What is your duty as a writer?
I used to think my duty was to publish my story my way. There are many writerly voices out there who seem to advise this. Don’t write for the market, write for yourself. Write what you know and tell your story.
When this approach seemed to leave me somewhat readerless, my story unsold (and therefore untold), I realized that thanks to social media we’re drowning in people telling their stories their ways.
And why would anyone care overly much about my story anyway? They have their own stories to live. So, I tried to do the opposite for a while.
I tried to tell other people’s stories the way other people hopefully wanted to read them. That didn’t work either. Not for me, anyway.
In the first place, it struck me as more of me talking without listening, and in the second, I simply couldn’t muster the sustained enthusiasm necessary to bring someone else’s novel to fruition.
So what is it we’re supposed to do? What is our duty as writers?
In my weekly goal meetings at Delve Writing, we’ve been discussing the book Contagious by Jonah Berger. It’s about the things that make ideas and stories so compelling and indelible that people feel they simply must share them. The topic this week dealt with emotion, and the emotions that most provoke sharing.
Berger named awe as one of the most powerful (and contagious) emotions. He defined it–quoting Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt–as “the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself.”
And that clicked for me. Indeed, it struck me as one of the absolute best definitions of what we writers could be doing. It also struck me as a keen description of what some of the most successful writers regularly do.
They provoke awe. They amaze and humble and elevate. They surprise and delight. They expand our world, making us feel both vaster and more miniscule by comparison.
By that I don’t mean we writers need to put a god on every page or an apocalypse in every paragraph, but rather that we should fill our work with moments which inspire, captivate, and transport us.
Rather than serving our own needs by telling a story only we find interesting, or trying to make a story suit the imaginary needs of imagined others, what if we were to commit our time in equal parts–one part to discovering new and remarkable things that we can share, and one part to sharing them in vivid and evocative ways?
The writer in this sense should not just be a transcriber of plots, but also a seeker after the profound and mysterious. We must listen and explore until we ourselves are truly amazed and only then share what we’ve found.
Following that notion, here are three ways we might summon up awe.
#1: Reveal Truths
I am often fascinated by microscopes and telescopes and x-ray machines. It feels like magic to me to make something obscure or far away suddenly visible and plain. In the same way that a microscope can show us the universe in the proverbial grain of sand, we writers can carry our readers deep into interior or foreign worlds. If we treat the journey not only as a means to move a plot forward but also as a journey into the uncharted souls of our characters or of their private or fantastic worlds, I think we stand a good chance of provoking awe, and thus serving our readers something fresh and laden with value.
However, we will never be able to pull this off convincingly if we don’t spend a significant amount of time delving past the placid surfaces of the world and wondering what lies beneath.
Awe isn’t some cheap commodity we can purchase with a fanciful turn of phrase. It must be bought and paid for with our commitment to explore and understand.
The awe in a Jane Austen novel comes not from any grand action but from the insightful way she laid bare a society, while also piercing the flesh of that society and showing us the inner human workings beneath it. I doubt she just sat down and made that all up. Surely she investigated it deeply and observed it thoroughly first.
#2: Place veils
Yes, we love to penetrate mysteries, but only if they’re truly mysterious to begin with. Before you let us in, give us a sense of why we want or even need to be there. Rather than a single closed door we spend the whole book jogging toward, place a mazework of veils between us and revelation, so that we might experience building awe with every turn, and enjoy the agony and ecstasy of wondering as we move closer to the big reveal.
I had a writing teacher in college who said the most basic form of literature was the mystery story–and indeed that all great stories must be mysteries. Certainly the emotion of awe is triggered by surprise, but we only sit back slack-jawed and amazed when we realize that every single veil we passed through was part of a single overarching fabric–a lovingly crafted labyrinth designed to build our wonder every step of the way.
It seems to me that most amateur writers either make situations too bland as they strive for believability or too impossible as they strive for impact. That said, the middle ground is not necessarily in the middle of those two poles.
George RR Martin’s magnificent A Song of Ice and Fire provokes so much awe not simply because he’s unafraid to kill some of our favorite characters, or even because he’s able to make some of the worst villains into heroes. Rather, he intensifies every scene and every moment–even the blandest–by nesting them within incredibly intricate layers. There are the politics and battles of several competing houses in Westeros. Each of these is spurred by deep interpersonal dynamics and intimately revealed human arcs. There is the constant rising threat of darkness and terror coming from the north. There is the hard personal journey and rising power of an exiled former princess in the east. All of it is wedged so tightly together that any slight movement in one place threatens to unsettle the whole.
For our purposes, the lesson is simply that we should not hurry too fast into our writing that we neglect the world around our story. Investigate its complexities and impose these complications on your scenes. (That said, until Martin finishes the series completely, it remains to be proven whether he can pull off so much complexity.)
So…what is the duty of the writer?
Perhaps this: first to seek out that which can expand all of our worlds–either deep meaningful truths or lofty fantastic visions or both, and then deliver them to us through a mazework of veils and layers.
This may sound like a tall order, and it is, but shouldn’t it be? The world of social media has made everyone a publisher and every voice a part of the noise. Our duty as writers has to be to rise above that and share our awe. If you haven’t found your own yet, then perhaps the first best step is to seek it out.