Monday, September 23, 2013

Of Hell and Heaven

So this famous writer dies and is waiting reassignment to some future existence.  He's offered a tour of both heaven and hell, so he figures "What the...whatever."  His first stop is in hell and it's packed with writers, tearing out their hair in frustration, crippled with writer's block, unable to get out a single word, or even worse, hating anything they do get down on paper.  Stunned, he next visits heaven and finds it crammed with writers, tearing out their hair in frustration, crippled with writer's block, unable to get out a single word, or even worse, hating anything they do get down on paper.

The writer turns to St. Peter and asks him why hell and heaven are identical.  St. Pete replies, "Oh, no, the agony is the same, but in heaven they get published."

Yet we still have this innate need to write.  And suffer, it seems.  Why would anyone subject themselves to such torture?

Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, gives one of the best theories on our shared passion, compulsion, obsession, fixation.  First, he suggests that every narrative contains within itself the writer's vision of the individual and her relationship to the universe.  Second, the writer has an innate need, not always consciously recognized, to communicate or share her vision with the world.

Pretty simple, really.  We're moved to show others how we see the world.  To do the challenging, frustrating, frightening, yet hopefully rewarding work to achieve it in black on white.  And what are those rewards for all our sweat and tears?  Not money, not fame or adulation, or even tenure, although each of those might be great for those very few writers who attain them.  No, we do it so a reader, someone we've never met, will pick up--or tap on--our book and read it, hopefully understanding and maybe even learning a bit or expanding their perception of the world through our vision.  Simply that.

As writers, then, what do we owe each other in recognition and acknowledgement of our common desire to share our visions?  

Very simply, to read.  To read consistently and closely in not only our favored writing genre but widely, exploring and broadening our own understanding while adding tricks and tools for our own writing.  As Robert Adams says, in his wonderful A Love of Reading, "To read is to share the writer's risk."  That risk of showing how we view the universe, a showing that bares so much, if we let it.

So, I ask you, what are you reading?


  1. Interesting post and theory. I offer you this in response. Writing is entertainment. I strive to put out a published book for entertainment purposes. I hope to entertain my audience. I spent years of agony writing and re-writing, and being verbally abused by our group for months on end and learning about the craft and myself to make my novel the best it can be. Then I put it out there so the public will like me, simple as that. Sounds trivial. Sounds like a Dr. Phil moment, but doesn't it really come down to that? We want the public to like us and our product. If they don't we are crushed just like when we lose a good friend.

  2. I'm not sharing too much risk at the moment, I'm afraid. I am reading non-fiction: Werner Muller's research on the FLAK guns used by the Germans in WWII. However, every other week I do get the opportunity to read about a serial killer stalking Indy and a lovely cross-dressing actress whose stage is the Civil War!

  3. Keith, you're absolutely right and you put it in much stronger terms than I did with regard to that instinctive writer's desire for someone to read and hopefully enjoy our work. And don't dismiss your work or any others--and don't think I meant to either--as simply "entertainment" as if that's not a worthy goal, and a goal that all our writing has to attain even if we hope for something beyond that level. Plus, don't sell your project short. While, as a thriller, it's highly engaging, exciting, and, yes, entertaining, I'm certain that you put a lot of yourself and the way you see the world into your writing--the worlds of drugs, crime, and corporate deceit, not to mention faith and that fine line between the zealous and the heinous. Your novel found you...

    BTW, I want to clarify something about our IWC writing workshop and your "being verbally abused." While of course we all, always, feel the sting of critiques--especially one that nails some element we've been deluding ourselves about--our workshop specifically forbids anything that even remotely approaches verbal abuse in the broader sense of someone commenting clearly with ill will and/or anger at the writer as opposed to specific, detailed comments about the writing itself. The latter, fine, that's the whole point; the former, never acceptable, and over the years we've had so suggest to a few people that perhaps another workshop group might be more suitable for them.

    And so, Keith, I ask you, what are you reading?

    1. DISCLAIMER!!!!! Those of you out there following us who have not figured me out yet, I have tendency to use humor a lot. When I say I was verbally abused in the group setting while being critiqued, well, you need to be there. Abuse is in the eyes of the beholder and in the eye of the one being abused. Actually, these people are great friends as I have stated numerous times and they give great pleasure abusing me. Oops, sorry, did it again. You know what I mean. As for your question David, what am I reading? When do I have time for actually reading these days? I am finishing up The Zealot, writing a non-fiction manuscript book, and always reading the next submissions to the group meetings for their "abuse".