It’s an Emoticon World—But Not for Writers

We all do it these days: slap on a smiley face or a frowny face or a thumbs-up to stand in for a more complex expression of our feelings.

The Tweeter-in-Chief uses just one word—SAD–to represent a whole political diatribe. His other favorite one-worder: FAKE.

We struggle to compress our ideas into 140 characters, or a 500-word blog post, or a chirpy text message.

It’s hard to be a writer going against the grain of this cultural terseness. While the literary establishment, represented in college and graduate school classrooms, continues to venerate longwinded tome-writers—Herman Melville, Henry James, James Joyce, all the 19th century greats like Tolstoy, Dickens and Dumas, or someone like Virginia Woolf, who could spin a whole novel out of a single day—in day to day life we clearly value succinctness. That’s why “flash fiction” is in vogue among the trendier literary set.

In writing, there is a constant delicate balance to be struck between the horizontal art of moving the plot forward, and the vertical art of giving full depth and complexity to the characters and their experience. Too much plot and your characters become flattened out, cartoonish. Too much description and you risk losing the reader’s attention.

Great writers (often with the help of great editors) get this balance just right. Every line, every paragraph, every page moves the plot forward, while at the same time providing us with a constantly expanding understanding of how the characters are processing the events of the story: their emotions, awareness, decisions and regrets.

I have been listening to the audiobook of Brendan Mathews’ new book The World of Tomorrow, which gets this balance just right. It’s rare to find a contemporary author who so perfectly calibrates both axes of writing, keeping the reader always on that sweet spot where forward action meets character development.

Brendan (who happens to be my colleague on the literature faculty of Bard College at Simon’s Rock) chose a roving omniscient narration for his big, multi-character tale; and though the book weighs in at some 600 pages, all the action ostensibly takes place over one week. One week, plus many years’ worth of flashbacks that develop the interlocking stories of how the characters arrived on the same New York “stage” at that particular moment in time.

Questions of narration and temporal arc are essential to wrestle with deeply in the process of writing a novel or memoir. Whose voices are telling the story? Where does the action begin and end, and what backstory must be told in order for us to understand the characters’ emotions and actions in the present?

While we may not need 600 pages to tell a story that does justice to the complexity of human experience, we need a whole lot more than an emoticon.

As a writer you are, in some ways, your own best teacher. Get into the habit of unpacking your own emotions and responses as they happen in real time. Observe others closely, and try to understand how their life experiences have made them who they are.

Keep a writing journal in which you simply sketch stories and characters, like a visual artist would sketch parts of the body before attempting a full-scale portrait.

The hyper-efficient emoticon chorus of our culture would tell you this is a waste of time—get on with it, get the job done!

It is not a waste of time. Brendan Mathews admits with some chagrin that it took him 8 years to write The World of Tomorrow. That was also how long it took me to write my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered. Not a moment of those long years of sketching and writing and pondering and rewriting and delving deeper was wasted.

Give yourself permission to take your time. Enjoy the process. Don’t worry too much about the outcome, the product, the reward. It will come, and it will be dazzling, if you give yourself time and space to do the work well.

Thumbs-up!

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