Risky Business: Writing a good story takes little acts of faith

I’m a very organized person.  It’s something that is a necessity for my job, and it’s also something I do fairly well.  I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t get enjoyment out of planning my goals, creating assignment calendars, making lists of books I plan to read, and above all, plotting my fiction.  My house is a tidy place, and I tend to straighten it with a regularity that my partner Jeff finds at times annoying.  I even get perverse delight out of the fact that my dog, Meeps, positions herself in the exact center of the couch in the living room.  “Oh,” I think, “that dog, she really gets me!”

I’m not sure why I have a great love of order.  Of course, I could blame my occupation.  To be a good teacher, you have to be organized.  You just have to.  More likely, though, it’s because I sense that the world is ever tending toward the chaotic and the confused, and that I need to do something to shore up my mind and my environment against the encroaching mess of life.

Of course, this desire for order can be dangerous for the writer or artist—or teacher for that matter.  In his introduction to his short story collection Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson defines what he means by the term “grotesque.”  He says that the moment a person takes a truth into himself, calls it his truth, and tries to live by it, he becomes a grotesque.  Anderson loves the grotesques who he writes about, but he’s critical of them, too.  A writer, artist, or teacher (or anyone) who overly subscribes to a sense of order, who can’t allow some mess into his life, it seems to me, is very close to becoming one of Anderson’s grotesques.

I have to guard against this, especially in my writing.  If a writer attempts to exert too much control over his own subject matter and his language, then he isn’t risking anything, and if he’s not risking anything, then he’s not discovering anything about his characters, his story, or himself.  He is writing the ending before he has reached the ending—and his writing often falls flat.

This is also true of teaching.  I’ve been guilty of forcing a discussion on a literary work to a conclusion that I’ve predetermined instead of working with my students to arrive at a conclusion that satisfies both what needs to be communicated about the text and what they find most compelling about the work.  It’s not because I’m lazy that I allow this to happen, but rather that I’m frightened.  I want my students to see the truth I find—and perhaps others have found—in the text, forgetting that an important part of reading and analyzing a text is discovering your own truth in it.

What it comes down to is that to be a good reader or writer—or just to be someone alive to the world around them—takes little acts of faith from moment to moment.  If you’re writing fiction you must believe in your story without working it all out beforehand, and if you’re teaching, you must believe in your students’ minds ability to make meaning on their own.  To live without Anderson’s grotesquerie, you must believe in many truths, not just one.

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1 Comment

Filed under Classic Novels/Mysteries, Revising and Writing Process, Teaching and Writing

One response to “Risky Business: Writing a good story takes little acts of faith

  1. Great entry John. The part about Meeps is hilarious. I hope the pillow I gave you for Christmas is not disturbing the order too much:-) it does coordinate color wise:-) good luck on your new year’s resolution to blog regularly!

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