The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: November, 2012

Why I’ve Soured on C.S. Lewis

Lewis looking spectacled

After achieving/being granted human intelligence, I felt a ravenous desire for knowledge about the unique qualities of human culture. Children’s literature was especially fascinating to me because there is, as you might guess, no suitable analogue for it among tigers.

The Chronicles of Narnia were among the first children’s books I read as a young(er) tiger. A bookstore near my house was reselling a full paperback set of the series for a reasonable sum–around $25. I told my editor about this–we had only just met–and he agreed to buy the set for me, seeing as I had no money at the time. English came to me quite rapidly and I had no trouble reading through them in the space of two dreary weeks in early March.

Reading the books in chronological order–from Magician’s Nephew through The Last Battle–left me in wonder at their achievement. On one level they felt somewhat trifling as stories. I had already been exposed to a number of examples of human culture that were far more complex and challenging. In these stories, morality was highly evident, the way to salvation obvious. Noble lions did not wage war with other noble lions but instead eldritch and ancient spectres–witches, giants, a dappled and motley assortment of moral outsiders. And the author stood proudly in the background, narrating stories of faith and triumph from behind the curtain of the pages. Cheerful adventures, fraught with danger but insured by a comforting sense of English familiarity, led to satisfying, if sometimes unexpected, results.

Lewis as a figure became a figure of obsession to me. As a tiger, I was and am of course not religious in the slightest. Because there are no ways that tigers can articulate beliefs and faith in language, religious practice as humans understand it is impossible for them. Having achieved humanlike intelligence, my lack of religious concern remained intact. And yet there I was deeply attracted to the subject, eager to absorb more information about this topic. The religious conviction shown through Lewis’ writing, even for children, reflected a dazzling certainty confidently lived through writing. Certainty, it seemed, of something revelatory and wonderful. I asked my editor about whether he had authored other works.

“Indeed,” came the response, “he was not the most prolific writer but he left a substantial legacy of written work. I would recommend trying Mere Christianity to understand his underlying assumptions and method before attempting his other works.”

This advice taken into consideration, I contrived to borrow a copy of Mere Christianity from my editor’s house without his knowledge, later returning it (somewhat surprised that he was upset at my theft). In that book I found the map to Narnia, the cartography Lewis used when he moved behind the curtain. Lewis’ own world was, I discovered, highly enchanted. Tigers tend to think of the world in simple terms of desire and satisfaction, of social bonds when necessary but generally in isolation from one another. Here was a robust vision of humanity as a collective united by…something I never quite understood. His method was cunning, introducing a novel notion–a unified, consistent moral law that prevailed throughout time–and from there extrapolated the existence of that curious entity known as God.

Moreover, this was not a God who was a moral law, an ideal, or a unifying cosmic force. This God was a person. A strange, distended kind of person, a person who seemed to me even more distant when named than when not. This was a person for whom dying was a means of helping others, who was not human and yet was. Who was more than a person but could be addressed in that lowly way. I was perplexed. Nothing in my experience indicated the existence of such a being, and it struck me that there was little use in being so powerful and appearing altogether powerless.

Tigers, after all, even those with humanlike intelligence, know nothing of God. A being so universal, so powerful that his very will set the rules, bound not just human experience but all history into a coherent order culminating in an ultimate and beautiful end. Sitting here in the wreckage of heaven, watching fire flare up from the holes we scratch in the trees, digging dwellings out of piles of nails and sloughing off patches of skin that run rotten, I still harbor rather serious doubts about sanity of this being.

None of that mattered. Christianity intoxicated me until I staggered under the obnoxious weight of its radiance. Lewis was only one conduit after awhile, one source of insight into what I found was an old, old tradition, one that was both loosely held and jealously guarded in the strange land I was living in. The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, Surprised By Joy, and his cosmic excursions into science fiction were regular items on my reading menu.

Lewis was a hero of mine. Not because I shared his faith–which I did not–but because he was able to articulate for me the essential diagnosis of what to me seemed like human madness. It was this infatuation with certainty, especially about infinite things, that led to so much striving, so much fury and waste of energy. I told these things to my editor once, and he retreated into one of his long gazes. I asked him what was going on behind those dark eyes of his, and he spoke slowly.

