Tag Archives: Literature

Immortality – Mortally Stupid

I’ve been silent here for a few months for two reasons. One is that I’ve been struggling to find something to say. The other, that I was too busy enjoying the sunshine enjoyed by the otherwise rain-sodden isles I live in this summer. I’ll leave it to you to decide which factor was overwhelmingly dominant. Either way, I’m back at university – thrust back to thinking ‘intellectually’ if that is at all possible. What follows was sparked off by a lecture on Joyce.

I’ve put (into Ulysses) so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

(Joyce, Ulysses Annotated).

Joyce is right, professors will be busy for centuries over what he meant, but not that he’s ensured his own immortality. I’m not going to leap in and say everything we do, ultimately turns to dust. That’s a given, and an easy way out. That argument takes time in its entirety, it doesn’t recognise a span of time, just that it will happen in the vastness of time.

The flaw with Joyce’s idea here, is that he can hope to achieve literary immortality. When it comes to reading, there have been plenty of shifts in thinking that deny Joyce his immortality, but the main one is a change in the way we should read a text. Instead of trying to think what the author meant, we read the text purely as a text. It’s reader response, and personally, it’s a great recognition in literary and academic circles that what the reader thinks, and interprets, is important.

But Joyce has some sense of immortality. We’re talking about him. There’s no smoke without fire – and there is smoke here, but I’d say it’s more smoke and mirrors than a blazing pyre.

We’re complex,

Let’s consider death differently. It’s change epitomised. The ultimate change, the transition from life, a sea of constant changes, to death; a change that is such a paradigm that there is no change for those that experience it. Each present moment passes one after the other. Each moment is a passing; a death. I am not the same person, if you want to be really technical, as I was when I wrote the previous sentence. I’m not the same person I was yesterday. Stasis, in that sense, is impossible. Thus, since mortality is change, immortality is stasis. And that isn’t possible. Of course, we don’t change radically from day to day, but it accumulates. We’re not the same person we were ten years ago. Things have changed, we have changed. So how is it possible to preserve some immortality, when change isolates it?

Dreaming of immortality is ultimately, so stupid, because it ignores a clear lexical message. The word itself gives you the clue. Mortality cannot become immortality. Really, I think the ancient Greeks got it right. In classical mythology, Achilles chose to die and become immortal through kleos instead of returning home; nostos. Kleos is not immortality or living forever; it is simply to have great renown, enough that people still speak of him. What survives is the Kleos of Achilles, not Achilles himself. Regardless, Achilles is now a shade anyway. So when Joyce speaks of his immortality, his boast that scholars would be still trying to figure out what he meant, I’d say that’s more Kleos too than actual immortality. We’re not going and seeing a living Joyce when we read his works, or debate ‘him’ critically. We’re talking about something detached from the actual person that lived. What has survived so far to us is the work, not the author. Joyce hasn’t achieved that immortality. He just has renown.

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Ideas – They Don’t Just Pop Into Your Head

I’d say the greatest challenge for a writer is quite a simple on actually. It’s not writing well, or getting published. Even at a push, I’d say it’s not about staying motivated either. It’s having lots of ideas.

When we think about writing, we have this notion that ideas are the one thing you can’t change. Either you have a good idea or you don’t, either you can think up of many ideas or you can’t. It’s a bit of a naive attitude though, because it relies on the fact that ideas for writing simply stroll into our heads, that we have sudden moments of creative genius that happen outside of our control. It’s sensationalist, and encouraged because of its appeal, but it doesn’t do much good in reality.

If a writer were to say the idea for their entire book just walked fully formed into their head, I’d tell them to stop being overly dramatic. What are ideas? They’re by no means so tidy or obedient even. When you pause to break it down, the idea for a work is more of a single one, a stub, a starting point. One idea might be something very simple, and as you think about it, you come up with more. Whenever I write, I start with a small idea in mind. It’s my goal for what I’m going to do. Then as I continue, I get more ideas the more I think. I don’t just sit there waiting for inspiration to hit me, I ask myself questions about the idea I’ve had. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes I don’t. But it creates more ideas for you to play with, rather than struggling with just one.

