I’ve been working on a short story that I really like, called “Jar of Teeth.” Much of the experience has been head-over-heels story-love.
I love the central trope of the teeth. I have enjoyed, fascinated, the research the story has demanded: set in a natural history museum, texture coming from the main character’s job there. In no hurry to be done, researching and writing the story has taken several months beyond the week I laid down the initial storyline, about a conflict between a mother and daughter.
None of this surprises me.
But I was taken aback to discover, in this story and in one of the novel drafts I’ve been working with, undercurrents I had not set out to convey. A curve-ball in the process.
I am, in part, an occasional activist, a history teacher, an avid follower of international affairs. It should follow that, if I write a story about an issue about which I hold beliefs, those beliefs might be reflected (or even argued) in the story.
Yet I’ve been fascinated to realize that these two works have a message that is their own — not necessarily mine.
I’m not certain yet what I think of that, and this blog is my attempt to think it through.
When I wrote my very first novel draft (Breathing Water), I had to shut myself up: delete whole paragraphs of real world politics about balseros fleeing Cuba. If I believed it, if it was an important message for readers to know, should it be left in? No. Historical context was interesting when it fit the thoughts and memories my characters would have, but I understood, even in my earliest drafts, that novels are about story, not diatribe, and extraneous “message” did not belong there and was edited out.
All the same, the unfolding events and character experiences were at least consistent with what I believed; they didn’t contradict my beliefs. That seems natural.
The raw novel draft I was working with this past week (so far called Rajeed’s Wife) was another matter. As written, in its raw state, it starts with a strong, independent, modern woman, who is thrown, through situation of the man she falls in love with, into a very traditional role. She then falls prey to traditional dangers, in a near fairytale, Red-Riding-Hood-entering-the-forest manner that leaves her entirely vulnerable, near death, with her husband in the traditional role of trying to rescue her.
The retro-mythology was intentional, but I can’t help asking myself, Why?
Unlike my motivation in writing about my character who lost family members in his trip over from Cuba, this other draft does not evoke any “message” about the community it is set in. The novel connects to recent international events but without attempting to take on an issue. In some ways, if not in opposition to my beliefs, the focus on saving the main character is at least more petty than the conversations I get fired up about in current affairs.
It is unapologetic in being an in-and-out-of-the-wilderness tale about love, not social justice.
“Jar of Teeth,” on the other hand, does take on an ethical issue, albeit coming at it sideways, so the “issue” is never named, only described in parallel (or in chalk line) by what happens in the story. I wasn’t startled by the story, or the main character’s beliefs and actions. They rang true. But it surprised me to not realize until the story reached its third draft that the main character’s self-accusations implied a backhanded judgment of an entire worldview represented by her daughter. Um, wow, I once marched on Washington over one view, and here my character is expressing relative condemnation of (at least her experience) of the same issue.
First reaction: insecurity. Damn. All this work and what I wrote is wrong.
Second: fascination. How can a story I wrote, about a character I created, whose entire experience unfolded out of my own empathy and knowledge of what she would feel and do — go counter to my own beliefs?
Then: does a writer have a responsibility to only use the platform of publication for work that is consistent with their beliefs? Is a story that goes against their own doctrine “broken”?
Somewhere, at this point, I found distance enough to realize: I wrote what was the truth of the characters and their story. In conversation among writers and editors and agents and readers, over and over it’s said that what matters in fiction is having meaningful characters and revealing a compelling story. A message may be inherent; readers may learn something. But this is not what gives a story life. I knew, even when editing that first novel draft, that doctrine or moralizing can be death of the work.
The extreme then clicked: One only has to imagine Nabokov writing Lolita to get that one can write about things that run contrary to behavior they would recommend.
Clearly, the question isn’t whether I’m allowed to write ideas other than my world view, but what about discovering it in these drafts left me feeling insecure, as if I’d done something wrong?
For the raw novel draft, insecurity is sign that I need to understand why I would have written a contradiction. In the little time I’ve spent reflecting on this, by asking “why?” I begin to notice what may be missing in the story, or where energy is falling on the wrong foot. Other characters begin to speak and I think the story belongs to more view points than that central character. I get a stronger sense of where it is going, panic averted, especially knowing it’s a backburnered project, in line behind other work. No rush.
Not backburnered, “Jar of Teeth” begs to be done; a rift in concept would not be welcome. The contradiction plays out in my midnight thoughts. Does the story directly contradict my beliefs? For example, since learning a friend’s son shot himself with her gun years ago, I’ve been against guns in a home with children, so it would go against my beliefs to publish a story that glamourized a gun in a child’s home (not this story’s theme).
I realize that the perspective in “Jar of Teeth,” is not a contradiction, but an idea at the periphery of my beliefs. Like saying, “I hate war,” but writing compassionately of a soldier who found humanity or brotherhood in the trenches.
My father used to speak of night vision, when sailing in the dark: he taught me that things become invisible when you stare at them directly; you see them only by looking slightly to one side or the other.
I think this is what I was doing, with this story. Not writing directly what I might believe, but coming at it from an angle, with the added energy of challenging my usual thoughts. I hope this week’s insecurity has made me question my work in ways that ultimately make it stronger.
4/28: As follow up, here is an interesting perspective from guest blogger Mike Duran, on agent Rachelle Gardner’s site: “Are You Responsible for What Your Characters Say?” While Stephen King says criticism is usually provoked by dialogue, I can’t find my most dangerous revelations occur in interior character reflection.
And, what do you think?
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