The Cortland Review


Michael Heller
J.M. Spalding interviews the poet.

Douglas Thornsjo
Writers on Writing 4: An Empty Moment in Time - How Not to Write.

Douglas Thornsjo


Writers On Writing 4
An Empty Moment in Time - How Not to Write


I have been told by a straightfaced, professional person that my novel Persephone’s Torch would never see print because "nobody wants to read a novel about 1930’s theater."

This struck me as an unconscionably foolish reason to give an author for turning down a manuscript. It says nothing about the quality of the work: only the ignorance of the person making the comment. Because it wasn’t the theater part of the equation that she objected to: it was the decade.

It’s frightening that there are grown-up people out there, people who take themselves seriously, people who are allowed to vote for chrissakes, who don’t give a damn about anything that happened before 1995. This is important to writers, because these same people are the ones, within and outside of the industry, who are shaping the business of publishing.

In today’s literary landscape the past is acceptable only as a backdrop for Romance novels of various sorts or as part of straightforward reminiscences (Angela’s Ashes, for one) designed to drive home the message of how bad the past was, how much better off we are without it.

Make it Contemporary, and make the reader feel harmlessly validated and superior, if you want your book to see print.

But it’s possible to be contemporary without actually being Contemporary, if you know what I mean. Human experience is relevant regardless of the details of geography, era or orientation. Does that sound obvious? Tell it to the editors.

There are specific reasons why my novel was framed by the milieu of the theater (the double-edged sword of imagination, the way it can raise us out of the muck on the one hand or warp our perceptions of reality on the other, is the book’s theme), just as there are reasons why its events could only have taken place in the late 1930s and the beginning of the ‘40s. My story could never have happened in a world were television existed, where an excess of pre-fab daydreams inundates us day and night. Five decades ago people spoke a different language and experienced the world in different ways — and there were laws, especially abortion laws, that made life for my characters more difficult — yet people were much the same as they are today. In the course of writing the novel, I did not for one second stop to think that it might be less interesting to readers because I mentioned Laurel and Hardy in the text instead of Rosie O’Donnell. The thought that it might, for that reason, be less interesting is bizarre to me.

By that definition, nobody would ever read Elie Wiesel or Robertson Davies, the one because he writes about times that the under-forty crowd does not remember or care about, and the other because he’s Canadian, male, white and dead. If either of these writers were starting out today, it’s more than likely that their work would be rejected by today’s editors, whose eyes are clouded by demographics, who care not about writing but only about hitting the biggest of the big numbers.

A serious novel, one in which the characters have real thoughts and feelings, are happy and sad, have successes and failures, ought to have just as much value to readers whether it’s set in the here and now, or a hundred years from now, or sixty years in the past, in New York, Dublin, Paris, Zimbabwe, Mexico or the farthest reaches of space. It shouldn’t matter, either, whether the leading character (or the author for that matter) is male or female.

Books are not meant to be a tool by which a reader can put on blinders and just hear what they want to hear. Books are meant to open up lives and expose worlds. If editors and publishers start choosing books on the basis of what they think interests a certain demographic, if certain milieu, decades, sexes and outlooks become verboten by unwritten policy based on the opinions of people who can’t see past their own experience, then the industry will continue to become smaller and narrower and more and more self-referential. And then, I’m sorry folks, it’s all over. Burn the set. The end of history is here.


By numbers, my generation has produced more writers and wannabe-writers than any other in history — yet it has produced not one single Faulkner, Parker, Hurston, Gillman, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Austen, Bronte, Thurber or Chandler (or, if it has, those new young giants have not yet found their way into print). We’re suffering under a glut of the written word, but so much of it, even when technically sound, is emotionally flat: Paul Auster gamesmanship and Sam Shepard generic speed-written tosh.

So many people seem to want to be writers, without having any real idea of how to do it, that a growth industry has risen in books about writing, magazines about writing, computer software supposedly designed to aid you in writing — Dramatica and the like. To read this stuff you’d think there was a secret to it, some mystic key that can be found only by Questing or by following a rigid and arcane set of rules.

I tried one of those writing software programs, just out of curiosity. It was supposed to help me outline a story by forcing me to come up with "Events," to tie those "Events" to "Threads," and those "Threads" to a "Story."

I knew right away that I was in trouble, because the makers of this program simply did not think or work the same way that I do. We may live in a culture of Event as opposed to a culture of Character, but I still hang onto the idea that good fiction begins with character. Event has meaning only in the light of character. It rises out of, and is shaped by the character’s roots. Conflict arises when two or more people, with all their differences, get in each other’s way. Yet nowhere in this program were characters, emotions or conflicts even mentioned.

How can you have events without having characters first? I thought. Well, I dragged that software to the trash, breathed a sigh of relief and got back to work on my project. It went real well once I stopped listening to some hack software developer tell me how to work.

The point is, everyone works differently. If you work by the numbers, the way some rule-maker tells you how to work, you may indeed become technically competent more quickly, but your work will be soulless. There’s plenty of that sort of thing on the shelves already, it’s a big part of the self-referential glut that threatens to choke the industry.

Read good books and write. It’s as simple as that. Forget about the instructional manuals and the software and the magazines. Just put your ass in a chair and write. Do it any way you want to do it, but be objective. That’s the hard part, the part that drives some writers mad, that all the "writer’s aids" gloss over. You have to pass judgment on yourself. Look at what you’ve built on paper. The architecture may be nice, but is anybody home?

From whatever direction we approach the business of writing, we have an obligation to look beneath the surface of things. What’s Contemporary today is forgotten tomorrow — and because something is well-crafted and clever does not necessarily make it worth reading.


Next Installment: Writers on Writing 5: It Takes All Kinds


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