Meditation for Novelists (And Some Light Philosophizing): What’s Your Book Really About?

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As much as I loathe admitting that books are personal, there’s one distinction that none of us can totally escape: the true motives behind a book.

I don’t care what genre, subject, or length your book is. If it’s worth any effort at all and even remotely coherent, it probably has underlying points to make. They might be indivisible from the plot or they might be metaphors so subtle that only you and two or three other people on the entire planet would notice them. Maybe you’re a crusader or an avenger. Maybe you can’t afford a therapist. Maybe your mind is just far-reaching for no obvious reason (not to say there isn’t one). On average, you’re probably a little of everything I just mentioned for the simple fact that a good imagination is always multifaceted.

I started touching on this point in a prior post, so I might look like I’m contradicting myself, but bear with me for awhile.

We might not put ourselves in the stories (actually, you’re supremely lucky if you don’t), but our ideas, fears, and fascinations surface one way or another. It might be a dialogue or accent detail, the color of a certain character’s shirt, or a description of body language, but it’s probably there if you know how to look for it. And I have news for you: that’s okay. We writers are masters of incorporation – we must be if we want to be good at what we do.

But one day, you might suddenly yank your hands away from the keyboard or notebook with an exclamation along the lines of “I can’t believe I just said that.” Yet sometimes, you also can’t help but stare at it a few times before you push the delete button or crumple the paper scrap into the trash. I don’t know if we’re really the strictest censors in the world, but we’re certainly in a constant state of asking what should be censored – and that’s almost as bad.

I’m not an enthusiast of rash excess. I dislike shock value for the sake of it as much as I dislike artificially hopeful platitudes. However, there are times when you need one or both. There are times when it entirely clicks with the story you’re attempting. Occasionally, the story is an unmitigated train wreck until you include whatever the sensitive material may be. For me, the question isn’t entirely whether or not to include ideas which you personally consider outlandish, ridiculous, or volatile. The question is about knowing when enough is indeed enough – positive or negative bent is irrelevant.

Unfortunately, this is a principle applicable to most areas of life, not just writing.

The human brain is less than a cubic foot in size, but it contains entire universes of hang-ups, letdowns, and occasionally purely irrational ideas. The system for dealing with these flaws and problems is rudimentary at best. We can never permanently banish a thought (short of actual brain damage). We can never stop one from forming. We can only do damage control once it’s there. Some of us are exceptionally good at this while others are compulsively opposed to or even incapable of it.

Alternatively, some of us – including yours truly – become writers partly because we have such an overflow of “unacceptable” or “unfair” thoughts that we simply need an outlet for lest they take us over entirely. Having those thoughts need not implicate us in a crime (perceived, metaphorical, or actual) or suggest a tendency, failing, or habit. Remember: naïveté is usually the lack of thinking, not the abundance of it.

The infuriating aspect isn’t always the nature of your idea by itself (although I’ve been there plenty of times). The problem is that you might react equally badly to a positive idea. Some of my lowest moments in writing have been the analysis of happy moments, not dark ones. It might be a completely foreign or completely familiar detail, but both ends of the spectrum will shake you up now and then.

Why?

Because that same tremendous, terrifying, intense control that lets us pluck choice words out of an ocean likes to believe that it has utter rule over everything we do, not just what we write. Even if we look like lethargic slobs to casual bystanders, many of us adore compartmentalization (and why not? The biggest open secret in the writing world is that the majority of us are unabashedly, unapologetically neurotic control freaks). Shutting the world out and being someone else is a central pillar of writing. It’s unsettling when we realize that we can never completely separate ourselves from our fears, desires, and memories.

But I’m not so sure we should. Good writing has heart, and you can’t have heart without being involved, committed, or otherwise engaged. It’s noble, but it’s messy. It can be downright filthy, and I don’t necessarily mean the nature of your content. For some of us, the only way we can really confront our failings is in the form of the written word. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t occur to us before we write them down – hell no – but thanks to ever-shifting variables and downright bad situations, many of us don’t know what a valid forum is. We don’t always understand what good timing is, even if we’re observant of and vigilant about a problem. We don’t know when or how to say what we mean or want. Sometimes, there simply isn’t a good way to do that, and sometimes we’re just erratic judges.

The nub and crux of this is that we can’t always control it in writing, either. When a long-buried or partially forgotten annoyance suddenly appears in perfectly articulated words to look at, our initial impulses are always panic and shame. Perhaps you don’t or can’t confess a dream because people will laugh – or, at worst, they will actively use it against you, or even turn it into a form of torture. No one wants to admit that, but we often censor ourselves because we don’t want to get backed into a corner at a later time. We want to protect dreams as much as ourselves – and sometimes even more than that.

Dreams aren’t always about delirious happiness. It can mean ridding yourself of a destructive relationship or a debilitating addiction (including the emotional sort). It can mean wishing for a ceasefire. It can mean freeing yourself or others in some way. It can mean self-improvement or unburdening. Most of all, it can mean lighting others’ fuses. Trading in ideas isn’t always about inflating your own pride – or even pushing one specific opinion. There are times when it’s equally (if not more) fulfilling to merely suggest the idea of creation to people who were formerly in a dull sleep.

Thus writing becomes our best choice – our proving ground, shooting range, practice ring, laboratory, and every other form of facility for experimentation and timid confession. Very often, when the draft is finally complete, I suspect that the only thing someone does is stare down at the pile of paper and say “it was an accident, but it’s alright.” It does indeed feel like a random event, no matter the time and planning you’ve put into it. For some of us, it’s one snapshot in the midst of chaos and collision – but sometimes, it’s still a damn fine image.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bother making a book if you have ulterior motives. Channeling fears, hopes, and other fragile things into the form of a book is the only justice, catharsis, revenge, or freedom some of us will ever get. When written cleverly enough, a book can make a wrongdoer realize a wrong by the vaguest suggestion. It can articulate your deepest terrors or joys – the ones you’re too disturbed by to ever vocalize. It can get you through hard times (even though it also generates its own) or tell the truth in astonishingly abstract yet agonizingly sensible ways. It can grant the most hideous or transformative wishes. In short, it’s power.

But I am saying that if those factors play a role in your plan, you should be able to admit it to yourself. Until you do, you run the risk of it owning you instead of you owning it.

Therefore, my fellow lunatics-in-arms, I only have one request to make of you: know thyself. Accept that a book’s creation process is a glorious, dumbfounding, transcendent, disastrous whirlwind in the best of times. Accept that it makes you a crazy fool, but not foolish. Accept that something will look different on the outside than it felt on the inside. Accept that once your book is sitting in front of you on a table, it will feel both trivial – because it’s just paper and ink – and magnificent…because, just imagine, all you needed to craft a whole world was paper and ink! 

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