We all know that reading can change us. A fine book can illuminate a dark corner of the heart, spur us to action, or open us to ideas hitherto ignored.
Does writing change the writer?
Nonfiction has always been easy and enjoyable for me. I love to interview and do the research. Stirring up the assimilated material until a perfect lede bubbles to the top is a delight.
Plus, I get paid to learn.
Earlier this week, I tromped around a scruffy acre of organic farmland. It stood as an oasis of wildlife in the middle of a semi-rural neighborhood. With pen in hand, I scribbled notes and followed a young man who has spent the last three years trying to make a living with the crops he grows in this small space.
The interview was for a column called, "Food for thought," a regular feature in a monthly publication distributed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This is the second time I’ve written the column. Last month’s topic was New Mexico’s apple industry and its relationship to the rest of the world.
In accepting these assignments, I didn’t anticipate the effect they would have on my world view. Suddenly, I’m beginning to think about where and how people get their food, about the cost of that "organic" tomato from Chile, or how many of our tax dollars (and dubious labor practices) subsidize a cheap potato.
If my nonfiction writing affected me this way, was it possible that my fiction did too?
Sure, on a professional level, I’ve changed. I’m more adept at editing myself, more disciplined about writing. I think about story arcs, plotting, finding just the right words.
I’ve abandoned the romance of inspiration. Faced with zero ideas, I’ll now force myself through hours of slogging to get a good sentence or two.
But this is probably true of any nonfiction author with more than one book under her belt.
Is there anything special about fiction that can change a writer — in a different way?
I think, for me, the answer is "yes."
I’ve been forced to stick with characters and people I don’t like far longer than in a short story. I’ve had to commit. Writing book-length fiction has taught me to fantasize with purpose, to push through dilettantism.
Above my computer now hangs a quotation from Shunryu Suzuki: "You try and you try and you fail, and then you go deeper."
Yep, that’s me.
The biggest change I’ve noticed is, somehow, I’ve developed a philosophy. This wasn’t intentional. It simply happened.
Years ago, an acquaintance of mine who writes literary fiction told me she writes to change the world. Frankly, I thought that was audacious.
Then, I felt guilty because all I really wanted to do was entertain. Where was the nobility in that?
Now, after finishing my third saleable manuscript (it’s my fifth completed one), I still want to entertain. But, I also want to do more.
To use the word mission sounds a bit too heavy-handed, off-putting, bang-the-reader-over-the head. However, I’ve realized lately that I do have underlying goals that have evolved specifically because of my fiction.
Here’s what I’ve added to that initial objective.
I want to
1. introduce my New Mexico to readers.
2. dispel stereotypes about NM.
3. explore important themes in such a way that those that want to find them, can. And those who don’t want to see them, don’t have to. (CLOVIS = family dysfunction/bad communication BELEN = religiosity vs. spirituality SOCORRO = the reality of how we relate to each other since 9/11).
4. um . . . to change the world.
I didn’t know I wanted to do any of these things when I originally started writing novels. All I knew then was that I liked Sasha and wanted to see where she’d go. I prayed that readers would enjoy her and want to take the journey, too.
It amazes me that in the process of telling her stories I’ve begun to realize there’s so much more to mine.
Now I want to read SOCORRO even more. Over the last half-year, I’ve come to realize how much 9/11 changed some of my habits and perceptions.
And for those, like me, who don’t know ‘lede’, it’s the first sentence or two of a news story. The word was adopted by newspapers, when they were still set in lead (the metal), so they wouldn’t confuse it with the word lead (beginning) of the story. I had to Google it as ‘lede’ wasn’t in my favorite dictionaries (both print and online).
B.G.,Sorry about that with “lede.” That’s the way I learned the word . . .
I do think you’ll enjoy SOCORRO. While it’s written in Sasha’s intelligent and witty voice, it really examines these changes on a microcosmic scale. Post-9/11, I believe our fundamental assumptions about each other have changed. We’re much quicker as a society to jump to conclusions and to suspect each other of wrongdoing.
Since Sasha is in the reputation-management business, she’s acutely aware of this trend.
One of the reasons it took me so long to get SOCORRO where I wanted it was because I had to make sure the tone remained true to the series — in spite of the potentially more serious subject matter.
My agent, and Deni who looked at it with fresh eyes as an editor, both assure me it has.
Pari, wonderful post. I wish I had this level of insight when it comes to my own work. I’m learning so much from you. Thank you!
Pari, there’s nothing to be sorry about — I learned a new word. And it’s not often that m-w.com doesn’t have a word defined. That was the best part!
I write goals and objectives in my journal all the time! I really don’t have them in the forefront of my mind. It is nice to revisit them later, however.
I think I’ve changed as I try to look at the world through the eyes of my character. Just yesterday, I went through the lingerie section of my local Target as my character-in-progress, a 13-year-old, would do. It was quite illuminating. I observed relationships between fathers and daughters, girls with their girl posses, etc. I felt my world was expanding.
J.T.,It’s odd how introspective I am on this blog. Maybe my training as a therapist is coming out. I really had no idea how much my fiction had changed me until I started thinking about it this week.
Which brings me to Naomi’s comment. We do end up seeing the world through our protagonist’s eyes — practicing that perception. Your description of going to someplace and looking with a 13-year-old’s perspective is marvelous.
That’s yet another way our fiction affects us. Sasha is much more brass-tacks than I am. Frankly, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t put some of the more negative things about towns in my books. Heck, as a writer I don’t want to alienate anyone. But, Sasha is working when she gets to those towns. In order to be true to the story, I have to honor her negative perceptions as well as the positive ones.
The best thing about Sasha is that she always ends up liking the place — no matter how she perceived it in the beginning.
Given Sasha’s profession – I think you’ve done a marvelous job of showing how she is charged with diseminating a project in order to find the best way to promote. Through her eyes (and yours)- readers have a fuller understanding of that old ‘ying and yang’-and a much deeper vision of Sasha herself. So, dear Pari – you’ve not only ‘entertained’-but you’ve made her human and that in itself-is a noble accomplishement.
I agree with Elaine. I love Sasha.
She’s even more human in SOCORRO. Now is that lousy period when you know the book is good, but it’s got a long way to go before it hits the streets.