About Me

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Fiction Writer's Responsibility: My Personal Vow

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Note to My Readers: These are thoughts I’ve been mulling over for years, and I do not mean for these words to apply to anyone else’s writing, only to my own. I started to write this post last Friday. In it, I explore, mildly, difficult issues concerning trauma and emotion, and my responsibility as a fiction writer who wishes to publish life affirming work.

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A Fiction Writer's Responsibility: My Personal Vow

Does the experience of reading about violent acts constitute assault, if the reader is not given a choice; knowing what to expect in a general sense, based on a title, an abstract, a dust jacket blurb, or a description?

The first short story I ever wrote involved a teen threatened with sexual assault; and another teen beaten so badly he is hospitalized with a broken jaw. When I write fiction, bad things happen to my characters, but they ultimately transcend. I am not in the camp of writers who believe the emotional response to our writing is the reader’s responsibility alone. Write what you will, they say, and let the reader decipher their response based on what they bring to the piece.

I’d been writing fiction for close to fifteen years, when a few years ago, I took a couple of university level creative writing classes. Before that, no one had ever read anything I’d written, outside of a handful of poems, so I did not know if the emotions I tried to translate to the page in my fiction writing had any effect.

I learned, through feedback, I had the power to make people feel. Through my writing, a reader could experience vicarious pain. A reader could smile or laugh. I could make a reader feel “horny,” and why would I do that, unless it was coupled with love, or the potential for love? (I’m happy to say, I have not failed to do that; any scene of sensuality conveys a necessary aspect of a relationship, or at least that is my primary goal.)

When that first short story I ever wrote was critiqued, I was surprised when a fellow student, a twenty-two year old man, said my work reminded him of a certain horror writer he presumably admired, because he meant it as a compliment. I read a horror novel and several short stories by the published writer, accessible through book stores and on library shelves, and I was sickened by what she’d written; not because the content was so graphic, and it was; but because she gave the characters no hope, bad was bad, and good was the sacrificial lamb. She put the reader in the mind of the villain; so as you read, you were the one committing atrocious acts.

In my short story, the violence served a purpose; and the teenage girl and boy, rather than remaining victims, transcend their circumstance through the redeeming power of their relationship. By the end of it, the reader knows there is a good chance, they will both be okay; not just for the short run, but for a lifetime, whether they begin a romantic relationship or not, because they have validated, each for the other, their worth as human beings.

Yet, the student’s reaction to the story, made me take pause, and wonder, what did this reader, the 22 year old man, feel when the teenage girl was accosted; was it arousal or revulsion? And, if it was not revulsion, there is something wrong with the way I’d written it (or the problem was, because I’d been required to cut the piece to meet “word limits,” necessary elements were missing- so I asked him to read the full story to see what he thought, and his subsequent comments made me feel better about what I’d achieved.)

I believe in the power of words, and I believe a writer does have responsibility for a reader’s emotions, and well being. (Maybe it’s my Catholic guilt, feeling responsible for everyone else’s emotions as much as my own; but I happen to think it’s a good way to live in this world.) I have a difficult time reconciling that belief, sometimes, with what I write, though these pieces are not yet published, and there is time to modify the intensity of the trauma my characters experience; so that the reader will empathize, and gain a hint of the physical or emotional pain, without feeling equally assaulted.

I do believe, a fiction writer should not self censor in initial drafts; but in the final draft, a balance between story and traumas necessary to the character’s development can be achieved. I believe some of what my character’s experience is the effect of my own catharsis pouring onto the page. I have learned from writing creatively, until I’ve written myself weary, what not to do in real life, to resolve childhood traumas.

One example: You don’t have to talk about it with everyone you meet. I have a character who did this, until I realized, it was me, working through my issues; but it’s something to keep in the text of this particular novel, because it is part of this character’s development, to come to that realization, and to start fresh, leaving the emotional scars, not buried, but addressed; not forgotten, but resolved.

I think it’s possible to do this for our readers. If we stun the reader, we must relieve them, giving them hope, as we give hope to our characters; so that the total experience does not leave the reader in a void, where pain and darkness are paramount.

As writers, we can horrify and we can titillate. As a fiction writer, I have vowed to ask myself- what is the feeling I’d like my reader to be left with? If I have sickened them, have I given them the means to feel well again? If I have affected them emotionally, have I given them satisfaction and release?

This is not to say that every story question must be resolved with a rosy ending- not at all; but for the main characters, the ones the reader has grown to care about, there will be at least hope, if not a certainty, of a less conflicted and happier life. Otherwise, why am I writing, if not to connect with the greater good of humanity?

In my work, emotions run the gamut. Characters love, and hate, both themselves and others. In my stories and novels, in some aspect or the other, at least one character is emotionally crippled, and another character becomes their salvation; but only because they are both in need of each other- they draw upon each other’s strengths. Nobody is perfect. Everyone is flawed. There are villains, less well rounded in their character development, and the reasons for their heinous acts are not necessarily explored. My concern in these stories is how the main characters will access the altruistic side of their own humanity, in order to transcend, helping both themselves and each other. (This does not occur in a manipulative sense- it occurs out of the circumstances of the story- In the initial draft, I don't know where a story will lead me, but I have learned, in all their various ways, that my completed works resolve in this direction.)

