WHAT WRITING ACTUALLY IS

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

—Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction”

We write in order to explain ourselves, in one way or another, to perfect strangers removed from us by both place and time. I’m all for fun adventure stories in any genre, all the while understanding that even those fun adventure stories have something to say about the author and his or her time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and… as much as I can pry out, all of which will have been pried out, by me, because that’s what I’m looking for as a reader. Your readers will read your work in which you have poured out some measure of your time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and… filtered through their own time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and…

See how that works?

Why you start to write at all is entirely personal. I hope you’re not approaching it as some kind of “If J.K. Rowling could do it…” get rich quick scheme, but what the hell… that will come through in your writing as well. Maybe you have something to say about… anything… sibling relationships gone wrong, elder abuse, the eternal power of love and forgiveness, why it sucks to be living through COVID quarantine… anything in any combination.

In “Pippi and the Moomins,” Richard W. Orange uncovered that:

‘It was the utterly hellish war years that made me, an artist, write fairy-tales,’ (Finnish author Tove) Jansson told an interviewer after her second Moomin book, Comet in Moominland (1946), came out. ‘I was feeling sad and scared of bombs and wanted to get away from gloomy thoughts.’

Oh, boy, do I want to get away from gloomy thoughts right now. That sounds like a fantastic reason to write in October of 2020.

But that doesn’t mean you need a war or a pandemic to set you off on writing fiction. Pure imagination is also a worthy starting point, and ultimately fuels the whole thing, however grounded in your experience. If you’re writing an autobiography and have taken some kind of honesty oath, you might try to stick to “the facts” but without getting too philosophical (in that teenage pot smoker sort of way) the only “truth” you know is what you’ve decided to trust and what you think you experienced based on your human-flawed memory that’s chock full o’ influences from your own time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and…

In Elif Shafak’s TED Talk “The Politics of Fiction” he touched on the difference between knowing and feeling:

…why is it that, in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is “write what you know”? Perhaps that’s not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghetto and go visit the next one and the next. 

Yes we should! Even if, ultimately that’s still going to be filtered through our particular time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and…

What are current readers going to think of your writing once it’s out there? Will it be criticized for being insensitive in some way to someone? Maybe. Will it stand the test of time? I have no idea. Check back with me in five hundred years. If I’m still around I’ll let you know. Will my novel (if not me) be universally loved? Hilarious. No. Especially not in the Internet Era, the time of the Negativity Superhighway from which no one exits intact. Weird that certain aspects of that odd condition weren’t necessarily a surprise to everyone. In a 1966 Paris Review interview with Tom Clark, the poet Allen Ginsberg said:

I remember I was thinking, yesterday in fact, there was a time that I was absolutely astounded because Kerouac told me that in the future literature would consist of what people actually wrote rather than what they tried to deceive other people into thinking they wrote, when they revised it later on. And I saw opening up this whole universe where people wouldn’t be able to lie anymore! They wouldn’t be able to correct themselves any longer. They wouldn’t be able to hide what they said. And he was willing to go all the way into that, the first pilgrim into that newfound land.

Go ahead and try to deceive yourself into thinking you are all things to all people, or at least all things to all enlightened people. Your novel, like mine, like anyone else’s including Jack Kerouac’s, go out there naked and alone and live or die in that same state.

If that sounds scary, maybe writing isn’t for you. if it sounds exciting, it just might be.

And no matter who is writing what and when and for whom, one thing remains constant, and that was said most eloquently by Rod Serling:

It has forever been thus: So long as [people] write what they think, then all of the other freedoms—all of them—may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.”

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to WHAT WRITING ACTUALLY IS

  1. garyklinecc2014 says:

    Dear Philip:

    Love that you ended this post with a Rod Serling quote. One of my favorite facets of the Twilight Zone show was, no matter how fantastic the stories, they always showed “This is how people are.”

    – Gary K.

    On Tue, Oct 13, 2020 at 12:45 PM Fantasy Author’s Handbook wrote:

    > Philip Athans posted: ” “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the > mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent > in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” > —Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction” We write in order” >

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