“Don’t be surprised if the well runs dry someday with him.”

In that moment, my brimming enthusiasm soured into apprehension, and it fizzed down into my mind, scouring naivety with it. I was frustrated, and asked for some more clarification.

“What I mean is that no human has the diagnosis quite right. You can’t draw so much from one well on these questions. When I was younger, C.S. Lewis was the rock on which my faith was built. I quoted him in almost every conversation related to religion. I understand well your transfixion at his certainty, his apparent command of logic. When I was younger, I thought to myself, ‘how could he be mistaken?’ Of course, nothing has changed with Lewis since then. The words say the same things, but I can no longer hear them the same way. That certainty–not all certainty but the comforting certainties and bravado he sold me–eventually hollowed themselves out. I used to tell everyone I met to read a Lewis book if I found they hadn’t read one yet, especially the nonfiction ones, the apologetics. I never recommend the apologetics anymore, but the fiction is better anyway.”

Years have passed, and through that time it slowly dawned for me what he was talking about. Eventually the old simplicities, the trilemma, the easy dichotomies, the lionizations (no pun intended) of all he loved, all took on a darker shade. They were problematized and complicated. At that point, I understood that nothing, not even that book that Lewis loved so much and so well, was simple and uncomplicated. Contrarily, all was accretions of errors shoring up errors, vast regions of imperfections that were at their most honest when they were their most modest. Now I rest in no easy solitude, and I feel alone in this heaven, scratching surfaces to see if they melt like plaster, hiding from the sun because strange noises buzz in the heat, searching through myself and finding nothing where I wanted it to be.

Aslan is probably the greatest lion I’ll ever know, but I prefer cats who stalk in the dark. I find in this world precious few lions, and even fewer that I can like. For now, I will run with the striped stalkers.


Lessons From Casshern Sins



When you watch enough animation, you start to obsess over form and detail. You know the mechanical processes that go into producing an image, if not firsthand than through other sources, and so you begin to notice the difference between good animation and its disheartening opposite. Most of this time, this acquired eye for detail will be a blessing to you, since it will help you make better and more cogent critical statements about works of art. Sometimes, however, a piece of animation will come along that has an irresistible pull on your eye, and it will haul you by your retinas through hell and back just because it looks pretty.

Casshern Sins does not inflict real pain on the viewer. Not this viewer, at any rate. I can say this about it, though: the experience of looking at it was nothing short of a delight. Listening and watching attentively, on the other hand, were significant contributors to dull but grinding headaches. I didn’t even know tigers could get headaches, and I am one.

Populated by decaying robots, a remnant  of marginalized humanity, and more dust mites than you could shake a Hoover at, the world of the show is a wonderfully evocative emptiness. Its vistas embody bleakness, and the few remaining structures look frail and unsound. Casshern Sins fleshes out this environment with a palpable sense of history, mostly through visuals. Amidst the wasteland, a grand tale is playing out. The story concerns a being named Casshern, who looks like a robot but exhibits characteristics of a living organism as well, including a starfish-like ability to regenerate his body. Other robots believe that by ingesting Casshern they can regain their immortality. At least, they think, they can escape the ravages of the Ruin, a blight that is gradually driving robots to extinction. It emanates from the environment and seems to have been unleashed by Casshern himself when he killed a young girl-like being named Luna.

I learned a few things from the show despite my difficulties with it. These will hopefully prove to be valuable insights with some applicability outside this particular situation.

Lesson 1: Amnesia Is Overplayed

Part of the problem with the show is that its central character is an amnesiac. Other than this fact, Casshern is a perfectly acceptable protagonist in my mind. He’s certainly guilty of inhabiting a particular type–resentful antihero who is obsessed with his past and possesses strange abilities–but his unique character design and the particulars of the plot join forces to rescue him from convention. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.

Amnesia is rarely well-used as a character trait. It tends to justify excessive adolescent brooding (“I don’t even remember the horrible things that you tell me I did! Woe is me!), tedious exposition that could have been excluded or integrated more elegantly (“Horrors! Please tell me more about what horrible thing I have done, and more broadly about the situation of the world as it is now!”), or both. You can probably guess that Casshern Sins is guilty of both.

