Sigh. This one hurts. Just so you know, tonight it’s all hanging out.
“I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? . . . We would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” —Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors
If you were to meditate on that quote a few minutes, do you think your writing might be affected?
I think most of us here agree that a false assumption has been accepted in our industry, the CBA industry. What of the books that affect us “like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves?” What of the books you can’t believe exist, you can’t ever move on from, that require you leave a part of you behind there with it? What of that kind of authentic fiction? Can it really be so unsalable?
Last time, Siri made an excellent point that you have to be true to your characters. Great novels are independent of their authors intentions. Authentic fiction that changes people, by its very nature, is subject to the rules of reality, and not the writer’s imagination, opinions, or prejudices. This stuff can’t be “made up” or written according to a formula. Yes, as writers, we plot it out, develop our character with personality profiles, interview and research our subjects, and impose our favorite structure guru’s advice. But long before we reach the last page, we’ve let go and realized that what we originally thought we were writing, actually ended up writing us in many ways, and what we’d heard before as merely conventional wisdom—like that Cecil Day-Lewis quote, “We write not to be understood, but to understand”—is actually so profoundly and unquestionably true, that we’re compelled to fight tooth and nail to prevent our autonomous characters being squelched by ourselves or anyone else. Sure we “created” them, but what parent can take credit or blame for their kids?
And this gets to the heart of the argument, in my view. Novels are not simply about people or by certain people or sort of like people; Novels actually are people, with quirks and voices and particularities and subtle nuances and all the other things that make people so unique and wholly alive. This is why you don’t want to leave them when you come to the last page. Why you feel strangely holding it as though it was only a book, only ink on paper and not your very flesh, as though it hadn’t fused itself to your soul.
I believe you’re here reading for a reason. And because of that, I want to ask you a question. Do you believe God called you to write?
And when that well-meaning industry comes along—an editor, a publisher, an agent—and asks you to consider changing your story, what will cause you to consider that compromise? If it’s to avoid the possibility of offending, achieve a broader audience, larger sales, greater influence? There’s nothing wrong with that as long as your motivation is to write what God asked you to write. And just maybe he’s not asking you to write the same thing a hundred others have already written. Just maybe.
I’ll leave you for now with a quote from Tolstoy. I found this on Sue Monk Kidd’s website:
“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in twenty years time by those who are now children and that they would laugh and cry over it, and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.”