One reason I write is my father. I know — it's a bit like saying a fish swims because it lives in water. What choice does it have? We are formed by our early years, which, most often, means by our families. Which things about my father were most important in shaping me? As a person, I believe that all of them were crucial in making him the man he was, which made him the father he was to me. That includes a lot I don't even know about. Narratively though, that's way too much. Some of it must go. Most of it. To write the novel, or even just to write the Craft Post that tells a story about my father and his influence on me, I must carve a great deal away.
My father was a painter, a teacher, a body surfer, an apostate ex-altar boy, an aggressive driver, a philanderer, a mentor, and the second eldest in a family of seven boys and three girls. He changed his little siblings' diapers as a boy and his children's as a father in the Sixties, when plenty of American men demurred from that side of parenting. He was a good shot, a bad sport, a lover of nature, a drinker, a smoker, a crooner, a liar, a bestower of unconditional positive regard, an eviscerating critic, a union organizer, and — did I mention the most important thing? — a brilliant, unsung artist. I'd like to think I've rendered some of his complexity in the fathers I've created in fiction, but truly I know I haven't. Not even close. As Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote, "Not people die but worlds die in them."
Like all humans, my dad was such an expansive mass of contradictions that any attempt at a complete depiction of him in fiction would be a sloppy, confusing mess. I know this, but I keep trying to do it. It seems important to me. Then I remember that whatever I, as his daughter, know of his life isn't even the tip of the iceberg. Worlds died in him. This reminds me in turn (and not for the first time — some lessons must learned over, every single day), that fiction doesn't really represent our world. Fiction, or whatever form of writing one practices, is ontologically different. It's not reality, it's art. It's the world distilled, interpreted, given shape.
Being a distillate, fiction is potent. In his 1955 Paris Review interview, Ralph Ellison says that "One function of serious literature is to deal with the moral core of a given society." Ellison makes a point of the fact that he did not begin to write with the purpose of activism. "I wasn’t, and am not, primarily concerned with injustice, but with art." On the one hand, he truly cared about craft and style. On the other, he felt deeply about the injustices of American society. Ellison wouldn't have the same impact if he wrote a political screed instead of his novel Invisible Man. So, the art came first and brought the beliefs with it. The fact that the art was exceptional amplified the protest that underlay it. Ellison was writing for the sake of art, for the sake of justice, and to show other human beings his vision of the world. After a fair amount of pesky needling from the paris Review interviewers — Was Invisible Man "a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest"? — he says forthrightly that he sees "no dichotomy between art and protest."
At the end of the interview, he returns to the issue.
I feel that with my decision to devote myself to the novel I took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.
As it describes our experience, it creates it.
Literature shapes the culture. Art effects change.
Yevtushenko concludes "People," which I read at my father's funeral — so tongue-tied with grief I couldn't wrangle up a eulogy — "again and again, I make my lament against destruction."
Yevtushenko's ululation and Ellison's dream of cultural conquest are two versions of the same act. Lament can transform grief, catapulting it out of the grave not at any target on Earth but higher, into the ether. Stories of protest like Invisible Man transform society by revealing narratives that have been unseen and undervalued in our society.
Many of us are at this sort of project, when we tell our stories. We throw up webs built of figments and fonts, and we hope they transform midair into worlds that are vivid, solid and universal. If we loft them high enough, up out of the stratosphere, our stories might capture their readers' imaginations firmly enough to set them free not just of gravity but political, personal and geographic boundaries. These readers will forget their own identities and the cares of their day while they read and simply be people, people who inhabit the fictional dreamworlds we've conjured, blissfully unaware that we've seduced them into a state of radical empathy.
I write in the face of infinite vastness and imminent destruction in order to put down an invented, constrained, highly personal version of the world that helps me understand it. Sometimes my agenda is larger, even grandiose, sometimes it's very small. It doesn't matter how profound or political your story is. There are myriad stories that need to be told. None of them has to be about world peace or social justice to be important. It might be about the death of a parent, the loss of a child, the implosion of a dream. Whatever it is, once it's written, you can share it. And if someone else reads it and connects — even just one reader — you've pushed destruction back.
Literature can show us why life matters, why it's worth carrying on in the face of brutal reality, whether racial injustice, climate catastrophe, viral spiral or some personal ordeal. It offers the possibility of hope and, when all hope is exhausted, the possibility of meaning.
How do we choose what to write when the universe is limitless, possibly meaningless and certainly beyond our comprehension? We start by drawing lines. In contrast to the universe (or the legacy of enslavement, or just my fucked up Dad), a work of art is tiny. Even a doorstopper bestseller. As artists, we start by delineating our canvas. We set our range and scope. This constraint is the beginning of creating meaning.
When I begin a piece of writing, it's often in the wrong scale. Too large, too small, too all-over-the-place and wildly out of focus. I rarely know the proper scope of a project right away.
The first set of prompts is designed to help you think about scope and scale, what you're including and why.
1. Write a paragraph as long as you please describing yourself, your project and your intentions. Address some or all of the following:
Why do you write?
Why are you writing this project that you're working on right now?
Why not something else? Given that the world is wide, how are you deciding what to include and leave out?
What have you got down on the page, so far? What's missing? Where do you hope to take it? What impact would you like it to have on your readers?
What do you need to do to reach the next phase or level?
What external supports could help?
2. Whittle that paragraph from step 1 down to a single sentence, at most two. Try a few versions and see if you can get closer and closer to an "elevator pitch" that does justice to your project. Would it sound better or more interesting with a description that was less authentic to your book or project? What might that tell you? Do you care more about authenticity or what people think?
3. Ask yourself about all the things you were forced to leave out in step 2. Reconsider the scope and scale of your project. Is it a multigenerational saga? Does it take place in the course of an escalator ride? Are there point-of-view changes or multiple primary characters? Think about what you have chosen to include and to exclude and how these choices affect the shape.
4. List three things you need to work on. Three are likely more than three, but for now, choose just three. They could be writing tasks on any scale, from developing a particular character, purging cliches, addressing a pervasive technical issue such as tense or point of view, writing a missing chapter, adding flashbacks, or eliminating needless repetitions. Pick the three that seem most crucial, and save the others for later. It's more likely you'll be able to follow through if you set overseeable goals. Add more when you're ready.
© Elizabeth Gaffney 1/20/2021
Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction 8, The Paris Review
Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, People