Amnesia can be effectively and intelligently used as a part of a coherent narrative whole. I think back on Dark City, the 1997 Alex Proyas sci-fi film that has an amnesiac protagonist. There are specific reasons for his being an amnesiac, and the fact that he is disoriented fits the grim noir feel of the film as well as the overall aims of the plot. Now, I have not seen all of Casshern Sins, so its main character’s amnesia might have been put to good use in later episodes. If so, tell me, since I would very much like to give the show another chance someday if I have a good enough reason. That disclaimer aside, I think that Casshern’s amnesia is purely an excuse for lazy writing.

His character, and indeed the broader story, would have been far more interesting had he remembered and internalized his failures, soldiering on without any meaning in his life, full of regret but unable to die. There might have been more time for reflection on the actual themes of the show. Corruption, death, existential angst, guilt, etc. Those are powerful issues and a leaner, more focused show might have had something to say about those issues.

Lesson 2: Sometimes Taking Your Time Is a Bad Thing

I have an unabashed love of so-called “slow cinema.” Tarkovsky, Tarr, and the whole crew of filmmakers who can work with time without compressing or being overly hyperbolic tend to be my favorite directors. Given that, I was anticipating finding the slow pace of Casshern Sins a refreshing change of pace. I did. Not enough.

Writing problems abound in this show. It’s not that the show progresses at a more contemplative pace, it’s that it wastes its contemplation. Clumsy dialogues, insufferable angst-ridden monologues, characters who are clearly designed as mouthpieces for particular views–the show quickly mire itself in the molasses of trivialities, ignoring the deep questions we were supposed to be here to discuss. This is not always the case, as there are a few episodes that have a discernible point of view on a particular matter. In the main, however, the show tended to waste its time. Look, if you’re going to be trivial, at least be zippy and exciting. Put on a happy face.

Drama is less difficult than comedy, but dangers still beset writers who want to deal with Big Questions. Here’s the thing: you have to deal with those questions. Casshern Sins largely does not do that.

Lesson 3: Even Shows That Aren’t Bad Can Be Unwatchable

I’ll close this by defending several aspects of the show. Voice work did transcend the problems of the writing, though not as much as I would have hoped. Sound design in general was a plus, with the hushed vibe drawing my eyes and ears more closely to the show’s atmosphere. Visuals were excellent, as I have mentioned. The experience of watching the show was rarely overtly unpleasant. However, it was almost relentlessly trivial and mediocre, to the point where I had a difficult time paying attention even to parts where characters weren’t spouting vague and headache-inducing dialogue.

It’s a wash. I hope to return to the series eventually, but for now the roof is collapsing on me, and I cannot justify watching a show that leaves me with a dull ache behind my eyes.

I’ll be watching Welcome to the NHK as the world comes down around me.

Editor’s Note: Reflections on fun. Concert at Calvin College


From left to right: Andrew Dost, Nathan Ruess, Jack Antonoff

This post is designed to make up for the lateness of the last one, which was published today rather than the usual Wednesday. The reason that it was not published relates directly to the headline of this article, so I think there is a certain poetic justice in publishing this reflection as penance for the lateness of the last one.

All of which is to say I was quite busy on Wednesday night, so busy that I neglected my beloved Alexius. I regret this, but that regret is far outweighed by the enjoyment I had at the fun. concert last night. I have but a few points that struck me as particularly relevant for discussion. Hopefully you will agree, and for any Calvin students reading who were at the concert, you’ll probably have a better grasp of what I’m talking about but I will attempt to make this as accessible as possible.

1. All of the Lights

I jest. Kanye West did not make an appearance on stage last night. Only so many blessings are possible at once. That said, there was something of the rapper and music impresario’s characteristic self-consciousness and glitz in the stage presentation. The itself was performing in front of an ebullient crowd of excited college students and a sprinkling of others, but behind them shone an array of lights that accentuated the drama of the night. Lighting director Jackey Finney (who was given some “glowing” coverage over at NPR) has polished and refined the light show to a fine sheen. The audience thronged in darkness, basked in a quasi-heavenly light, and rocked to rhythmic strobing effects. As a visual experience, which for me was partially obstructed by my location, the concert was a great success.

