More than anything, we writers are bringers of order and coherence to the world
I know, I know, you’ve met writers before. Or if you haven’t, you’ve hung around this blog long enough to get the impression of a woman who is a nervibore – mostly she lives off her nerves – and whose life can become a crisis at the drop of a hat.
So you’re looking at that title and thinking “order”?
Yeah. Because what we do is not what we are.
At any rate, my friend Dave Freer was right in his Monday blog at MGC. Writing qua storytelling is a total activity. It resembles a nine to five job less than it resembles a spiritual (or physical) practice. Given half a chance, and sometimes even without being given any chance at all, it takes over your life before you even notice it.
I remember when I read one of the very first – if not the first – book on how to write SF/F – by Orson Scott Card. He said something along the lines that one should tell a hoplessly untalented writer to get out of the field, before it ruined “his life, his family, his marriage, his career.”
I disagree with Mr. Card on the idea that one can tell who is “talented” from who is “untalented.” The most naturally talented people I know, one has failed to finish his book, the other has rewritten the same book ever since I met her 18 years ago. And I’ve known total hopeless hacks to suddenly, over night, get their ducks in a row and produce not just saleable but good prose. Mostly it takes a lot of work, a minimum of rationality and wanting to do it (which my friend who hasn’t finished is book is lacking. He can take it or leave it, so he left it.)
More importantly, I never fully understood whether he thought that being successful in writing (or what passes for successful these days) would prevent destroying your life, your other career or your marriage.
Yes, okay, I’m married and very happy, but part of this is that my husband is a very patient man – particularly since when he married me he had no idea I shared my head with an assorted cast of characters. It’s like thinking you’re marrying a woman and instead running away with a circus, a cast of thousands, and three trained elephants – and the other part is that our life is not QUITE absolutely normal. For instance, there are these “GIY” (get it yourself) dinners, where the kids come over and go “Is it guy?” and I nod and keep on typing. A few years ago it was only the younger throwing a fit on being tired of eating boiled eggs (the only thing he knew how to make) that made me realize I hadn’t cooked for two weeks.
Writing is insidious. It not only pushes all other activities out of the way, given a chance, it pushes most of your thoughts away too. So you emerge at the end of a book and suddenly realize your library book is three weeks overdue, there’s a pile of contracts you forgot to sign and OMG, weren’t you supposed to go to the doctor last week.
This sort of creates a roller coaster of chaos in the writer’s life. Things that a normal mother, wife or housewife would do every day and gradually, get deferred until they explode (loudly) in my face. I’ll think something isn’t due yet because I did it two weeks ago… and it will be six months or a year. I start projects like gardening and idea hits and I leave it half finished. Then forget it ever existed.
This is probably why every writer I know, even those who manage to be happily married and have semi-well-adjusted children, is always dealing with something or other, usually postponed health checkups or dental work.
But this appearance of chaos and disorder is deceptive. Beneath it all we’re working in stories, and stories are order. More, stories bring order into the world.
Given a number of disparate events, writers – or storytellers, in this case, since we could narrate the story orally – can’t help but make a coherent story. A dog on the road; a ballerina with tattered clothes; a worn shoe in front of a fence – any of these and we make a story and even a “moral” explanation – in the sense of a satisfactory cause and effect – behind it.
The dog is on the road and dodging cars because she escaped a cruel master who mistreated her. The ballerina wears tattered clothes because she doesn’t care for material things, but only for her art. The worn shoe in front of the fence was left there by peg-legged man who…
The difficult part is not for me to make up a story – the difficult part is for me to prevent myself from making up a story. To the extent the human brain is a machine for bringing order out of chaos and creating a satisfactory chain out of random events, the writer’s brian is a well-honed machine for doing so.
It used to be, when mom sent me to get something in the store, that I had to consciously not link people I saw on the street, or odd neighbors talking to each other, or something out of place. Sometimes I couldn’t resist, and told the story to mom as if it were all linked (and it’s amazing the number of times it really was.) But in real life, I have to keep reminding myself that I can make as many stories as you like, but you shouldn’t BELIEVE them.
If you’re sitting at a diner counter and the person next to you is saying something like “they found everything but the head. They’ll never find that. I know what I did with it, but I’m not telling anyone” – did you just sit next to a murderer? Or was he talking about a recording device part, or a hundred of other things called a “head?” Heck, even the page has a head. (Presumably you didn’t sit next to someone who hid a whole bathroom, though you might have.)
But so long as you don’t mistake truth and imagination for each other, you can and will make stories. And you might even be sure they’re true. But if you find an add in the local craigslist for a “Clever Girl” Velociraptor you might “know” it is a code between thieves, but you shouldn’t call the police on that basis.
The thing is, our writers have the same sort of mind, only they’re not always – or they’re not most of the time – as good at making up the chain of order and sequence as we are. But we’ll still love books that start with a seemingly random event that suddenly becomes far more significant.
In one of my favorite scenes of They Walked Like Men as they’re driving along, they see behind them a car with only one headlight… and then they realize the headlight is in the middle, which is when they know the car isn’t real.
The truth is driving a rural road, you might come across stuff like that (and we have) and it’s just someone whose truck headlights quit, and they hung a lantern in front to drive the five miles or so to get the truck home.
But I could see Clifford Simak in that position and thinking “Um… what if it were aliens pretending to be a car?” And that is somehow more satisfactory because a truck with a lantern hanging mid-hood is just crazy, while aliens pretending to be a car makes sense, makes a pattern and can be a story.
In turn, humans are the stories they tell themselves. If you go far back enough in time, you find plots that are either unorganized and things seem to happen at random or as the result of the gods whim or some other device that seems to obey only the promptings of a restless subconscious.
Then, they slowly acquire organization and a sense that things happened for a reason. And then readers (or listeners) integrate this into their lives. And this makes it easier, in turn, for humanity to organize, particularly when the idea of what causes what effect becomes more or less universal.
Stories mold our minds, our relationships, our societies. All because some story teller couldn’t hear a random phrase like “And then I found out they were aliens” and think “Oh, yeah, foreigners” but instead looks over the very normal girl who said it and thinks “She met aliens? How did she escape?”
Oh, we’re imagination too, but most of all we’re bringers of order, of rationality, of sense into the world.
Now excuse me while I go get the cat out of the bookcase and tell the kids arguing in the hall to shut up. There’s a story that needs my brain as an engine of order for the world.