Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why I Freaked Out (Today)

Well. I was sitting in class, listening to the professor wrap up our discussion on Lee Smith. I was thinking about how different Fair and Tender Ladies' plot is, and how different the plot of our next book--A Death in the Family--is from the plots of all my stories. Fair and Tender spans the character's whole life, flowing and falling over the moments she chooses to capture in letters to people she loves. There isn't exactly a climax. There aren't any real plot twists or sudden stretches of intense action. But it's wonderful.

A Death in the Family takes place mostly within a couple of days. The characters sit around and wait and talk and think. You get into their minds in stunningly real ways. The way the children think rings so sweet and true and naturally childlike that it's impossible to imagine a grown man writing the story. But nothing much really happens. As in Fair and Tender, the story's beauty and heart lie in the gentle, raw, realness of it all. The people are real not just because they're "complex," but because we Meet Them.

Lots of books have great characters, characters that seem original and believable, and--until now--that's all I'd ever thought a "well-written character" needed to be. But it occurs to me now that there is a difference between Believing a character and Meeting Them, leaving the book and feeling like you've just had a conversation with someone very old who lives in the mountains, or a little child who wants you to help him understand the world.

Until JUST now, I assumed that one feels like she has "met" a character only if the story is written in first person; otherwise the character is just believable and well-written. But A Death in the Family Introduces you to the characters without ever slipping into first-person narration.

But this doesn't explain why I "freaked out" in class. I freaked out because...I don't know how to write characters like that. I might be flattering myself, but I think I can write believable characters, characters that are at least somewhat original. But writing characters that the reader truly Meets is an entirely new animal, an animal I didn't even know existed much less know how to catch.

I think it has something to do with the type of story, which really fueled my panic. I think it has to do with the stories relying not so much on plot, but on characters. Ivy just recounts her life, in a simple yet poetic way, and the reader followers her as she grows up. Fair and Tender Ladies is crudely lovely, a classic. A Death in the Family conveys Real People and Real Feelings more by observing a family for forty-eight hours than by exploding into a dynamic story arc. The story is gripping and fantastically good.

And then you have my stories.

Girl, Boy, Magic Mirror, Other World. Secret Family, Language Barriers, Epic Journey. Big Decision, Twist Ending.

Evil Lord, Six MCs, Dramatic Escape. Rescue for World, Love Triangle, Complex Culture.

Ancient Civilization, Laws with Unintended Consequences, Resistant Love. Big Realization, Thought-Provoking Moral.

I think my stories could be good. I think I could maybe write them well and maybe get them published and maybe people would read them and like them. But I am afraid they won't ever be Great in the way the books I read for school are Great.

In my wildest, wildest, silliest dreams, I could be in the category of J. K. Rowling--and I would be absolutely floored and honored and ecstatic and lucky if I were.

But...there's such a difference between the outstandingly successful Harry Potter series and the writings of Lee Smith, James Agee...Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and all the things I read for my classes.

What do you have to do to be Great? What is it that these authors have?

And how can I get it?

Can I ever get it? Am I "that kind" of writer? Do I want to be? Or do I want to be J. K. Rowling? (What writer WOULDN'T want to be J. K. Rowling...?)

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. And for a girl who has always assumed she would one day be a writer, that causes a freak out.



  1. I think this is brilliant. I think we should always be pushing ourselves further, and this just gives you another goal to reach for. And I think it's important to remember that "comparison is the thief of joy" so while I admire aspiring to be a great writer, I also think you should try too hard to emulate them, otherwise you lose what makes you special - yourself. If you're destined for greatness it won't be because you're the next Shakespeare, it'll be because you're Stephanie and throughout your life, you bring things and experiences to the table that no one else can. So learn from The Greats, but also remember to be yourself. :)

  2. 1: I second Natalie. She said it perfectly. Listen to her!

    2: I struggle with this. All. The. Time.

    How can we know how alive, how REAL our characters are objectively? Can we? Can we separate from our stories enough to see it like another reader would? I know I can't. I know that no amount of voracious reading and intense studying can give me a solid answer to the question "What makes a work Great?" So if I can't learn what *it* is, how can I learn to write it?

    Honestly, I don't even know when my "escapist" (if we want to call it that) stories will ever be good enough to publish. I've just decided that if I can reach *that* level at least I'll be on the right track.

    More importantly, I think there's something very ambiguous about Great that cannot be locked into the works of the famous literary giants. For instance, my favorite SF series (Red Rising Trilogy) is TOTALLY amazing fun - except when I'm crying or screaming or wanting to throw the books against the wall. The fact that it is a fun, blockbuster-ready, roller-coaster of a futuristic dystopia doesn't stop it from being Great. In fact, I'd say it's one of the greatest works I've ever read.

    It isn't literary. Not in the way we think of Poe or Shakespeare. But the characters are REAL. They are more Real to me than anything else I have ever read. That's why I cry and laugh and scream and pump my fist in the air and howl with questionable joy at some deaths. Because I CARE about the characters. I feel like even though they live in a fake world millenia in the future that they really exist. That I share their joy and their sorrow. It's why I've counted down to Book 3 since I finished Book 2 last February. (ONLY FIVE DAYS LEFT.) They even make me question things about myself and the world we live in.

    I think that's the hallmark of a Great work. Not how different it is or how perfectly written the sentences are (Although both of those help) - but how much it draws readers in and makes them feel with the characters. That kind of story can happy in any genre, with any POV, and with any world-building.

    And as many times as you have managed to touch my rawest emotions with your blog, I don't see a future where you *aren't* writing something that meets that definition of Great.