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?


12 thoughts on “Getting to the Third Level of Writing

  1. I can sympathize with your youthful self disliking to analyze your reading. I always loved to read, but I hated to dissect the books I read for book reports and discussions. I still don’t get the interest in attending book clubs and sitting around talking about a book. I’d rather be home reading another book!

    I don’t deliberately choose a theme and write about it either, Will. I find that very artificial. My stories do have themes running through them, basically good versus evil, love conquers all—–that sort of “stuff”.

    Good, thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thanks Sue! I honestly didn’t think I’d find much agreement, I was just trying to be honest. It’s exciting to “sense” a theme in writing, and I’ve been pretty much unaware of it until recently.
      Still think I was right about Catcher in the Rye, though! I’m stubborn that way.

      1. I think you’re right about catcher in the Rye too. And you’ve had a stupid teacher. The teacher I had was more interested in getting us to THINK about what we read then in getting us to think what he wanted. We got good marks if we found arguments for our reasoing and quotes to support our arguments. Once he even went so far to say that not two people would agree on the same theme for the same book.

        I also see several themes in your book and they resonate with me. they might not be the same ones you see but they are there. I think all great story tellers (be they authors, teachers, musicians or artists) include a theme, most of them without noticing. So don’t you worry, you’re in the best company.

  2. I think you were right about Catcher in the Rye, especially when I examined your teacher’s question more closely. She asked what ‘Holden’ really meant and Holden as the character in the story meant no more than what you said IMO. The theme, to me, is something that emerges organically, and to put it into the story intentionally is to shortchange the reader of their own organic reaction to the events and questions posed by the story.

    I always enjoy your thought-provoking posts! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Kirsten, I agree of course! But even if the teacher had reworded to what Sallinger meant, as I later learned he was perhaps the world’s most famous author-recluse- so who could possibly have answered that one, in tenth grade yet!

  3. I think you’re right about catcher in the Rye too. And you’ve had a stupid teacher. The teacher I had was more interested in getting us to THINK about what we read then in getting us to think what he wanted. We got good marks if we found arguments for our reasoing and quotes to support our arguments. Once he even went so far to say that not two people would agree on the same theme for the same book.

    I also see several themes in your book and they resonate with me. they might not be the same ones you see but they are there. I think all great story tellers (be they authors, teachers, musicians or artists) include a theme, most of them without noticing. So don’t you worry, you’re in the best company.

  4. Thanks Cat, very reassuring. The teacher in question was actually my favorite non-history classroom teacher in high school, and the question (final one on the test) was to my mind an aberration for her. She gave us the what-do-the-aliens-find assignment and for weekly creative writing she let me write different episodes of a radio play!

  5. Will, I think you voice a Deconstructionist view of literature here. People like Derrida said that the author’s intent has nothing to do with what the work really means. That’s up to the reader. So level #3 is not ours to create.

    I, on the other hand, always start with theme and then move to character and the plot only comes later. I guess that means I deconstruct my own work before it exists. 🙂

    Or maybe not. Academic analysis of our work, either backward or forward, probably means a whole lot less than academics think it does. Haha.

    Fascinating post

    1. See, Anne, right there. I was even having trouble following what you just said!

      I am such a meat-and-potatoes thinker. I enjoy action movies, I never guess whodunnit, I’m just content to float along with the tale being told. To me, they all seem to start with “once upon a time”. And who interrupts that kind of story, to complain or analyze anything?

      And the incredible thing about your stories, Anne, is that while I’m laughing myself off the chair, I can just feel that it’s all going to come together. There are no wasted statements, no clue that means nothing, and yes, a message of some kind lurking out there throughout all the funny stuff. In epic fantasy, we say it all comes around. With Camilla Randall, it’s the same but you don’t have to wait as long!

      Me, a Deconstructionist? I think my mom (who had to clean up after me) would probably agree.

  6. Great post, Will.

    I’m with you — I don’t try to find the deeper meaning in novels. For me, that would just ruin it, as I’m reading for pleasure and entertainment — not from any Socio-Psychological motive. I think most readers understand that an author might actually ‘draw’ from current or past events; something that he or she experienced in life; some memory that swims to the top of consciousness so frequently that they eventually embed it in a plot thread.

    And don’t get me wrong — I’m glad there are those who enjoy unraveling these mysteries. I’m just not one to do so.

    I come across on occasion some ‘dissertation’of a novel I’ve read (dissection might be a better term) and they go all Freudian and point out these hidden elements I never knew were there because I hadn’t read the author’s published letters or biography from which these psyscho-analyzers were drawing their conclusions.

    And sometimes these are really neat. For instance, H. P. Lovecraft’s Horror at Red Hook was based on his experience of living in Red Hook, NY — which he detested for some racial reasons. I never knew it until a year or so ago. But it didn’t matter to me when I read the story — I enjoyed it nonetheless.

    One final word: It seems to me that writings are like artwork, which can be open to broadly different interpretations to folks from different walks of life. These subtle meanings may inadvertently work their way into a novel–these deeper threads–unconsciously on the author’s part–and be discovered by someone who then gushes about how deep the novel is. And we shouldn’t rush to condemn such findings, or illuminations, because they may actually exist as part of our subconscious psyche and are invisible to us, but are glaringly obvious to others (especially these Freuds).

    So if some critic remarks about some abyssal-deep societal issue you’ve worked cleverly into The Lands – don’t discount it. It might very well be true; we’re all much ‘deeper’ than we can ever know.

    1. Thanks for commenting Chris! I would hardly look askance at any critic who said I was being deep, in my writing or anything else!

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