A novel I read a couple of months ago is still with me.
The backstory gradually emerged throughout the novel. The past undergirding a present-day story was intricate, ominous and convoluted. Aptly enough, that backstory took place on a lighthouse island, the sea around often cloaked in fog.
I strained to understand that backstory, an experience like trying to catch sight of a boat through the mists of Lake Superior. In a sense, all that makes for good fiction—that sense of something emerging, trying to figure it out.
However, in our culture we have a great deal of struggle with whole idea of things emerging. We like to think that something either exists or does not. We don’t think of all that is around—and within—as what comes to be, exists a while, and then fades away.
We want it to be simpler than that—things either are or are not.
Think about the debate on abortion and trying to fix when life begins. Historically there have been many answers—at quickening, or when a heartbeat can be heard, at conception. Maybe it’s when the mother begins to relate to what is happening in her womb as a baby rather than a health status. She should know, shouldn’t she?
And think about mass shootings. Apparently, research shows they’re the end result of a process—first a grievance, then an evolving mix of envisioning/planning/procuring, and finally the execution of the act. Mass shootings don’t just happen, there’s a consistent process as to how they emerge, each stage amplified or diminished by contextual variables.
Undoubtedly, countless potential shootings are somewhere in this process as you read this. Some will reach the tragic end state, some will not. When does society have a responsibility to intervene in that emergent process? Should we carefully consider grievances, work to resolve them just to keep the process from starting? Nah, there are too many in our frustrating, yet entitled world. By default, we seem to just wait until they occur and shoot the shooter.
Oops, I feel a digression coming on ... An eye for an eye just leaves two people half blind, impaired in both depth and peripheral vision. From that ancient adage of paying back harm for harm, different ways of considering morality and ethics thankfully have emerged. Well, at least for some of us anyway.
Getting back to the point … the unique problem that the USA has with gun violence emerges from a complexity of factors— a not-so-glorious founding history of racism and appropriation, cherished capitalist profit pushing the arming industry to thrive through political potentiation, a present culture emphasizing personal rights and entitlement over personal responsibility and civic wellbeing—even the ennui and frustration from a pandemic.
And then there’s an obsolete notion of when an adult has fully emerged from childhood. How similar it is to the abortion debate of when life begins! Is there any good reason to keep the age of majority in the teens? Perhaps as a society it’s time to consider that society has outgrown that notion like it has outgrown other things. For some reason the USA seems hellbent on giving the right to buy a killing machine to the consumer before he has the neurological maturity to handle it. Hellbent.
Put all these contributing factors together and you end up in a Buffalo supermarket with blood flowing in the aisles, or a Texas school with law enforcement cowering in the hall or a Fourth of July parade with bodies blown up by a young man in a sniper’s nest on the rooftop. These didn’t just happen. They emerged within a nexus of contributing factors.
Much of what occurs in our personal lives also emerges of complexity. There’s a constant flux of contributing variables that go together to create outcomes. These variables cycle around, come back on themselves, get morphed into expectations, habits and decisions. Then they become that observable something.
In western culture we’re largely blind to this. We cherish the notion that things happen as a result of deliberation and individual action. Outcomes are not supposed to just emerge, they are to be engineered. There are goals to be set and practical actions to be engaged to achieve those goals. Only when we look at outcomes will we know whether or not we are on track. We’re to think of ourselves in terms of what we have accomplished through planning and successful execution—not in terms of what had emerged from the fog of our lives.
But what has this to do with writing? After all, this is an author’s blog.
From the outset of my writing I made the decision in writing that I would not engineer the plot outcome in my novels. I wrote allowing my characters to speak and act with their own response to circumstance. My writing process was to set the stage and then listen to what my characters said and watch what they did.
Of course, this isn’t the proper way to be an author. I see lots of ads for workshops and courses on how to write a novel—apparently there is a linear system of literary engineering to get acclaim and sell lots of books.
I’m not interested. Such a novel doesn’t let the reader experience the complexity of human nature any more than what they have already experienced in all the other novels that followed the same plan.
The important things in life—values, beauty, meaning, presence, cherishing and loving relationships—don’t come from a simple how-to process (although don’t try to tell that to the self-help industry of books and workshops). We can’t engineer what is most vitally human. We can only cherish these things as they emerge from within, recognizing what is important comes from what we nurture rather than what we strive for.
And when we take a step back to look out through the fog of our own consciousness, we catch a glimpse of what has emerged there. Perhaps it’s a bit ethereal, but real none-the-less.
You can check out my previous blogs by following the links below.
July 2022—The problem with what emerges.
June 2022 — So who am I doing this for anyway?
May 2022 - Wait for it ... wait ...
April 2022 — Someone called me a Nazi.
March 2022 — Shush! Don't tell anyone.
February 2022 — So does life imitate art? Well, maybe sometimes.
January 2022 — The two most powerful lines in the book.
December 2021 — About time and being human.
November 2021 — Not a tidy little murder mystery
October 2021 — Flow versus focus.
September 2021 -- It's beautiful because it tells the truth.