Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Writing What I Believe, Writing What I Love

War and Peace - Writing What I Believe

A few years ago, I had some thoughts I wanted to test and refine about the fiction I’m writing. So I wrote them out. I didn’t share them beyond my critique group. Lately I returned to that writing and updated it into this essay. It’s partly an artist’s manifesto – that term seems too grand – and partly a look behind the curtain or under the hood. It is the back story of stories I have written, am writing, and live.

I’m posting it here in three parts. This is the first.

Am I?

Whatever you write, from fiction to commercial website copy – insert your content marketing joke here – someone has probably told you, “Write what you believe.” If not, allow me to be the first.

Write what you believe.

I don’t mean that we writers should focus all our time and energy on nonfiction which expounds and promotes our personal belief systems in political, religious, or philosophical terms. There’s a place for that. I do some of it. But today we’re talking about fiction.

I certainly don’t mean that our fiction should be tendentious and moralizing. Fiction is a well-traveled road to truth, but it loses traction when it slips from inviting us to think into telling us what to think, when the author keeps intruding to preach to us.

What I mean, because it’s the best explanation I’ve heard, is approximately this: Don’t write to please everyone. Write for the people who like what you write. Do it well, and no matter what anyone else thinks, that audience, small or large, will (to use technical jargon from my day job) “share the crap out of it.”

This sharing may rise to the level of virality, social media’s Holy Grail, but it probably won’t. Even if it doesn’t, in the world of books it means we’re gathering an audience of readers, and readers are holier still.

I pay the mortgage with marketing, among other things, and I blog a little (formerly a lot). I was a speech writer in my early twenties, then a college writing teacher and a freelance editor. I’ve written and ghost written for stage, screen, podium, pulpit, anthology, academic journal, blog, website, and more. But except for attempting a short story or two and intermittently poking at a political thriller which never advanced beyond disintegrated fragments of a fuzzy idea, until ten years ago I hadn’t seriously indulged any inclination toward writing fiction – or learning to write it, which is the same.

Now I write fiction for fun, relaxation, and possibly DIY therapy – but also in the distant hope of leaving a useful mark on some small corner of the world. So naturally, after one of those marketing conference exhortations to write what we believe – in a presentation that wasn’t about fiction – I began to wonder how I’m doing at that in my fiction. Am I in fact writing what I believe?

While we’re at it, another question keeps raising its hand and waving for my attention: am I writing what I love?

The path to both answers leads through reading.

Read What You Love

We who enjoy the life of the mind should read broadly – but also read what we love, without apology. My grad school mentor was a world-class American scholar in Russian and Eastern European literature, but he relaxed with dime store detective novels (in English), and he did so without shame or apology. I have yet to master his lack of readerly shame, but I remembered him years later, as my wife and I indulged one of our sons in his vigorous and exclusive Captain Underpants period. Now that son, having survived to adulthood, reads thick history books for fun.

I enjoy reading many things, but above all a thick novel. I mean too thick to read in an evening. Thick enough that I might read through the night and have plenty of book left in the morning. As Tobias Carroll wrote, “I love a good novel that’s approximately the size of the human head.” (Full disclosure: he said this in an essay praising novellas, which are shorter than short novels.)

I didn’t know until lately that novella and novelette – which is even shorter – are unwelcome words for some. They were for Katherine Anne Porter, an acknowledged master of short fiction. In her foreword to a 1965 edition of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which I lately acquired at the charming HideAway books in American Fork, Utah, she wrote:

“I beg of the reader one gentle favor for which he may be sure of my perpetual gratitude: please do not call my short novels Novelettes, or even worse, Novellas. Novelette is classical usage for a trivial, dime-store sort of thing; Novella is a slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything. Please call all my works by their right names. We have four that cover every division: short stories, long stories, short novels, novels.”

(Alexander Herzen provides my justification for this digressions: “I do not mean in general to avoid digressions and disquisitions; every conversation is full of them, and so is life itself” [My Life and Thoughts, I:II:3].)

I can enjoy, even love, reading shorter works. And I’m learning to love writing them. I may happily digest a shortish novel on a Sunday or holiday evening, from my unconscionably comfortable reading chair at home. A while back, I found a piece of flash fiction so artful and engaging that I decided to try writing a few of my own tales in 1,000 words or less. But let me put thick into perspective for you.

Thick, I Say

My first impression of any novel under 500 pages is that, if it’s any good, it’s too short. Twice that is not too long. War and Peace lumbers in at about 1400 pages, and that’s fine with me. I’ve read it in two languages.

Three of my five favorite novels are long (but not that long) Russian classics which hover around 800 pages: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Vasily Grossman’s less-known Life and Fate.

Even my favorite shorter novels feel longer. For example, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen runs a little over 300 pages, but it feels like more – in a good way. It’s like sushi: it doesn’t look that big on your plate, and you love it while it lasts – and when you’re done, it seems like there must have been more there than you saw. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn runs about the same length but also reads longer for me.

Please don’t think I read only the great works of world literature. I’ve read many good, thick political, techno-, and legal thrillers. Plenty of mediocre ones too. I’ve read science fiction and fantasy and enjoyed most of both; readers, writers, and publishers in these genres clearly do not balk at bulk. For that matter, I savor few things more reliably than a thoughtful, well-crafted dystopian novel.

I’ve also read non-speculative YA fiction in recent years – for research, but some of it I quite enjoy. (Confession is good for me.) I’ve read some Lianne Moriarty novels too, initially for research into character voice and other useful aspects of the craft, but they’ve become a guilty pleasure – except for the guilt, so I’m making progress.

What draws me most is well-written contemporary, realistic fiction, literary or otherwise. Did I mention that I like it long (despite my taste for David Lodge’s shorter novels)?

Not Just Long

Mind you, size isn’t enough by itself. Who wants a giant box of bad chocolates? Only quality can justify length. I don’t mean the book’s quality, as judged by the very serious literary scholars I once prepared to join. I mean the quality of my experience with it.

I want to enjoy a novel in all the usual ways – laughing, savoring the building suspense, shedding the occasional manly tear. But I especially want to think. I want to think new thoughts and test and rearrange old ones. I want to encounter and understand the world, myself, and other people in new and unexpected ways. I want to finish the book with a sense that there are still things for me to learn from it, still things to feel from it, by pondering it or even reading it again. I want a book with a heart and a mind.

Which leads us back to writing – because I want the novels I write to do the same things for my readers. In my shorter fiction, I generally want the same things on a smaller scale. It’s not just about entertainment.

I want to do all this in prose that is easily readable, even aloud – beautiful prose, when I can manage it, but prose which doesn’t continually call attention to itself. I want to be more like the basic window frame you usually don’t notice than the baroque frame which competes for your attention with the painting it presents.

Maybe I should aim higher than I do, at purple prose and the loftiest, trendiest literary themes, whatever those are this year. Perhaps you think that aiming lower than literary masterpiece is unforgivably prosaic.

Maybe I will write something literary someday, or someone will decide that I have. In the meantime, can I interest you in a thoughtful story with a heart? Or a humane story with a brain? If not – or if you read my fiction and don’t like it – no hard feelings. We can still be friends.

Read Part Two here

Photo credit: Светлана Химочка on Unsplash

From the Author

David Rodeback

Thanks for reading!

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