Today’s post is by editor and author Joe Ponepinto (@JoePonepinto).
Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.
That’s from an essay written by Richard Russo a couple of decades ago. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I read stories in the submission queue, especially those by newer writers. I can tell they want to say something profound in their fiction. Why not? If you can write something that makes readers take notice, that makes them sit up from their reading and say, “Wow, that’s so true,” it could mean publishing success is not far off.
But many writers go about it the wrong way. Since they want to say something big and universal, they tend to write their stories in the universal. They create settings and characters that adopt the traits of universal subjects, which is to say they become flat and generalized, homogenized into composites. Sometimes the characters in such stories seem written to represent a particular side in a philosophical or social discussion. In reality, though, those “big” topics are so complex and nuanced that they can’t be described efficiently and adequately enough in a short story. The result then is a narrative filled with characters and scenes that don’t connect with readers, and a message that sounds artificial and predictable.
So how can writing about something small illustrate the great truth you have in mind?
First, stop worrying about conveying “great truths.” If there is a truth in your story it will become apparent in a subtle way, allowing the reader to discover it instead of being lectured about it. Better to concern yourself with the smaller truths about human nature, which are just as universal, and often far more satisfying to readers because they are easier to identify with. Let’s create an example.
Imagine a reader in New York City, reading about a character in a rural setting. Their lifestyles, interests, economics are vastly different. But could there be some common ground? That rural guy feels the same way about his relationships and problems as the reader in New York does, whatever the nature of the relationships and problems may be. Describing the specific details of his existence brings those feelings to the surface, provided they are described in such a way as to connect the details to character desire and motivation.
Here’s an example from Breece Pancake’s “In the Dry”:
The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door.
Inside smells of ages and chicken fried in deep fat and he smiles to think of all his truckstop pie and coffee. In the kitchen, Sheila and her mother work at the stove, but they stop of a sudden. They look at him, and he stands still.
I can’t begin to tell you how foreign every detail of that passage sounds at first. I’ve never been to that part of the country, never seen a field of tobacco in person, never attended a whoop-dee-doo. (I did, however, play horseshoes with my grandfather when I was a kid.) And yet I’m right there with Ottie as he takes it in. These things are as natural and important to him as my neighborhood progressive dinners are to me, and that’s a shared experience I can identify with and learn from. Notice the vernacular: a sociable, sin crop, eight-grand jobs. Each of those terms isn’t so much a description as a way of thinking about the object—the gathering is a “sociable,” tobacco is a “sin crop”—and from that we develop an understanding of Ottie’s and his relatives’ values. I’ve never been to this place, but I can see it, and see myself in it, even though Pancake used far fewer words than most emerging writers would have.
And there’s the magic—by expressing the world in specific terms that are natural to the character, the writer creates a sense of identity not with what the character sees, but with what it means, and the fact that we all have a similar need to find value in our ways of living begins to bridge the divides of place and status and race and sexual orientation and our other differences. Offering those details in generalized terms that are disconnected from character doesn’t do that. That’s the real great truth of fiction—it has the potential to connect us in a way that modern media, social and otherwise, doesn’t, because it speaks to the heart of what matters, not the exterior.
Joe Ponepinto is a senior editor at Orca, A Literary Journal, and the owner of 55 Fathoms book publishing. He’s the author of the novels Mr. Neutron and Curtain Calls. He writes, edits, and teaches in western Washington.