When I ask a friend what a movie or a book is about, I am usually asking about the plot.
Like most people, I want to know a couple of early plot points to get a feel for the subject matter, the time, the place, the setting, and the essential characters of the story. I’ve never asked what a story is about and received an answer like, “redemption in the face of temptation.”
Authors disagree over whether one should begin his story with a theme or with a plot. Some authors develop plots and allow the themes to emerge naturally. Others develop themes and build a plot around them. In either case, the use of theme is a major difference between genre fiction and literature. For my entire writing career so far, I’ve operated on the former strategy; I invent plots, and the themes reveal themselves as I write.
This works well for short stories. I can write a publishable short story in one sitting. In fact I’ve done it. The novelty of a fresh plot can propel me to the end and keep me interested enough to keep me writing, and writing well.
Problems arise when I use the same method to write a novel, or a long short story, or even a short short story that I don’t have the time to finish in my first go. A fine plot is rarely enough to sustain my interest for very long. If I wait long enough, I’ve thought out the whole plot and it becomes stale like your favorite song overplayed so many times that you barely notice when it comes on anymore.
Sometimes feel compelled to write the whole plot out. This is especially important in crime fiction, I am told, because in order to construct believable plots, you need to map it from beginning to end. That’s what James Ellroy did for his greatest novels, like The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, or American Tabloid. Ellroy’s novels are tight and make a lot of perfect sense.
Other crime authors, like the legendary Raymond Chandler, never plotted anything out. The integrity of the mystery is lost, sure. There are holes and unanswered questions. Chandler didn’t even notice one major gap in his debut novel The Big Sleep until it was made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart and the director called to ask about it. But Chandler’s novels are still classics because they were buoyed by excellent style and wit.
I think that in order for me to complete a novel there must be some greater importance assigned to the great effort rather than merely an interesting plot. Frankly, there is no plot in the world whose novelty alone can keep me in its rapture. Perhaps these things happen with age. We lose our wonder, but only because everything we’ve wondered has come to pass. So it is with me as I drift toward 30 years of age. I don’t read the descriptions on the backs of books anymore. I just flip to a random page in the middle, read it, and see if I like the style well enough.
In his book, Why I Write, George Orwell describes four forces that compel a writer to write. He suggests that every author has a mix of these four factors, to varying degrees depending on the writer. Put succinctly, they are egoism (leaving a legacy), “aesthetic enthusiasm” (think language and style), truth seeking (or what Orwell calls the historical impulse), and the political motivation.
As I’ve grown, my own motivations as a writer have changed. I’ve been writing since I can remember. In my earliest memories, I am laying on my grandmother’s pink living room rug writing stories. When I was twelve, I finished my first novel about a retired medieval war hero who is unjustly pegged for war crimes and must either turn himself in or defeat the nation he had once killed to defend; in total, a 150 page Microsoft Word document, Times New Roman, single space, 12 point font. For a project in 8th grade, I wrote another 50 page story about a Spanish pirate who, in his lust for the power and wealth he had been deprived of as a child, kills the one friend who had made his childhood bearable.
I’ve never been as productive, nor as inventive, as I was when I was young precisely because when I was young, I couldn’t have known that everything had already been invented and that there was therefore no reason to reproduce it. James Ellroy, in an interview at Paris Review, claims that he doesn’t read any modern novels or watch any television for this reason. He doesn’t want it to influence his work. He says he sticks to the classics. It shows. Not only is he a superb writer, but he seems oblivious to the politically and socially sensitive conventions that permeate modern art and entertainment. It makes his work not only well-written, but refreshing in its candor.
Sometimes I wish I could escape into such a reclusive state. I never knew if it was true, but I always admired The Ramones for the old legend that they didn’t listen to any music at all. It’s an ideal state, somewhat approximating the conditions of childhood in that your imagination remains unlimited and un-jaded by experience. Yet I believe it is unrealistic, or at least unrealistic in the degree I think would be required to un-jade myself.
So now I have to locate something else that motivates me since my happy childhood state of inexperience and ignorance no longer does. I’ve reached a point in my creative career where I am too experienced to experience childish inspiration, but perhaps still too inexperienced to write anything very meaningful. My childhood works were certainly meaningful; but only to a naive child. They were also totally inspired, but totally lacking in stylistic discipline or anything resembling an appealing use of the English language, except occasionally by accident.
I once read somewhere, or perhaps was told, that writers shouldn’t even attempt writing until they are in their 30s. There seems to be some evidence of the merit of this advice. Orwell didn’t write his first novel till he was 30. The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton often expressed his embarrassment about his first book, The Seven Story Mountain, which he wrote about his conversion to Catholicism and his spiritual journey to becoming a monk.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course. Plenty of writers wrote great things before they were 30. Hemingway was 26 when he published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Yet by then he had a wealth of experience that most people his age probably had not by that point. If the rule ever applied, I believe it applies to me.
A good writer requires life experiences. I believe I am on the verge of acquiring enough of those experiences to say something very meaningful about the world. That is my current motivation for writing anything now.
I write essays like this one and many others of a more political and social nature precisely because I observe the world and believe I have something valuable to say about it. I’ve never cared whether or not people agree or disagree with what I say; the exercise is primarily for my own edification and enlightenment. Writing is the best way for me to reflect on or understand the world. If I attempt to sort things out in my head, I’ll end up daydreaming about baseball, beautiful women, Chipotle for dinner, or some other distraction. I will never arrive at a conclusion.
Looking at Orwell’s four reasons for writing, I would say truth-seeking and political motivation weigh rather heavily. I know this, yet I’ve tried to maintain my old habit of starting fiction with a story and allowing the theme to emerge. Sometimes themes emerge that convey things that don’t make sense, or convey messages I truly don’t believe. I know these stories are flawed, but I submit them for publication anyway, and receive swift rejections.
The stories I have published just ‘worked.’ It’s like when Clark Griswold couldn’t get the Christmas lights on the house to work after trying a million things. His wife flips the breaker downstairs just as Clark plugs the cord in for the hundredth frustrated time. It works! Clark never knew it was his wife flipping the breaker. Likewise, I never know why themes emerge successfully in some stories and poorly in others.
I often compare story writing to baseball. A hitter who hits the ball and makes it onto base three out of every ten times at bat is a hero. That means our greatest baseball legends failed more than half the time they tried not to. The lesson here is that failure is inevitable. In fact, failure might be more a frequent occurrence than success. But it only takes one success to erase a lifetime of failures. That’s the way I felt when I got my first story published. The pile of rejections no longer mattered.
However, this is not to say that .300 batters are just luckier than most. They are only more lucky because they are more talented and better trained. They’ve made everything about their form as precise as machinery. They have adopted a batting stance and a unique rhythm that gives them the best possible advantage. Sometimes batters in protracted slumps meet up with their batting coach and change one or two seemingly trivial aspects of their swing – maybe they tap their foot or take a step, maybe they keep one foot further back, or they adjust their grip on the bat or the length of the swing. This is occasionally enough tinkering to get a batter to hit again.
I believe the same is true for many things, including writing. In this spirit, I think I should recognize my strengths and adapt a batting stance to accommodate them. I am not excited by crafty plots and gimmicky twists; more often I feel encumbered by the mere thought of them, and smothered into total inaction by their weight. My childhood approach to story writing will no longer suffice if I mean to improve my skill in writing fiction.
I will now begin stories for what motivates me at my core: ideas. I think about ideas all the time. I don’t mean ‘story’ ideas. I mean ideas about life, around which stories and characters can be generously wrapped with all the beautiful trappings of literature that make the message palatable, understandable, and suddenly obvious.