In reality, a story is an amalgamation of many ideas. One idea starts the process off, but then others join it. Some contradict each other, and some turn the story away from your original idea. But as you ask yourself questions, you build up a single, cohesive story. It’s like building a rubber band ball. You start with the first one, and as you add more the ball takes shape, until all those rubber bands behave like a single ball, rather than a pile of them.

So, you can think creatively by asking yourself questions. That’s a start, but it’s still limited in boosting your imagination. I’m not going to launch into a long paragraph about reading other books, because that’s a stock response. I’d say, read a selection of books. Ones that interest you, ones that you know nothing about. Even ones you think you won’t like. Don’t stop with contemporary fiction, but go back in time. Have a dig. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, but look at non-fiction. History is a very good place to come up with ideas, as you ask “what if” questions as you read. What if Rome didn’t fall? You can have some fun with that. Even then, I’d encourage brave writers to read philosophy. Stories will give you ideas for events, and philosophy will give you understanding of different modes of thought, which means, better characterisation.

Life experience is a great asset too. You know how looking back at your past work is almost always something that makes you cringe? That’s greater experience talking. How can you make your work better? By going out and living. Gain experiences, don’t just slave away at the keyboard. You can draw inspiration from the experiences you’ve had yourself, and the great thing about this is that it is free, and it’s going on all the time. If you can travel, then do, but if you can’t try to experience other cultures. Books, encyclopaedias, TV, these will all give you experience.

Ideas aren’t just a solitary affair. Have willing volunteers read your work. Discuss ideas. It’s always good to have friends that are writers for this purpose, and even better if you have a mentor. So in short, there are things you can do to have more ideas. It isn’t just about creativity on its own, because it is extremely hard to pull something from nothing, even if it is in your head. Experimentation is key, and you must not limit yourself by sticking to only what you like.

My question is how do you come up with ideas? Do you struggle, or do you have too many?

Turning My Back on Writing as a Career – Does This Make Me Less of a Writer?

I wonder, does it make me any less of a writer now that I don’t pursue writing as a career? It’s been at the back of my mind. Does it make me a lesser one, because I’m not saying I want to solely make money out of writing? Or do other writers, published or aiming to be, consider it to be giving up?

I used to say I wanted to become a published author, and make a career out of my writing. The first statement is true still, but the latter has been removed. The reasoning isn’t that I’ve become disillusioned in my work. I’m more confident about that than I ever was. I decided against writing as a career for practical reasons.

I never entertained the idea that I’d be able to make a living out of writing. Not out of any pessimistic thought, but just realism. A career in writing for me would be writing books; anything other form of writing, say journalism, isn’t what writing means to me. Of course, if you do that you don’t have much security at all. If you self-publish, you’ve got to be the one promoting your book, demanding that you both sink more money into your book while promising anything but a return, let alone one that is consistent. If you aim down the road of traditional publishing, you’ve first got to be accepted, and then hopefully get a decent advance. It’s just a lump sum, and if you want more money, you’ve either got to sell more than they first calculated for you advance, or write a new book and get that accepted too. Then you’ve got to write more. Lots more.

Talk about having a secure income; you’ve got anything but that. Practical reasons aside and before you start accusing me of selling out, the main issue is my own idea of being a writer. I don’t want to end up having to churn out books in order to sell. It makes a mockery of writing in the first place. What could be more soul-destroying than feeling you are devaluing your writing by having to write so many books out of financial necessity. I must say, I don’t know whether that would cause the quality to suffer. There’s nothing like pressure to spring up some new ideas, but I don’t want to try. I feel like I’d be goading myself, that eventually during it I’d just stop one day, realising I’ve come to hate writing because of it. Where would I go from there?

