Description, Yelling, Violence, Very, Very Tired

26 August 2002

Days left to deadline: 5.

Days left to final draft goal date: 3.

Pages of The World Builders written (total): 153. (Most of the work on the new ending, some more descriptive work.)

Today I'm going to do the parts that I hate the most: the scene breaks and the description.

I wrote it without having a need to put in scene breaks. I have transition sentences or paragraphs, and they orient me, and so far with one or two exceptions that I was able to fix, they have oriented the reader, too. But I'm told that people like scene breaks or chapter breaks in a book, so I'm going to put them in. Some people have tried to tell me that I don't need one or the other, and I honestly don't understand the difference. Is it that scene breaks don't have a number next to them? I mean, in a book that has natural scene breaks -- the Not The Moose, for example -- I could see where several scenes would compose a chapter, and then the scene breaks would make discrete sense to me. But if I don't have them in the first place now, I'm totally missing the distinction.

I consistently get requests to describe things more, usually visually. I've talked about this before. And I feel like my readers are saying, "Give me a chance to judge this person or place on how he, she, or it looks! Give me a chance to make assumptions that you will disagree with, based on visual appearance, and give me a chance to make them really, really important in my mind! Let me be superficial and you have to choose the details so carefully that I can feel that that superficiality is deep!" I know that not all of my readers are going to go, "Ah ha, well, he's a blond, so he must be dim!" or "She keeps a noticeably messy house, huh? What a slob." Or "She keeps a noticeably tidy house, huh? Neurotic." But some are going to, right off, because I'm the author, and if I mention it, it must be important.

So I have to go through and try to find not just the right places to have tiny descriptive phrases, but also the right phrases so that people will not go leaping to the wrong conclusions that they will invariably leap to anyway. I think this is the only part of the writing process where I come to resent the reader. Because consistently The Reader tells me that it is important, for example, what my main character looks like. Which in some sense means that his or her race is important, in part. And the minute I do that, the minute I tag a character with a race, he or she becomes "the blonde," "the black kid," or "the Asian kid," and not "the kid who thinks like this" or "the kid who feels like that." And that wouldn't frustrate me quite so much if I thought that even the most lush and detailed descriptions were going to yield the same results in the reader's minds. But they're not. I know at least a dozen people with tanned, beaky noses that are totally different tanned, beaky noses. Description is the illusion of synchronicity of minds. But it's only an illusion.

Nobody will care whether it's an illusion. It's all an illusion. The question is what level of illusion. The whole thing is an illusion that there are such people, such places, and such things, and that they act in the way that they do. But evidently in order for that illusion to work, a lot of people require a second one, which is that they're seeing something remotely like what the writer or other readers are seeing when they picture "home" or "Mom." They're not. You're not.

It's a consistent request, so I make myself deal with it. But damn, I hate it. "Tell me what I think is important, not what you think is important!" "I'm the author!" I want to wail. "You're the audience! I outrank you!" But when that line pops up in "The Producers," it's clear that the character is wrong, he doesn't outrank them. So today I'm going through and finding ways to write what I think is totally unimportant and trivial, stuff that annoys the crap out of me when other authors do it unless they do it for very good reasons that I don't have, or I'd have described the stuff in the first place. It's a consistent request, not just in this one book but in stories of mine in general. And I guess if I can ask the reader, "What difference does it make???", he or she can ask that back. If it doesn't make a difference, I should just give them a descriptive binky, just tell them that someone had a big chin and stank of pickles and move on. But it makes me very, very tired.

Not as tired as my neighbors screaming at each other in groups at 2:00 a.m. I will say, that trumps description requests on the tiredness scale. I ended up getting up and calling the security company that's supposed to patrol our complex. The noise went away. I don't know if the two are related. But dang.

There was a lot of use of the n-word on both sides, and that was disturbing to me. I've heard some African-American comedians claim that they use it like "and" and "the," and that it doesn't mean anything negative, that they're reclaiming it for a positive, brotherly term. But I heard my neighbors screaming at each other last night, and I heard the n-word substitute in for other insults, and I heard it used in a lot of the threats. It didn't sound like a positive, brotherly term to me. They weren't screaming, "I'm gonna beat your sisterly ass bloody if you come in here again, bitch!" They weren't screaming, "You dumb [parent-verb]ing brother!" It didn't sound like a reclamation. It sounded like people insulting each other for the color of their skin.

I think my relatives are about as ethnically positive as you can get, but they don't growl, "Ya stupid Ole" at each other when they get angry. So it's hard for me to see the positives in other people's versions.

And at 2:00, I lay there and reminded myself that my neighbors here are not morally inferior to my old suburban neighbors just because their 2:00 a.m. fights are audible when the ones in the suburbs were not. I knew people in the suburbs who beat their kids bloody. One guy we know was not these people's moral superior because he broke his son's arm quietly, where I didn't have to hear about it. Not morally superior -- but a bit less annoying as a neighbor, I had to admit at 2:00 a.m.

