Practicing the Gospel

Myth 150A friend of mine was asking me a number of questions about my opinion on villains, crossovers and the like. I was surprised to listen to my answers, actually — they seemed so strict, so high-minded and (dare I say it?) pretentious. It’s like making fun of all those folks who call writing some sort of excruciating exercise that very few have the stomach and talent for, only to realize you’re one of them. I had to take a step back for a day or two and think about that. Do I really think that good writing can only come from a hand that’s deliberate in everything they do? Of course not, but it’s really exciting to see someone turning the gears of a story in exactly the way they’ve meant to.

I’m personally drawn to stories that offer peeks behind a curtain, whose structure points to some dark, chaotic recess that it’s easy to get lost in. But at the same time I really love watching the artifice above that storytellers create — it’s like a net used to sift out the big, chunky bits of our existence to examine, while letting all the cruft fall through into a void that’s not actually empty at all. I love stories that play with big existential ideas, filtered through mundane activities or absurd metaplots. Twin Peaks is an enormous influence on me because it has all of this — it’s a soap opera while being a deconstruction of a soap opera and a supernatural, absurdist funhouse mirror of the secretive small-town trope. It exposes the secrets of this sleepy community as simultaneously silly but also fundamental, driven by a need that’s basic to all human life. It’s easy to dismiss it as weird-for-the-sake-of-it fluff, and it’s easy to comb every seemingly-deliberate moment to determine the ultimate meaning behind it. Both approaches are wrong, but they’re also legitimate. It’s a Rorschach test.

I’m nowhere near practiced or talented enough to actually construct something that does this. Mostly, I write stuff that aims for a much more immediate reaction. I like writing pot-boiler stuff, stories that reach out for a baser reaction. Mostly because I feel like I’m still cutting my teeth on the basics of actually telling story; I’ve been taking in and deconstructing story for a really long time, but I haven’t done nearly enough actual construction of them to really know how to create the stories I love to read.

So what do you do about that? Do you relax your standards for the platonic ideal of the story until you can achieve what it is? Or do you keep working at it, knowing that you’re leagues away from it, hoping that one day everything will fall into place and you’ll at least circle the goal? What about the writing of friends and colleagues, who are looking to do completely different things? Do you ding them for not “living up to their potential”? Do you accept their work even though you don’t find it exciting?

Part of me thinks that I should simply put my head down and keep writing, trusting that I’ll work all of this out. I think pulling back and working on a few exercises that help me to wrap my brain around an aspect of short story writing is a good thing, so I’ll be spending a few months doing that — while working on short stories that put what I’m learning to good use. As always, the ultimate answer IS to keep writing. It’d help to know what I’m supposed to be thinking of the craft while I do it, though.

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