I had a James Joyce-style epiphany regarding the idea of a “writing vision” while sitting in class this week. It struck me that while I knew why I liked to write, and what I like to write, and even sometimes how I like to write, I was still missing an overarching vision for what kind of writing I wanted to do.
This may seem odd. “Oliver, writing is writing, you silly person”, you might say out loud while reading this, rolling your eyes and mentally noting that I’m not very smart sometimes. And yes, in some capacity, that is true. But what separates Shakespeare from Stephanie Meyer? What makes Hemingway and Hawthorne worth reading, all these years after their time? Why do some authors stand the test of time, while others disappear into the 1$ bargain bin of history?
No one would argue that Dan Brown, Stephen King, James Patterson, and John Grisham are successful authors. They alone account for four of the top ten best selling fiction authors of the past ten years. But will anyone be reading their work 50 years from now? 100 years after they left their mark on the world of writing, and have been long interred in their mounds of dirt or ashen jars? 200 years from now, when paper no longer exists, and we simply ingest data with our minds in place of physically putting our eyes all over the words and reading it?
It’s very difficult to say, but many an academic would say, resoundingly, “no.” While these authors might sell well now, they lack some key nucleobases in the DNA of their work. These books tend to be pulp; something written for entertainment, to tell a generic story, to get a quick rise or reaction from a reader. Very rarely does one ever go back to reread one of these novels because one journey through was all you needed as a reader and no more could be garnered from extensive study.
They’re the kind of paperbacks you read on the beach, when your mind needs a vacation just as much as your body.
The elephant taking up all of the space in the room of this blog post is a word we (should) all know well: Literature. Being literary. Literating the shit out of your writing.
The word get tossed around like the smallest kid in a birthday party moon bounce. It’s sort of an “apply to anything” phrase; I’ve heard people call almost anything with words and pages “literary” over the years. “Yea, that GreenPlum Massively Parallel Processing white paper was some great literature.” No, no it wasn’t. It was painful and awful and made you cry and you know it! Stop using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
So what makes something a piece of literature instead of just pointless smatterings of ink? According to my esteemed teachers and some extensive internet research, (arguably) ten things:
1. Multiple levels of meaning: One word: allegory. Swift’s Tale of a Tub is about three brother’s interpreting their father’s last will and testament. Or it’s about three branches of Christianity interpreting the bible in different ways. Lord of the Rings is about a hobbit holding the fate of the world in a tiny ring, but it’s also about the impact of the industrial revolution in England. Literary works speaks longer and deeper and more piercingly about cultural, social, and spiritual topics.
2. Revelation upon multiple meanings: building on the first idea, literature opens itself up for interpretation and inquiry. It asks the reader questions, some which can’t be answered. It also tends to stir a reaction in the reader, whether emotional or logical, making them think (or rethink) their view on a particular topic. This reaction can be completely different from reader to reader, and probably should be.
3. Broader themes or messages: beyond just simple allegory or allusion, literature speaks to social movements, universal truths, and the human condition. Shakespeare remains one of the most read authors of the English language because his plots, characters, and settings are so universally understood. It is relatively easy to adapt Shakespeare to any time period or culture because the things he wrote of are woven into the dense, 2000 thread count Egyptian cotton of our existence.
4. Character interaction and conflict: literature is about us. We. The People. Nos populus. When you finish a literary work, you often remember what a character went through and why, not necessarily where and when. We, as readers, love to see that a characters can win, lose, love, and fear. It’s a reminder that our experience is a shared one. We also read to see that characters can and do change, in hopes that we can change ourselves.
5. Heritage: literature breeds literature, or at least it tries to dry-hump it at a party after too many glasses of boxed wine. Most literary writing includes homages or references to other works of literature, whether those that inspired it, or those that it stands in opposition to. This is partly a respect thing; a literary writer has to appreciate the work done before, otherwise, how can be pretend to write it ourselves?
6. Specific craft techniques, language, and creative innovation: this is my favorite aspect. Literature is art. It is the fanciful weaving of lumps of letters to create magical stories and worlds and talking unicorn-hippos that explode into chocolate covered coffee beans when they laugh. But it is also about understanding the English language, rolling with and then deliberately breaking convention. It is about knowing what and why you are writing, how it works and how it doesn’t, and having some goddamn fun while you’re at it. Remember, if literature is art, literary writers are artists.
7. Timelessness: literature never dies. If it is great writing that speaks quite astutely to your brief time on this spinning rock of oblivion, someone in the course of history will remember it (or find it) and want to study it. This answers my question from above; people still read Hemingway and Hawthorne because they are worth reading. There is something to learn, be it craft, life lessons, or just how crazy life was back then. More importantly, there will always be something to learn from works of literature. Immortality is between the spines of an amazing book.
8. Philosophical thought: literature provokes us to think and learn and reevaluate why we’re here. It isn’t directly philosophy, but it certainly includes a lot of concepts that overlap. It moves people to action, either within themselves or within their community. Don’t believe me? See: The Communist Manifesto, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or – I dunno – On The Origin of Species.
9. Authored: a literary writer, even one penning extensively researched nonfiction, is always apparent in their writing. That isn’t to say that all literature has a bias, but it certainly contains and exposes the emotions and intellectual views of its author. A book that didn’t would be dull and lifeless. Sort of like what technical writing and neutral journalism has become today.
10. Challenge: lastly, literature is hard. No one claimed that reading and understanding Tolstoy was easy. A lot of the “best” writing is also the most difficult to read and digest. But that challenge is what leads a reader to learn something new, look at something from a different angle. No one can argue that Joyce’s Ulysses is incredibly challenging to read, but without his stream of consciousness style the modernist movement would have started much later, and creative writing would still be mired in the rigid rules of classical though. Literature pushes the boundaries of what we accept and shows us that difficult isn’t always bad, and that progress comes through hard work.
I’ll leave you with a question: what is your personal writing vision? Do you want your work to embody these elements of literature and stand as a testament to the fragmented prism of human existence, or to be something more fleeting, a snapshot of our lives from the time it was written, meant more for entertainment than for education?
Whatever you choose, it doesn’t matter. Neither is better than the other, as they both have merits and flaws. The key is to write well and write often. Make your writing an extension of your creative mind and do it the best you can. If you do that, you’ll be successful, but more importantly, you’ll be happy.
And remember: Writers are artists. Go make art. Be it finger-painting or Caravaggio. Oh, and have some fun while you’re at it.