I think these are the questions you’ve really got to ask yourself about writing. I’m not cutting the career idea because I don’t think I’d make it, or that I’m discouraged by how difficult it is.

I just thought, this isn’t for me. This isn’t how I want to be a writer.

So what does that mean? The plan isn’t one I hate. I’ll get a job. Do something during the day that pays a wage, then I’ll write. You can always find time for the things you enjoy doing. Yet to come back to the question I started with, does this make me less of a writer? Go on, let me know what you think!

Do Writers Alienate Themselves?

Yes, do writers alienate themselves? Let’s think. I opened up a post. It was one of the much discussed “why do you write” posts which all writing blogs ask. It’s obligatory, like some sort of blogging coming of age ritual for anyone calling themselves an author here. Now, looking at the responses, I just wanted to cringe. Honestly. The general gist of it was the usual – that writing is a hobby, that they enjoy creating characters, telling stories and the like. That’s fine, that does nothing. What struck me though were the comments that talked about writing in a frankly unrealistic way.

That writing is a ‘calling’ that cannot be ignored.

Really? A slight exaggeration.

Writing being some sort of necessity in life that one cannot do without.

Oh come on, it’s no essential process required to sustain life.

Writers would rather lose limbs than not be able to equate concepts to words.

We’re getting into the more ridiculous responses here.

That writer’s view the world from heights, and that they write in order to breathe.

I’ll deploy my absolute favourite all-time quote that for me sums up both the vanity and stupidity writers can conjure up.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Dream on Percy, dream on.

Please – but the best is yet to come.

People who criticize and belittle our “hobby” simply fear our independence. They are jealous of our ability to break away from the mould that so obviously ensnares them.

I’m not making this up. I’ve been watching posts like these, cringing and wanting to further distance myself from being identified as a writer. Let’s take a time out here. It’s fine to be passionate about your hobby. Really. I admit that some days I feel like I’ve wasted time if I haven’t written anything. Some days I feel like something was missing if I didn’t write. But I’ve also had many days where I’ve written nothing and felt nothing of it. There are days where I cannot care to write even a single word. That’s the reality of it – and every writer will be the same. We have a lot of days where it just feelings like struggling neck high up in mud. Still, I just laugh at life and continue – it’s no matter. You take each day as it comes.

I mean, come on. Writer’s having to write out of some sort of necessity? That’s peeling back the hyperbole. At the end of the day, I think this just makes writers sound deluded and vain. I think the whole issue is that the entity that is “writing” has a huge inferiority complex hanging over it. The fear is that at the end of the day, someone could call a writer out on doing something useless. Writing is after all fiction – it is logically useless. So the response is to come up with such reasons like the ones above in order to raise writing above what it is and to some sort of divine level. In reality, storytelling is just telling stories – and we really shouldn’t hide from that. People like stories, so that’s good enough reason to write them. Simple. Besides, the strength of passion that conjures up such quotes means that such individuals get enough enjoyment out of it to continue despite what others might say.

But here is the question I am asking you: what happens when someone who isn’t a writer reads this sort of thing? It all  just sounds so very ludicrous. Inane. Utterly deluded. At the end of the day, what is writing, really? Just telling a story – which anyone can do and learn to do better. My fear is that it does nothing to help writers. It just makes them sound like they are wasting time writing fiction. I think it puts of people who aren’t writers, discourages those who are learning, and makes writers sound like a bunch of overly-dramatic want-to-be Shakepeares.

So, if you are a writer, I want to hear your thoughts on this matter. If you are inclined to think such lofty things about writing, I want to hear from you too.

Escapism, Reality and Writing – Why Do We Create To Escape?

At the face of it, writing creatively is a purely self-destructive activity. Of all the things to spend your time, you choose to write on fictitious events, worry over imaginary characters and work to create the unreal. All when today, we retain the idea that we should do things of relevance, and that concept of what makes something worthwhile is intrinsically tied to a grounding in reality. In short, it is seen as productive to have a hobby that has some benefit to you in reality.