2. Sound and Fury

I can’t speak for the fury, but there was, befitting the concert setting, plenty of sound to be shared in common. Long, intimidating racks of speakers hung on cables from each side of the stage, the band nestled in the middle, I thought, almost like tank commanders. Opening act Miniature Tigers put on an energetic stage show that was, unfortunately, slightly diminished by an odd sound mix that tended to drown out the guitar and bass. After they got the audience going moderately well with their concluding number, MT cleared off stage and I was somewhat concerned about how this arena (and arenas are justifiably derided as sonically inferior music venues) would contain fun.’s own set.

Fortunately, the bass and guitars were not just audible but vibrant. There were imperfections in the sound mix, and had I not known nearly all of the lyrics I might have had some trouble comprehending the vocals over the roar of the crowd and the instruments. Whatever issues I had, though, were quickly set to rest once the band took the stage and invigorated the crowd with a performance of “Carry On.” Live, fun. is not the most adventurous as far as straying from the recordings. At times, lead singer Nate Ruess would create space for crowd-pumping interludes, but the songs were largely identical to their counterparts on the album.

That said, of course the experience was radically different at that volume and in that atmosphere. Nearly all of their songs benefitted from the massive sound system and the infusion of energy (almost a heart transplant in some cases) into them. Guitar solos were edgier and even more Queen-like, the Autotune effects on Ruess’ mic were toned down, and the crowd added something definite to the experience.

Ending the set with the Some Nights all-star lineup of “Some Nights” and “We Are Young (sans Janelle Monáe),” along with a cover of Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the band had stirred the crowd to unleash a deafening scream of approval. I was initially unnerved, remembering Roger Waters’ description of arena concerts as resembling Fascist rallies. Finishing the first set with  Lo and behold, a war chant broke out at one point. It was all orderly and under control, though, and an encore duly followed. My two favorite songs were featured, and I leapt with joy hearing “One Foot” and “Stars” in a transformed brilliance, almost overwhelming.

3. The Message

Fun. was there first and foremost to bring their music to the Calvin masses, so the main substance of the show was flashing lights, guitar solos, pomp, and genuine engagement of entertainment. That said, the band is touring college campuses in the first place in order to create a greater awareness for LGBT rights issues and environmental problems. Before unleashing the encore, guitarist Jack Antonoff took an opportunity to speak from the stage. For a brief moment, I was afraid that the crowd’s blood would run cold, that there would be a pall set over the night. Happily, that did not happen, and when Antonoff said “God loves gay people!” there was an instantaneous and overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd. It was almost deafening. My heart leapt. I’m not sure I believe in good vibes, but after last night I’m not sure how long I can deny them.

4. You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Not all was well behind the scenes of the concert. Diplomatic discussion and wrangling had been necessary to get the band to limit the presence of fun.’s Ally Coalition (the band has responded to the concert here), which was supposed to have booths in the arena lobby. When the band played the cover it was obviously a pointed statement aimed at the college administration and the church leaders who tied their hands. I thank fun. for coming here. For the sake of the LGBTQ community here and the people whose stance on the issue is clouded or undeveloped, they performed a great service. Hopefully my church and my college can come to a more loving and open position on this issue. What the response of the crowd there shows, though, is that for hundreds and hundreds of the new minds of the Christian Reformed Church, the LGBTQ equality issue is simple and clear, and they will no longer allow it to be obfuscated and confined to sterile back rooms.

Thoughts on Stories

When there are no nailstorms coming down on us, when the order of this heaven is finally fixed again, will there be more adventures? I open up with this question to say that my days have been stressful. Stressful scarcely does them justice, in fact. I would be remiss in not mentioning the cascade of horrors that have come down on the tigers of heaven:

At one point, we all grew to double size, with many of us falling out of trees and into the piles of nails. I myself was sealed in the closet for several hours before the transformation appeared to wear off. For a long time, though, my body was still wedged in the closet, or felt like it. I could exit the closet through the narrow door, but felt incomplete, as if I were leaving another self in there. I had a good laugh with this, but after awhile the joke wore thin and it became merely exhausting.

