Those of you following this blog in 2016 know about my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. This is off to a grand start as I’ve finished the first book on my reading list: Oscar Wilde’s seminal (and only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While I could spend the majority of this essay expounding on the literary shattering of the 19th century social consciousness that this incredible piece of work affected, this operation is more geared toward taking away writing skills from each book I read.
So regarding the novel itself I’ll keep it brief. This was absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read. Considered a “philosophical novel” it is all of that plus much more; a daring look at aestheticism in the age of Victorian prudishness, it also contains one of the more remarkable examples of early science fiction writing as a play on the Faust legend of selling one’s soul to the devil. Except in this case Wilde does the story one better in that Dorian Gray’s soul has been transferred to a portrait, which keeps track of every malady and malfeasance he accomplishes while his own face retains its youthful luster. For those who have yet to read this marvelous work I won’t give away too much of the plot other than to say it will keep you hooked straight through to the end.
Now I want to move on to the takeaways from writing I gathered from reading this amazing book. But first a quick aside: I’ve written before about how rather unnecessary all those “how to write” lists and columns from authors have become to me. Instead of looking at those, I have maintained that the best way to learn from an author better than yourself is to simply read their work. That should teach you everything you need to know about how to improve. And in this case, that comes through in spades.
First: The adage of “show, don’t tell,” and its purported usefulness. This mantra is spouted to almost every writer attempting to make a go of it, and for the most part it is valuable, if pithy advice. Yet Wilde almost entirely ignores this in his novel. While the literature is a pure joy to engage with, and is a valuable critique of his own society at a time when that was frowned upon, just as interesting to me as a writer is what he doesn’t say. We are right there with Dorian Gray as he finds out the horrible secret of his portrait, but not necessarily when he goes on to a life of debauchery and hedonism outside of a full chapter on his interests in tapestries, jewels, and other expensive tastes. In a later scene in the book, Gray blackmails a scientist friend of his into performing a horrific act that will eliminate some evidence. These two are mentioned as having been good friends until Gray’s sullen reputation causes them to never see each other again. Not mentioned is the actual incident, or what Gray uses to blackmail his friend. Long stretches of time pass with barely a mention, and you have to pay close attention to see what point of the story has been reached in each chapter. To me, this would appear to go against the “show, don’t tell” rule, but in fact is an excellent example of how to elude things like this in the service of telling a story. For up until reading this book, in my mind the most sacred of golden calves in the writing world was description: make sure your reader knows what’s going on by showing him or her, and making sure they get the full measure of your scenes and characters. Wilde turns that on its head by consciously avoiding a lot of the headier parts of the story in favor of letting his audience consider what Gray is up to during the intervening chapters. While this probably comes as little surprise to more advanced literary readers, to me it was a quiet revolution in my style of writing, and one I suspect will be attached for some time.
Second: The use of the novel to speak volumes about one’s society. As is pretty well known, English society didn’t care much for Mr. Wilde or his supposed improprieties. Despite being one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century, he was cast aside by his peers for daring to criticize his contemporary culture and its vagaries and norms. Seeing this in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to recognize just how important it is to use art in this regard. Those of you who have known me for a while understand my obsession with politics and the situation our lovely world finds itself in these days. In fact, the bizarre qualities of our modern life (escape of accountability by politicians, rampant corruption in the financial sector, devastating poverty for the vast majority) are things I hope to target in my third novel. So it’s very motivating to read such an incredible analysis of Wilde’s own day in his text, just to see how well to do it. This is seen no better than in Lord Henry Wotton, friend of Dorian Gray and a supposedly bad influence on him who leads him to a lifestyle of ruin. And how does he accomplish this? By urging his young companion to engage in art with all of his senses, and to live for the moment in any way he can. This type of lifestyle was unheard of in 19th century England at the time and caused mass opprobrium against Wilde that could culminate in him being put on trial for various obscenities a few years later. Sadly, as is too often the case with many great literary authors, Wilde obtained a more fair scrutiny after his death. But the legacy of his work reflected a sea change in the notion of what a novel, and art in general, could and should be.
These are the two biggest lessons I’ve learned from reading this marvelous work, but you out there may draw different conclusions. That’s why I would strongly urge anyone to pick up this book if you haven’t read it yet. And I would highly recommend it for those of you trying to figure out your own writing voice, as it’s a great example of how to write exceedingly well. (And if you’re looking for further recommendations, I posted my own set of favorite fiction books last year.)
