Category Archives: misc

Why Write? Because Your Life is… EPIC!

Where “Why” Lives On

I think maybe we have kids so we can be reminded of that time we forgot, back when we were children- that phase where every answer was followed by another “why”? Our parents all gave up, just like I did, when it got somewhere around Bill Cosby’s immortal question “why is there air?”. But just this week, my daughter got on the phone with me- during a rare business trip- all in a lather about an ending she had just seen on the TV, one I knew very well and which doesn’t make sense. She’s sixteen now, the pace of “why” has settled down to where I almost miss it. I was rather busy, and this was too tough to answer on the phone. But I promised her I’d talk it through when I got back.

Before that happened, I finished the book I was reading on the train. And I answered a question for myself. WHY was I writing?

I Hate Not-Writing: Makes You Think Too Much!

Not that I’ve done much recently- things have been quite unsettled but I think the new normal is coming around. And I never stopped feeling the hunger, to get back to this particular story and face its intimidating and alluring heroine again. Once I got started, I never really needed motivation to write- I wasn’t asking why in that sense. But I had honestly lost my compass a bit- this priestess, she’ll throw you for a loop too! And I’m very thankful I decided to read the book I had with me. There are no accidents…

It’s called “Epic” by John Eldredge and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to write, especially any kind of fiction. Fair warning- the author is a religious man and his thesis is rather startling. I’d be sorry if that drove you off by itself- the book is very accessible, and it flies right by even for a moderate-pace reader like myself. But I’ll give you a couple of points from it by way of explanation.

John wasn’t asking why we write, but why we read, or watch, or listen to tales ourselves. His answer was alarmingly simple.

 

We go after these tales because at their heart ALL good stories are showing us elements of OUR story.

 

And our story, of course, is a part of THE story: this is where he gets more spiritual, but as a Catholic that doesn’t bother me a bit.

We feel the thrill of the heroism, the struggle, the romance in tales- and we recognize, deep down, that somewhere something has gone seriously wrong in the tale we’re living through. Who can fail to notice how much suffering, frustration, and yeah, betrayal exists? For us and for the world, I mean. We work for the happy ending- yeah, the happily-ever-after ending, any good person does that. We often don’t feel like it, but our lives are epic! That’s a meaningful word, of course to me- in epic fantasy the likes of which I’m trying to chronicle, things come around, the story means something, lots is at stake and needs to be saved.

So There IS a Reason

It thrilled me and brought me back to really focus on my current tale. THAT’s why I’m writing- because it helps me to chronicle the specific aspects of my world, the characters I’ve come to know, gives me clues about how to bring my own epic life to a happy conclusion.

And we all do this for each other. Probably Eldredge’s best quote is the way we likely feel, at least sometimes, about the story we are starring in:

For most of us, life feels like a movie we’ve arrived at forty-five minutes late. Something important seems to be going on… maybe.

But we’re lost, or behind the plot so often, and here’s the key of all human existence. (Pretty cool claim, huh? When you write epic fantasy you get to go after stuff like this) We cannot find our place in our story- in THE story- by ourselves. So we turn to each other and ask “what’s happened?” We watch romantic TV series, we can’t get enough super-hero movies, we check out the horror titles in the bookstore; and we listen to that crazy uncle who’s never told the truth in his life but man, can he spin a yarn after dinner.

I need an answer; so I read and I listen, and most of all these past five years, I write. And I think it’s a big part of why you read or write too- I can’t wait to see your next part, because when I enjoy it, you’re helping me to get “there” in my own epic tale.

Do It For Yourself–And For Humanity!

Don’t think so? Hey, free country- but I really recommend this book. It restored my spirits, and that has to be good for me. One more quote from Eldredge- I don’t think anyone can deny that we devour tales (and with fiction tales especially, that begs the question why), or that we have this haunted feeling of being lost. Where else in the alleged-real world can we find THIS kind of answer? Eldredge quoted a fellow named Neil Postman:

In the end, science does not provide the answers most of us require. Its story of our origin and our end is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. To the question, “How did it all begin?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident”. To the question, “How will it all end?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident”.  And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living.

