5 min read

Respecting the art

I write fiction, and I worry that I don't respect my 'art' enough.

I don't have a special space or time or app set aside for writing. I don't have isolation. I don't have a block on my calendar. I'm sitting at a laptop in my living room, with family speaking into the room at random about cute cats on the Internet, brutal murders, and the Battle of the Overpass. I've got YouTube tabs open in the background—paused, not playing. I pay that much attention. I write on my computer in a plain Google Doc. I used to use Focus Writer. Later I found I'd have to upload it to Google Docs eventually so anyone reading to give feedback could actually give it, and so I thought I might as well start there. It feels brutally practical. At least the fonts give the writing documents a bit of character.

I write half paying attention. I don't remember all the details of what I've written and I don't take the time to reread it all before adding another line. I remember the general gist and if I didn't I wouldn't bother adding to the story. But eye colors, forget it.

I write every day, but many days I write just one sentence. I write in such a piecemeal way that I never know if what I'm writing will come together. I never know if it all makes sense together. I never know how the characters feel on the page. I don't know if any of it is going to make sense by the time I'm done.

And really that "shouldn't be a problem." I write short stories. I'm not writing novels. There's no reason I shouldn't know. I could read each draft in thirty minutes at a stretch. But if I reread every time, I'd be spending hours more of my life rereading rather than actually writing. And if I reread at all, I'd have to confront my feelings about what I've written.

While I'm drafting a story, that story always feels like shit. That's not true — some rare times it feels like magic. Most of the time it doesn't feel like shit. But most of the time it feels boring. I think, what does this character even want? Is he more than a hazy silhouette of fifty characters I've read before? I don't know how car engines work—why am I writing about them? What is the point of this story? What am I saying? What do I want the reader to feel? Where's the intentionality?

That's another sore point, intentionality. I understand I'm supposed to express something when I write. I'm sorry to say I don't do that, and the stories read as such. I've been told on a story or two that they felt all over the place, and I'm inclined to agree. A lot of my earlier stories I wrote feel exactly like that. Situations are set up and resolved quickly and there are a lot of them. Other scenes don't have a situation or conflict at all, and are simply passed over or through. It's unclear what anything means. The characters are the only thing tying everything together. If the story had stronger characters and a clear episodic structure, that might even work. I think I've gotten better at this. I still don't ever intend to express anything when I write.

I'm not against writing with intention. I'd love to write something purposely. But as soon as I think, it's going to be about this—that's when I get bored with the story. It seems to collapse down to, how do I make it about that thing. Whatever crazy idea I started with, now—it feels to me, in the grip of Knowing The Thing This Story Is About—it's all got to build toward The Thing. And now I can't just throw whatever into the story feels appropriate. Now I've got to make a Plan, also known as an Outline.

So now I've got an Outline. And you've got to stick to an Outline, right? I thought it was a good idea at the time. I ought to see it through. So I won't write anything inconsistent with it. But I also won't write the outline because it's boring. It makes too much damn sense. There's nothing unexpected or surprising—that's all been pushed out to make it possible to write an outline. So now I've got a problem: To write with a purpose I make an outline, which I don't like, so now I have an outline I don't like that I can't part from, and the story dies.

But the thing is, a story should make a little bit of sense, right? If it doesn't make any sense, if it's all colorless green ideas sleeping furiously, then why even bother calling it a story? This isn't a job for a writer, this is a job for a Markov model. It can do the job better than me, faster, cheaper. Maybe you want ChatGPT to rewrite the nonsensical end result so it follows English grammar rules—fine, but it doesn't change the process.

If it was just imagery I wanted, or sound, I'd write a poem. I do that sometimes, too, and struggle with that for somewhat different reasons. It's a fine genre, but I know it far less well than prose fiction. The stories I want to write, I can write better as prose than as poetry.

So if writing prose fiction is about Expressing Something, then I don't seem to be doing a good job of that, other than maybe "This stream of molten brass is cool, isn't it?" And I guess that's fair enough. But I can't help but feel I should set my sights a little higher. It feels trivial. I could, in theory, write with intention. Shouldn't I?

A lot of stories I love seem intentional. They seem to mean something. They exist for more than entertainment. Undertale and Deltarune are like this. The Magnus Archives is like this. Doki Doki Literature Club is like this. Worm is like this. Outer Wilds is like this. They're fun stories, and they're more than fun. They have heart, and that's what makes them beautiful.

I don't know if these stories were meant from the start to have the hearts they do. Maybe they started with bad hearts later strengthened. Maybe they got transplants. Whatever it is, they didn't end up as they are by accident. Their creators cared to make them as they are. They explore their themes too fully, I think, for those themes to be accidental—unless they were embraced and strengthened after the fact. But that's just another kind of intentionality.

If I don't write with intention, if I don't treat writing as important, if I don't pay attention to what I'm doing, and if I don't give writing the time it deserves—can I honestly say I respect the medium? How can I respect my own work if I don't respect the process?