Here’s a hobby of mine. Rock Climbing. A good way to exercise; so it would seem. The practice of heaving yourself up vertical surfaces. Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Yet even now when we’ve long passed over the hunter-gatherer stage of human development when this kind of skill would have been relevant, we still view it with an air of justification. Instead of using it to heave yourself up or down steep terrain to get to food others might not be able to access, it’s good exercise. It has a benefit to the body. Exercise releases endorphins, which make you happy. A happy citizen, a happy worker, a more productive worker. So, that’s fine, go climb those walls.

Yet writing? Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. It’s just daydreaming. It’s just imaginary nonsense. Haven’t we grown up and learnt to focus on what’s real, instead of inventing things? Yes, oh dear. It’s a tenuous position, sitting and dealing with imaginary people, treating them as if they were real. We’re adults now, not children, we must focus our minds in the real world, upon all that is real and nothing else. Why is that? Because we’re meant to ‘grow up’, a concept that involves expunging childish practices from us in order to become a rational adult. With that in mind, the following paragraph will sound mad.

I spent several hours today inside my head, thinking about a world I created. I wasn’t just thinking about characters, I was imagining myself as them. I thought as them, felt as them.

Sounds like a mental problem, doesn’t it? Especially if you know the characters I write about.

It’s worrying when you break out of the daydream, blink, and realise for a split second, you were thinking and feeling like that character.

Really, writing in first person present screws with my mind at least. Not that I was complaining. Oh, take that society!

In short, this is why I opened by saying writing is self-destructive. Perhaps we spend our time inside our heads too much, imagining an escapist world like a child does, instead of being a good little worker and getting on with our lot in this world. Or rather, instead of learning to cope with the world itself, coping by proxy.

But hey, I don’t actually believe that at all. I wouldn’t say writing is self-destructive. But why did I just lead you on that tangent? I had to explain that in order for you to understand the next idea. Well, there’s a refuge in the word ‘writer’. The practice of writing is a refuge for imaginative process that would have been culled around the time you go to secondary school. That begins when you’re 13 if I remember correctly. Think back in your education. When did the emphasis on creativity and imaginative practice go? When instead of writing a story in English you had to start writing essays? When did they focus shift onto getting good grades for oh, that seemingly distant job? See, it’s an implicit part in the practice of ‘growing up’. The imaginative gets sidelined for the practical. Creativity is preserved only if it can serve an economic purpose. Learning suffers the same as well. Cram your head with the facts to pass the exams. Who cares if it’s something you want to learn about.

Creative problem solving. That’s useful, it means you’ll be a good worker that can better deal with unforeseen problems. What about being a writer? You’re using the imagination to write stories that sell. That’s the refuge. So all day, I’m not potentially wasting time indulging a denial of reality. No, I’m working to create a product. The thing is, unless writing can justify itself by selling, creativity for creativity’s sake alone is cast of as void. It becomes a nice thing for children to do. Paint a picture, write a story. How many artists and writers have we lost because they never thought to keep their creativity into adulthood? I look around at the people I know here at university. Of the English students, how many that say they are writers are? Few. Precious few. They’re here for inspiration. They’re here to learn how to write. Perhaps. But how many go of and write? Of them, who writes regularly? Who is really working on that book, and not just stuck in some limbo falsely labelled as work in progress?

Let’s say I haven’t found one yet. None isn’t a word I want to hear, but that’s another topic.

The continued existence of the refuge of writing presents a strange idea though, and why do I label it’s existence down to consumerism?

