Responsibility and the Creative Writer

In the classic conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, transcribed in the book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says, “A lot of people who write stories do not have a sense of their responsibility. These stories are making and breaking lives, but…the kind of responsibility that goes into a priesthood [the responsibility of guiding people through the stages of their lives] is not there.”

Later on in the conversation, Campbell adds, “Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind of another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Taken alone, Campbell’s second statement might inspire creative writers to mine the ancient myths for new ideas, but when the writer combines it with the first statement, it becomes clear that what Campbell desires is a creative writer who can look at the world as it is — as opposed to as it was — and create new myths that speak to the people of today.

At one point in the conversation, Bill Moyers suggests that “myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance,” but Campbell corrects him, saying, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

According to Campbell, then, creative writers (and other artists) are responsible for helping the people of today connect with “the rapture of being alive,” while at the same time, devising ways to help the people of today understand how to pass from one stage of life to another, from becoming an adult, to finding a mate, to becoming a parent, to contributing to the wider community, to dying with grace.

Many people (myself included sometimes) would argue that an artist’s only responsibility is to the work of art, but Campbell seems to think that such an argument stems from a place of selfishness. “Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious,” he says, “and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” The artist’s gift — and yes, for Campbell, artistic ability begins as a gift — is that he or she can become “the interpreter for others of things not seen.” If the artist eschews this responsibility, then the artwork becomes entertainment; it will never rise to the level of the myth.

But again, the mythologization that Campbell is talking about cannot be found in the past; the artist must  create the myth using the experiences that come from living in the world today. And unfortunately, as Campbell says, “what we have today is a demythologized world.”

Which means that we artists haven’t been doing our job. It’s time to fix that.

Two types of stories

In a Facebook message this week, a friend asked, “Do you buy that there are only two types of fiction stories: a stranger comes to town and a hero goes on a journey?” I wrote back, “Yes and no. But it will take me longer to explain.”

This is my explanation.

First of all, any time you attempt to categorize art forms, you’re only looking for trouble, especially since many artists live or die on their ability to push beyond their audience’s pre-conceived notions of art. Tell an artist that there are only two types of anything and you’ll only inspire their next work of art, the one that says, “Oh yeah, well what about this?”

At the same time, the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” pairing communicates a key element of (virtually) any story — namely, that the story-world begins one way, and then something happens (in my creative-writing classes, we call this the inciting incident). In a stranger-comes-to-town story, the “something” is an external element that agitates the placidity of the story-world. In a hero-goes-on-a-journey story, the “something” usually forces the main character to depart from the placid world into the chaos beyond.

Here’s an interesting question: What kind of story is JAWS? It starts off as a stranger-comes story, with the shark playing the role of the stranger; but then Brody, Hooper, and Quint get on the boat, and it becomes a hero-goes story, with Brody playing the role of the hero. Should there be a third kind of story then? One that combines the other two?

Returning to my “first of all,” comment above, I don’t believe that the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” pairing defines the only two types of stories (though with enough effort, a critic could probably squeeze most stories into either of those categories). I’d rather simplify that pairing and say instead:

There are only two types of stories:

  1. Stories in which something significant happens
  2. Stories in which something significant does not happen

The former is self-explanatory, but the latter needs a little help. Allow me to enlist the words of Mark O’Connell, who just wrote an article titled, “On Not Going Out of the House: Thoughts About Plotlessness.”

The form [of the novel] tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people…go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them….but there is a small but fascinating niche…, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere.

O’Connell explores the books that make up this quiet backstreet, novels by John Banville, Samuel Beckett, Ivan Goncharov, and Nicholson Baker. He then concludes:

The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off.

For my own part, I am inspired by the idea of the plotless novel, but less as a fan of the genre and more as a philosopher of force and form. In fact, one of my works in progress is an attempt to write a story where “something significant” both happens and doesn’t happen, where the “plot points” are present yet invisible, happening and not happening, except in the reader’s head.

Which is to say, as an artist, I’m inspired and challenged by my own theory of the two types of story.

So, to my friend who asked the original question, I both believe and disbelieve in the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” theory. I think it gets close to the heart of our understanding of story, but in its attempt to reduce the art of fiction, it only inspires us to create, as the great Jack Donaghy said, that “third heat.”

Fluid Imaginalphabet: H is for Hypertext Fiction

I am not an electronic artist. I can’t construct a poem that both comments on and is presented through the tyranny of the computer screen, as Justin Katko does with “Up Against the Screen Mother Fuckers,” nor can I build a Google Map to tell the story of gentrifaction, as J.R. Carpenter does with “In Absentia,” nor construct an immersive document that investigates the risks of reading, as Stuart Moulthrop does in “Deep Surface.”

