Reading fiction helps us better understand the mind of the author. Writing fiction helps us better understand our habits of mind.
Over many years of trying to make my stories better, I feel I've become incrementally better at letting the light of optimism influence my words. That's a tremendous gift my art has given me: the opportunity to change my behavioral pre-set.
The question I've asked for which I still don't have an answer: why should the result of my writing have any value for someone other than me? That is: if a story is "an export of one human mind," if it is really (just) a "psychological projection," – why should my account have any value or relevance to you? How is it possible that it can have the power to move you or change your life?
Writers often experience a disconnect between intention and the final product – about how, for some of us, the best work we craft comes when our intention is trampled by improvisation through many rounds of iteration. We don't know what we're trying to do when we start to write a story. We don't and shouldn't, per this model. We stumble along by revising to our tastes, thrilling ourselves by indulging in endless micro-choices.
So, we might ask: What is it that winds up happening, all on its own, separate from our intention, when we make up a story, and why should it be desirable that such a thing should as that story should exist in the world?I stumbled on this quote by Charlie Chaplin, and it's inspiring me as I think about what I want to try to write next: "As far as truth goes in itself, sometimes it can be damn boring. Ideas are stale things, so stale. The intellect is not too great a thing. And pessimism—that's what many people mistake for realism: "Well, that's more like life." But life isn't just one mortuary after another."
Then Chaplin says:"Recently I saw a film called Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?. It's well done, but you can't tell me their relationship is real. It's too much on one key. Humans are not that consistently irksome to each other. Maybe he says, "I'll get you, you bitch, so and so and so." But a minute later, he might be saying, "I've got a splinter in my thumb. Get me some eau de cologne and iodine." Life isn't in one key and neither are people.
Anyway, as the saying goes, even if it was good I wouldn't like it—trying to make life as sad, as ugly as possible. "Trying to make life as sad, as ugly as possible." I recognize that goal from inside myself. It can sometimes feel like a safe choice – to mock, scold, and look down the nose at everything. That stance denies all of the times we've felt the beauty of life – it's cynical and partial and false. It fails to do justice to those moments we have all lived, in which it seems to exist is a rare gift. So, one goal I have is to praise what should be praised or honestly praise what deserves praise. Because to praise emptily and exaggeratedly is just the other side of false edginess - a failure to look at life, a desire to feel just one way about it and lock into that way of feeling and not have to worry or think anymore. Chaplin also says, in that same interview: "I'm not interested at all in reality, except to make my stories believable—make the unreal real, to hypnotize the audience into swallowing my premise. Once I had decided to base City Lights on a pretty girl interested in a character like my Tramp, I had to think up convincing situations to bring that about believably."
I like this quote because when we write a story, we are not trying to "describe" reality as such since reality is entirely subjective.
We all know what reality is like because we live it every day. Us writers are trying to give reality a new skin. We are, in that process, describing a single perspective or response to fact – one possible mindset available to us to take up in response to the challenges of life. Because we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, somewhat outgunned by reality? The writer says, "Oh, yes, well, me too. What if we thought about reality like this? Might that help?" So, our literary art offers a hypothesis for both writer and reader to take up and consider together. And the goal of that offering might be to ease the reader's path, to hamper the difficulty of life. We try to give the reader a way of thinking about our mutual reality that is truthful, yes, and harsh, if need be, but not gratuitously harsh, a way of thinking that somehow helps her. And also, not gratuitously comforting (for she'll feel the falseness in that and take no comfort from it). And if we do it right, at a tender moment, the reader will feel she has a friend in the story and its writer, even if that writer is from some faraway place or long dead. So that's something else that's on my mind just now. As an example of this sort of art, I'll offer this sequence from Charlie Chaplin's film "Circus".
I experience this as just pure joy, the exquisite exploitation of a premise that has the effect of showing us, really showing us, how we are, how we behave, how we think. And the result is something like love, or maybe the kind of love God very likely feels for us. I watched Chaplin and felt the comfort and healing of being lifted out of that reality.
I also felt what I'd call Chaplin's fundamental faith in humanity, in everything we all have in common. It looks pretty good-hearted (although not exceptionally cheerful or avoidant – it's about trouble and how we respond to it, and those monkeys are simply diabolical in the unfortunate timing of their intervention).
Mostly I am thinking of that feeling I experienced while watching it, which was the feeling of being lovingly and excruciatingly tortured.That's a feeling I'd like to give my future readers.I feel only admiration for Chaplin. He doesn't seem to be advocating for or against anything. He is just observing the way people are. That takes a lot of affection and confidence.
We come to like an author like that not because she agrees with us but because she is clear-sighted and honest and has an enthusiasm for life - she busts us right out of our comfort zone with her fearless and energetic truth-telling. I pursue the idea of trying to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic in my work but just truthful, present, celebratory, and accepting of whatever reality is, even if that requires me to set aside or expand my belief system. So, having thought all of this through with you in this way, I'll trust that it's in my artistic subconscious and forget all about it so I can get back to work.