Monday, January 16, 2006

JSB: Why I Write What I Write

I am sometimes asked why I chose to be a writer, and why I write what I do.

These questions do not necessarily have the same answer.

I'm not sure I chose to be a storyteller as much as the Great Storyteller chose me. When I read about other writers' experiences, one steady refrain is that they felt they HAD to write, that writing was something they couldn't NOT do.

Considering all of the obstacles a writer faces, I suppose desire is absolutely necessary, and in a large enough dose that it seems to have come from on high.

As to why I write suspense fiction--which falls under the marketing umbrella "commercial fiction"--the reason is more circuitous.

I fell in love with stories by reading the plot driven Hardy Boys series and watching adventure movies on TV. I loved nothing better than being caught up in a whirlwind of a story, on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what happened next. It was a magic carpet ride, and I knew I wanted to be able to give other people that kind of ride someday.

I took a little detour into the sporting life, but in high school I had a great English teacher tell me I had some writing talent. I believed her. So when I got to college and had the chance to take a writing class from Raymond Carver, I jumped at it.

Carver is now recognized as one of the great literary writers of the 20th century. Mostly what I remember about that class was that I could not write like him. In fact I couldn't write like anybody I admired. I tried writing like Hemingway, especially his great story "Hills Like White Elephants ." But what I turned out was surface level, derivative and often pretentious.

Looking back, I probably should have realized that a 20 year-old who had been raised in suburbia probably isn't that deep to begin with. I had not lived much, so what did I have to write about? At that age, Hemingway had already been wounded in the fields of wartime France. I didn't even have a draft number.

I began to think my English teacher at Taft High School was wrong. Maybe I didn't have any talent for writing. When people said writers are born, not made, perhaps they spoke the unforgiving truth.

So I buried the desire to write under a heap of other responsibilities, like raising a family and earning a living. The desire was still there, whispering to me, but I tried not to listen to it.
Then one day my wife and I went to see the movie MOONSTRUCK. It blew me away.

It made me sit up and say, If another human being could write something that wonderful, maybe if I could too. Somehow, some way. And I knew then that I would keep on trying, even if I never got published or sold a script, because that's what I wanted to do.

I decided to go out and see if I could defeat the myth that writers are born, not made.

What I found out thrilled me. I found out there was a great deal about writing that could be learned, because I was learning it, and applying it, and my writing was actually getting better. That's one reason I wrote a whole book on plotting. I wanted to take the myth (or what I call the Big Lie) out of the picture for other writers.

I started writing the kind of books that I hoped would put people on that magic carpet ride I loved as a kid. Twisting plots. The fictive dream.

Why didn't I try literary fiction, of the Carver kind?

Perhaps because I didn't really care for the distinction. Two of my favorite writers were toilers in the field of commercial fiction. Both were looked down upon by most of the literati when they were in their prime. Yet of late have they come to be recognized as tremendous stylists, who brought something deep and unique to their work.

One of them is Stephen King, who was awarded the 2003 National Book Foundation's award for Distinguished Contribution to literature(causing a very public snark on the part of the literary gatekeeper, Harold Bloom). But King deserved it. He will be, I predict, another Dickens. Dickens in his time was also a commercial writer, and had his detractors (the realist writer Anthony Trollope, for one). Yet now he is seen as someone who captured characters and time and themes in a singular fashion.

King--yes, the horror meister Stephen King--does the same. His fiction is, therefore, elevated beyond the prosaic categorization of "commercial." (I realize, of course, that King is not for everyone. His novels are definitely rated R, so caveat emptor.)

The other writer who was under the literary radar for so many years is John D. MacDonald. He wrote a string of paperback novels in the 1950's, some of which sold in the millions. But he was not taken seriously by most critics.

Now he is recognized as a supremely gifted writer, a stylist of the first order, an explorer of the human soul. His books live on because they are not just about plot. There is so much more going on.

That is why I write what I write. My genre is suspense fiction, mostly of the legal thriller type. And yes, I want readers turning pages fast and furious, caught up in the plot.

But I also want to elevate the form as best I can, with every book. I want to explore the soul like MacDonald and paint characters like King.

MacDonald himself said he wanted several things from a novel. A strong sense of story: "I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next."

He also wanted "a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing." Good writing, he said, "should be like listening to music, where you identify the themes, you see what the composer is doing with those themes, and then, just when you think you have him properly identified, and his methods identified, then he will put in a little quirk, a little twist, that will be so unexpected that you read it with a sense of glee, a sense of joy, because of its aptness, even though it may be a very dire and bloody part of the book."

Like John D., I want to get that in my own fiction. Any writer who can do these things, no matter what genre or whether he's tagged "literary" or "commercial," is a success.

A daunting task? Of course it is. But embrace the challenge. As writer Leonard Bishop once said, "If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid."

James Scott Bell,, is fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine, adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University, and the author of many novels.


At 1:59 AM, Blogger Camy Tang said...

Now you've inspired me. I always thought--I still think--I am not meant for anything more than entertaining fiction. I don't aim higher. I write what I read--nothing very literary or intellectual or even especially spiritual.

But hopefully if I do get published, it isn't really me who's writing. Stephen King is a great writer, regardless of genre. I don't assume I'd be like that--I like how you compared him to a modern day Dickens--but it makes me realize I don't have to be limited by a certain genre to write good fiction that God might do something with some day.

That's not aiming too high, right? Oh well. If it is, I'm sure God will say something about it eventually.


At 8:39 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

I'm not sure I chose to be a storyteller as much as the Great Storyteller chose me. When I read about other writers' experiences, one steady refrain is that they felt they HAD to write, that writing was something they couldn't NOT do.

This is the way I feel. Writing isn't something I ever thought of doing, until I stumbled into it a few years ago. Some days the only reason I don't hang it up is I haven't gotten permission to quit from the Most High Boss. ;-)So I keep at it, not really concerned at this point as to where it will all lead. Ok, not quite true...sometimes I do wonder where it will all lead and not sure I want to go there. :-)

But working away at writing, I will continue to do, until I'm told it's time to move on.

(And then I'll probably argue as I go.)

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Mike Duran said...

I've always seen the maxim, not as an either/or, but as a both/and -- Writers are born AND made. TALENT without hard work is poor stewardship. HARD WORK without talent implies good writing is pure mechanics. I just got finished reading this quote over at The New Pantagruel: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” —Emile Zola (1840-1902) JSB, I think you're a good example of both principles at work. Thanks!

At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post, Jim. We seem to be cut from the same cloth. (Only you got the cut that had the hair.) Our tastes, desires, and goals are much the same. Plus, you're a good friend. This post reminded me of all that.


Jack Cavanaugh

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, I'll be eternally grateful that you did write that book on plotting. It sits, tattered and dogeared on my writing desk. I learned so much. And I'll never forget the day when I saw your name on the spine of a book in the library and thought, "Let's see if this guy writes fiction like he preaches it." ;-)

You do.

Glimpses of Paradise is one of the best books I read all year, as I said in my review of it. Keep teaching, Jim. We'll keep learning.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Well, all of you people inspire ME. Keep writing!


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