Well, it exists because it’s a balm, a slave for all the dreary existence we find ourselves trudging through. Working 9am to 5pm, seeing the same sights, living a life of routine without any change. It creates a craving for adventure. In all ways, all stories tell one. Whether it is as literal as that doesn’t matter. There are changes. There is excitement. It is novel. Buy a book, or better yet, write one and you can create your own adventure, with all the security of the current existence intact. I don’t doubt that anyone will ever be truly content with their lives. We can always find something more we want. Perhaps loosing yourself in a wood full of elves helps. Perhaps not. But the need for this alternate reality still exists, and it is a healthy one.

The question is, why do you start writing (if you are a writer) and if not, what do you think about creative endeavours? Do you indulge in escapism?

It Belongs In A Museum, Not A Bin – The Problem With Literary Canon

It’s no lie. I would without hesitation throw away many literary classics for being dull, contrived and boring. I can imagine that will upset some people reading this, but I have reasoning.

For instance, let’s ask why some books are ‘classics’ in the first place, and not others. With all artistic endeavour, it is impossible to give a concise measurement of a book, and thus you cannot say what criteria makes something a classic. Like all works of art, they only gain status when people are willing to go out and say why they think such a piece is a classic.

But there’s a problem I think we as readers, and certainly as writers, have a duty to address. As far as I’m concerned, ‘literature’ is a stagnant entity. Stuck in a time-warp more likely. Our definition of literature that belongs in the cannon seems to be stuck around the necessity that it must either be old, or deal with deep spiritual and philosophical points. Of course, any selective criteria creates a picture that does not represent the whole. As such, the canon does not represent the entire summary of writing out there. I wouldn’t even say it’s the best. I think we can all list a few literary classics that we’d never want to touch again.

Literature has lost something in becoming so conceited. It has lost its primary function, the thing that made all writers start in the first place. That is telling a good story. Sadly, along the way, storytelling became sidelined, cast into the realm of sensationalist fiction, and therefore not literary. Hence, anything that is popular cannot be literary. Why do we not see science fiction or fantasy included in the canon? We know the answer.

This is what I think must change in order for literature to maintain its credibility. It must not linger in the past alone, but actively engage with present works, rather than exclude them because the author isn’t dead, or because it’s set in a fantasy world.

In light of this, what would you put in your own literary canon? What would you champion, and what would you leave out? Would you put Shakespeare in the bin, or would you keep things as they are?

Moving Forwards With Your Writing

Writing is a unique experience. Unlike other pursuits, you are the only person solely responsible for everything. You must be the one to write in the first place, but you must also have the willpower and discipline to continue to do so. Even when you’re fed up with edits. Even when you feel like you can’t be a writer anymore. The only way you can be a writer is by pushing yourself, and managing your progress towards every single goal you set up for yourself.

No one else can interfere.

The questions I’ve been hearing from good friends is how you stay focused as a writer when you try and get your career in the field going. There are plenty of ways to make a start. You can publish traditionally or by yourself. You can submit short stories to a variety of publications, enter competitions and such. The problems with those common ideas are that they are too closely tied to success. They garner themselves to the expectation of instant success and when the inevitable rejections come, you’re left wondering what else you can do to get started. It would seem your aspirations have been nipped in the bud before they got to flower.

Firstly, forgive yourself for hoping to have success at the first try, regardless of the level.

So your short story got rejected. Your self-published book didn’t sell anything like you hoped. That’s fine. Don’t lie to  yourself about wanting to succeed at the first, second, third, fourth or even firth (or more) try, because if you didn’t you wouldn’t have ever bothered in the first place. Recognise you want to succeed quickly, but don’t allow yourself to repress that feeling because your head might tell you that’s such a vain hope.

It’s not, and you’re only human.

But if submitting work to various outlets sets you up for a blow to your hopes, what else is there to do? The problem is not finding some other outlet, but simply valuing the activities you do before you think about publishing. You’ve got to sort yourself out mentally, so you can condition yourself to react to rejection in a positive way. This means evaluating your approach to both your writing and goals for it on a regular basis that is constructive and enables you to better appreciate what you do.

