Some thoughts about immersion and book abandonment…

In lieu of a reading recommendation this week, I offer some unfocused thoughts about book abandonment. Many readers seem to think that it is a virtue to finish every book they start, even if they aren’t enjoying it. I used to think so myself, but as I have gotten older and more aware that time is getting shorter, I’m less willing to spend that time on a book that’s not doing it for me. I know my reading speed by now, I know how long it takes me to finish the average book, and I value those hours highly.

I highly advocate giving up on books–especially fiction–that aren’t doing it for you. It may be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time or for the wrong reader. I abandoned two books just this week, one in which I gotten about halfway and one in which I was a little over fifty pages in. (I confess that I did read the last chapters of both, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake; I wasn’t.)

The one thing I ask of from my fiction reading is immersion. I read because I want to explore other worlds of the imagination; I want to be taken away from this one, at least for a short while. Nothing does this for me like reading, but sometimes finding the book that does the trick is difficult.

There is no one quality that guarantees immersion. Chuck Wendig offers up twenty-five reasons why he stops reading books here, and all of these have something to do with preventing immersion. Little things can do it: an overload of errors; wooden dialogue; a singsong or monotonous style; overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. More often, it’s bigger issues. I’m not seeing anything new. The characters don’t come across as real people. The story is being told to me, instead of being shown in scenes that I can imagine in my head. The world of the story doesn’t come alive for me. I don’t feel like anything real is at stake in the story.

And there’s no predicting which books will end up being immersive. That’s why I always try to give a book at least fifty to a hundred pages to reel me in. (That’s about one reading session.) That seems fair. But if after that, I’m asking myself why I’m reading the book or, worse, looking for excuses not to read, I feel no guilt in putting the book down and picking up another.

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination as a collection is something of a hodgepodge, but there are many valuable nuggets to be mined, so it’s a worthwhile book for any aspiring writer to consult from time to time. The personal essays in the first section, “Personal Matters,” are especially worth reading because Le Guin is a terrific writer and an interesting person. Other essays throughout the book, particularly Le Guin’s thoughts on gender, are also interesting. Do what I did–leaf through the book and read what catches your fancy. It’s sure to be worth your while.

The final section deals specifically with writing and contains several terrific insights. As ever, most writing advice generally comprises the same few basics dressed up in different ways. What stands out is when the adviser frames this in a different way guaranteed to light some bulbs over some heads, and I think Le Guin achieves this. Here are some specific insights I gleaned from different essays, but I recommend reading them for yourself.

“A War Without End” is a rather long and rambling piece on the power of story to make change imaginable and is worth reading to remember why we read and why we write. Here’s a snippet:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

In “A Matter of Trust,” Le Guin explains that in order to write a story, you must trust first yourself, then the story, and finally the reader. The only way to build trust in yourself as a writer is to — you guessed it — write, write write. Commit yourself to learning the craft.

Trusting the story means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. In order for this to work, a pre-writing stage of semi-conscious gestation and/or conscious planning is required. Don’t rush to the writing–that won’t work. (This idea is fleshed out in a subsequent essay.)

Once the writing is done, you must again trust yourself to make the story better. You must be willing to go over it until it goes right. This means revision, people! Dull drudgery, I know, but absolutely necessary. Only after careful and deliberate revision, Le Guin says, will you know what the story is about and why it had to go the way it went. Trusting the story also means that you can’t conceive or manipulate the story to serve a purpose outside itself, because then it will not be true. (This is also expanded on in a later essay.)

Finally, trust the reader. This means thinking of the reader as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. Think of the story as a dance, and the writer and reader as partners in it. Revision — again! — clears unnecessary obstacles away so the reader can receive the story. Le Guin is talking about respect here, and as a reader, I completely agree. A lazy writer, a sloppy writer, a didactic writer is a disrespectful writer, and there is no reason why any reader should have to engage with that kind of writing.

In “The Writer and the Character,” Le Guin warns both writers and readers that characters are not stand-ins for the writer. If you are using your character to fulfill your own needs or to trumpet your own ideas, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth. They will be puppets, and readers will recognize them as such. If the author’s point of view exactly coincides with the character’s, then the story is not fiction; rather, it is “disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon.”

“Unquestioned Assumptions” is a terrific essay that discusses the biases inherent in writing, in which the writer assumes that “us” is “everybody.” In other words, we are all men, we are all white, we are all straight, we are all Christian, we are all young. Le Guin gives this advice:

All I would ask of writers who find it hard to question the universal validity of their personal opinions and affiliations is that they consider this: Every group we belong to–by gender, sex, race, religion, age–is an in-group, surrounded by an immense out-group, living next door and all over the world, who will be alive as far into the future as humanity has a future. That out-group is called other people. It is for them that we write.

Finally, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” is of course about the secret that all successful writers must know:

The question fiction writers get asked most often is: Where do you get your ideas from? Harlan Ellison has been saying for years that he gets ideas for his stories from a mail-order house in Schenectady.

When people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the e-mail address of that company in Schenectady.

That is: they want to be writers, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know; and they know if they can just learn those secrets, that mystical address in Schenectady, they will be Stephen King.

Here is the secret, as Le Guin reveals it:

For a fiction writer, a storyteller, the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it.

Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.

