Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Witch's Brew- Writers and Politics, Part One of Four

It's hard to write good fiction.

Very few of us write great fiction.

Fewer still write great fiction capable of truly transforming reader's hearts and minds.  We're afraid to try, and, really, we don't think we're up to the noble task.  So mostly we join writer's groups, live in fear of critiques and workshop, workshop, workshop.

Instead of exploring the world around us, dissecting it and imagining how to put it together again in a better way, we network with other writers, agents, editors and publishers.

We measure our success or lack thereof in number of positive Tweets, number of likes and/or comments on our Facebook page, or number of blog visitors measured by the great Bean Counter of the Internet- Google Analytics.

The thrill and exaltation of writing our first novel fades when no one much pays attention.  It turns to mortified rejection when it's first rejected by an agent.  By the sixth or seventh rejection, our writing life may be measured in terms of how many milligrams of Valium the doctor prescribes or how many glasses of wine we imbibe on any given day.

In between this Dark Night of the Soul and our first real success, many writers develop the Lemming Syndrome.  If there's an emotional cliff anywhere within miles of where they live, they feel compelled to do the Zombie Walk to it and jump off, making sure their reputations crash to the bottom with them.

The Lemming Syndrome occurs mostly when we know that we want to write, but realize we really aren't good enough yet to write something of lasting value.  That's when we commit the terrible sin of trying to teach others to write.

When as writers we have done this to the point that we realize we are as welcome in writing circles as relatives who belch fire, we panic and commit the most heinous of writing sins: we begin to blather away in public about politics.  We have drunk from the Witches' Brew.  We post political materials on Facebook.  We are enraged by the "Opposition Party."  We make fun of their candidates, deride them as "small-minded" or "dangerous" or "out of touch."  We scream slogans we'd be ashamed to hear other primates promoting.  We Twitter like there's no tomorrow.  Each election is the most "...important of our lifetime."  We not only agree, we shout it from the rooftops.  It's safer than taking a risk with our writing.

We do this because we're too lazy to write novels that will change the hearts of minds of others.  We're afraid.  It takes too much work.  It's risky.  We are not, after all, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe or John Steinbeck.  What if nobody likes our serious writing?  What if it's politically unpopular?  Better stick with genre.

The same writers who are proud to the point of stridency about hyperactive addiction to discussing endlessly the political evils of our world, do very little in the way of creating powerful fiction.  Talk is cheap.  The cost of great fiction is your heart, your soul and your mind.  You must invest everything into it.

"The Grapes of Wrath" took a toll on Steinbeck.

Are you wasting your time writing ubiquitous fiction? Is it because you no longer believe in the power of fiction to change hearts and minds?  Or is it just your own fiction you doubt?  Leave the socially powerful writing to the very talented few, you say.  Leave the heavy lifting to the strong writers.

Someday, you say, you will write a "social novel."  One that will change the world.  Or maybe just not embarrass you.

But it has to be later, you say.  It's 2012 and we have to discuss politics and talk and talk and talk.

Why not write?

What will that change?  you ask.  

If you aim low, you can never fall too far.

And you've forgotten why you write.  That's what happens when you drink the witch's brew.  You quit believing in yourself and the muscular power of the written word.

Cheer up.

There's an antidote.


Anna Smith said...

Very well said. We shouldn't do tomorrow what we can do today :)

Nancy said...

I have seen the question on several blogs about whether you would prefer to write one great novel or be a mid-list author that is easily forgotten. I have thought about it and I would rather write that one great novel. That being said, at this point any novel published would be good.

Rick said...

That's a great way to look at it, Anna. If all young writers think of it that way, the future looks a lot brighter!

Rick said...

Nancy, if that first novel puts you on the path to writing something powerfully compelling, then it's a wonderful thing.

Bonnee Crawford said...

For some reason, I end up reading this posts a lot like an infomercial ... well, sometimes, anyway. The difference being you're giving free worth-while information instead of trying to sell a cheap product for more money than it's worth.

I don't understand why someone would BOTHER writing if they're not striving to make a difference, or change a heart, or something like that. When a person writes, they should at least be TRYING to do that, and hopefully succeeding, even if they aren't one of the handful of authors who can write great fiction. Why bother doing anything if you're not going to put some backbone into it?

Rick said...

That's the great mystery, Bonnee. Have you ever really wondered how many writers there are in the US alone? I'm amazed the country doesn't sink under the weight of them.