When we talk about publishing, particularly publishing failure, we often try to find external sources to blame. The editor was picky. The reader didn’t understand the point you were making. Whatever the excuse, we scrutinise ourselves last when things don’t go our way. Of course, we don’t want to for a number of reasons. The primary ones are that it’s easier to blame someone else, and that we’ve invested a whole load of time and emotion in our work. As such we’re extremely unwilling to find fault in ourselves as it negates all the work previously put in. It is painful to realise that you need to rewrite an entire story because you wrote it in the wrong way. Again, take a step back and don’t hate yourself for being only human. No matter what you do, there’s no way to get rid of that horrible, sinking feeling in your stomach when you realise you made a mistake. You’re justified in feeling that way; a mistake is not something to celebrate.

A mistake in writing is never a total disaster as long as you respond to your emotions correctly.

Don’t jump in the deep end; don’t delete all your work because it “isn’t good enough” because there is very much the chance that it might well have been a case that the editor just didn’t like what you did. Writing is subjective, and you can edit your work as much as you like but it might still get you nowhere. In all cases, I would say that you must never delete anything as a rule of thumb. Once it’s deleted, it’s gone. Instead, keep everything you do and edit. Edits are how your improve your writing, not deleting and starting from scratch. You must also learn to be confident in your own skills as a writer. Evaluating yourself requires that you have a good gauge of your abilities as they truly are and you must appreciate them. To do so otherwise is purely destructive, as you’ll never know where to focus your efforts, but more importantly, you’ll probably end up destroying something that you actually do well – you just didn’t have the confidence in your ability to see that. There are plenty of writers who will tell you everyone gets rejected so many times, and even the ones held up as literary greats got rejected many times as well. So, go build up your self-belief and remember that you will get there as long as you keep on trying.

A true rejection is if you give up without getting published.

What you must also reconsider is how you gauge your progress. Don’t measure yourself by letters, but instead do so in how much you write. Perhaps the greatest thing we forget when trying to gauge progress in our respective writing careers is how much we write in itself. I feel we really undervalue it if we measure progress only by how much you’ve published. Writing is the prelude to publishing, it is the very first step on that road and it is crucial to it. Nothing else can come if you don’t write first.

So if you find yourself thinking that you’re going nowhere in writing, stop and look at how much you’ve done. The reality is that you’re always going somewhere and all of it is progress.

I keep myself writing with one thought in mind. I enjoy writing in the first place. Such enjoyment will always keep you going as long as you focus on it, and not things later down the road. Keep such reasons in your mind first, and all other worries second otherwise you just burn yourself out.

If you want to succeed, keep writing and remember it’s just as much about writing well as it is being able to continue going forward in spite of all hardship.

 

Poetry & Experimentation

I’ve never really understood the appeal of poetry. Controversial for a writer, but there’s a case in point to be made here. Arguments that have been levied against poetry are the fact that is places emphasis when selecting words on their ability to be sonically pleasing, rather than accurate. A good way to grasp this concept is in lyrics of songs.

“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” – My Fair Lady – Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner

You can see how the words for this lyric are chosen for their similar sonic qualities. The repetition of “ain” in the lyric is sonically pleasing, but since the selection of words has been made by this characteristic, and not accuracy, then it can be said that accuracy in language is forsaken for repetition of sounds. Thus, we see the original message that might have sought to have been conveyed lost to prose. Does it the rain really stay mainly in the plain in Spain or have these words been arranged simply because they fit nicely together?

This is the problem with poetry. It inherently distorts truth in favour of couplets that aim to sound beautiful when spoken. As such, poetry is something for it’s own sake, whereas other forms of literature, such as prose are not so.

My idea for writing is to create suspension of disbelief, that is to be able to make a reader feel that what they read is real despite knowing they might be holding a fantasy book. To do this, I must always try to be accurate in my sentence construction rather than be playful with language. As a consequence, I am a not much of a poet, and my attempts at rhyme always fall with mixed result. Instead, I’ve tried to create a form of narrative poetry that mirrors practices of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which counts a number of stresses per line (usually four) rather than syllables.

