I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing lately, and it seems to me that the best writing I do has three things: beauty, meaning, purpose. I suppose I should explain what I mean by those things.
Beauty: I don’t mean beauty in a narrow sense here. What I mean is that, simply in order to interest a reader, what I write should be aesthetically pleasing. It should give the reader pleasure, enjoyment. That’s the price of entry, in a sense. If I can’t write well, in a way that pleases the reader, it doesn’t matter if my writing has meaning or purpose, because the reader won’t read it. The reading experience itself won’t be enjoyable. Beauty can take all sorts of different forms. Transparent prose can be beautiful, if done well. Mannered prose can too. And beauty of writing does not mean that the content itself has to be beautiful. A description of garbage can provide aesthetic pleasure.
Meaning: What I mean by this term is that the story should have some sort of meaning, should provide the reader with an understanding of some sort. Or at least, I think my best stories do. This is separate from the aesthetic pleasure provided by the prose. It’s a more intellectual response. It causes the reader to go something like, “Oh yes. Interesting. I hadn’t considered that.”
Purpose: In a sense, this is the most difficult to describe. It’s about engagement. The reader can respond aesthetically and intellectually without necessarily engaging in a personal way with the story. A beautiful, meaningful story can still leave the reader cold. Here I have an anecdote to help me explain what I mean. This is something I heard one of those corporate marketing types say. (I know, but sometimes they say something useful.) It was this: Nike advertisements are not about the shoes, but about what you can do with them. They show pictures of athletes. They make the viewer think, perhaps I can be an athlete too. I think the stories of mine which are most successful give the reader something he or she can take away. I’ll call it inspiration.
This, by the way, is what Rainer Maria Rilke was talking about when he described the archaic torso of Apollo. It provides us with beauty and meaning, but it also does something more, according to Rilke: it says, “You must change your life.” (Apollo, Nike. Hey, they’re both Greek gods.)
I think those are three things we want from stories: we want to enjoy them, we want to find meaning in them, we want them to engage us, even inspire us. So that, in some small way, they begin – or perhaps we begin – to transform our lives. Ultimately, I think we want that transformation, and we can find it in James Joyce or we can find it in the latest D&D tie-in novel. It has nothing to do with genre, and I’m not sure it has much to do with literary quality the way we usually define it (which places Joyce above the D&D tie-in). We want stories to change us.
So, my stories should have: beauty, meaning, purpose.
My reader should get out of them: pleasure, understanding, inspiration.
But if I start writing a story saying to myself, I’m going to write a story with beauty, meaning, purpose, I will never, ever finish another story again. And if I do, it will be dreadful. So once I identify these components of my best writing, I have to forget them. Instead, I have to substitute the following:
My stories should have: characters, setting, plot.
I have to think as a craftsman. But all this stuff about beauty, meaning, purpose that I’m about to forget, I can keep somewhere in my head – in a sort of box, carved and painted. And sometimes a part of me that I’m not conscious of can open the box, look inside, and remember.
Beauty, meaning, purpose. Now, forget you read the above.
This post will self-destruct in five minutes.