Why so many unfulfilled dreams? How many do you think really make it as a writer? And I don't mean fiduciary success, I mean how many create great work?

You asked why would anyone start anything if they weren't going to give go all the way with it? I think one of the reasons it happens is because of what I'm saying in this post- we don't really have the self-belief or the understanding of the power of the written world.

Those two unfortunate truths apply to a lot more than writing.

So two things I'm working on- how to help writers spot when they're drifting from the path (and we all do a lot of it) and, second, how to get us back on task. I think we're living in the golden age of writing if we'd only quit focusing on the process and start focusing on the writers themselves.

Charles Gramlich said...

You know, man, I needed this kick in the pants. You're exactly right, and I see myself in this too well. Thanks for this.

Rick said...

I owe you one anyway, Charles, for your great book "Write With Fire." It should be required reading for every writer no matter what their level.

In fact, thanks for reminding me- I was going to ask if you'd mind me doing a follow up post on the importance of reading it.

Also, I will be putting it on the recommended reading list for writers who want to submit fiction to "White Cat Magazine."

Travis Cody said...

I often struggle to write great fiction, or even good fiction. I do keep trying.

You know, there's an awful lot to read out there. With my Kindle, I'm exposed to a lot more books in different genres than ever before. Sometimes I wonder what I can possibly contribute to the pool.

I mean, even if I write something great, it's so daunting to think about how to distinguish it from all the other choices a reader has, you know?

Chris said...

Love this. But what happens when you put heart into the writing and you take the time do it to the best you can because you love the words and the language and the craft of the story - and yet it's still never good enough?

Rick said...

It's a great question, Chris, and one I'm going to spend some time on. But I'll give you the short version because I actually believe you can make it as a writer.

This will go against the grain of a lot of people, but in order to produce good writing, we have to focus on the writer, not their stories, not their characters, their plots, their story themes and character arcs.

Here's a common bit of writing politics, "It's all about the characters." That is one of the single most counterproductive teachings to writers I know, topped only by "concentrate on the theme."
Or, worse, economy is critical.

These are all also-ran teachings.

The single most important teaching is that in order to create great fiction, we have to concentrate on the writer first, and only then the story.

Because the writer is the creator- the single essential element to creating great fiction.

You can work on a car for weeks, but if it doesn't have an engine, it won't go anywhere.

First the writer, then the story.

I've read your blog, you seem like you have a heart and a desire to write well. You'll make it if you never give up and always go your own way until you've acquired enough knowledge and insight to talk to readers with authority. Then people will listen. You'll have made it before you put your fingers to the keyboard.

Rick said...

Hi Travis!

You have the heart for it. But I've been meaning to ask you what genre you most enjoy reading. I suspect you have broad tastes, but what's your favorite genre now?

Wait, I'm going about this wrong. What was your favorite genre when you were young. Which writer inspired you?

From having read your posts, I keep waiting for you to unveil a novel along the lines of "To Kill a Mockingbird." One great work, never to be equaled. A novel of our times without slogans.

If you'll be so kind as to read Dennis LeHane's novel "The Given Day," you'll see what you're capable of creating. Do you read "The Walking Man's" blog? Somewhere in the balance between you, him and JR (of JR's Thumbprints) there waits that novel.

BernardL said...

Actually writing a broad range of commentary, non-fiction opinion pieces, and blogging in general add variety to a writer's thought processes. It works especially well if the writer pays attention to mechanics and editing, concentrating on producing coherent comments. While I don't think Tweeting in shorthand helps a writer's creative side, writing everyday about a variety of subjects keeps the process of thoughts to words flowing.

Rick said...

There is definitely something to be said for daily writing, and I have to say I'm impressed by the opportunity for formative writing that blogging represents. By the way, do you happen to know who owns what you blog? Who owns your Tweets, your Facebook content? Google's new privacy policy is fascinating. Facebook and Twitter are worth looking into as well.

Nothing is for free.

BernardL said...

We don't. That's for sure, Rick. :) Someone wishing to fight in court over anything in the public domain will have to have a lot more money than I do.

Rick said...

The National Writers Union is the place to be on this issue, Bernard. Write now they're the ones with the most focus on our rights.

Travis Cody said...

When I was a kid, I enjoyed The Hardy Boys. I liked the puzzles and mysteries.

Then as a teen I drifted into fantasy...from the moment I discovered Tolkien, I couldn't get enough of that kind of epic fantasy and world building. That's the kind of story I thought I could tell.

Thanks for the reading recommendations.