“Ideas come from the world through the head,” she says. Fiction is “imagination working on experience.” In other words, it’s not just enough to write what you know. You experience and read and learn a lot of things, and let it all synthesize and compost in your mind, and apply imagination to it, and that is what you write. This is not a quick process. Again, don’t be in such a rush.

Also, writers must read! A writer who doesn’t read is a charlatan. That’s because writers stand on each other’s shoulders; they use each other’s ideas, plots, and secrets. They don’t plagiarize, but they expand, adapt, react to, and comment on what has come before.

Before Le Guin can start a story, she says, she must be able to see the landscape and know the principal people by name. The story has to find its voice. Wait for it, and it will give itself to you. Writing, above all, requires patience, a willingness to sit still every day and wait.

The core of this is the same writing advice that all successful writers give: Write every day. Learn your craft and practice. Read a lot. Don’t rush it. Revise. Le Guin’s spin on this advice is thoughtful and different, and it can possibly help make that a-ha! moment happen for aspiring writers.

 

 

Margaret Atwood walks around in a state of wonder…

More great stuff from Margaret Atwood! Brain Pickings shares a short animation that accompanies Atwood’s meditation on how technology shapes storytelling. Worth watching.

Telling family stories

Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems – NYTimes.com by Rachel Cusk. Ignore the headline–this is an amazing essay about the stories we invent for ourselves and our families. We are all storytellers. Sometimes we forget that our children our storytellers too, and have the right to tell their own stories of their lives, rather than abide by ours. 

Why are stories so important?

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. — On Stories, Richard Kearney

To be a person is to have a story to tell. — Isak Dinesen

Once the necessities for survival are taken care of, we humans spend more of our free time immersed in story than doing anything else. Stories about things that aren’t true and people that don’t exist, for the most part. Think about it. We watch movies and television; play video games; read books, comics and cartoons; listen to songs; look at art; see performances of plays, dance and operas; and tell each other stories around the dinner table or the campfire. And we have always done this, since we learned to communicate with one another and figured out how to scratch drawings on a cave wall.

Stories are such a huge part of our lives that we must be hard-wired not only to love them, but to absolutely need them. One of the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of my life is the time I spend with stories, primarily in novel form, reading about events and people that someone else has simply made up. And I can’t really imagine a life worth living without them.

But why are stories so important to us? I don’t think there is any one reason. It seems to me that stories are so necessary because they serve so many critical functions that enable us to survive and thrive as humans, all at once.

First of all, what is a story exactly? It’s as simple as the anecdote you tell your spouse at dinner about the jerk at work and what he did, or the lurid events relayed on the local news. There’s a reason we refer to both of these as “stories.” A story is essentially a series of events on a particular subject related by a person to an audience.

The first function of stories, I think, is to escape the humdrum, routine nature of life. Life, we hope, is long, and often quite a lot of time passes between significant events happening. During that time, we do the dishes, brush our teeth, go to work — all of which is not that interesting. A story collapses these events, leaving out the boring bits. Through story, we can pretend to be somebody else or go somewhere else, without taking on the risks or expense ourselves. We can even do the impossible, like travel through time or explore the universe. Kids play pretend from a very young age, and through various kinds of stories, we never really stop.

This escape factor makes stories highly entertaining. They pass the time. They’re fun. The fun factor enables stories to fulfill their other functions. One of the most basic functions of the story is to teach. We use stories to quickly and easily learn facts; research shows that we retain facts more readily if they are related in narrative form. But stories also teach us how to be.

Human cultures have always reinforced societal norms via storytelling. Through stories we communicate to our children (and to outsiders) how to act toward one another, what we value and what is possible. Stories preserve our own history and culture, passing it along in a form that’s easy to remember to the next generation.

We use stories not only to learn but also to speculative, to pose questions and then find solutions. What would happen if we made contact with an alien race? Stories help us explore all the possibilities. What would be the consequences of cheating on your spouse? Stories help us understand that hypothetical situation as well. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are imagining all our possible futures and, we hope, helping ourselves choose the best ones.

Beyond just speculation about what might happen, we use stories to answer the great unanswerable questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? What does it mean to be human? Stories bring order and meaning to the chaos and randomness of life. A story always has a beginning, middle and end, which is very satisfying to us, since we don’t know how our own personal story will end. And our lives are really a search for our own story, aren’t they?

Finally, stories connect us to one another. Even though we know they are fiction, stories elicit powerful emotional responses in us. While we are immersed in a story, we can see the world through someone else’s eyes. We can know what it’s like to be a poor boy in Delhi or a slave girl in 1700s Virginia or the Queen of England. Sharing our subjective experiences through stories enable us to connect and empathize with one another. By sharing through stories, we are better able to live together.

Because stories can elicit powerful emotional responses, they are powerful tools. They can be used to persuade people and change societies, and they have — with good and bad results. That’s why criticism of stories is essential as well. Our endless discussion of stories — on the Internet, around the water cooler, in other stories — is really an intrinsic part of the storytelling process, as essential as the stories themselves. We should always distrust those who try to suppress our stories — any of them — or our discussion of those stories.

What would happen if we encountered an alien race that did not tell stories, that didn’t even understand what stories were? Would we be able to communicate with them, or relate to them? Hmm, perhaps someone should write a story about that (if they haven’t already).

For more:
The Pleasures of Imagination (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
The Importance of Story (Heroes Not Zombies)