Before I began writing full time, I was a production potter. I strove to create beautiful work that was also functional. For me, beauty and function have never been separate ideals. A pitcher that is easy to lift and pours a smooth stream of liquid without dripping is beautiful for how it becomes an extension of the hand, an aid to human intent and ability. Beauty, likewise, has its own unique function: to make us happy, to carry us beyond the mundane details of our daily lives, to engage our souls and help them briefly soar.
During my days as an MFA student studying creative writing, a beloved instructor gave me the following advice: “It’s all about the writing.” Focus on the writing, she said, and the rest will follow. She’s a brilliant writer and a kind and generous soul, so I believed her. But I now believe that I took those words of hers too literally, as in, ONLY the writing is important. In today’s publishing climate, this is not the case–if, in fact, it ever was.
I’m not only referring to the fact that agents and publishers want to know if you have 1) a “platform” (i.e. some claim to fame beyond the writing, preferably still related to the writing) from which they can help you to launch your writing, 2) if you have a blog, 3) how many Facebook friends you have, and 4) how many Twitter followers.
No, I think what I’m talking about is the fact that readers crave beautiful writing, yes, but they also want good, solid characterization, they want a functional story. And why shouldn’t they? I want those things in my reading, too. Writing beautiful descriptive passages has never been a problem for me. I’ve got that pretty much nailed. But it isn’t enough to keep a story hanging together. It isn’t enough to fully transport the reader.
I’m a stubborn person. I know this about myself. For those of you who follow such things, I’m a Taurus, so yeah, bullheaded and all that. But I can be taught. I can learn. And what I have learned from my novel currently out on submission is that it is “beautifully written,” and that I am a “wonderful writer”…and yet… somehow it isn’t fully capturing the reader. It doesn’t quite deliver that fictive world that readers want to inhabit for 200 pages.
I’ve spent weeks revising with this in mind, that it isn’t only about the writing. It is also about the character and what he/she wants more than anything in the world. It’s about the experiences in life that brought her to this critical crossroads and inform the choices she makes, good or bad, from here on out. And it’s about how she is changed, and by extension how the readers is changed, before the final page is turned.
I feel like I get it now. I finally, finally understand. And so I’m taking all that beautiful writing and making it just a little bit more functional. A little less likely to drip when poured. I can hardly wait to send it out and see.
8 responses to “It’s All About the Writing”
Beautiful post, Mary.
A great analogy. Reminds me of Phillip Gerrard’s essay about the architecture of the novel: it is like a cathedral, beautiful and functional.
Your illustration about the pitcher being an extension of the hand tells me why I hate gallon milk jugs. Lovely point made there.
I really needed to read exactly this right now, as I’m about to significantly rewrite/revise a novel I’ve set aside for a couple of months.
Thanks, Andrew! And thanks for reading. 🙂
I love that analogy, Susan. Flying Buttresses of the world, unite!
Thanks, Nancy! I agree about those clunky milk jugs.
Good luck, Anjali!!