“Listen!
Howls echo across the face
Of gnarled bark and dark-leaf pines,
Every nook and cranny shakes,
His hearty resonance thus spake;
Oh! The wolf, carnal king
Chief of red-tongue eaters,
Shiver at his tremulous call;
The ravenous appetite for succulent flesh.

I’ve placed the stresses in bold for you to see what I mean. For reference, the “listen” line is paying homage to the Anglo-Saxon word “Hwæt” that opens Beowulf, and has been interpreted as a command to listen, as if the story is being told aloud.

As in some lines, you can see that two words combined by a hyphen count only as one stress. This again draws upon the fact that Anglo-Saxon used many compound words, and Beowulf uses many of these.

The main consideration is that the stresses are the important words, usually nouns and verbs. In this way, the piece hopefully pushes the image behind the words more than trying to introduce a rhyme. The problem with fixed forms of poetry and rhymes in general is that they again demand certain words to fit, so you must either add or remove information when composing a piece that way. While this verse might not sound sonically pleasing, it stresses key information held within the verse rather than playing on words for the sake of it.

Still, all poetry to me remains something tedious. I’m too much of a novelist. Fitting a story to the language feels the wrong, when it should be the other way round. The language must fit the story. I think there is a consideration to be made here, and a reason why poetry isn’t so prominent in the commercial sphere of writing. We just have to look at the best-selling books on the selves to realise that there are no poetry collections there. I don’t think in a fixed format because my aim with language is totally opposite to that of poetry. For me, words must strictly adhere to the plot and should not step above plot or narrative action by being selected for their own qualities as words, rather than their qualities as words that match what I am trying to convey. As such, I find it impossible to try and be a poet, because I naturally lean to being an novelist.

 

Writing with Meaning

From experience, it seems as writers we inherently aim to write with meaning in our works. We want to portray some message that is important to us, or highlight something wrong or unjust in society in the hope that when the text is read, it might change minds for the better. The idea that literature is something that should educate is a very old idea, yet, it’s also something that comes naturally to us that it feel new and innovative. Aristotle comes up with the idea in his Poetics that people learn by imitation, and that tragedy through catharsis (a word we struggle to define exactly, but it seems to mean a sort of purging of negative feeling) in art can serve a function to better society. Personally, I then fast-forward a bit to Philip Sidney, who in An Apology for Poetry outlined that art is wonderful because it can educate as writers have the freedom to condemn vice and praise virtue. Meanwhile, history rarely sees such judgement because it’s a record of what’s happened and that alone.

The thing is though, literature can become too caught up in trying to have a message that it suffers for it. I’ve read plenty of works from writers all at various points in their careers, and this is one of the points that they’ve all shared. When a story is too focussed on its message, the power of the message gets lost. I find myself rolling my eyes, sighing as another moralistic point comes through in a very transparent, or explicit scene. This is the problem with giving your writing an explicit meaning. You end up alienating your readers not because they’re hostile to your message, but because they’re fed up of having it raised in not so subtle ways, or far too often.

The reason I find myself groaning is that the message is repeated far too often. Rather than being the climax of the story, it is prevalent throughout the book, and as such doesn’t allow any progression, or even any moment of catharsis. No sooner do you feel things have moved on, then you you find that you’re back dealing with the same underlying issues in another recycled scene. At the end of the day, if the novel is to point out a fault, we don’t want our faces rubbed in it continually. Better to have that one single moment where the message is powerfully conveyed than to have it continually recur. That’s the difference between a moment of shock in literature and getting hammered with it.

