I stopped myself from putting a question mark after this post's title – because I want to state what matters, not ask you, dear reader, the question. I came across a quote on the old fbook that went like this:
"Write like it matters, and it will." (Libby Bray). (h/t Patti Parkinson)
This connects to a lot of my thinking over the last two weeks, or ten years, either and both. Why do I write what I write, and does it matter? For sure, certain authors (Richard Ford) have been asking and telling me: why write stuff that doesn't matter to you? In other words, don't write for the market, write for yourself. Write the book you want to read.
But what if I want to read about skateboarding zombies with laser eyes and the ghosts that fight them. Hmm, wait a sec, jotting that one down. Plot ideas for next novel...
Well, I guess the question is: does what you are writing matter to you? And then the corollary always is: does it matter to anyone else?
So don't get me wrong. I love reading from all kinds of genres. Joe Lansdale's crime-fiction series with Hap and Leonard are some of my favorite novels. And I've long been a huge fan of all things Tolkien, and PK Dick continues to be an influence in ways I don't even understand. So when I say "matters" don't get all hoighty-toighty, and reach for your Henry James and Dostoyevsky... just hold on there pardner (hmm, L'Amour wrote a lot of fine books, too) – in terms of matters, I mean, do you care about this? If you don't, then why are you writing it?
Over the holidays I reacquainted myself with Flannery O'Connor. And by reacquainted, I mean obsessed on. (See: DeLillo, Marquez, Carver, Ford, Saunders and Munro, for other examples of previous "acquaintances") Someone gifted me her book of letters, the Habit of Being (pubbed after her death... no I can't spell posthumousyl).
As I delved into it, I realized here was a person diagnosed at an early age with a terminal disease, who went on to write some of the best fiction of the 20th Century - and man, does her work matter. I'd read her before, loved Wise Blood, quoted a Good Man is Hard to Find too often (She would have been a good woman if there had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life), and had certainly read a number of her other stories. But somehow her stories struck me anew. The work was beautifully rendered, the writing exquisite in its clarity, and wonderful in character and storytelling. But what nailed me was its ferocity.
I picked up The Complete Stories (winner of National Book Award, also post-h, and named the best of 50 years of National Book Awards), and I started to read and re-read her fiction. One thing I loved was reading a letter about a certain story, and then reading that story, and then going back to the letter. It's hard for me to articulate the inspiration I found in her writing - but ferocity comes close.
Ms. Snark/Janet Reid had a great post recently (h/t to my friend Mark Conard), where she talked about wanting to read something that made her gasp. I knew exactly what she meant. The last book that really had me gasping was Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad. So when I got nailed by O'Connor's, The Artificial Nigger, the gasp reminded me that it had been a long time since the last gasp.
When the grandfather denies that he knows his own grandson in an intense moment, the onlookers in the scene audibly gasp (or so I imagine) – I did too. What struck me here, was reading a piece of fiction that had an impact beyond sheer storytelling (though, I don't want to underplay that value). The whole "human condition" thing has been repeated to the point of parody, or at least boredom. As in: you need to write work that espouses what can be known of the human condition, that which we collectively hold together in our Jungian consciousness.
Whoa. That's pretty fucking deep right there. Especially the part about espousing, and that Jung stuff. Note to self: stop being so pretentious and finish the post, Craig. Also, I don't think that's a proper use of espouse - but it's a helluva word anyway.
You were waiting for the digression weren't you?
Anyway, read the Artificial Nigger - or just about any of her stories, and I think you will see what I'm talking about. Writing what matters is about taking the work seriously, no matter what the genre or subject matter is. I found when I wrote Surf City Acid Drop, my nod to the 70s detective novel, that I set out to write a fast paced, drinking, shooting, fighting, and more drinking type novel (yes, I did call it beer-fiction at one point). What surprised me in writing the main character, Luke Fischer, was that I wanted to know more about him. Where did he come from? Why did he do the things he did? Who really was this guy, and what was he about?
Wait a sec... holy crap, I'm espousing the human condition!
So yes, I discovered that Luke Fischer mattered to me - and still does - even more so in the follow-up I am writing to Surf City.
But to finish off, it was the O'Connor work that reminded me of what matters to me as a writer. She lived every ounce of her life, and all she believed and cared about, was poured into her fiction (and her letters and essays). She was on the planet for much too short a time (she died at 39), but her impact is immeasurable. I know she has made me think deeply about the words I am writing, and why I'm choosing those - why this story, and why at this time?
It is quite something for a writer, one who has been gone for as long as I have been alive, to affect me all these years later. What a gift she left behind.
Here is a link to the beginning of the doc on her life, Uncommon Grace (that I can't seem to find the rest of - please let me know if you know where I can find it.)