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.