However, I think messages in literature are just becoming irrelevant now to us. I’d like to say that from the people I’ve encountered so far in life, the majority of us navigate with a good moral compass, and we’re aware and take action upon injustices and faults in society. We don’t really need to be instructed, and especially as adult readers. Frankly, if the basic morals that make us decent human beings aren’t in place by adulthood, then what good is reading a book going to do? That ship sailed a long time ago. More importantly, the emphasis on literature has, and always will be not on moralising or instructing as Philip Sidney imagined it, but in providing a good story. As Francis Bacon correctly identified, we loves lies (art) for “a corrupt love of the lie itself.”

Morals and messages can the cornerstone of a work, but they never should dominate the work. A story is always a complex interplay of many elements, and a message is only one of them. It is always best to have your written agenda in a book to be one that is very well hidden, that a more discerning reader might pick up on, but other readers who aren’t interested in close reading will gloss over. That, and it is also fundamental to make the reader feel that they came to discover that message in the work, rather than have you force it upon them. It leaves a much more powerful impression when you are the one to conclude something, rather than be told it. That’s my personal opinion and how I prefer to write, but I have one final question to pose on the subject.

Since we’re living in the Postmodernist age, we’re increasingly being confronted with pieces of literature that either have no meaning, no single meaning but multiple competing meanings or actually even resist our attempts to give them meaning. How are we able to create and divine meaning when faced with challenges of interpretation like this? The joys of living in a de-centred universe where all language is arbitrary and meaning is only generated in texts but networks of difference and context. Saussure really did open Pandora’s Box (I consider him to be the basis from which Post-structuralism and Post-modernism come from).

But let’s not worry, because even with problems of truth and language, we can find refuge in our own personal truth. Explaining ideas is an act of translation that involves the risk your idea won’t be understood as you understand it, so what you’ve decided yourself is the (relatively) safest option. As with most things in life, the solution is one of moderation. Write with a message in mind, but not exclusively for that message.

Please, share your thoughts about giving your own writing “meaning” in the comments below. How important do you think it is? Do you prefer to find your own meaning or be told one?

– As a note, I’ll explain why I keep referring to the likes of Foucault, Saussure and Aristotle in my posts. To be brief, they came up with ideas that shaped the way we write, read, and interpret literature, and as such it makes sense to understand their ideas so that we may further build our own.

What’s In a Name?

Yes indeed, what is the point of names? It sounds silly at first, so I must qualify the context. For a writer, is a name really relevant for you? After all, people read the text you publish, not the name you add on to things.

True, some people do organise their reading by authors, and thus names, but that’s exactly my point.

I’ve never found the reason to attach an actual, real name to anything I’ve written because it can subtly change the way people can view your work. The most important one is the argument of our goof friends Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, who have fun deconstructing what our conception of an “author” is. In short, authors are looked to for textual authority and the “author” is more a persona that bears no reality to the actual person who wrote the text. Besides, they both say there’s no point in listening to the author because we’re reading the narration of a character in a book, not the author.

That’s why I don’t want to put my real name onto something I’ve written. When it’s an alias or pen-name (whatever term suits you) as long as it’s not a real name, I can let people know what I’ve written, but that’s all. You can’t really start asking what the author meant when all you have about the author is an arbitrary selection of words. I’m not there to provide any set way of reading something, because that just defeats the point of reading isn’t it? We all read in our own ways, we all interpret things differently.

But really I don’t want to put a real name onto my writing because I don’t want people to create an alternate version of myself. A version whereby I am only known for a single act of writing, and therefore being a writer. The author becomes this sort of being that people create for you as they read your work, and then they try to box you into that construction in real life. Your work then can become something oppressive, where you are being pushed by social consensus to preform a certain idealised role because that’s what people have come to interpret you as. It’s vain, but more importantly futile to think that you can understand the person who wrote a book by reading that work. Creativity has a capacity to throw up random results without warning. And be warned, I am one of those writer types who just sits down and has ideas hit continuously as I write. There’s no plan planned, it just seems to end up in some order. Somehow.

That’s my feelings about it. I realise someday I am going to have to put my name to my work, but until then.