What I can do is say that I have yet to be moved by any of my experiences with hypertext literature (or more generally, electronic literature).

But I want to be. I desperately want to be.

We live in amazing times. As a man in his mid-thirties, I’ve lived through the birth and development of the digital revolution. And as a creative writer, I’ve yearned to explore the openings created by that revolution.

But my art form, my skill set, is the manipulation of the English language — not Flash, not JavaScript, but English.

A vast, but limited, tool chest indeed.

My experience with creating electronic fiction does not go beyond the shallow waters of the hyperlink, and I struggle with the desire to create something more engaging than a glorified choose-your-own-adventure story.

The difficulty of hypertext fiction is similar to the difficulty of narrative storytelling in video games (and to be sure, hypertext fiction can be considered a form of the video game). In his recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissel explains the root of that difficulty:

Games with any kind of narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and traditionally doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as the “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined — the “fun” portions of the “played” game — and usually amounts to some frenetic conception of getting from point A to point B. The differences between the framed narrative and ludonarrative are what make story in games so unmanageable: One is fixed, the other is fluid, and yet they are intended, however notionally, to work together.

To some extent, what Bissel is talking about here is authorial control. The game designers maintain authorial control over the framed narrative, but they give up much of that control during the ludonarrative. Quoting Clint Hocking, a famous game designer, Bissel writes:

The very nature of drama, as we understand it, is authored. Period. The problem is, once you give up control of that to a player, authorial control gets broken. Things like pacing and flow and rhythm — all these things that are important to maintaining the emotional impact of narrative — go all will-nilly.

As in video games, hypertext fiction gives the readers control over what words they’ll read next, what information they’ll find next, what scenes they’ll enjoy next (of course, writers can always reduce their use of the hyperlink to glorified footnotes or page turns, but that’s not exactly hypertext fiction; that’s just fiction being printed in hypertext).

The trick to maintaining the necessary narrative momentum, as in video games, is constraining the possibilities of reader control without the reader feeling as if she’s being constrained.

That’s a trick I haven’t mastered yet. But if you’re going to be a creative writer in the twenty-first century, it’s a trick worth learning.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: G is for Genre

Genre is, to my mind, the delineation of a boundary between and around literary works determined by the intellect’s instinct for perceiving integritas and consonantia, which I would do well to let James Joyce explain:

— In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is the bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended…selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

— Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure… You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the results of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

A genre is bounded, contained, and separated from the genres that are, indeed, not it; at the same time, a genre contains within it a harmony of multivariate works. The concept of genre is spatial, measured in terms of within or without, and it defines an existing dimension of any literary work.

The problem with the spatial definition of genre is that it is static; it neglects the genre’s dynamism. If the consonantia is harmony of multivariate works, dynamism is the way in which a new work figures into that song. With dynamism, the boundaries of a genre become expressions of the conceptual forces that emanate from individual works, and they are always subject to flux.

But how does one reshape the boundary lines? How does one write the work that moves the border of an existing genre? In short, how does a writer work within a genre at the same time as one goes beyond it?

Because it is only through the answer to this question that a writer will make her mark.

In Praise of Scrivener

In a couple of weeks, Literature & Latte will release a major upgrade to Scrivener, a market-upending, writing application they first launched back in 2005/2006. The software has received incremental improvements throughout the intervening years (including one major release at version 1.5), but this is the first upgrade the company feels comfortable charging its existing customers for. After years of development, the company is releasing Scrivener 2.0.

Before it comes out, however, we should take a moment to celebrate the wonder that is Scrivener 1.x.

Scrivener was designed to make the process of writing easier. Before Scrivener, most writing applications followed the word processing model, which was, itself, based on the model of the typewriter: writing begins at the top of the document and ends at the bottom. Word processors don’t change that model, choosing instead to make the middle of the document their battleground—”my word processor is better than yours because I can add tables in the middle of the document;” “no mine is better, because I can drag and drop images into the middle of my document;” “no mine is better because I can track any changes people make to the middle of my document;” etc.

The genius of Scrivener is that it tries to model not a typewriter, but a writer’s mind.1 While it contains some of the basic features of a word processor (it shares its text engine with Apple’s pre-installed TextEdit), Scrivener can be more accurately described as a project management application, where the project in question is a large and complex piece of writing.2

Writing is a notoriously messy operation, but word processors assume that the process of word writing is a fairly simple enterprise: a writer has an idea for a story (or research paper, or law review, or documentary script, etc.), so she sits down in front of a blank “sheet of paper” and types it up; case closed. This, of course, is pure fantasy. Writing involves collecting half-formed ideas, turning them into a series of communicable thoughts, and then developing them into an organic and intelligent whole. It’s not a process that lends itself to the linearity of the page—which is why Scrivener 1.x doesn’t even include the concept of the page: pages are for readers, not writers.3 And that’s the difference between word processors and Scrivener. Word processors assume that writing is just like reading; Scrivener knows better.