Next up on the docket for my year of living fictionally: a change in the lineup, as my wife really wanted to read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea together (much like we read To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago - and yes, we are married dorks). It’s a relatively slim volume I’m ashamed to admit having never read, and shouldn’t knock me too far off course from the list I created earlier.
And of course, those of you out there are always free to send me your own recommendations. I’ve received a few great ideas so far, but can always use more. Now it’s on to the next book!
One of the big-picture items of the writer’s life is sitting down to decide what to write about each day. But even larger than that in terms of what you hope to accomplish with your career is the “why” of it all. I’ve covered a few important topics on the writing process last year; this year my plan is to first take a deep dive into the issues motivating a writer and then continue on with how to get that novel sitting in the deep recesses of your brain into a reality.
So, why write?
Unfortunately this is going to be another one of those topics in which the only real, right answer will come from your own heart. If you’ve decided to sit down at a word-processing device and pour your heart out, you’d better be damn sure this is what you’re meant to be doing. But how does one figure that out? Where do all the ideas come from, and why won’t people stop asking where your ideas come from? I wish there was a simple answer to all of this, because if so I would’ve milked it for all it was worth and made a lot of money doing this. Truth is, just like motivation, whatever forces you to want to create must come from inside. Nothing I can do or write will ultimately help you in this regard. That being said, I can at least try to provide some guidance for your soul as you head down this journey.
The big “why” of it all should be some kind of trigger from your life. An easy exercise to figure this out is to understand what is driving you. I can offer up an example from my first novel here. Our Senior Year was a story I had been carrying around with me since my own senior year of high school. I saw somebody like myself as the main character, and thought of a composite of some of my friends that could exist as other characters. It would be my attempt at telling a basic “boy meets girl” story that takes place in countless high schools across the nation, only in this case my shallow mindset at the time forced me to *spoiler* have the main character commit suicide once he realizes the relationship can never be. Looking back on this time (as it became a more major theme of the actual novel), I can see that I was trying to tell a story to deal with how I was feeling in those days, and felt that this would be the only way I could get it onto paper. As the story progressed I realized there wasn’t a whole lot of other plot there, so I subsequently came up with some other ideas, such as the *spoilers* car accident and the college visit. But ultimately this story was borne of the necessity of what I needed to tell.
Now try visualizing a story like this from your own life. What story is inside you that you are burning to tell? What can’t be fully realized until you get it into that kind of form? If there isn’t anything there yet, dig deeper. There are many reasons to write, and this is just one way to access those feelings. But how you deal with those feelings is the key: this is a story that has to be told, and you are the only person who can get it right. Is there a relationship in your life that isn’t going well? How are things going with your parents? Do you enjoy the place where you live, your current status in life? All of these things are worth pondering if you’re trying to get to the core of what it is to feel that writer’s drive. Again, these are just partial motivators, but they are one way to get started. The “why” of writing is that a story is burning deep within you that must be let out - are you able to calm your mind enough to ponder and think it through? I had to learn how to do that so don’t think it’s going to be an easy or short process. But when it comes down to it, this is a solid way to get ideas, which contrary to popular belief don’t just appear out of the ether (ok, sometimes they do).
The larger point I’m trying to make here is the “why” of writing can be anything you want it to be. On another side of things, say, the journalistic side, perhaps there is something going on in your neighborhood that really gets you animated and makes you want to effect some change. Find out who the key players are, interview them, and find other relevant government documents or other supporting elements that will bolster your overall picture of the situation, and then find a way to get it to the masses. The main element of this is whatever drives you: the story, the article, the situation, the people. Same can be said for stuff that’s going on in your own life. I can use an example from my second novel for this one.
Last Man on Campus was another slow burner that existed in the back of my brain since my college days (it used to take me decades to finally put these ideas into story form - I’ll write more about my own problems and limitations in this space soon). I knew it was going to be a scary story about some kind of conspiracy running the show at a college campus very much like the one I was attending. That thought alone was enough to drive me to figure out the plot aspects of the book and eventually forced me to expand it into *spoiler* a larger universe that will spill over into at least one more novel. But at the center of it all was that core story about a guy trapped on his campus by forces beyond his understanding, which in turn was inspired by my own creeping meanderings around my dormitory hall and considering its story value.
