Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"On Writing: Part Two"

Ed. Note: We will continue to post the "On Writing" essays regularly.  These will appear Mon-Fri.  Stay tuned for another Magic: The Gathering article by Ben Snyder, and a previously unpublished short story by John Keyes.  Both should be up on Friday.  Thank you again for your patience.

                 It amazes me that in a world saturated to overflowing with light—the blinding brilliance of individuality, shining from your computer screen—everyone is still completely, almost manically, obsessed with darkness.  If you want to knock the television salesman back on his heels, talk up how much you know about the black levels on the flat-screen he is offering you.
                I’ve written a few stories that have happy endings, and even more that don’t have endings at all.  If they are rejected it almost never bothers me, but my consternation grows when the editor or agent or publisher decides to leave comments and tries to explain that my story “isn’t real,” that there is no depth, no catharsis, that the words are soaked in passé sentimentality that has been siphoned away from reality and is being kept bottled up somewhere with Ted Williams’ frozen head.
                Palahniuk wrote in an essay—or maybe it was a short story—that it isn’t possible to write about happiness in a meaningful way without “unpacking it.”  The demand is constant:  show the reader what it means to be happy.  By this logic a writer must ignore the fact that positive feelings of almost all kinds—those which are experienced viscerally, at the least—are so subjective as to have almost no objective relevance.  This is why it seems the world is focused on the shadows on the wall and not the sun coming in from outside the cave.
                I can write pain, loss, suffering, tragedy—take your pick from a Chinese take-out menu of human frailty and just about anyone can put together a decent twelve dollar meal.  Evidence can be found in the emo abattoir of MySpace or the constipated backlogs of putrescent puerile vomit that passes for modern poetry.
                “A smile crept over his face as the feeling washed through him like a warm whiskey haze.”
                “A grimace split his face as the feeling washed through him like the burn of a whiskey haze.”
                Neither sentence, admittedly, is particularly strong, but the illustration here is that the first sentence makes sense to you if, and only if, you drink single maltsand derive pleasure from the experience.  If you are an alcoholic, or your dad was, or you had a bad night with a bottle of Jack that may or may not have involved Ke$ha, you do not and cannot associate the first sentence with happiness.
                This is not merely a failure on the part of the writer, because the second sentence is clear and evocative to everyone despite being functionally identical as a sentence.  The reason that so many great stories go unheard is not because they are not well-told; it is because they all tell the same story.  It is as if Ezra Pound is reaching out from beyond the grave and throttling the publishing industry with his invective to “make it new,” only they all misunderstood and figured that he meant, “make it, but only if it is ridiculous or someone knows someone who knows someone who is willing to vouch for the artist.”
                Because even if you do enjoy reading depressing works because of their up-lifting catharsis—and I enjoy many depressing stories—the truth is that in the end reading them means that we are all just sitting in the darkness staring at thesame boring shadows.

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