The main thing I believe is that it is the responsibility of the writer, to give a reader a choice. Prepare them, either through a general description; or through your skills as a writer, through the sentences that lead up to a disturbing thought or image. Yes, we can all surprise our readers, and it may have great dramatic and literary effect- but don’t give them tabasco sauce, when they are expecting vanilla ice cream. (Sorry- that is an awful twist on an old cliché!)

I try to remember, that reading about trauma triggers a reader’s memories of their own trauma. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I want my readers to have the choice, of when and where they will address their own issues. If I am skilled enough to make a reader feel vicarious pain, don’t I also want my readers to choose whether pain, and its resolution, is what they want to experience, in that moment? Doesn’t a reader have the right to say, “No, not now- maybe never,” before it is too late?

I think there is a difference between fiction writing, both novels and short stories; and creativity that results in published poetry, personal essays, and autobiography. In a work of fiction, though we want the characters and their story situation to extend beyond the text; still, there is a sense of resolution by the end of the story or the book, a resolution that cannot apply to real life, because real life is a “work in progress.” In poetry directly expressing the self, personal essay, or autobiography, I think it is enough for the reader to know that the author is asking questions, in the very fact of asking questions moving toward discovery and ultimately peace; not that the questions have been resolved, or peace has been achieved.

During the time that I was taking the first creative writing class, and my short story was critiqued, I wrote a poem that is not the best, but when I wrote it, I considered it to be a personal revelation, and a guiding light:


Writer’s Code

All writers risk
Foisting violent image
Provoking agitation
Toying with emotion
Subverting inclination
Just Because they Can.

Why not counter
desolation? Balance
authenticity with peace.
Don’t leave a frightened child
gnawing a fist in the void.
Be a Guide.


© 2007 Annie King


And then there was this initial version of the poem, when my reservations about the short story I’d written were most acute:


Writer’s Code

It’s finally struck me
all writing is coercion
and manipulation
Be careful what you write
Gauge the response
Shut up when you should
Scream when you must
In the end, all things
are private, misunderstood
The reader brings
what they know, takes
what they choose
Make sure it’s a
healthy taste you’ve
left in their mouths
so you can sleep

© 2007 Annie King


In the end, protecting a reader is protecting yourself; so you can feel good about what you’ve achieved, taking pride in the substance, as you keep working on improving your skills as a writer.

Will I change anything about that first short story? I wrote it honestly; there is nothing to change. It may be the best short story I’ll ever write, exhibiting depth and an intuitive literary technique that succeeded. And I definitely learned- never cut a story for word limits. There are other reasons to cut a story or a novel, but cutting for word limits alone, may cut something essential out of the “fictive dream.” I’m proud of that first short story. It fulfilled all of my personal requirements.

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8 comments:

  1. Very interesting topic Annie. It reminds me of a time I was in a writing group with my mother. She read a chapter from the novel she was working on and warned us that it was the disturbing chapter in the novel. In it the main character suffers a trauma that is the catalyst for her actions throughout the rest of the novel. The chapter was beautifully written and really sucked the reader into a one mood and then that mood changed very quickly and violently. As you said, this was done for a specific purpose and the technique really worked. Unfortunately it was the only chapter she read that night, so there was no resolution for me. The image of the trauma in that chapter has stayed with me ever since. I think if I had experienced it in the context of the full novel it would still have been powerful but probably would not continue to haunt me.

    I don't know if I take the writer's responsibility as far as you do in this instance. I think ultimately it is the writer's responsibility to tell the story that is true to him/her and that may mean it doesn't bring relief to the reader.

    Again, great topic. You really got me thinking.

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  2. Hi Brigindo,

    Thank you for your comments, and sharing your experience. That's part of what I am attempting to get across, that in a work of fiction, a reader should know ahead of time, in some way appropriate to the piece, or as a preface or in introductory matter, or on a dust jacket description- that there will be trauma; and you were warned of that by your mother- and yet it still had the full impact she intended; because you can never really be prepared for an act of violence. I'm starting to think, critiques of portions of works are not effective, because a work cannot be evaluated in parts, but only as a whole. In works of fiction, words that appear on a first page, should resonate throughout the work, and often mean something different, but related, by the last page. I'm wondering, did you eventually read the whole book?

    In terms of my personal commitment, I recognize other writers may not feel the same. I know there are many valuable, and lasting works of fiction that resolve nothing, and leave the reader feeling uneasy- and that is the author's intent; or the author trusts the reader to protect their own psychological well being, and writes as they must. As an example, I read Joyce Carol Oates, and I am not harmed, but I am not always enlightened. I appreciate her, and read her, but she is not my guide. As an example, Ursula K. LeGuin, is my guide.

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  3. This was really fascinating to read!

    I find you to be a sensitive writer (I'm sure you are a sensitive person, and that's why). Who we are as people translates to our practice.

    It is interesting that you have it in you to "protect" and "guide" the reader...it's very thought-provoking to think about how to characterize the relationship we have with our readers. Every writer must have a different way of considering this.

