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On Being Profound

On Being Profound

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Don't worry.  I haven't lost my mind.  I know I posted that non-advice thing on FaceBook the other day, and here I am back with yet more gruel that could be considered advice.  It just so happens that this essay I wrote for publication was recently (within the last couple days) declined due to the editor already having something very similar.  So I figured, why waste it.  I'm sure there are those who will read it who totally disagree with it, and that might lead to an interesting discussion.  I promise, no more non-advice from me for a loooooong time.  



On Being Profound

          The tendency of new fiction writers to want to be profound in their work is an admirable trait and a noble pursuit but can often lead to stories that are dead on arrival.  The desire to say something important to the world makes sense, because if not that, then what's the point?  The problem with it, though, is that the new writer sometimes isn't yet aware of what fiction actually is or how it works and this results in a story that's pedantic. 

          No reader of fiction wants to be lectured.  What readers come to fiction for is to be immersed in a convincing world, to meet and follow interesting characters and travel with them on their adventures or live with them through their challenges.  The new writer, although wanting the same when she reads, forgets when the pen is now in her hand that fiction isn't about telling the reader what to think or righting the wrongs of the world but instead to tell what happens, how it happens, to whom, and to tell what happens next. 

          New writers are lured into this misperception of fiction by the literature classes they take in school.  They forget all the intense pleasures they've experienced in fiction -- the delicious frights of ghost stories, the wonder of fanciful worlds well-described, the engaging friendships they had with characters.  These are all replaced by one big question.  The teacher will ask, "What does it mean?"  Then the teacher and students will spend some time dismantling the story or novel, analyzing its constituent parts, and trying to fathom the writer's purpose in writing it.  They will hunt down symbols, trace leitmotifs, infer connections between the wider world and the world of the fiction.  All well and good as that's what one does in literary analysis.  The teacher is trying to help the students get at what is profound about a text.  Considering the meanings of stories is what the reader does or can do, but this is not the job of the writer. 

          The students in the literature class come to believe that above all, for a book to be great, to be revered by their teachers and society, and to be worthy of the term "Literature" it must have a clear and undeniable message that can be identified through the hunting of symbols and literary allusions.  In short, a book has to be about something, the more profound the better.  Because of this, the student gets the idea that the way fiction writers create their stories is by beginning with a profound idea and then inserting clues by way of symbols and sly secret messages into a story so there will be no mistake as to what exactly that big idea is and why it's important.  With this stilted view, fiction writing becomes a mechanical process.  Start with the big idea, and then round up some characters and scenery in order to serve as a vehicle for it. 

          The results of this process are very often deadly boring.  Because the emphasis is put on the logistics of engendering the big idea, the characters are afterthoughts; thin, pale creations to be bullied about by an author so that they will do what's necessary to serve the conveyance of meaning.  Likewise, the world of the story, the setting of the characters' lives, must adhere to the same controlling  demands.  Characters become slaves who are put through their paces in a world that lacks all verisimilitude since it lacks the element of chance or surprise, and the writer becomes a puppet master.  There might be a big idea at play, but the fiction, due to the writer's desire for control will be lifeless. 

          Fiction writing isn't about getting up on your soap box and lecturing the world about the way things should be.  Fiction writing is first and foremost about describing experience.  If you want to relay a big idea to readers, write an essay.  If you want to write fiction, concentrate on what happens next.  The secret to writing effective fiction is not to exert more control as you might want to in driving a car, but instead to exert less control, to take your hands off the wheel and let the characters and their stories lead you.  It is to see the characters clearly in the imagination, sense their personalities, desires, motivations, and to simply follow them and record what they do and what they experience in their world.  Only in this way can the writer experience a sense of discovery and convey that sense of discovery, surprise, immediacy, to the reader. 

          The better a writer's craft becomes, the more adept the writer becomes in rendering her vision, what she sees the character doing or experiencing in her imagination.  The less conscious, overt control a writer brings to bear on the characters, the more there is a chance for the chaotic, errant power of the imagination to imbue the story.  And this is where fiction can become truly profound.  Exerting less control, the writer allows a kind of "subconscious wisdom" to infiltrate the story.  I put the term in quotes because I don't really have words to adequately describe the phenomenon.  The writer may not even be conscious of the fact while writing, but it is through this type of process that real symbolism and a true coherence can enter the fiction.  The process is not mechanical but organic.  The writer's efforts are in service to the story, not the other way around. 

          Finding the perfect words to nail the description of a place or character cavorting in the imagination, is, for an author, as profound as it gets.  Releasing conscious control of characters and letting them guide you through their world is profound.  Discovering what happens next in the story instead of dictating it is profound.  If all these things are at play in a writer's fiction, the reader's experience of the story will be profound, and after reading, when analyzing the work, investigating what is at its heart there will be for each different reader an idiosyncratically profound experience.        

