For all of you who haven’t yet done so, pop on across to The Stella Prize’s website now and read the acceptance speech of this year’s winner, Charlotte Wood.
It’s an amazing speech, especially inspiring for those of us struggling with the “and why am I inflicting all this pain and effort on myself for no uncertain end again?” – which, from what I can tell by listening to others, is pretty common for just about every writer, at least those who haven’t yet published a dozen global best sellers and who’s reasons for writing include need to pay for the third Bentley.
I was particularly interested in the reasons Ms Wood listed for herself as motivation to keep writing when she was struggling with that same ‘oh what’s the point?’ stuff. Go read the speech now, it really is worth reading in entirety, but here are the reasons she listed when at one of her darkest, near-give-it-up points:
Reasons to write:
- To make something beautiful. Beauty does not have to mean prettiness, but can emerge from the scope of one’s imagination, the precision of one’s words, the steadiness and honesty of one’s gaze.
- To make something truthful. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’
- To make use of what you have and who you are. Even a limited talent brings an obligation to explore it, develop it, exercise it, be grateful for it.
- To make, at all. To create is to defy emptiness. It is generous, it affirms. To make is to add to the world, not subtract from it. It enlarges, does not diminish.
- Because as Iris Murdoch said, paying attention is a moral act. To write truthfully is to honour the luck and the intricate detail of being alive.
Now lets just pause here and acknowledge the awesomeness of Ms Wood’s list, especially for articulating concepts that are usually written off with a vague ‘Truth-Beauty-Art’ superficiality, but here are considered in-depth and with determined exploration of what it means to create and why its important. I’m probably going to print off this bit of her speech and pin it to the noticeboard above my computer.
Yet for all I find her list of motivations inspiring and admirable, I also can’t help but think I am not that same kind of writer. Not even close.
While I would consider these things as the ultimate goals to aim for in writing, to create something of truth and beauty and art in all the detail Ms Wood establishes, they have never as such been my *reasons* to write. My goals, my aims, my benchmark to strive for, absolutely. My primary reasons for pouring words onto a page day after day after day… not so much.
Reasons. Goals. Maybe I’m splitting hairs.
Anyway, Ms Wood’s speech got me thinking as to what actually are my motivations, my reasons to write, when the self-doubt looms and the exhaustion hits and that nagging sensation of ‘can’t relax after work because I have more work to do’ becomes a fixture of life. It also got me thinking about the language we use in describing such things, in considering them, to ourselves and others, in how we think about them on a private level and a public level and how that differs.
And one of the first things I wondered was whether the difference between considering Truth-Beauty-Art as a primary motivation and considering it an aspirational goal might not be a key difference between Literary Fiction and Commercial Fiction.
Yeah, I know, I’m raising A Great Hypocrisy Spectcacle here, considering how often I rail against the whole high-culture/pop-culture debate that should-have-been/damn-well-was settled sometime circa 1996 – but which still seems to fill up more broadsheet Culture>Literature pages than you’d think for a debate that is no longer supposed to be relevant.
Ms Wood, I feel fairly safe to say, writes work clearly found smack-bang within the genre of Literary Fiction (yes LitFic is a genre and if you want to get your ear blasted off for half a day without pause, just try telling me is isn’t). Not that I’ve as yet read her Stella Award winning novel The Natural Way of Things (though I plan to very soon), but given the context, I’d suggest that’s not a controversial point. If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me with referreed evidence.
My own writing, of course, I’ve always unashamedly aimed squarely within the Commercial Fiction bracket. And while I’ve always aimed at Truth-Beauty-Art as goals to aspire to, my motivations, my reasons to write, always come back to the one thing: I’m driven to tell the story.
Story is what gets my adrenlin running. The intersection of character and plot. Deconstructing the craft of it, the structure of it, the emotion of the characters, how the choices those characters make drive the turns of the plot, the way their voices sound in my head, their lives beyond the page that exist in my imagination, but hopefully if I write it well enough, they’ll have lives beyond the page in the imaginations of others as well. That’s what drives me to write, day after day, night after night, when I’m exhausted and it’s late and the kids are finally asleep and I have to get up early for work the next morning, but there are still words to write and sleep, bah, that can wait, because there’s a chapter to finish and a twist to discover and… and…
And I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms Wood said she also wants to tell her story and tell it well, so well others want to read it and her characters lives on through the minds of others and all the elements of her craft are perfected. I could almost say, well, of course she wants that, but that’s not the point.
According to her Stella Awards speech, when trying to motivate herself through the dark times of writer-self-doubt, she wrote an email to her friends listing the reasons above, which she later often referred to keep herself motivated to write. Her reasons were not listed as Story or the Lives of Characters Beyond the Page, but rather as something arguably more noble, (but only arguably) – Truth and Beauty and Art.
Maybe it is a Literary Fiction / Commercial Fiction thing. (Though please excuse my presumption in placing Ms Wood, who’s book I’ve not even yet read, as a sole avatar for LitFic, and myself, who hasn’t even published a full-length novel as yet, as a representative of Commercial Fic. Just go with it for the moment for the sake of the argument, okay?)
So LitFic / Commercial Fic.
Or is it actually a mere matter of semantics?
Story and the Lives of Characters. Truth-Beauty-Art. Might not we be saying the same thing in different languages? Is this more a case of the way we think about and describe our work and our motivations to create, rather than any actual inherent differences?
What does it mean for sometime to say they want to tell a story? What is it that story actually does?
Isn’t it through story that we begin to understand our world, that through story we understand ourselves within that world? The stories we tell to each other, negotiating meaning and narrative. The stories we tell only to ourselves – and yet which are informed by others and our experiences with others, for human beings are social animals and we need a community to thrive.
Story allows us to question, to seek truth, to find beauty in the dark. Of course, Story also can be used in support of the cultural hegemony, it can be used (abused?) to obscure truth and beauty both. Maybe that’s what defines Art in the way Ms Wood was talking about it. Maybe Art is when the Story illuminates truth and beauty, when it enlarges humanity, opens our understanding of ourselves and our world, and isn’t used in a way that depreciates or erodes.
(Though you could argue both sides – I’m pretty sure there is great art in the world that is aesthetically very fine indeed, if politically abhorrent. Still, that’s a debate for another day.)
For me, when it is done right, “Story” – telling a yarn, a tale, a story, using all the elements of my craft, character and plot and voice, understanding those individually, making decisions on how they intersect to become a whole that catches an audience and brings them along and leaves them breathless – is something that forces us to question our assumptions of who we are and what our world is and how we all work, together and separately. Stories make us think.
I write to tell stories. I write because to be human is to tell stories. I write because I want to tell stories that illuminate humanity.
Which, when you unpack it like that, starts to sound a bit like Truth-Beauty-Art, after all.