Writers on Writing #49: Riley H. Welcker
A Word on Writing
In a futile attempt to steer away from sounding philosophical, I will simply say that all writing begins with observation. I agree with Aristotle that writing mimics life; and I agree with Henry James that fiction competes with life, except to say that I disagree that it either mimics or competes with life. It doesn’t compete with life so much as it competes with other points of view on life—mine, yours, everyone’s—nor does it mimic life so much as it interprets life. Mimicry is a far cry from precise representation.
The world is observed through all kinds of eyes and ears and hearts and attitudes. What we observe becomes our experience and our experience becomes our perspective and our perspective becomes our opinion and our opinion becomes the law of every man unto himself, written out and stamped with the seal of authorship. And what is opinion? A prophet once said that “opinion isn’t worth straw.”
I agree. It isn’t worth anything. At least, it isn’t worth much. Straw so happens to be one of the least nutritional means of feeding animals and opinion an even less nutritional means of feeding people. Opinion is cake and it gets thrown around so much I’m not sure any one of us can get through the day without getting plastered with it, especially those of us in literature and creative writing.
No man’s opinion is worth any more than any other man’s opinion and, therefore, no man’s point of view, perspective, or angle of argument is either, which is why the world of words is so broad in its reach, wide in its scope, and different in all of its delicious as well as disgusting details. We observe the world around us. We experience it. And we write about it. Every culture, every subculture, and every man in every sub-cultured culture is different. If it wasn’t so, we wouldn’t find so high of a variety in fiction.
An event happens. Two men observe it. Both write their observation. Two very different stories emerge. Both stories are concerned with the same subject yet both stories present it in uniquely different, if not entirely different, ways.
If writing is not first influenced by observation, then what is it influenced by? Reading? By someone else’s imagination? I hardly believe this is the case. Readers are only influenced by what they read so far as they can relate to it. When something is written outside the space of our physical observation, experience, or memory, the images and meanings behind those words are incomprehensible to our minds. In place of those words we discover a void—a blank—that we soon fill with images of our own making. Why then is every reader’s response different from every other reader’s response? I read a story, you read a story, and we both see the goblin differently.
My son once asked me, “Father, what does a goblin look like?” I couldn’t answer him. How could I have described it to him? Could he imagine the same image I might describe without seeing it for himself? I had read stories with goblins in them, but could I picture them beyond a hazy, sort of vague, image? No. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone else’s drawn depiction of a goblin. I thought, oh, that’s what a goblin is supposed to look like. Hmm. Years later, I realized that image was only one man’s point of view, his perspective—his opinion. Where did he derive it from? Beats me. His experience, maybe? I am certain that the first man to devise the image of a goblin made an observation that was eventually molded and distorted by imagination. I hardly believe the first conception of a goblin was the same image many make of it today. If it has been observed, it can be written about, even warped by the creative imagination, but if it has not been, then it will not appear in the mind to be written about or wrung by the creative imagination.
Writing—and fiction in particular—runs the gamut of human experience. And we connect with what we know. But can’t we experience action or emotion through writing? Sure. We can experience action or emotion inside our mental space if it is something we have first observed or experienced.
The problem is that our network of observations and experiences are often so complex that it is almost impossible to separate ourselves from the connection we make with written words, which convey similar observations and experiences. Do any of us know what pain or pleasure is until we experience it? Is the possibility of anger even fathomable if we have not first felt it? Reading might open our minds to what is possible but what is depicted will largely be a blank in our mental space until it is observed, experienced, acted out, realized, and encased in the memory.
A good writer will observe every detail of life and encase in his memory all that is possible. Observation is essential to good fiction. I believe Henry James said it best: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”
In a futile attempt to finish what I may have lost, I will add that all writing ends with contrivance. All writing is contrived, and I do not believe that it is possible for a piece of fiction to be overly contrived. If I have learned anything about writing, I have learned that what does not exist in the mind of the writer does not exist in the mind of the reader; and furthermore, what is not written on paper, although it may exist in the mind of the writer, does not exist in the mind of the reader. This is, perhaps, obvious after stating it; but then what of those stories that are pocked with missing information when they are written? If this principle is so obvious, why should a writer leave anything undone? If this principle is so obvious, what is the reason for any undeveloped work of fiction? A lack of a sense of what the reader will perceive? Some may argue that.
I argue, however, that it is impossible to know what the reader will perceive. The reader isn’t the writer; and the writer can never be his own reader; for he will certainly fill in any missing information in his head when he reads his own work, for laziness if not for the inability to recognize what he has written; and it is here that I must admit my own fault as I do not always recognize what I have written or, if I do, I am not always inclined to make the changes it may require.
Nevertheless, if a writer does not know the ins and outs of his own work, then he does not know his own work, which leads me to suggest that the reason a writer leaves out necessary information in any story is that the principle is not obvious to him. If it was, every last aspirant would be a fantastic writer. To leave anything out that a story requires is nothing more than a distasteful demand for mindreading, an impossible task for the reader. Often the problem stems from our desire for subtlety, our desire to allow the reader to think whatever he wants about our work. True, a reader will interpret a work, believing he understands what it is that he is reading and that he understands the writer’s mind, but it is still interpretation and a writer should not encourage, by any stretch of the imagination, interpretation born out of ambiguity. It smacks of something insidious, dark, and foul. Viciously foul. I see nothing wrong with being instantly obvious. What is wrong with being honest with a reader? Nothing.
