Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Writing as Therepy—Bleah, A Rant

So, Jay Lake has a post here about the "shield" of genre and writing as a way of cutting into the "core" of the writer. I found it via Elizabeth Bear's post here, wherein she disagrees with Jay, but continues the meme of bloodletting.

I wanted to post a completely opposing view. Cutting to the core doesn't interest me in the slightest as a fictional mode. If I want textual therapy, I'll write or read non-fiction. If I want genuine therapy, I'll see a therapist. I write and read not to be taken deeper into my or other people's problems, but rather to be taken out of them, to touch something transcendent above and beyond my concerns, however real and painful those concerns might be.

I write genre not as a cloak or shield, but because I really enjoy the idea of magical worlds and the emphatically not real. That's part of why I always start with world in my writing. I want to come up with a could be that is believable and even fascinating. I think of myself as an entertainer and mythologist and to me the idea that by not "cutting to the core" I might have failed is simply silly.

Writing has many purposes, and while "cutting to the core" may be the intent and interest of some writers—and more power to them—to claim that it is or should be the reason to write and read for everyone is absurd and fallacious. I'm a storyteller. I make stuff up and it entertains people. It's actually very simple.

Here endeth the rant. Flames and Kudos happily accepted.


Unknown said...

Makes sense to me. This is like most other aspects of writing -- YMMV all the way around. And in point of fact, insofar as I can tell the majority of stuff that's published falls in your rubric, not mine or Bear's.

Kelly McCullough said...

Hey Jay,

Thanks for stopping by to respond. I'm glad you put up the original post as well as it clearly struck a nerve. This polarity and the tension it creates is something that was one of the most enjoyable aspect of my old writers group, the Karma Weasels, with Lyda Morehouse and I on one end of the spectrum and Alan Deniro and Barth Anderson on the other. The other five weasels generally fell somewhere in between, closer to one or the other endpoint depending on the situation.

Elizabeth Bear said...

Psst. *g* I'm not actually championing writing-as-therapy. Or even writing about agony and hurt.

I'm championing writing from and to honest emotion.


Kelly McCullough said...


Also, thanks for stopping by. I apologize if I've mischaracterized your point, and I'm all for honest emotion, but I'm also all for Ripping Yarns. When I'm forced to choose between story and character I tend to come down on the side of story, even if that means completely rewriting the character's backstory to fit. I do try to rewrite so that the emotion that suits the story drive is an honest one, but it's not the main thrust of my own work.

I guess where I diverged from your point was with the insertion of the word "art." Like "truth" and "belief" its a loaded term, and one that makes me extremely wary. I much prefer craft. I like to say I'm a storyteller first, a writer second, and an entertainer third. If somewhere along the way what I produce can also be called art, that's great, but it's not primarily what I'm aiming for.

Anonymous said...

Jay, I'd say there is truth in what you are talking about, but I think a degree of it is getting muddied up in the words "bloodletting" and "blade", which EB pointed out in her response. It's not so much the actual veracity of the story as it lines up against the author's life that matters, but the truth and depth of the emotion as it applies specifically to this story. I do think it's important to take advantage of the emotional depth available in a story, though only insofar as it befits and benefits the telling.

The alteration I would make to the original argument is the SF/F provides the author with many opportunities to duck out the door and sidestep potential nastiness--and certainly writing those scene can be somewhat traumatic for the author, as well--rather than hitting them face on. I don't think that's a failing of the genre, though. It is a failing of the individual storyteller, who is not being true to the telling, rather than of the genre. In the same way that there is nothing inherently evil about nuclear energy, but rather with the uses to which it is put, the story itself has available depths and it's in the hands of its teller to plumb them.

We wouldn't include all of the research that we do when developing a world/character/culture/religion; it's overkill, and it weighs down the telling. So, too, the emotional complexities and turnings can overwhelm the rest of the story if given carte blanche.

We cannot turn away from the emotion the story calls for, but neither should we carve open a dead horse just to prove the point.

Anonymous said...

When I'm forced to choose between story and character I tend to come down on the side of story, even if that means completely rewriting the character's backstory to fit.

Hi--first time caller. Blame Lyda Morehouse--I followed her post here.

Different process. Different approach to story. I lead with character and alter the story to fit. If I tried it your way, I would find that the character would do something that would skew the story I tried to fit them into. I have tried to make my protag do something which I thought made sense, something which made perfect sense in the outline, only to have the actual story grind to a halt because I was trying to make her do something she Would Not Have Done. Bless the writers who can figure that stuff out beforehand. I can't.

