Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Writer's Credo


The novelist John D. MacDonald once laid out his credo as a writer. His three essential points (as quoted in James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers) are:

  1. First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties -- emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever and I want to live with them while they're finding their ways out of those difficulties.
  2. Second, I want a writer to suspend my disbelief; I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer's devising.
  3. Next, I want the writer to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing.

As a reader -- and at one time an avid reader of Mr. MacDonald's Travis McGee books, I appreciate all of those axioms. As a writer, I am least comfortable with number 1 -- the sense of story, the scene by scene cause and effect of plot, are not my strength. I am good with the conflicting poles of characters and ideas, but plot is always a struggle for me. Even as a reader, I often find myself impatient with the mechanics of plot, especially in highly plotted genres like mystery. If I love the characters, and like the sense of being -- as point #2 emphasizes -- inside of their lives, I am often irritated by the intrusion of the plot into that comfortable visit. I want to hurry past the story and just spend time visiting. Even in the Travis McGee novels what I loved best and remember most are the philosophical discussions between Travis and Meyer, sitting on the deck of the Busted Flush in the hot Florida sun.

For my own work, I would like to propose additional goals.

In Aspects of the Novel E.M. Forster, talking about characters, says "Since the actors in a story are usually human, it seemed convenient to entitle this aspect People. Other animals have been introduced, but with limited success, for we know too little so far about their psychology. There may be, probably will be, an alteration here in the future, comparable to the alteration in the novelists rendering of savages in the past. The gulf that separates Man Friday from Batouala may be paralleled by the gulf that will separate Kipling's wolves from their literary descendants ... and we shall have animals who are neither symbolic, nor little men disguised, nor as for legged tables moving, nor as painted scraps of paper that fly. It is one of the ways where science may enlarge the novel, by giving it fresh subject matter."

Those animals -- neither symbolic, nor little men disguised -- are my first new goal. I want to push the narrative center of fiction away from human consciousness. How far can we do that and still tell a recognizable story that human's will want to read. The problem of representation has always an issue for fiction -- who gets to "speak" for whom? Can a white male writer write about African American women? Can a straight writer create Gay characters? Is Uncle Tom's Cabin a legitimate representation of slave life or is it, despite the power it wielded historically, an unfair appropriation? Some people will no doubt tell us that it is impossible to write with any validity from the viewpoint of a non-human mind. Some philosophers (Thomas Nagel, "What is it Like to Be a Bat?") assert we can never really know. I don't think that's true. Or at least, I don't think we should assume that its true. If our fiction is every going to be bigger than disguised memoir -- if we reach as Tolstoy did -- for a reality larger than ourselves, then we must at some point resort to the empathic imagination.

The German biologist Jacob von Uexkull introduced into ethnology the idea of "umwelt" (OOM-velt) -- which means "self-world". The idea that each animal has a subjective world -- perception plus action -- which define its experience. (Psychologist and writer Alexandra Horowitz does a fascinating job of applying this concept to the study of dogs in her recent book "Inside of a Dog". Of course, Nagel would argue that there may not by any "something" that it is like to be a certain creature, and that whether there is or not, we can never know.) By learning as much as we can about the creature's behavior, perception, environment, and evolution we can reconstruct the umwelt and present the creature as truly as possible. I never want an animal to appear in my fiction as simply a metaphor or allegory to human concerns.

The legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell of Astounding Stories used to tell his writers to "write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man". There is the challenge in a nutshell.

The other thing that I love -- as reader and a writer -- is breadth. I like a book that feels larger than its story, that seems fade out at its edges into a wider world. The great nineteenth century novelists -- Dickens, Tolstoy, and Melville, for instance -- had ambitions to bring a world within the covers of their novels, or at the very least, to explore the society in which the story was set from top to bottom, illuminating its injustices, ironies and relationships. I would like to re-awaken that ambition, along with a modern ecological perspective. If I write about the city, I want to show that around and between and along with the human stories, there are a huge number of other creatures going about their lives, some thriving, some struggling in the altered urban landscape, interacting with each other and humans in ways most of us never see or even think about. As Dickens sought to wake people up to the injustices of his society, it would be nice to smack people on the side of the head ever so often and remind them that a city is much more than the human beings who live in it.

I realize that my new goals are not as succinct or focused as John D. MacDonald's. I am just beginning to explore the territory they open up.

It's a beginning.