The Question World: Thoughts On Writing in the 21st Century

First thing on the path — I was running through the woods — worms writhing this mid-summer morning in a death dance after drowning all night long in a torrential, black rain. Bouncing and leaping into the air, up from their dark tunnels collapsing and spewing water everywhere, they were no doubt more afraid of drowning in that world of their own making than dying on the sunlit surface of this tiny green and blue planet with the rest of us.

I try to go down the trail silently. My dog senses this and prances methodically by my side, not even panting.

Thoughts come to me regarding the purpose of literature. It is said often that there are two schools of thought on books and stories. One school makes of the art of writing (and all the arts, actually) that it needs to be about the way the world is — Realism, I guess. The other point of view is that writing is about creating the way the world should be.

Neither of these points of view is valid to my mind. Not because writers should abstain from political statement and fantasy, or that writers are, like all humans, unable to transcribe either the truth of life or the possibilities that life offers us — writing is too specific for either of these, and language is oddly less defined than sound and color. Of all the arts, wielding language is simultaneously inexactly stunted and infinitely interpretable.

No. Neither school is adequate for literature — at least to me and what I wish to do with fiction. Rather, because life as we know it is only part of reality, writing should be, can be, our means at getting at the rest of things.

The writer’s job should be to divine the secret world, the question world, the magic world that lies beneath the surface of all things: the connections that exist between everything (sensual fruit, red wagons, rainy morning shopping expeditions, and a little girl learning that stars are actually suns so far away that the only conclusion she can come to is sadness, even tears). There is, indeed, a subterranean heart that guides anger and love, not giving us what we want, but what we need — always and only and endlessly nothing but what we need. And the ironies of everything from baseball games and sexual infidelity to confusion at work and fear of the neighborhood bully (who turns out to be an abused child with an alcoholic mother)? The proper response should not be laughter or cynicism. The proper response to irony is awe and wonder and delight.

The writer can answer the big questions and stimulate the small ones; the writer can point out the myriad of things people ignore; the writer can celebrate dirt and filth, and conjure the pathos of beauty and perfection.

All of this requires, of course, a willingness to acknowledge mystery and limitation. The writer who thinks he or she is a God and a World Builder will miss many opportunities to be moved by their very own words. Stories written by those certain of things can easily drive the reader forward, but I doubt if that reader will ever want to cry or go for a long walk after finishing for no other reason but to hang on to that feeling and to wish the story had never ended.

It seems pointless to discuss and render what is or what should be, if you don’t have a grasp of the impact that the supreme and endless mysteries of life have on each of us. If love is so easy to write about, then how is it that you (the writer) are so bad at it and confused in your marriage, or already divorced? Even if you do have that mystery grasp and can feel the rhythms of Time all the way into your genitals and groove; even if you have sniffed the rancid breath of Being Here Now (and forever), in the present, isolated from everything by your body and the little knowledge you have, then what, pray tell, would you be doing depicting the simple, insipid, sputtering world that everyone else is already living, or thinks they want to live, when what is really needed are people to point at and play with the mysteries and to declare that magic is still among us, that the order we see is an illusion, but that love and beauty are proof enough that life has meaning?

Perhaps this is why so many people wonder if fiction is dead. If writers concern themselves simply with recording existence and celebrating the Real, or if they fantasize about how things should be (something that all genre fiction does), things can get pretty stale after several hundred years.

There’s more though, so much more. The problem is that no matter how cowed and humbled one feels writing with the knowledge of mystery and magic in The Question World, if readers don’t get it, if readers don’t know, well then, where are we?

And, so, yes, the worms writhing and dancing out in the world of green and blue, bouncing up and down on the path, begging me to step on them, begging me to think about them and how they’re connected to literature and just why the hell anyone would put themselves through the struggle of writing just to talk about the way things are or the way they should be? I am the worm and I will find my way back into the earth to re-build tunnels and caverns and anyone can come in to watch or learn or just marvel that something so simple, without eyes or lungs or ears could live and take pleasure in the dark decay of soil and the subterranean wilderness that has always been on the edge of unimaginable. I am the worm. And my little dog, too.

– August 20, 2002

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