It can be as easy as simply looking around yourself and coming up with a story that maybe has always existed there, but it took your writer’s eye to see it. I’m not sure that this advice would work well for somebody trying to craft a more out-there genre type book; only you can know what a space lazer should look like if you’re writing a Sci-Fi novel, for example. But on the whole this can be a great way to access those feelings and to start putting together a story.
So far this all seems pretty basic, right? “Look at your surroundings, dig deep within yourself to come up with the story, find something you’re passionate about.” But as simple as all of this sounds, it will take a long time to hone them into a career. I’ve got two published books under my belt and yet I am still struggling from idea to idea when it comes to my next work. Thankfully, since I keep my mind and eyes open to the possibilities around me it has become much easier to attune myself to the ideas when they arrive. It also helps to get the new ideas down into writing as soon as you can: either with a notebook or online using Google Docs like I do. The important thing is that you realize and understand the useful parts of the ideas: those things that will propel the story in unexpected directions that you may not have thought of at the time, but will someday realize that’s where it was headed all along.
The most important part of all of this is being able to access that within yourself. Part 2 of this essay will attempt to look at that aspect.
It’s a new year and for those of you who have been following my stuff over the years, you may know that it’s time for a sporadic update on New Year’s resolutions. I’ve attempted to do these in a public, online way for a few years now and have found it to be a middling exercise at best. Yes, I have accomplished some major tasks, but I’ve left just as many on the resolution-year floor, and I essentially abandoned the practice in 2014. I did this with the understanding that goals are still very important to a person’s life, but setting them arbitrarily at the beginning of each year isn’t a necessary way to make sure these things become habits in your life.
Besides all of this, over the course of writing for this new blog I have decided on a more overarching goal of streamlining my writing life in a few ways. While I do have two published books under my belt, if I’m ever going to make this into a career I need to keep improving my abilities and also find publication with a major house. I also need a vast improvement in my short story writing skills, with the hopes of finding a place for a few of them in literary journals by the end of the year. Basically, though I feel I have met some important goals, it’s time to spend an entire year focusing on my fiction writing.
To that end, I announce the first pseudo-experiment of 2016: My Year of Living Fictionally. What this means is that I am only going to read fiction this year. Those who know me well probably understand what a difficult decision this was to make, but after discussing it many times with my wife I have decided that this will help further my goal of becoming a better writer. What this means practically is I’m not going to read any nonfiction books this year, and outside of my two magazine subscriptions (Harper’s and Mother Jones) and whatever I manage to save to Instapaper over the year I plan to avoid reading much in the way of news. I also plan to extend this notion to film, eliminating documentaries from my movie-watching queue.
My hope here being that the more fiction I intake, the more I will understand about certain authors I’ve yet to tackle, as well as those I have. I have begun compiling a list which I will share shortly, but I also want to use this opportunity to cast a line of inquiry toward the people who do actually take the time to read my work. So, without further ado, your humble narrator turns to the gallery of readers out there to ask: what books do you think I should read this year? Just remember, they must be fiction. No biography, and no journalism (i.e. none of the stuff I’ve been obsessed with for years). Please put your suggestions in the comments or email them to me directly.
I should also mention one more extension of this project: I will be taking a year (at least) off from the journalism I’ve been performing in my neighborhood for the past five years. In figuring out how to maximize my year, I have decided that this pursuit of mine has run its course for now. While I know I have made an impact in my local area through this work, I had to make a decision as to which writing I want to spend an entire year to improve. The decision was to move the local journo stuff to the back-burner, and see if I feel like picking it up again in a year. I have one final story on the traffic study Minneapolis is wrapping up in our area to file for MinnyApple, and that’s it.
Here is my starter reading list, which I plan on expanding both with more of my own selections and those I solicit from people around me.
I do have a few other long-standing goals I hope to accomplish this year, but they’re mostly hold-overs from prior failures (I have been meaning to re-learn piano for a few years now with nothing to show for it, for example) so I won’t bother mentioning them here. For now, I’m going to keep my New Year’s resolution to a year of living (really reading) fictionally. And for those of you who have interest in following this little experiment, I’ll be posting updates (as well as continuing my series on “how to write”) on my blog.
(For more insight into the importance of reading books, check out this video by The School of Life. H/t to Maria Popova and her amazing site Brain Pickings, which locates tons of amazing stuff like this and is well worth checking out.)
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.