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?
Posted by Stephen at 12:28 PM