the reader.

And what they in turn owe to me - the words owe me nothing, other than the satisfaction of being the right words, well chosen. The dream owes me a waking, if anyone AT ALL other than me ever reads it. The reader owes me nothing at all, unless they choose to pick up the story - but that is a free choice made anew with every story, every day, and it is a debt thinly spread over so many of us - and once that choice has been made that reader still owes me no more than a bit of his or her time - and anything else is a bonus.

Because, you see, I have fulfilled my own primary debt - and that is to tell the story which wanted to be told, told it to the best of my ability, and to my own satisfaction. I write the stories which own me - and to them, I owe my identity. I am Writer. And in the end that's the only debt there is.