Like I said, there are no accidents. It may not matter whether there is a guiding mind behind the cosmos of the alleged-real world. Maybe I’m mistaken, maybe Eldredge is. But that point about the scientific view is dead-on, to tempt the pun. And to not wander around feeling lost on the plot, to live a life with some purpose, is surely better. I’ve remembered that recently- and I will certainly begin to write again soon.

After all- my life is EPIC.

How about you?

P.S.: What ending did Genna want to know “why” about? The ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which her mother and I had finally allowed her to see. We talked about parody and satire, and I said things a bit like I have here. Maybe straight-out medieval virtues don’t exactly “fit” in our story today- Arthur and his knights would probably have to go to jail. But if that’s true, why did we laugh so hard? What was so TRUE about courage, and faith, and even chastity that we can chuckle when it’s made fun of? And more importantly, what ending are we replacing the quest for the Grail with? That might be more analysis than the troupe figured it could stand- the Muppet-master Jim Henson once said of his comedy sketches “When you’re stuck for an ending, you can always blow something up, or if that doesn’t work, throw penguins in the air”. Sometimes the ending is senseless, but it doesn’t make the story worthless- it just means it isn’t truly over yet. If you’re still alive, you know what that feels like.

Getting to the Third Level of Writing

The writing I love. It’s literature I can’t seem to get along with.

In 10th grade, the final essay question on our test for “Catcher in the Rye” directed our attention to the final passage where Caulfield speaks longingly about his desire to serve as a kind of life-guard for children playing in a meadow- literally, the title of the novel. The question posed to us was “What did Holden REALLY mean?” I wrote a full response arguing simply that he didn’t mean anything- it was a job he had thought of and he really wanted to do that. Because hey, that was a great job! The teacher and I got into a rather furious argument- I know for a fact, she told me exactly what she thought about the true underlying meaning of the speech, but I couldn’t remember one word of it an hour later. Still don’t.

That stuff never meant a thing to me. I still struggle to get there, this third level of writing. Coming up on six years of formally chronicling the Lands of Hope, I begin to see, just dimly, a distant… something. It’s not something I do particularly well, or on purpose. But at least now I think I see it.

One more time, it bears repeating for those who just came in, I’m merely a chronicler. I have less control over what happened in the Lands of Hope than a first-time student driver on an Alpine ski slope with the brakes cut. Make it up? Puhleeze- it happens, I take it down. But no question, I can improve the way I describe it to all of you. You’ve done this yourself, right? The Lands of Hope are like a movie that you’ve seen but your friend hasn’t. There’s a way to describe the thing- concise, evocative, fascinating- you’re working uphill because every picture is worth a thousand of your words. If you get them interested enough to go see it on their own, give yourself a prize.

First level- the Plot

You need to put the events in order, they must lead to something, make sense by the end. Stories with plot weakness simply can’t work; the suspension of disbelief fails and there’s a chance the reader stops, never to start again. When I spot a loose end, or a lovely piece of description that doesn’t point to anything, it’s not fatal but I usually feel disappointed, or a bit impatient. Nowhere is this more of a danger than in epic fantasy- the world-building train so effortlessly becomes a runaway locomotive, taking the reader down a steep siding about magic forces, or the adolescent growth cycle of a gryphacorn, the alignment of the northwestern sky-quadrant… hey, where’d everybody go? Of course, fantasy carries a balancing advantage because you can have the most incredible things happen to sustain the interest level (at least temporarily).

Pretty much everyone does plot- I’ve read a lot of harsh editorials about how all indie pub is garbage, but I couldn’t have been this lucky in the stories I’ve downloaded. Personally, I have a lot of experience with story-telling: I’ve never thought that History was anything else, frankly, and I told those stories to high school students five days a week for thirteen years. I didn’t have any control over what happened in the Alleged Real World either… but I flatter myself that I got pretty good at putting the facts in the right order, having it all make some sense.