          Now I would be disingenuous if I were to tell you that writers never hold in their minds some theme or big idea that they want to guide a story or novel while writing.  In fact something like a big idea is always present, like a vague spirit influencing the imagination but not obviously or consciously taking hold of the reins of the creative process.  It more imbues the imagination with a certain sensibility, but it must remain subservient to the innate drive of the characters and the story they have decided to show the writer.  Sometimes a writer might begin with a vague big idea circling at the periphery of the process, but the characters refuse to have anything to do with it.  The writer, if she's a good one, will bow to their inclination and follow them in a different direction only to discover that the story they are showing her has some different general theme. 

          Fiction writers are always saying things like, "I thought the story was going to be about X, but then I realized as it played out that it was really more about Y."  The writer must be able to work under the auspices of uncertainty, retaining a willingness to flow with the story in any direction at any moment in order to follow the imaginative energy of possibility.   

  • Thanks for writing this, Jeff. Teachers asking "What does it mean?" ruined classic literature for me. I could never just read for the pure joy of story, I had to labor over it to catch all the deep profundity. To this day, I'm woefully under-read when it comes to classics. I'm the poorer for it.

    Jeff P.
    • Jeff: I'm not so much down on literary analysis. I think there's a place for it, obviously, when done well. A lot of the professors I had in college did lead me to think some profound thoughts about the works, but I do think it's true that the job of the fiction writer is very different than the task of analyzing fiction. They require very different kinds of intelligence.
  • Well said!
  • This answers some of the questions I had about craft. With a masters in Comparative Literature it can be hard to turn off the analytic engine while writing. The processes are not necessarily compatible or reversible. The writing is like letting the story flow like water to its final resting place. The analysis is like trying to make the story backwards by pushing the water uphill. See what happens when you use the word "profound?" But I swear I didn't force this analysis... much...
  • Wow. What a lot of words to say what Greg has told me you say to students: "Just tell the F***ing story!"

    :D

    Oz, who liked this a lot
  • yes, but I can get a ferry to New London from the north shore. But kid's tutor is also south shore rat with family property on fire island. job is in Bohemia, which is, apparently, not the place to live. Suggestions?
    • Bohemia is South of Ronkonkoma. If you can afford it, live near the shore. Both the Sound and the Ocean are beautiful out there. The thing is, it's incredibly expensive to live anywhere on Long Island now. I think. I could be wrong.
      • No choice about living on LI. A survey of available real estate yielded scads in our approx. price range within 20 miles of Bohemia, but we've never been to LI so we're still shooting in the dark. It's also expensive to live in the metro DC area so no sticker shock. And OMG real BROADBAND! We have 10 acres here, but we don't want 10 acres ever again. Wading River keeps coming up with houses we like. I'm also pushing to look near a college town because I grew up near college towns and I like the atmosphere.
  • Oz isn’t the only one who like this a lot. These have been my exact thoughts for quite a while, but you said them so well, Jeff.

    “The writer's efforts are in service to the story, not the other way around.” And therefore in service of the reader. It amazes me how many new writers lose sight of their end goal.

    I hope you’ll break your promise and do more of these posts sooner rather than later. :-)
  • I found myself nodding and muttering "Yes...yes..." all the way through this piece.

    Writers can't build a story from a kit, choosing which theme to insert or pull characters from central casting to fill a roll. You have to build stories around people and what happens to them. Theme sorts itself out and naturally evolves from the characters, not the other way around.

    My absolute best writing moments are when a character says or does something I didn't plan, and I know instantly it's perfect. My characters have their own ideas about where the novel should go. They're always right too.
  • Arriving at profundity

    Jeff,

    In writing classes, I try to get students to understand that in literature classes, they are interacting with the final, finished work, and analyzing it as lit classes do will not help them even slightly to grasp how it was written. Take The Great Gatsby--that’s a book that was, effectively, edited into existence in a laborious back-and-forth between Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, his agent. The profundity of it was only arrived at by Perkins pushing Fitzgerald to incorporate repetitions, motifs (like having Gatsby say “old sport” all the time to reveal his Romneylike phoniness)--almost none of it in the original manuscript. As someone wiser than I said, reading finished novels as a guide to writing a novel is like reading film reviews in order to learn how to direct a movie. Thematic material emerges out of the story of course, arriving because the writer has exactly captured the experience for the reader, who, inhabiting it, finds what’s profound. And now I’ll stop preaching to the choir.

    -greg
  • I don't necessarily thing that writing with a message is a bad thing, inherently; it's just that most messages aren't very interesting. It's not the didacticism, it's the didacticism about boring obvious shit that gets me. "War is hell!" (You DON'T SAY!) When not very smart people try to write profound things, problems arise. Then again, smart people probably know better than to be so naively obvious.
  • profundity

    Let poets be profound,
    They’ve always plowed that ground,
    They have no tale to tell.

    They may not do it well.
    Still, boring as a tort,
    At least it’s short.



    9/12/12 email bounced once, sent again. Can you check your spam filter?
  • Yes. And if we do that, we might find what Howard Waldrop calls "The Thing."

    I think that's how it works. Maybe I'll think something different about it tomorrow.

    --Vickie
  • Jeffrey Ford on facebook?

    Hi. I've been looking for Jeffrey Ford on Facebook for literally months and can't find him. There's too many Jeffrey Fords! One of my favorite authors, so in any hope that anyone still reads this, link?
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