Writing as Instructive—for both me and the audience

Writing as Instructive—for both me and the audience

Janet Burroway says—in Writing Fiction—that Fiction’s job is to state a problem correctly.  Not to solve the world’s problems, not to tell people the right answer; no, writing needs to point out something worth examining—a problem on some level—and suggest how the people detailed in the story would respond.  In this way, fiction teaches people a solution (not THE solution).  Writing also teaches the writer how to work through a problem of his or her own.

When I started writing as an undergrad, I followed the rule of thumb all writers have at least heard of: write what you know.  Under this idea, I wrote stories that acted as a tape recorded for an interesting situation: what’s it like to listen to a couple of guys talking about their gay lives?  What types of issues affected young relationships—in terms of experience, not age (though either called out for attention)?  What holds together or drives apart the members of a family?  Issues like these proved interesting to work with because I wasn’t seeing fiction that covered them the way I lived them.  (Admittedly, in my laziness, I wasn’t looking very hard.)  Because of my lack of exposure to such content, I believed I was crafting something novel, something groundbreaking—particularly in the case of 20-somethings finding their way in the “gay world” I was new to.

Thinking that taking a snap shot of my world was enough was part of the reason so much of my early work failed.  One of the other reasons: in just scratching the surface, I wasn’t concerned with a specific problem nor was I good at developing what the problem really was.

So part of the reason my writing was falling short involved my lack of reading; specifically reading current fiction—of course fiction from the Victorian era didn’t reflect some of my life concerns.

The other issue was that I was looking at the feelings set off by some issue rather than confronting the issue itself.  I did this by not-so-subtly basing male characters on me.  Doing this limited my ability to actually examine a character because I didn’t have to: I felt I knew the character already.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests that when we write about something as openly and honestly as possible, it offers hope.

After I read Lamott’s engaging book on writing, my work took a new, more focused direction.  I spent more time on my subject matter, trying my best to develop issues I was having—be it relationships with boyfriends or friends in general—so that I might better examine the moving parts.  Instead of existing as the conduit for the events to unfold—author as tape recorder—I took a more active role in shaping the incidents in the story and works to develop how the events affected the characters involved (not just on one but rather ALL of them).  Doing this often illuminated aspects I could not see when I was in the center of it—basically when the story was designed to reflect my impression of something that had already happened.

To make the new direction my work took, I had to do a better job constructing characters that were real people rather than thinly veiled carbon copies of me.  I built in qualities that drove me crazy or things I admired in people.  Either one would help me see why something rubbed me the wrong way or whether or not a certain trait was really worth emulating.

I still set out to write these types of stories, and in this spirit, writing what I know has become writing what I observe or writing what I can research.  The journey of discovery here is the real reward, something I hope readers appreciate.  And this is what inspires me to continue to write.


  1. #1 by priceswrite on April 12, 2012 - 4:03 pm

    I often tell people that writing is cheaper than therapy. And I’m only half-joking. It is a way for me to explore issues – sometimes mine, sometimes things I’ve observed in others – and gain some insight and understanding. And I think – I hope – that is a gift we also pass along to our audience.

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