7.19.2010

Rules and Real

[In response to Mr. Pond, Philosopher's Style]

Of all the words either Mr. Pond or I have come up with to describe the long-running blog-based conversation we've engaged in, his latest, webxchange, sounds like one destined to become an actual part of the English language. Maybe that's because when I Google it to see if anyone else has used it, I discover it already exists--and it even has a website, though for an apparently Paypal-like company. Hmpf. Oh well--I like it. Although I also like his other suggestion, blogalectic.

Mr. Pond responds to my vagueness about what good writing actually is with an emphatic "It can be quantified:"
Hamlet is great writing. If you don’t like it, fine. It’s still great writing. No one can argue that. ‘Taste’ simply doesn’t apply.

Because there are rules, and not just fashions. There are histories, and not just markets. There is light and darkness and music and structure and sound and fury—and these coalesce to make great literature.
Fashions come and go and sometimes repeat themselves, but the rules of great writing exist and they can be quantified. Hamlet succeeds--no educated person in their right mind would challenge the Bard, if only because the literary elite would shred them and eat them for breakfast. (Perhaps I should follow that statement with the assurance that I admire Shakespeare's brilliance with the dutiful respect of an English scholar and sometimes the fervor of a nerd who kills time in the shower by reciting Katharina's final speech from The Taming of the Shrew. No munching on me, elites.)

Mr. Pond continues with the following, and I agree completely:
We must judge a text by the fashion of its own time, not ours. We must look endlessly for those texts which transcend time. When we find them, if we care about what great writing is, we read them, submit ourselves to them, to learn why.
True. Very, very true. And the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.

That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea--this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be.

I think the rules, the real rules of writing, are those which allow us to accomplish that goal. Those rules are most definitely not matters of adverbs and the passive voice. We may follow the laws of fashion to give our stories a chance at getting read and remembered, but the greater laws are just that--greater.

"This funny old writing life," Mr. Pond calls it, and elsewhere, "a wild, mad dream of golden leaves under a golden sky." Amen. It's the life in which we succeed wildly one day and fail the next, then succeed again after staying up half the night fighting a stubborn scene. It's asking for help, getting answers we hate first and love later. It's questioning and hoping, working out ideas, putting the secrets of our hearts out for anyone and everyone to see and critique.

But we don't do this without reason. One of my favorite wrockers has as her Myspace tag line the words "It's real for us." The quote comes from a young Severus Snape, referring to Hogwarts, but I've always been moved by Zoë's use of it. That world of wizards and wands and half-giants and house-elves and courage--it's real for us. The same is true of any world we enter through story, including the ones we write.

When the rules have me struggling with all my might, I know that behind the difficult passage is a world full of people and a quest that matters and magic and love. It's real for me, and that keeps me going.

4 comments:

  1. And, as I just alluded to in my comment on your last blogalectic post (one of you should write a parody of the song "Electric Slide" -- instead of "It's electric!" it'd be "Blogalectic!" LOL), here is the other comment from me that's been simmering on my end.

    Ok, here I need to comment on the following quote from Jenna's post above, particularly the first sentence:

    "And the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.

    That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea--this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be."

    So, maybe it's because I'm a graduate theology student and so I'm immersed in early Church writings about the nature of Christ right now, but, especially the first sentence above immediately brought to mind for me the nature of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The Word of God is exactly as you've described a good tale to be: "both within our time and transcendent of it." He is both within the time he lived on earth (2000 years ago) and transcendent of it. (He is of course also present in our present time as well -- He is in all times both before and after His earthly sojourn --but that's another theological discussion separate from this point I wish to make right now.) I included the whole quote from you above because later on you use the word "unite" and, again, that is theological, Christological language right there, and it was awesome to see that appear in this dialogue about good storytelling, storytelling that both speaks to us today and also taps into the greatest Story of all.

    I wonder if, in a way, the Christological analogy can be taken a step further: if Christ can only save what He has assumed (i.e., our completely fallen state, including death itself), I wonder if this means the good writer (in synergy with God) can take that which is fleeting and nailed down in the here and now (i.e., "Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling") and transfigure it from the inside out (as Christ does with us) by filling it with true Story (i.e., "the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be").

    I'm not a fiction writer myself, but as an avid fiction reader I I can confidently say I've encountered this kind of transfiguration of our time and ourselves (as reflected in full, rich characters) in great stories. It is like C.S. Lewis's statement in... one of his essays about this sort of thing (lol I read it years ago, sorry I don't have the citation handy). To paraphrase Lewis, he said something like: When we eat an ordinary piece of meat, it is exactly and only that: a piece of meat. But when we imagine that someone has hunted for this meat, encountered dangers while doing so, emerged triumphant, and because of that struggle and victory this meat is now before us, waiting to be eaten... suddenly the meat tastes so much better than it would have when it was just "ordinary meat." Story makes this transformation happen.

    Please forgive me for this this random theological tangent -- it just seemed so apt I had to share it. :)

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  2. Forgive me! I forgot to include one other thing in my last comment. I wanted to point you to another great blog I follow called The Rabbit Room (Travis Prinzi writes for them now, which is how I came across the blog a while back, via Travis plugging it at The Hog's Head).

    The most recent post there is by one of the bloggers who is writing a novel right now, and has moved from the drafting stage to the editing stage... and his description of this process made me think of you, since you are in (or emerging from?) the editing stage of your novel. Here is a link to the post: http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=8697

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  3. (I wish there were a way to edit comments... My several typos in my first comment above are like mosquitos buzzing in my ear.) :~P

    (I promise I'll stop commenting now... LOL thank you for being so hospitable to me and putting up with three comments in a row!)

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  4. I like your theological tangent, Donna! Great stuff. I really appreciate you sharing it. Also, I wish I would have noticed your link to the post at The Rabbit Room (which I do sometimes read, but not consistently) before posting my ...and other stories piece today, because I probably would have linked it. Beautiful post from Pete Peterson.

    Back to your theological points: I loved the Christological thoughts, as well as your ideas about the transfiguration of story. A friend of mine once said (don't know if she originated the quote or if it came from somewhere else) that every good story is either an exodus or a redemption. Which is an interesting thought.

    At the very least, the stories I love most are the ones that have given me that sense of heaven, some feel of the Great Story. It's true every time. :)

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