And fwiw, I think you can write Ripping Yarns with honest emotion. I like the term Ripping Yarns and I do try to look after the adventure aspects of the story. But if those aspects don't spring from the characters themselves and their relationships, it will not work for me. It's a continual give-and-take, and any change in the story needs to be consistent with the characters (especially since it's a series). I will more likely alter story to fit character than the other way around.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to respond to this whole question in a larger post, but I think that I would like to clarify that the MAJOR issue that I came to heads with Alan and Barth about in Karma Weasels was the whole issue of writing poetically vs. writing plainly. (remember: "trees with fruits the size of housecats")

I am going to come down on the side of E. Bear, in that I think one ought to step fully on the blade. Writing ought to be about SOMETHING.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, in the post that I just dropped atop the blog, Robert Sawyer says exactly that--writing should be about something. It is his second point in his list of eight. He notes that Dan Brown is forgiven weak plot, cardboard characters, and pedestrian prose by his readers because his story is about something; in Brown's case, suppression of feminism by the Church and a reinterpretation of the Christ story.

Elizabeth Bear said...

I am all for Ripping Yarns!

The ones that aren't fraught, however, I tend to find boring. *g* So my Ripping Yarn requires an emotional investment from both writer and reader.

I don't think you can cut art and craft clean of each other. Storytelling, entertaining, art, writing--to me, they are aspects of the same goal: to reach, connect with, hold, fascinate, and communicate with the reader, with his willing collusion.

If that's not art, I dunno what is.

Elizabeth Bear said...


On poesy vs. plainspokenness... I'd say they're both *tools.*

Neither is superior. Both have their place.

Narrative momentum, though, and strength of prose craftsmanship... that's useful both to the purple and the precise. *g*

Anonymous said...

EB, I'd agree that they're both tools, but there's something to be said for clarity. So long as clarity--and I mean clear communication to the reader--is maintained, I think both are viable tools, but it is perhaps easier to lose clarity with imaginitive poeticisms than with even the more stumbling forms of plainspoken prose.

That is, poesy is harder to execute clearly, though both are equally difficult to make beautiful.

Kelly McCullough said...

Wow, go away for lunch and come back to find a lovely conversation. Let's see.

First and foremost, everybody has a different process. I'm primarily talking about what works for me. Results will vary widely.

Kristine, yes it's always a balancing act. I just reverse it. For me world comes first, then plot, and finally character. And absolutely you can write ripping yarns with honest emotion. I certainly don't mean that you shouldn't have honest emotion, just that that's not where I start and not what I weight most heavily.

Lyda, poesy and plain speaking are tools. It depends on how you use them.

Elizabeth, depends on what you mean by fraught. If you mean that there's a reason for me to care, I'm right there with you. If you mean wrenching and depressing, that's not what I look for in fiction. I get plenty of that in real life. Art, again, depends on what you mean. Art is a slippery word, one might even say "fraught," and one that I too often hear used in an exclusionary way. That's part of why I prefer to avoid it.

lydamorehouse said...

Obviously, I disagree about the poetry issue. Sure, they're tools, but I think poetic language has a tendency to be misused for the SAKE of art, not in service to it.

Oh, and "hi" Kristine. Thanks for comin' on over.

Anonymous said...

I write and read not to be taken deeper into my or other people's problems, but rather to be taken out of them, to touch something transcendent above and beyond my concerns, however real and painful those concerns might be.

I'm very much the same way!

Great post.

Anonymous said...

For me world comes first, then plot, and finally character.

I'm a character, world, plot person. My stories tend to lean more toward "literary" than anything.

Naomi said...

I think I agree with Bear.

Let me backtrack and explain in what way I agree with her. *g* I read na article once about how to write a truly hot sex scene. The advice was, forget the body parts and write about the emotions: that's what makes the scene hot, but more importantly, that's what makes it a worthwhile part of the story. I turned to this advice recently while writing not a sex scene, but a car chase. My current project is set mostly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but they're being chased through St. Cloud, a city I don't know at all, so I can't describe terrain (at least not without a field trip that I don't currently have time for). So I focused on how the viewpoint character was feeling, and suddenly the scene clicked into focus for me.

I think that grounding the story in the things that my characters care about -- in their emotional turmoil, in the questions they need to have answered -- is what brings my stories to life.

I tend to agree with Kelly that if I decide I need therapy, I'll seek out a therapist rather than inflicting the process on my readers. And in any case, I'm a relatively well-adjusted person: I don't have vats of childhood trauma that I need to work out in therapy or prose. I do, however, have a lot of questions, and sometimes I'll do things like write about a dog's search for God instead of my own. It allowed me to put on a mask when I write about myself; it also allows me to freely alter the situation in order to make the questions (and sometimes the answers) clearer, or more interesting.

lydamorehouse said...

Yes, Naomi. I'm with you. Though I got side-tracked by another issue, I think your point is one I wish I'd made. :-)