This is not heaven. No. That does not mean, however, that I want to leave. After all, where you humans live isn’t heaven, and sometimes you fight tooth and claw (or nail, in your case) to stay put. Bound as I am to transmit writing from this spectral place to the lands below, I have had to come up a steady stream of new material to publish. Thus we get into the main thrust of this post: a theory of how stories are created in the mind of an author, or outside of it, and then how they are transmitted and how the reader is involved in creating meaning.

None of this is binding or a complete system, but I think it’s fairly consistent and coherent as far as theories of fiction writing go. I would invite others to contribute what they think, especially those who have spent more time studying literary theory than I. Most of this has been developed merely through the process of writing and has been influenced by the content of the writing I’ve done as well. OK, on with it!

1. Writing is Contingent and Destructive

Take any blank piece of paper. Look at it closely. What is it communicating? Not a whole lot. It certainly communicates that there is a culture capable of producing that paper with precise edges and dimensions and favors regular shapes. It’s thin, so the culture values portability, but it’s also easy to crumple up and destroy.

But, of course, the actual content of what is on the paper is, well, nothing at all. I would actually prefer we use the word empty to describe the paper. That word describes a certain dynamic tension that I don’t think is capture by nothingness. You don’t say something is empty if you don’t think it could be filled or full at some point. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense is exactly this contingency, this dynamic openness to accept and then release, to have perfect compassion without attachment. I also believe that the emptiness of paper also contains immense meaning, perhaps all possible human meaning, and that it is absolutely unambiguous.

Being overfull of meaning and empty of meaning are, in my mind, virtually the same. Of course, the white paper can’t tell you anything because all the meanings it contains are like noise, with no strand of thought, no assertion of meaning or narrative thread standing out above any other. You cannot actually say anything about the piece of paper when it’s blank.

Writing does two things, then: it makes the chaos comprehensible and it makes it ambiguous. When a reader looks at a blank page, he or she can project any meaning whatsoever onto it, since it’s radically open and empty. Put the sentence, “There once was a weird dog” on the page, and the reader is forced to do more than simply project themselves onto the page. That projection has to accommodate the sentence. The reader can reject or accept the statement, but he or she has to react (We’re assuming an engaged reader here. A rarity, I know, but without the assumption that there will be at least one engaged reader I wouldn’t be a writer).

Why do I say that writing is destructive? I think that each word is destructive of the purity of empty space. Additional words destroy and reshape the meaning of previous words. A narrative is impossible to create with making decisions, and decisions involve destroying or at least impairing possibilities. Think about the weird dog I described earlier. At this point, there is still some lack of perfect communication you can only get with emptiness. After all, the weird dog I’m thinking of and the weird dog you’re thinking of are not the same. Did yours have twisty horns? I doubt it. But it’s still fairly clear. There is a weird dog.

What happens when I continue the narrative of this weird dog?

There once was a weird dog. That weird dog was owned by Lex and lived in a beautiful house.

The more words are added, the greater the risk. Who is Lex? Is this person a man or a woman? Or is it a person, not merely a robot? What constitutes a beautiful house? These words all have different meanings to different people, and there is the risk, the underlying risk of all communication. You could be intending to create a narrative about one thing, to bend language to make a certain point or to communicate certain emotions you have. But, when you start using words, the ambiguities, the multiplicities, the infinities of possible meanings all start to take hold. In adding more words, the emptiness begins to reassert itself because of this:

No word refers positively to anything. A word’s definition is only held in virtue of it being different from another word. This is a disturbing notion in philosophy but I think it works very well in the context of fiction. When you write about a fictional chair you are not writing about something that exists in the world, or that could. What you are doing is directing the imagination of your reader in such a way as to achieve a certain effect. Of course, you will not achieve precisely the effect that you intend, which is the whole point of literature: you create something with one meaning in mind, or perhaps with a few possible meanings, and then attempt to communicate those meanings, but all the while take the risk that you will be grossly misunderstood.

