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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, January 03, 2008

writing with guns to head

My approach to writing is inseparable from my quest for beliefs.

Yesterday, while keying notes from Story by Robert McKee, I came across his view on what the function of art--written art--is in society (slightly compressed):

I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one responsibility: to tell the truth. Therefore, study your Story Climax and extract from it your Controlling Idea. But before you take another step, ask yourself: Is this the truth? Do I believe in the meaning of my story? If the answer is no, toss it and start again. If yes, do everything possible to get your work into the world. In a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.

To tell the truth. OK, good. What is the truth?

In the first place, from the artist's point of view, it's honesty: telling it like it is. Reporting the actuality of one's experience rather than an idealization of it, or what the community agrees it is or should be. What's it really like to get married? to get fired? There are conventional ideas around the experience of these things, but the writer should have no truck with those. What do you really think and feel? That is what the writer should be writing.

You might call that subjective truth: honesty about one's own subjective experience. But there's also objective truth: the world of facts outside oneself. The storyteller must also be honest and proficient here. That means taking the trouble to find out how things are.

If you want to write about firemen, you need to know their world. What are their job functions? How do they spend their day? How are they similar to each other? How do they differ from each other? You'll need to know these and many other things before you can write something worth reading about firemen. If all you know about firemen is that they're tall, strong, brave, and like rescuing people, then you're simply regurgitating a cliche--a conventional idea of what a fireman is. And as McKee says, what's wrong with creative writing can generally be summed up in one word: cliches.

The only way to prevent cliches is to acquire knowledge: actual, objective knowledge of what you're writing about. Each sentence should be telling the reader something he or she didn't know before--something he or she has not already heard elsewhere. Each sentence should contain some element of surprise. With each sentence you learn something new. That's what keeps a reader interested.

Yes, often that "something new" is a matter not of direct knowledge but of imaginative innovation: the various quirks of Harry Potter's world, for instance. But even there the imaginings are based in fact, and in a direct experience of the sensual world and the people in it.

And for those of us not writing fantasy, we have to dig deeper into our world for surprises.

In my case, I'm not satisfied merely to dig into the world of facts; I also dig into the world of theories: people's beliefs and the dimly-felt realities to which they refer. My "story research" is also a kind of scientific or scholarly or philosophical research. I'm not sure this is the "right" way to write, whether it will add anything or make for a better end product, but it seems to be the only way that I can do it and feel that I'm giving it my all. If I did not do this, I would not feel that I've tried everything in my quest to tell the best, the truest, story that I can.

It's a fascinating journey, an interesting way to work--but it's time-consuming. That in itself is not really a problem except for two things, in approximate order of importance: 1) death; 2) revenue. I could croak before I'm finished, and I could go broke and be derailed from my work by having to scare up the wherewithal to live.

Both of those things have worried me from time to time. But I can't let them scare me off my project, or intimidate me into changing my approach. This is a great experiment in my approach--the approach I would use if not coerced by any outside influence. With Death and Revenue holding guns to my head, I have to coolly keep my nerve--and keep working.

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