Friday, November 14, 2008


We all live by rules. Granted, we don’t like all of them. Some we curse. Some we defy. For my sake, I certainly hope there is no holy counter at the Pearly Gates that will point out how many times my speedometer exceeded the posted speed limit. Whatever the case, whether we like them or love them, rules are a part of life. For the purpose of this post, I submit to you the following Ten Commandments on writing from John Dufresne (from The Lie That Tells A Truth):

1. Sit Your [Butt] in the Chair
2. Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader
3. Remember to Keep Holy Your Writing Time
4. Honor the Lives of Your Characters
5. Thou Shalt Not Be Obscure
6. Thou Shalt Show and Not Tell
7. Thou Shalt Steal
8. Thou Shalt Rewrite and Rewrite Again. And Again.
9. Thou Shalt Confront the Human Condition
10. Be Sure That Every Death in a Story Means Something

It is Commandment No. 9 that I want to focus on today.

In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, there is a philosophical discussion regarding the Genesis story of Cain and Abel. It is during this discussion that Lee, a Chinese servant with keen insight into the human condition, makes the following statement:

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”

There are times while reading a book when I wonder if the author is revealing more of himself than his character. Years ago, I remember this feeling distinctly while reading Tommyknockers by Stephen King. In that book, there was a brief history of one of the characters who went to college and was involved in writing. The character was put off by all of the debates raging through academia about what an author meant by such and such. It was at that point in the novel, where the character reveals his take on it: Can’t a story be just a story? I remember wondering if that was King’s position. He just wanted to tell a story without people trying to interpret too much out of it.

When I read the above quote from East of Eden, I felt that same sense the author was sharing more of himself to the reader. It was like Steinbeck reached up from the page and said, “Listen to this. It's what I believe. It’s important.”

Many of my stories are written for the sake of entertainment. And yet, my readers always demand the same thing: they want to understand the characters. It’s not enough to put a bad guy into the scene. The reader wants to know why he’s bad. And why? Because no story has power unless we see the truth in it. No character has substance unless the reader can believe in him.

And this thought—this challenge to paint true life—is something I find hard to deal with. There are certain stories in my head that I shy away from simply because the subject matter seems too dark. While I want to be a writer who can touch the truth, I am still a husband, a father, a friend, a member of a church body. And those parts of my life can not be separated from the writer. I still have to answer the questioning eyes, and the questions, of those around me who may not approve of the stories I write.

So, how do I give my stories the power they crave and still maintain my relationships? That is the question that troubles me today. One which I do not have a solid answer for. Maybe one which I will never have an answer for. While there are rules for writing, there are still Commandments to live by, and the two sets do not always live at peace with each other.

How about you? Are there issues you have refused to touch? Have you been forced to account to your relationships for the things you write? How did you handle it?


  1. Great post, Stephen.

    The Cain/Abel story in E of E: HUGE. Interesting to note that it appears smack dab in the middle of the book. I'm looking forward to finishing the book and seeing how it's geographic location in the story fits the puzzle.

    Commandments: loved them. Thanks for pointing those out to me.

    Dilemma: yep, I've faced it. My husband has this look he gets when he reads an "uncomfortable" story of mine. Luckily, those stories aren't published anywhere. Knowing he'll be uncomfortable with it is probably a big reason why I haven't sent out the Nick story. As you know, that one has some edgy elements.

  2. Super post, Stephen. You may post less often than I'd like, but when you do, your words are like finding a golden easter egg hidden in the grass...

    Anyway, I love dark. Yep. That's what I prefer to read and write. By dark I mean the hard life stuff, not the 'dark' fantasy or horror stuff, not gratuituous violence.

    I write about what moves me, what I've witnessed friends and family struggle with - anxiety, depression, abortion, miscarriage, infidelity, longing, sexual ambivalence, murderous rage, substnace abuse, alcoholism, mental illness...

    These things happen. Why? Maybe I can paint them in such a light that after reading, we better understand, commiserate, or empathize. Maybe. Peace, Linda

  3. Thank you, ladies.

    Greta: I understand where you are coming from, and uncomfortable is the right word to use. I think that is why I shy away from certain subjects. We all know, or at least suspect, the hidden things of human behavior. Some people don't like to put it under the microscope and really look at it. It's interesting, though, the Bible doesn't pull any punches. Consider the story of King David and his children. Now there's some really juicy stuff.

    Linda: You are correct. Understanding is at the heart of what we do. If not the understanding of other people, then it's the understanding of ourselves. Here's a little gem I picked up from an article in the latest edition of The Writer:

    "Writing, especially memoir, allows you to have a relationship with your mind, a great relationship. All those hours you spend writing and thinking teach you a lot about who you are. That's pretty great. Most people don't get to have that." ("Writing on the Fly", December 2008)

    How true.