This post is something of a departure for Storycraft, as it’s not about the nuts and bolts of fiction writing but what might loosely be termed aesthetic philosophy. It is written in response to an invitation from my friend, the author Kristin Gleeson, who included me in her recent contribution to something called a blog hop. The idea of this exercise is to encourage authors to discuss their own work in a way that will be relevant to readers interested in writing and the writing life. At the end I’ll include a note about Kristin and her books, and, following the conventions of the blog hop, I’ll "tag” three additional writers whose work is of interest to me for various reasons. So, without further ado . . .
Why do I write?
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I believe that narrative is a basic human need. Deep in my heart I know this is true, not only for humankind in general but for me personally: for the health of my psyche and for the complex circadian machinery of my inner life. Creating a whole new world, breathing life into characters within a narrative, and doing it in such a way that the reader is transported into this new fictional universe, is incredibly rewarding work. It’s also incredibly frustrating, incremental, and psychologically hazardous work. There’s something self-indulgent about sitting at a keyboard weaving stories out of one’s own imaginative matter, a quality that a more highbrow writer might euphemistically call “onanistic.” For this and other reason writers, or at least this writer, often struggle with a troublesome sense of guilt.
Still, we keep doing it. There must be something about writing that makes it a more satisfying way to use our unoccupied hours than watching television or playing computer games or even reading. It is work, after all, to create something out of nothing; a great deal of very hard work that must be sustained for years and years. Ultimately, because in order to create worthy material a writer must continue to learn and grow, and because the process of coaxing forth truth and beauty is unending, the hard work of authorship stretches out over an entire lifetime. Despite prominent counter-examples such as Vonnegut and Roth, the only retirement that is in the offing for most writers is death. So perhaps this vocation isn’t as self-indulgent as it sometimes feels.
With the publication of my first novel, Will Poole’s Island, a project with which I coexisted for so long in almost total solitude, I’ve begun to receive feedback from actual readers. Yes, my fellow aspiring novelists, despite all the doom and gloom about the state of publishing and the death of books, there are actual readers. It turns out that all those hours and weeks and years of solitary work have led to something vital and real, a lasting imaginative interface that, when activated, creates a living bond between myself and another human being. It's not as if I didn't know what a novel is, but experiencing the process firsthand has been something of a revelation!
I have to say, though, that even absent the heartening feedback I would still keep writing. I’ve grown to depend on it as a daily practice. It keeps away the darkness that surrounds me. It is a triumph over chaos, adding a dash of order and meaning to life. And it feels like a contribution, however tiny, to the creative project of humanity on this planet.
What do I write?
I once read something to the effect that fiction’s sole concern is humanity. I don’t agree. For me, there are additional concerns, such as the world that sustains us, the beings we share it with, and how humanity interacts with both. This is an important distinction at the dawn of the Anthropocene age, for if we are to overcome the current crisis we’re going to have to come up with a new vision of ourselves, one that is more inclusive, one that doesn’t put our species on a pedestal but allows us to see ourselves for what we are: a strange, uncannily intelligent primate whose destiny is – and must be – to assume our proper role as stewards of this planet Earth.
But perhaps the above sounds a bit over the top. Consider it aspirational if you wish, a philosophical position I can’t help but hold and which, therefore, must have an influence on the stories I write. In fact I don’t see the role of fiction as a planet-saving one or anything nearly so grandiose. The purpose of fiction is merely to tell a good story, and in doing so to enrich the lives of our fellow humans in a small but meaningful way.
And now we pause for a Brief Promotional Message. If you’ve enjoyed the explorations of the storytelling craft you’ve found on this blog – which has always been and always will be available free of charge – then I urge you to show your appreciation by buying and reading Will Poole’s Island. The paperback version is less than $10, and it's easy to order via Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore, or another on-line retailer. If you enjoy the novel as much as I hope you will, then by all means share it with friends, suggest it to schools and libraries, and/or write about it in whatever forum is most comfortable for you. If you don't enjoy it, you will at least have the satisfaction of having contributed to Storycraft! Please don’t forget to “like” the book’s official page on Facebook and add it to your books on Goodreads. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you! Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .
What am I working on now?
Anyone who has published a novel understands the surreal process of trying to promote a project you wrote what seems like two lifetimes ago. That is the case for Will Poole’s Island, although it has in fact been an unexpected pleasure to re-immerse myself in the world of the book in order to create presentations, op-eds, interviews, and supporting materials for book groups, teachers, and members of the press.
But I do continue to write every day, and I feel a more intimate connection to the project I’m working on now, which early-draft superstition prevents me from discussing other than to say that it is a contemporary novel set on two well-known islands. Also on the drawing board is another historical novel based on the true story of two young highwaymen from the British Isles who emigrate to early 19th century New England. More to come, I hope, on both of these projects.
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But for now, let's turn our attention back to the work of my fellow writers. The writer who tagged me for this post is the wonderful Kristin Gleeson. Kristin is an Ireland-based historian-turned-novelist who also writes nonfiction. Her two published books are a novel, Selkie Dreams, which grew out of her research interests in the mythical tales of the selkies, and Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit, a nonfiction biography of a Canadian First Nations woman who was an important conservation pioneer. Kristin has just completed a draft of a novel set in 6th Century Ireland; I’ve read it and it’s very promising!
Now for the writers I want to tag (and by “tag” I mean mention, giving them the opportunity but not the obligation to extend this entertaining little blog hop if they wish). All three are fiction writers: one (Alden) has two acclaimed books recently out; another (Anjali) has an exciting novel forthcoming; and a third (Patrick) has an intriguing project in development and hopefully forthcoming before too long. Their blogs should be of interest to those who visit this site; you can access them by clicking on each of their names.
Alden Jones’ memoir The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, won the Independent Publishers Book Award in Travel Essays, and was named a Top Ten Travel Book by Publishers Weekly, The Huffington Post, and A Traveler’s Library. Her newly released story collection, Unaccompanied Minors, won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize. I recently posted an interview I did with Alden for Fiction Writers Review, but she's such an interesting writer that I thought I'd take advantage of this further opportunity to promote her work.
Patrick Joyce is another historian-turned-novelist. Once upon a time he earned a Ph.D. and wrote a book called No Fire Next Time about the Los Angeles riots. He’s since left academics behind and is working on a mystery novel set in 17th England about a murderer obsessed with Christopher Marlowe’s infamous play Doctor Faustus. I, for one, am very much looking forward to reading it!