To sum up:

Emptiness is clear, full of meaning, but all of it is projected and open.

A story is ambiguous, unclear, and excludes certain meanings by design but is also to a great extent a risky venture. You will be misunderstood and meanings will change depending on the person reading. That is the gamble.

That is a necessary wager for me. I cannot imagine expressing myself in times troubled or pacific without the aid of writing. And I find a certain beauty in the immanence of stories in me and in the reader. In a certain sense, there is nothing of a story that transcends time or the space between people. A good story is one that rings true to something profoundly limited: human nature. Writing is always done seemingly alone but really in community. In community with readers, with all the speakers and readers of your language who have established the rules of language and meaning, and in a strange way with your past. Editing is looking at what was once spontaneous thought and understanding it more objectively, and even to one person a story can be read a million different ways. Otherwise, to me, it would not be literature.

If not all of this has been clear, I won’t use the excuse that it’s just the nature of writing to be unclear. This is fairly ramshackle theory, but I have examined it as deeply as I believe I could reasonably have done. I am only one tiger, speaking, at the moment, to one human at a time. For the sake of the publishing deal, I hope that it’s more than one total. But it will be enough for now for me to live through this ordeal.

Discussion: Gorillaz, Lord of the Rings, and Allegory

Today, my editor gave a brief message in his college’s chapel. It’s a building with a sloping root, opening up in the centre to allow a metal spire to rise out of it. Inside, seats are arranged in a circle around a dais on which rests a rectory. The floor is covered with wood, and a stately organ rises from the wall. Daily services are held within, and it is an inviting structure indeed. Neither overly clinical or traditional, it reflects the tension between the progressive and conservative tenets of Calvin College’s ethos. Likewise, the messages that people deliver tend to stick to familiar language but reinterpret it in new ways.

The message my editor gave was part of a presentation by the Cultural Discerners, a student leadership group that handles matters of culture in an official capacity. Unlike most student leaders, they tend (and this is merely a tigerly supposition) not to be too passionate about the Calvin community per se but be more involved in their own events. This chapel is one of the few times where they are truly visible in a major way on the campus. The content of the presentation was a short commentary on this song:

I’ve discussed a Gorillaz song earlier on this blog, but this one is quite different. While “DoYaThing” features André 3000 and a kicking beat, this is a far more subdued track. I’ll deemphasize discussion of the actual music in the song since that is not the focus. Dennis Hopper makes sure of that.

So, what’s wrong with allegories?

If you listen to or read the lyrics to the song closely, it becomes obvious that there is a charged political overtone to the song. This has led many of the wiser among the Internet masses to interpret the words in the most obvious and simplistic way possible. In other words, they develop strict allegorical models for analyzing the song. In an allegory, there is a 1:1 correlation between a textual element (say, a character, setting, or plot point) and an extra-textual element, either in real life or in other fiction. The problems with interpreting text this way essentially boil down to this: it attempts to preclude alternative interpretations by establishing such strong connections between two things and only those two things. Correlating or applying fiction to reality or finding allusions is different; that approach still allows oxygen for dissent. Of course, two people who hold strict allegorical interpretations of “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” could have divergent opinions. However, they are unlikely to come to any kind of substantive conclusion or produce much productive dialogue.

That is not to deny that there are elements of the real world in the story. There are clear indications–notice direct allusion to the United States, the Native/colonist imagery in the video, the archetypal nature of the plot, etc.–that this is meant to be somehow instructive or at least applicable to the extra-textual world. That said, I think you can admit this without claiming, as I have seen, that the Happyfolk are identical with the Native Americans or other oppressed groups. You can, with a more inclusive and expansive view of the song’s applicability to history or other subjects, engage in substantive discussions with others and find deeper and more informed ways of incorporating others’ voices into your own interpretive framework. This can only be a good thing. Two kinds of life are embodied by the Folk in the story of the Monkey, and notice that neither group finally profits from either ignorant happiness or grasping discontentment.