The feature list of Scrivener 1.x is long and involved, and this is no place to go into it. But each one is the result of a seemingly-agonizing battle (example) in the heart and mind of Scrivener’s chief (and until recently, sole) developer, a “gruff and quirky” chap named Keith Blount. Where Microsoft Word and other “writing” applications often feel like the result of way too many compromises, Scrivener feels like it springs from a single vision. That vision may not always align with your own, but once you give yourself over to it, you can predict (and be surprised by) its actions the same way you can predict (and be surprised by) the actions of a beloved character in your favorite novel. Scrivener is not just software for a writer; it is software by a writer, and it carries the authority that all art—if it’s good art—should carry.

And in just a couple of weeks, we’ll get to experience that writer’s next masterpiece. I am nervous for the upgrade, the same way you get nervous when you’re about to crack open the sophomore effort of a novelist you like, your mind plagued with concerned questions: will this one be as good, but at the same time, be different; will the author give me the same thrill I had when I first discovered his work; will the author be able to overcome any cynicism that may have crept into my worldview during the intervening years; will the work change my life for the better—differently but again?

We’ll soon find out the answers to those questions. But in the meantime, I just want to say thanks to Keith (and his growing team) for all the joy that has been Scrivener 1.x. Good writing software doesn’t do the hard work for you. But it makes it feel a lot less like work.

<

p>Footnotes

  1. Even the name of the program reflects this choice: where Microsoft tries to improve the word, Literature and Latte tries to improve the scrivener.
  2. The best illustration for this is the keystroke ⌘N, which in all Mac applications, creates a “New ___.” In Microsoft Word, for example, ⌘N brings up a “New Document”; in Scrivener, it creates a “New Project.”
  3. It should be mentioned that Scrivener 2.0 will include the concept of the page, but only because screenwriters depend on page counts to understand the length and shape of their movies.

Shaping the Short Story

A piece of fiction writing—a short story, for example—has two distinct elements to it. The first we can call synchronic, which means existing at one and the same time; the second is diachronic, which means existing through time.