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  4. Hi Hannah,

    Thanks! My thinking on this has evolved. It's not something I set out to do, but something I recognized I was doing; that my very real and emotionally complex characters, "damaged" in some way through circumstances, could help each other. The violence or trauma that shows up in my work surprises me. I don't plan anything that I write. I just start writing. (I've written posts about this before.) It's only after I have a section written, all of one piece, like a scene or a chapter, that I begin to re-read and revise, over and over, before I am ready to move on. Until a thing is written, I don't know where it will go. (There are pluses and minuses to this approach!)

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  5. I also think a lot about the reader and what would one have to gain by reading anything I write. Although violence is not one of my topics. I do not know if rationally I agree we should "dictate" what the reader is supposed to be feeling, but on the other hand I do believe we need to lead the reader toward a positive, growth experience, rather than a negative one. But then, who is to say what's positive and what's growth? I don't know.

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  6. Very interesting, Annie! You make great points. "Of Mice and Men" instantly springs to mind for me. It is such a brilliant book, but the reader knows from page one what to expect. It is very depressing, but it teaches us many things. We're shocked at the end, but a savvy reader knows what to expect. Even an inexperienced reader knows it's not going to end happily ever after. In the midst of the cruelty and horror, a mature reader thinks about the questions the writer poses and sees the glimpses of hope and humanity. In that sense, the writer is a life guide for me and reminds me about how I should treat my fellow human beings. It becomes a positive experience for me as a reader.

    Your post also reminds me of a professor I had who used to tell us that no matter what world a writer sets up in the beginning of a novel, the rules of that world must be followed. He was getting tired of reading student drafts that ended with a car crash or bloody axe through a head. That's not to say that a book can't end that way, but it has to be done correctly in order for it to be effective.

    I think sometimes the crude or vulgar is done for shock value, because a writer is immature. Sadly, many books on the New York Times bestsellers' list contain immature writing. Sadly, many readers want immature writing that is an easy read.

    Some of the most beautiful books in the world are quiet stories that make awesome points, but the public doesn't want to take the time to read quiet stories which involve deeper thought. Maybe the internet and television have something to do with that? I'm not sure.

    I've seen many poets who do "shock value" writing, too. They've read Bukowski, so they think a poem describing bodily functions in detail is cool. In reality, they don't understand what Bukowski was doing. I swear, I actually went to a reading where the poet would flip off and cuss at individuals in the audience. If he had been a good poet making a point, it might have worked. I probably wouldn't have liked it, but at least I could have respected him as a poet. Instead, he knew nothing about line, technique, or voice. It was just stupid.

    You are so right that we have a big responsibility as writers. I'm not a prude, but I agree that there must be a reason for the violence or sexual act in order for the writing to be effective. Otherwise, it's like a junior high kid screaming the F word in a crowded room. Big deal. We've all heard it a million times before. What does it mean? Yes, a writer can make the point that "all is futile." I might disagree on a personal level, but she or he must know how to write in order to make that point.

    On the other hand, it also depends on the maturity of the reader. I've read books with amazing details, little touches that signal what is coming, and some readers just don't get it. Or maybe there is a detail or even a word at the end to symbolize hope in the midst of a horrible situation. Some readers, even those in the literary world, aren't mature enough as readers to catch it. (I don't mean you...I'm thinking of past experiences when I have heard people criticize great books).

    Well, once again, I didn't mean to write a dissertation...haha! That's the sign of a great blog post. You make me think, and it is much appreciated!

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  7. Hi Lori,

    I agree with you, and I would never dictate to the reader what they should be feeling; neither can I predict what they would be feeling. All I really mean, is that I want them to know in a general sense, what they're in for, so they can choose whether to read it or not (which is really the same as what a dust jacket blurb description does).

    I don't consciously think about the reader's response as I'm writing. I write characters with all their strengths and all their flaws, and they often make terrible choices. Vicariously, a reader can learn from a character's mistakes, as well; but that's not why I write. Like any author, I write to tell the best story I can; and it's up to the reader to take away what they will from it.

    I just want to make sure I don't write something gratuitous, or shocking, just for the sake of that; and not for the quality of the story. It's just one more skill I'd like to be able to apply as I evaluate and revise a work in progress- Am I employing good literary technique, or have I relied upon manipulation?

    In terms of leaving the reader with a feeling of hope for my characters- it's just something I've found I do- not that I've set out to do it. But that doesn't mean the result is a happy ending. I have a character, at the end of a very short story, who may very well die of cancer, but if she dies, she will leave this world, with her sense of who she is, reaffirmed.

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  8. Hi Julie,

    I love your dissertations! You've reminded me of all the good things I didn't say about the structure of stories or novels; and that I work to achieve them- not as I'm writing, which truly is a "fictive dream" for me, but as I'm revising and evaluating what I've created.

    Steinbeck is a great author to bring up as an example. I love Steinbeck, though its been many years since I've re-read his books, most of which I read during my senior year of High School, after having read The Grapes of Wrath for a class, and wanting to read the rest of his books on my own.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your professor's advice about following the rules of your world, and your poetry reading experience! Write away!

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