In any case, a reader must be led soundly from one point to another if he is to follow what he is reading. The reader is entirely at the mercy of the writer. The writer, therefore, should know what he wants to achieve and how he will set about to achieve it. A good writer conceives of everything in his story. This, however, does not mean a writer should conceive of everything all at once—this would destroy the delight of surprise—but he should not be unaware of anything while he is writing. He should have a sense of what his work is doing holistically at the same time a sense of what his work is doing particularly. He should be aware of its direction, its nuance, and its possibility. Anything that is missing will continue to be missed by the reader. So a writer must know step by step what he is doing and where it is leading. When a writer understands the point and purpose of his work of fiction and sets about to craft it, when a writer knows what he is doing as he does it, his writing will be unmistakably complete.
Inventing a structure and writing to that structure allows the writer to maintain control of what he is doing. It allows him to conceive of characters, relationships, actions, and plot points before his work gets underway. I might even say that this is his work. A good writer will first structure a story. To write to that structure is merely to fill in the blanks. Some might argue this would make stories overly contrived. I disagree. It is impossible for any story to be overly contrived. Besides, what could possibly be wrong with any story that is overly contrived? We should be troubled not by something overly contrived but by anything less.
A story that is tightly controlled is in control of its reader. A story that is not tightly controlled is in control of its writer, and any story that is in control of its writer will throttle, maim, and perplex him. He will be lost to puzzlement and wonder, not knowing whither he should go or what he should do; and so he will sit in front of a blank sheet of paper and stare.
But what of free artistic expression!
I argue that free artistic expression is only the germ of creation. Once something is created, it is bound by itself. It is bound by the laws by which it is organized. Once creation is set into motion it is regulated by its own rules. Every piece of information further restricts the artistic boundaries of a creative work until it is brought into perfect order, and where there is perfect order there is perfect harmony and where there is perfect harmony there is a perfect blend between creation and law. Creation without law is chaos, but law without creation is no law at all. The writer, therefore, must be copiously conscious and actively perceptive of what he is putting into words.
In my view, a story must be perfectly contrived. It is catastrophe that the word “contrived” is considered to carry a negative cultural connotation. Contrived fiction is not the problem nor is it with overly contrived fiction—overly, if “overly” is even possible, contrived fiction speaks of superior authorship—no, it is the way in which it is contrived. No work of fiction can be overly contrived. The problem that arises is predictability. When a story is too predictable from point to point from beginning to end, there is no interest in it. A story must depart from its logical conclusion in order to ensure tension between what should logically occur in the story and what is actually occurring.
I borrow this idea from N.J. Lowe. Lowe suggests that “the tension between our twin internal models of the story is the source of the dynamic and affective element in plot. What we, as readers, want is for our temporal and atemporal models of the story to coincide; and all the while we read, we are actively on the lookout for ways in which they will ultimately converge.” He also states that “by controlling the flow of information about the story, the narrative text can to a large extent control the way…the disparities …are constructed in the act of reading….Our desire for harmony between our two dissonant…story models makes us vulnerable to sustained and purposeful affective manipulation.”
In other words, a writer should make an initial agreement with a reader through some character action or event that the reader knows will logically conclude in some other action or event. After the initial agreement is made, the story should depart from its next move, the logical conclusion, and follow some detour of actions or events to the furthest point from the logical conclusion that the story can handle before snapping back toward the logical conclusion, at which point, or soon after, the story should end. For example, the writer begins his story at point A (the agreement), sidesteps to point B (the dramatic bulge), and slides back to point C (the logical conclusion), like a runner dodging his opponents around the diamond. This space between what is happening (the divergence to point B) and what should be happening logically (the direct line between A and C) is the space that Lowe defines as “dissonance.” This dissonant space is the space of tension.
For me, it is a new discovery. Although it was something I sensed, I could never put my finger on it. A highly-contrived story, I believe, will not be predictable when it departs from its initial agreement and charts a course different from that which is logically conclusive. The disharmony between what is and what should be is the disharmony that produces what, I believe, many mistakenly call artistic possibility and free expression. It is not, however, the space of artistic possibility and free expression; it is controlled dissonance. This dissonant space is the life of the story. It is where everything interesting happens. It is where we find suspense, drama, action. It is through highly-contrived dissonance that a writer arrests his reader, clinging to the cliff face of discord, and keeps him reaching, stretching after the rope ladder of concord, for the next moment that will bring him relief.
When a writer is diligently and consciously aware of what he is doing when he is doing it from beginning to end, he has control of his craft; and when he has control of his craft, he is in control of his mind; and when he is in control of his mind, he is in control of himself. A man must not allow himself to wander when he writes or his writing will be nonsensical. He must carefully organize his thoughts, put them down in a highly-contrived way, and follow through in order to manipulate and control his reader. This kind of control is my ideal. This kind of control is what I aspire to.
Riley H. Welcker has many stories, essays, and poems bulging from his briefcase. He holds a BS in business, a BA in English, and is currently an MFA student at the University of Texas at El Paso. His work has appeared in numerous publications including the Oklahoma Review, The Montreal Review, The Mindful Word, Mandala Journal, Whispering Prairie Press, the Taj Mahal Review, and Syndic Literary Journal.