                <p>Or to put it another way, a piece of fiction writing has both <em>structure</em> and <em>flow.</em></p>
                <p>Fiction writers must become artists in both domains, developing aesthetic skills that are akin to a water-slide designer's. They must build structures that impress upon the intellect, and develop a sense of flow to tickle their reader's sensations.</p>
                <p>The synchronic domain of fiction writing&mdash;its structure&mdash;usually becomes manifest in the arrangement of a story's scenes, but in a short story, where the entirety of the text may only include one scene, the synchronic domain has to become manifest in something else entirely. <span class="pullquote">When it comes to short stories, where does the structure come from?</span></p>
                <p>Let's begin by defining the short story as a narrative text that is intended to provide the reader with a unitary effect. As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his essay, "<a href="http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm" target="_blank">The Philosophy of Composition</a>" </p>
                <blockquote>I prefer commencing [the composition process] with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view &mdash; for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest &mdash; I say to myself, in the first place, 'Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?'</blockquote>
                <p>The structure of a short story, then, comes not from the arrangement of scenes, but from the arrangement of sensations and impressions experienced by the reader, an arrangement designed to leave the reader, at the end of the text, experiencing a <em>unitary</em> effect.</p>
                <p>James Joyce said that he wrote his stories with an aim towards providing his reader with the experience of an epiphany. In <em>Stephen Hero</em>, a precursor to the text that became <em>A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man</em>, <a href="http://theliterarylink.com/joyce.html" target="_blank">Joyce wrote</a>: </p>
                <blockquote>By an epiphany he meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.</blockquote>
                <p>When Joyce writes, "vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind," he's using "vulgar" in its Latin sense, meaning "common and ordinary." It's important to note the radical nature of Joyce's project. His stories try to record the presence of the spirit as it manifests in everyday objects, events, and people. </p>
                <p>Joyce continues: </p>
                <blockquote>The clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany....I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin's street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany...</blockquote>
                <p>Joyce further explains the process of epiphany via Thomas Aquinas' theory of beauty, summarizing: </p>
                <blockquote>First we recognise that the object is <em>one</em> integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a <em>thing</em> in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is <em>that</em> thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.</blockquote>
                <p>For Joyce, epiphanies are the result of a structural beauty, which is comprised by the quality of an object's "integrity, symmetry, and radiance." </p>
                <p>Of course, short story writers can aim at different effects than Joyce's epiphany, but the success of their project will still be decided by the story's integrity, symmetry, and radiance.</p>
                <p>What do these words mean in the context of the short story?</p>
                <p>Aquinas (and Joyce) use "integrity" to speak about an object's wholeness. When you come across an object in the world, you have to first discern the object from the world around it, which means you have to divide the world into <em>the object</em> and <em>not the object</em>. Sometimes you have to combine several parts to actually perceive the whole, i.e., a chair may be comprised of two arms, a back, a seat, four legs, a handle to lift a footrest, cushions, multiple fabrics, screws, nails, etc., but even then, it is still <em>a</em> chair.</p>
                <p>A short story is not a collection of random words on a page, nor a collection of random sentences, settings, characters, events. The parts of a short story must work together to form <em>a</em> whole. This is what it means for a short story to have integrity.</p>
                <p>Additionally, integrity implies that nothing extraneous is included in a short story. If some character, event, object, setting, or even a <em>word</em> is not absolutely necessary to the integrity of the whole, then the writer should have enough integrity to excise it from the final draft. By deleting the extraneous, the writer begins to achieve what we've called "symmetry."</p>
                <p>Symmetry can only be appreciated through a process of analysis. As Joyce writes, we must "consider the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and to other objects, examine the balance of its parts, contemplate the form of the object, traverse every cranny of the structure." Accomplishing this, we can begin to appreciate an object's symmetry.</p>
                <p>Short story writers can use the concept of symmetry to help them decide what needs to come next. When drafting a story, writers are continually faced with the question of the blinking cursor, the question of what should they write <em>now!</em></p>
                <p>One way to find the answer is through symmetry. If the writer knows that her final story must, in some way, achieve symmetry, then she can examine what she's already written with an eye towards putting it in balance. This balance could require changes to something major, such as the plot, or to something minor, such as the quantity of words the writer uses to describe the physical appearance of her secondary characters; the key is to discover those elements of the text that are out of balance with the others, and to decide if something can or should be done to correct them, whether through deletion or extension.</p>
                <p>Symmetry helps the writer to know that her "story" is complete (and by story, I mean "narration of the plot"). When the beginning, middle, and end of the story achieve a kind of symmetry, when every extra scene has been cut and every extra line of dialogue has been deleted, the writer can stop working on the "story" part of her text and start focusing on its "radiance."</p>
                <p>When it comes to short stories (or really, all creative writing), radiance refers to the text's clarity of vision. When a text is radiant, it lacks a certain fuzziness, a certain murkiness; it shines a clear light into the reader's imagination and dispells the shadows of ambiguity (this is not to say that a short story can't be ambiguous; it's to say that its ambiguities must be radiant).</p>
                <p>By placing a value on the radiance of the text, the clarity of the vision, the short story writer ensures that her reader won't wander lost and alone through a fog of impreciseness. The writer reads through her draft&mdash;"traverse(s) every cranny of the structure"&mdash;and revises all those instances where she used an imprecise phrase; for example, where she wrote "He looked at the woman, his eyes full of determination," she now writes, "He looked at the woman the way a bull looks at the waving red cape." The writer makes this revision because she needs the look on her character's face to radiate in the mind of her reader, but her original phrase, "eyes full of determination" created a murky image at best; the image of the bull is clear, and it <em>shows</em> the determination rather than <em>tells</em> it (in a later draft, the writer may want to improve the phrase by changing it from an analogy to a metaphor, but we don't need to take that trip with her&mdash;why is a metaphor an improvement over an analogy, you ask? Because analogies create <em>two images</em> in the reader's mind, requiring the reader to do the heavy work of transferring the qualities of one image on to the aspects of the other; metaphors, on the other hand, impregnate one object with the qualities of another, providing a single image for the reader to examine&mdash;a metaphor allows one image to beam with the radiance of another).</p>
                <p>Integrity. Symmetry. And Radiance.</p>
                <p>If writers focus on these three aspects of the text, the beauty of their short stories will begin to take shape.</p>
                <p>Of course, in the end, short stories will not only be judged by their beautiful structure, but also by the way the spirit of the text rises from the dead pulp and enters into meaningful communion with the reader. If integrity, symmetry, and radiance defines the story's structure, it is this quality&mdash;this quality of rising and communing&mdash;that defines the story's flow.</p>
                <p>But we'll talk about that some other time.</p>

A Working Definition of Creative Nonfiction

If it is true that “only a fool believes what he reads in the newspapers,” then the task of the creative nonfiction writer is to accomplish the same goal as newspapers — i.e., to communicate a partial, yet objective truth — but to do so with a richness that only a fool could deny.