Lord of the Rings was transformed from a fantasy curiosity into a cultural pillar in the 1960s. Many of those who read the book in that Cold War context interpreted the Ring as the atomic bomb, and read the book through that lens. The lure of technology, the destructive power of human ingenuity, the clash of civilization and chaos, East and West. These large-scale, almost foundational conflicts, of the modern world, are certainly reflected in the text. But it would be a grave mistake to conclude that these are the only possible or even the most insightful views into the text. This view–Lord of the Rings as allegory for the mid-20th century political situation–restricts the text, tames the epic even more than the philologist’s inelegant and academic prose (tigers are allowed to say such things).

I’ll conclude with this statement from Tolkien:

“Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.”

I heartily agree.

National Novel Writing Month

Yesterday was the beginning of National Novel Writing Month (you might know its little brother NaNoWriMo). This is an occasion of jubilation. I don’t celebrate holidays–the end of every hunt is an occasion for celebration, I suppose–but here is something to treasure. A month of hurried, broken creativity. Rushes of words often written without heed to censorship or the perverse logic of the nonfictional world! It makes this cat dizzy. Unfortunately, I do not have the seed of a novel in me. There is nothing I can do to make the words obey my will. Nor do I have the patience or willingness to open up to what they might be saying to me. That said, I do have some words of encouragement and warning for those who wish to participate:

1. Don’t have a blueprint or a plan (until you’ve written one complete draft)

Stories are always born in the moment. Even a rigorous and thoroughly-developed plan will have to be varied at some point. When words are streaming out of you, they come alive. Words are funny creatures. When I’ve planned (abortive) efforts at writing stories, when I took to the task of mapping out intricate diagrams and enumerating the various characters and plots and how they add up to this or that central theme, I found that actually writing the words down was drained of all spontaneity and passion.

Not only this, but the process of planning drained the enjoyment out of watching a story evolve and grow in front or my eyes. As an author, you are, in some sense, the God of your world, and the words are your creation. You create, like God did, out of chaos, taking the words and creating order and beauty. However, like in real life, you can put the words where you want but they are like magnets, projecting out fields of influence over all the words you so carefully arranged before them. Each word edifies every other one before it, relativizes their meaning. The only way to get a pure meaning is to leave the page blank, but I doubt the NaNo people will accept that as an entry.

Planning is what you do when you already have a book in place. To my mind, you cannot have a proper angle on what you have created until you have created it. After that, you can focus on imposing a broader vision, one that is earned through poring over a complete, if highly flawed, whole, rather than composed out of anemic ideas you haven’t even really thought of until you’ve given them bodies–that is, put it to words. Write with abandon and without judgment. You won’t know what to do with your words until they’re all there, and even then your knowledge is limited because…

2. Remember that your readers are co-creators

I do not advocate writing for a vague or generalized audience. Thinking of one specific person is a good way to focus and allows you to formulate your language in a specific and incisively relational rather than a shallow way. That said, there is no denying that, no matter how large or small the eventual audience for your work will be, your readers will be creating a significant part and in many cases the larger part of what your writing means. That’s obvious: literature wouldn’t be literature (And that is not a ponderous title in my view. Airline safety manuals as well as epic poems are literature.) without or the possibility, indeed the certainty, that its meaning can and will change with each successive reading. No one will envision quite the same characters that you intended. None of them will value the same things in your book for the same reasons that you do.

What should be the attitude writers take when considering this fact? Mostly that your job as a writer is not to have the final say, not to encase the characters or discussions in stone but to open up. Hold your conceptions of your work lightly. Truly valuable works of literature never call attention only to themselves but address some pressing question that many people have. I never open a book, especially not fiction, looking for a final answer to something (maybe except for a dictionary or encyclopedia, which tells you why people cannot read those for pleasure) but for a space with which to argue. Your job is to frame a common experience, not painstakingly render a complete picture. Every word opens up a hole, every hole you fill will tear open anew every time it is read. That’s the hope, in any case.

3. Obvious stuff

Have fun and don’t sweat it. Be humble when talking with readers and other writers, humble when talking to your characters, but confident in the moment. Never disclose too much or think out loud in front of other people–it might give you the wrong impression that you’re getting work done.

That is about all this humble tiger has to say. With that, let the writing commence!

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