writing theory, part 2


‘Most of my understanding of how to write for teenaged girls comes from not from knowing dozens of them—though after having been in youth ministry, they’re not exactly unknown to me—nor from having been one, but from the part of me that hasn’t changed since I was one of them, that won’t change except to grow. And I write to that.’

–Jenna St. Hilaire, ‘Truth, Beauty, and Writing for Everyone’

There is a place of passion in the human heart which contains the genesis of the quest for beauty, madness, and grief. It is an insatiable hunger that drives us, draws us, one to the other, each to all, that binds us even in solitude to the solidarity of our being ‘we’.

Left to fester, to draw into itself the other and bolster its self through fear, it destroys truth and deconstructs righteousness. From this is born art’s arrogance, the literati, the critics and collectors of the Third Reich who denigrate and destroy the basic shared humanity that gives them identity, dehumanizing themselves through their refusal to see the humanity of others.,

Yet guided and drawn on not in a desire to know and to have, but to be known and to give, this leads to love, to understanding, to—borrowing Nouwen’s phrase–an inner place of silence where we can hear the thunderous whisper that names us Beloved.

The power of art and story is not the finding of that place. It is, rather, the hope that this place might be found.

In my continuing blogument with Jenna at A Light Inside, we’ve recently been discussing the rules of writing and editing, when they should be kept and when they should be broken. In her latest contribution, quoted above, Jenna defenestrates the idea of writing to an age group. Citing C. S. Lewis’s wonderful dictum that ‘a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story’, she argues that an author’s primary audience is the author. In other words, if you do not like your story, no one will. Or if they do, you’ll wish they don’t.

The corollary of this, of course, is that if your story grips and moves you, if it speaks into that place of silence and either shatters you with grief or transports you with joy—or, better still, does both—then it will do that for others as well.


That’s where the rules come in—what I prefer to call ‘writing theory.’

I might get all gushed up and teary at the end of your story, when the courageous Vark says his stoic yet tender good-bye to the beautiful human neurophysicist Dr. Veda, dying in her arms, and the researches of the Science Foundation realize to late what they’ve lost. I might. And that might be wonderful.

But I probably shouldn’t assume it’s aesthetic snobbery that makes everyone else double up laughing.

It might be. It might not be. It might be that, for everyone but myself—and all unknowingly—I’ve penned a potentially brilliant satire on a theme.

That might be a comfort. Or it might not.

I have a story I want to tell—the story of the strange, reptilian Vark and his encounters with the Science Foundation. This is standard material for an SF genre piece. Human researchers encounter native life-form. It stems, perhaps, from a collective, subconscious guilt and rage in our collective memory of imperialism and colonialism. Wherever it came from, there it is.

Asimov wrote this supremely well. No surprise. Cameron did supremely not. Also no surprise.

My version, however, is a frame, a concept, around deeper, unarticulated emotions of beauty and sacrifice and love, combined with fear of a decaying society and dying world. There is hope there, but it is tentative. There is redemption, but also suffering and death.

Has the surface narrative sufficiently intertwined with the deep narrative to tell the story I am truly trying to tell? For me—because I see both through the same lens—it has. For my merrily laughing critics, who see only the single frame of the surface story, it hasn’t. I may never rewrite that surface narrative again, but I will be writing variation on that deep narrative for the rest of my life.

Bringing surface narrative into tension and harmony with deep narrative is the craft of storytelling. The art of writing theory is learning how to tell deep narrative in the way it deserves.

It it important—absolutely crucial—to understand where ‘writing rules’, the theory most popularly in vogue at a given moment, comes from. So it is also crucial to understand the development of theory within your literary tradition—for me, English language. As Eric observed in a recent comment comparing writing story to composing music:

Learning the “rules” of music theory is a simple way to assimilate many of the habits of the great composers. But there’s no guarantee that following the rules will make anybody write good music, as anyone who has heard the work of freshman theory students can tell you.

Music is not about the rules; the rules are about music.

The rules of writing are simply that: collected observations from the habits of great—or, ominously, fashionable—authors. I suggested in reply to Eric’s comment that writing theory might  well be taught like music theory, tracing its historical development and giving students and new writers a sense of their tradition—a suggestion Jenna seized on with delight.

It was thrilling, then, to discover New York Times columnist David Brooks writing today in a somewhat frightening article about the countercultural power of books. Yes, books. Real, bound, paper books. Not e-books or digitized text. With a battery of scientific study behind him, Brooks argued that the medium is the medium, and that it matters. What a medium conveys is a communal identity. The hierarchal, literary world of printed books conveys a deeper strength of learning that the freewheeling, antiauthoritarian world of the web.

Brooks’s interest is mainly pedagogical—how best to teach children, and what influence the various mediums have on learning and development. But his observations can extrapolate to the teaching and practice of writing. If we restrict ourselves to our literary moment, to speak to an instant, and rush to embrace a phenomenon all uncritically, we can kill the potential of the deep narrative we long to tell.

The modern style works for a certain sort of deep narrative. It works well. But that is not the only narrative we have told, nor is it the last and greatest we will tell.

Writing theory is there not to make us sell—that comes later, if we’re any of us honest. Writing theory is there to help us learn how best to tell our deep narratives to ourselves in such a way that our readers look through the same double lens. Story and silence intertwine, the truth of the ‘message’ becomes inseparable from the beauty of the tale. We see, for an instant, a glimmer of hope, and hear, for a moment, echoes of the whisper calling our name.

That is Story. And that is art.

Previous Conversation:

A Light Inside: Truth, Beauty, and Writing for Everyone
Paradoxes: Writing Theory, part 1
A Light Inside: On Breaking Rules
Paradoxes: Core Magic, Art’s Caprice
A Light Inside: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Paradoxes: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
A Light Inside: How Not to Write

One thought on “writing theory, part 2

  1. Ah, good, I see I didn’t steal as much of your thunder as I feared. Love the Drabble cartoon!

    I once saw a blog post (I’ll have to dig it up) in which an editor said (in effect), “Contrary to what you think, we’re not crushing your dreams. We’re crushing your work. You still have your dream of being a writer, and good work can still make your dream a reality.”

    Books (the paper kind) are not going anywhere, whatever Internet alarmists say. The iPad, Kindle, and their ilk will neatly absorb the more ephemeral species of print media, such as trade magazines, newspapers, and books on current affairs, i.e. the kind of things libraries themselves throw out after five years. They’ll still hold onto the tales of Poe and Kipling and Pratchett, as will readers. No surprises here.

    And Internet culture was invented in Victorian England! Don’t they teach them anything in these schools?

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