Second level- Character

Yeah, we’re going in ascending order here, this is substantially harder than Plot. You have to convey the tale through the vehicle of beings whose lives and choices the reader comes to care about. I bet there is isn’t a bad character on the internet- we authors often don’t introduce or describe them well enough, is all. That’s partly because there’s more wiggle-room: your character doesn’t have to have clear set goals, the conflict can hit them in differing ways, they don’t even have to be protagonists or antagonists in the traditional sense. But in my honest assessment, the biggest problem at this level is that the author assumes too much and shows too little. I’ve read halfway through a book before exclaiming to myself, “oh, really? This guy loves his country? That explains a lot!” or something similar. The patriotism was assumed by the author, but now as a reader I have all the work of thinking back, reconstructing everything that happened from that perspective- and I don’t want to do that, it’s already ruined.

When I try to assess my own craft, I would say again that Character is harder than Plot, but

I believe it’s the part I do best. I love and admire the heroes of the Lands, and I believe I can bring a certain depth-perception to describing them within the plot that helps inform, entertain and move the reader. In The Plane of Dreams, the intrepid stealthic Trekelny has taken it upon himself to open a cage in the enemy camp, freeing a wild tiger to roam in the nearby woods. The rest of the party catches up, and when one of them tries to reproach him for it, Trekelny coolly responds “I happen to like cats.” There is an entire story- Three Minutes to Midnight – from nine years earlier in his career to reinforce this one fact. And that’s just an example I can point to in publication. Time and again, I benefit from being able to back up a preference, or a love of something in my characters like that. I could tell you a whole story about it. Don’t challenge me on this- I will bury you.

This far I’ve been able to go on my own, by chronicling. And it’s made me rather happy, I won’t scruple to deny. Before I was telling these tales, setting my notes and memories to narrative, my brain was tenser, life less settled this past decade. The vocation of teaching gave me such great personal joy I didn’t miss out. But having a new life course, where I teach only as a pinch-hitter, plus the lack of contact with the Lands in other important ways, just made me miss it  more. So the telling has helped me tremendously.

And I think I always knew, I wasn’t getting where the really good, much less great writing went.

My daughter is home-schooled, so I overhear her mother talking to Genna about The Great Gatsby these days. And that’s what really pushed all these thoughts I’m having around the bend: I think to myself, “how could your writing ever be treated like this guy’s?” I say again, I never liked literature. The English teachers in school would gather to one side of the faculty room discussing books, even books I had read, in ways that made me feel stupid. Yet they were so engaged- gushing, really- over the deep meaning of it all. Those books had something I wasn’t noticing, a level of appreciation that maybe I’m not built to “get”, and if so, then I’m a poor guide to describe what it is to you. But a distant, misty glimpse is still something seen.

I call the third level, for now, Theme

It’s another entire strata tying the tale together, like Plot and Character, and I only guess from the clues of others and my inchoate vision, it’s the level that makes everything mean two things at one time. While all the stuff is happening, as the characters are displaying their virtues, vices and quirks, there’s just another THING that it all means. I can joke about it rather easily, even in my ignorance: pull my glasses down my nose, mimic holding a brandy snifter and say, “of course, it’s man’s struggle against himself”. Or nature, or the futility of breathing; or maybe it’s all of those things all the time, I just have no idea. Theme is the word one of my close friends advised me to consider, in the second year of my chronicling (2009). I was drafting my beloved opus, the work closest to my heart- and coincidentally the tale that’s coming out beginning this summer, at long last a trunk novel no longer. Judgement’s Tale means more to me than I can readily say, so it’s fair to describe my state as constantly heightened these days. But my close friend urged me to think of the theme of any longer work like this- what is the one thing it really means, he asked. And I could tell then he was onto something, I knew it. But I also knew that if I made any part of my work beholden to it- if I refused to continue before I answered the question- I would stop altogether, and probably for good.

Looking back, now that the novel is done and I’ve polished it seriously twelve times, I think I have an idea or two about what it means. There are some themes that run through the book. I know it would be better if I had noticed them from the start, worked them in and not settled for just letting things happen or for characters to grow and deepen in (my) ignorance of them.

But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s what writers do. Not me. My tales will either have deeper meaning for you, or they won’t. I pray for the former because I’m vain and because no one wants to do something less well than possible. But trying to describe the themes I see to you, as if some exciting movie I’d just watched, that’s where my train stops and I get off. I shall keep my counsel, for a change- but I am eager to hear your feedback around Theme especially, as you discuss the way you analyze tales.

Do you get to the third level in your writing?