Even One Word

The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


Meta - Doers Vs Creators Monday, February 13, 2012

I've been working on a review of my novel from Novel Writing Month, and I've gotten a bit stuck. To steal words from the immortal Wil Wheaton (http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/) , sometimes in order to write, you must write about writing.

SO! Here's to writing about writing! More generally, about life:

Every discipline or craft in which I've ever participated, I've found that there is a divide between the "doing" and the "creating" professions. In music, there are composers and there are performers. In development, there are architects and then front-line developers who implement architecture. In my comics, there are scriptwriters, and then those who draw the thoughts of the script. To extend that to film, there are the screenwriters, and then the entire crew of people who make these thoughts a reality. The only strange place I've found a difference is in writing. And by writing, I mean the profession of the written word, such as the medium of novels, journalism, and etc.

In all of these cases, the final product is essentially a polished version of exactly what sprung from the mind of the writer. Stop and think about this for just a moment: whatever end-user ends up consuming the product of the writer turns up seeing the medium exactly as it left the hands and mind of the author.

To me, this is vastly interesting. I think being a good composer tends to be all about creating something that a performer can realistically perform, or a computer is capable of producing in an audible format. The final medium is not in the liner notes of your album or the notes you pass out to concert-goers: it's the raw audio data you create.  In scriptwriting, you must create something an artist or a crew or a troupe of stage actors can realistically perform. In that way, you are limited. As an author: your world is unlimited. Setting your piece in a fictional world composed entirely of fictional materials that don't exist in the natural spectra of our world? No problem, just explain that to your reader.

And therein lies the rub. Can your reader really conceptualize a world in which the only physical matter is actually a made-up equivalent to their own universe? If they can, do they care?

We arrive now at the second act: we have discovered the problem, now we must develop the tools to encounter and ultimately defeat it. (The meta in this blog is heavy: I warned you by title only).

Before I begin, I must address the tools themselves. Technology has provided us a set of implements beyond what we originally thought possible, giving us the ability to explore vast depths of history and culture and technique without even leaving our home. With that being said, there's always something to be said about the value of the old tools. For the sake of ease, let's discuss an analog.

My brother gave me a classy old-fashioned shaving kit for Christmas. I now am the proud owner of a set of arcane and ancient shaving implements. Rather than a straight razor (he's not a sadist, after all), he gave me a "safety razor," a shaving bowl, a shaving soap container, and a set that contains all of the individual pieces. It's not nearly as fast or "efficient" of a shaving toolset as a can of Edge(TM)  and a three-blade razor. It takes a great deal more time and care to work the process, but in the end, I feel much cleaner and the shave is always a great deal smoother. This wasn't the case for the first two weeks: I cut myself and missed large spots at a time. I think this applies to writing. Even though I have a great deal of tools at my fingertips, the ones I find the most powerful are in fact the most simple.

I've spent some time writing in a leatherbound journal in my office, which gives me the pretentious feeling of being some sort of aristocrat in bygone times, but additionally gives me the gift/curse of being forced to move at a much slower and more intentional pace.

What am I trying to prove with this massive nonsensical rant?  That the tools you will find most valuable are not in fact the most mechanically advantageous: they are the ones that free you from the fears of creative freedom by providing the most carefully constrained creative limitations. Working within a framework binds you to a medium, a genre or perhaps even a universe with built-in rules and a pre-existing narrative from which to build your story.

This is incredibly important in the medium of writing because of the following fact: your art is your word. That's it. You're not creating  three-dimensional world on Digital Light Projection with 8.1 surround-sound. You are combining a series of words into a story, and the only thing between the very raw and symbolistic integrity of those words and their actual comprehension by a reader  is the understanding of the very same reader.

This poses a different, but no less challenging conflict. If you are writing a story that must be told in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, you are careful to think of the interactions of character so that people can understand them even if the wide parts of the letterbox have been cut off. In the same way, if you are writing about a universe with a completely fictionalized set of rules and ideals, you must put the understanding of the reader into consideration when you create.  Did you use too many words they didn't understand at the beginning? If you did, were you sure to explain each and every one somewhere before the first half of the book, so they're not just dropping out and saying "this is something weird and foreign and I don't care"? If so, are you sure to use those words again, so they don't just end up occupying some vacant lexicon in the reader's mind?

Therefore, I posit the following theory: the doer in this medium still exists. It's the reader. In order for your universe to work, in order for your theories to come to some kind of rational, emotional fruition, the reader must invest some kind of energy or effort. They have to make some kind of logical leap, or at the very least, allow themselves to temporarily be transported to whatever dream world of magic or mystery you have created for them. You need them to meet you (at the very least) halfway. That being said: are you (the writer in this hypothetical question) investing enough effort to get to the halfway point?

I think this rumination has led me to the following conclusion: I must proceed (with the most simple and familiar tools) to relate my fictional universe in  a way that matters to the reader. Not only in a way that engages them, but in a way that compels them to continue. I doubt this diatribe would work, but it's helping me to form the philosophy on my way to the other aforementioned goals.