Friday, January 22, 2010

What should Writers Write?

My mother-in-law recently gave me an excellent Christmas present. She subscribed me to Writer's Digest, a monthly magazine for writers. The articles are very practical for any aspiring writer, and I recommend it--not as a deep, inspirational, soul-changing effort, but as a technical encouragement. 

But I did notice one thing.  Again and again and again articles and advertisements promise to "inspire" my writing, give me new ideas, spur me on to brainstorms of immense proportions.  It seems in the writing field everyone is scrambling for a new idea, a hot plot, a smooth style, or a catchy character.  There's just one thing lacking in most--truth and deeper meaning.  It feels like many of my fellow writer's highest aspirations are just to be read. I admit I feel that deeply, too. 

"To create something you want to sell, you first study and research the market, then you develop the product to the best of your ability." 
                                                              -Clive Cussler

"Ask yourself, 'Will other people find this story so interesting that they will tell others about it?' Remember: A bestselling book usually follows a simple rule, 'It's a wonderful story, wonderfully told'; not, 'It's a wonderfully told story."
                                                              -Nicholas Sparks

"Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it's up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting."
                                                              -John Updike
I don't want to disillusion you by looking at the man behind the curtain, but here it is--many writer's highest hopes are to snag the attention and appreciation of readers.  A large number of writers carry on mysteriously as though they have something really deep and meaningful to say, but if boiled down their stories leave only a couple beans and a noodle at the bottom of the pot.  Take almost any novel off the New York Times' bestseller list and boil down what it says. Most likely it says that life is tough but we just have to get through it--and those are the deep ones.

Throughout this magazine I'm coming to love, there are "prompts" to help writers find something to write about.  Here's one: "Write a short story of 750 words or fewer based on this issue's prompt....  PROMPT: Something bizarre occurs at the table next to a couple on their first date."

Now, this is just a fun exercise and a good excuse to hone the technical craft of writing in a limited number of words. But my point is that the prompt doesn't say: "PROMPT: A single mother who is a woman of faith is unfairly fired from her job. Write a short story about her being fired and what she does about it." 

That would actually be quite a mouthful to write about in 750 words, but it has meaning.  And the words "of faith" are a key part of the meaning.  Presses are printing out numberless books about people in difficult situations who just go on suffering, making what scattered human sense they can of their short and disappointing lives. 

In the midst of these, the stories of the Jewish Old and New Testaments stand out. The tapestry of story these tales tell weaves a world of meaningfulness, a world of great importance and consequence, a world that may actually have a good ending, where the bad guys get it and the good guys live happily ever after.  "Great, a fairy tale," some may say. "We already have those." 

A fairy tale, until we run smack into the sweating body of Jesus, and realize His tomb is empty, and His scaredy-cat followers became filled with joy and boldness overnight and (without exception) spoke boldly of His death and resurrection though most were martyred.

Could it be our world has a meaning? Could it be the story of our lives is no mere accident growing like fungus on the tree of time?  When we look at our bodies and the world of nature can we really accept the tale that it is all a whim of chance?  Or is there something more to write about?

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