The timing was probably poor, and I doubt that doing more description and more scene breaks would make me as tired or as frustrated without the 2:00 a.m. situation. And if you're one of the people who asked me to be more descriptive -- if I thought you were flat-out wrong, I wouldn't be doing it. I won't wreck my book on your say-so. I think you're probably right that lots of people do want more description, and I do write to communicate with people, not just for my own benefit. So I'm not angry at you. I'm just frustrated that there's that much discrepancy for me.

Sigh. Okay. Start again. Something positive. It's Onie's birthday! She's 90. Ninety. That's old. They had a big party for her on Saturday. I called her this morning, and we talked about her party and about chicory in coffee and chicory in tea and all manner of things. She's a fun lady, tough and strong and still going almost as strong as ever. (My Onie is my grandma's oldest sister, for those of you in need of a scorecard. She's a widow with no children, so she's more or less ours.)

Hmm. We were talking after lunch yesterday, and I just have to ask: do any of you who have read Toni Morrison's Sula dislike it? Timprov and I have met plenty of people (like Mark!) who haven't read it, but none that we know of who have read it and haven't liked it. So I was wondering if there was some kind of sampling effect going on, or if everybody really does like Sula.

On Saturday night, I was procrastinating from my book edits and reading Caitlín Kiernan's journal from a few days back. And she said:

"Also, it's brought me back to that other point where, as an author who writes books wherein very bad things happen to people who often don't have it coming, I have to stop and wonder at the morality of this affair. The culpability of the writer. My obligation to the children of my mind. No one (except possibly Bill Gates) ever comes closer to being a god (or goddess) than does a writer. You fashion a world and nothing in that world happens without your say-so, nothing good and nothing bad. You create characters you love (you have to, or you can't expect anyone else to love them), and then you fail to protect them. And you do it for art, or you do it to entertain others, or you do it for the money (I'm not sure if I know which of those motives is less noble). And it makes me think of various naive objections to the existence of a supreme being that I've heard bandied about by the casually rebellious or loosely philosophical - how can they be expected to believe in a god who allows bad things to happen to his (or her, or its) creations. Maybe their answer lies in fiction. Maybe not. But it sure feels that way to me this morning."

Oddly enough, Barbara Kingsolver and Thomas also both brought that topic up lately (although I'm not sure Thomas sees it as that -- I'll get to the specific entry in a minute). In her essay "Careful What You Let in the Door," Kingsolver quotes from two pieces of fan mail about the same book. One of them said, "Like many women and men, in America, I was abused as a child, and when I started censoring TV for my own small children, I decided to stop watching violent TV shows myself. It really made life better....Yes, there is violence all around us. I read the news and even sometimes watch it on TV. But that's real. To invent violence that didn't really happen, even for the noblest of motives, like making everybody see how stupid war is, also puts it out there as entertainment. On a certain level, even people who are moved by the nobility and poignance of it all are also going to get off on it in a way that is absolutely counterproductive to the end of ending violence...." And the other letter said, "I want to thank you for your novel, which says something hopeful about death and the life that can come from death." Kingsolver ends up pondering both and asking herself why she would create an act of violence in a novel. She tells herself and the reader, "My answer has to do with the fact that I don't consider a novel to be a purely recreational vehicle." I think that's a total cop-out, if she buys into the first woman's letter. The first woman's point was that the recreational violence was also going to be there even in the most noble book, and if Kingsolver buys that, she certainly hasn't justified herself in terms of it.

I don't think that the first letter writer was right. I don't believe that we respond with "Ooh, big boom! Cool!" to every act of violence in art. Kingsolver claims, "See enough of this bang-you're-dead kind of thing and you'll start to go numb around the edges, I guarantee. On some level you will start to believe that a violent act has no consequences." You know, I kind of wish that was a money-back guarantee, because I don't buy it at all. At all. (Of course, I checked that book out from the library, so the money back on it would be fractions of a penny. Still.) I can tell you why I don't buy it: the movie "Suicide Kings." I hated that movie. Hated, hated, hated it. It featured lots of cold and senseless and stupid violence, for which the consequences felt entirely distant. And not only did I not enjoy the violence, but I had a fairly strong opposing reaction to the premise. It upset me because I felt it was so very wrong. It pushed me further in the "violence has consequences" direction. I was not numb. I was shaking and horrified. And if you'd made me watch another movie like that, and then another, I might have been whimpering and hiding my head under the pillows, but I would not have been numb.

I don't buy into the whole premise, frankly. If it were true, a book like A Ring of Endless Light would be just as bad as any shoot-'em-up, because it would make up sadness and death that doesn't actually exist, just for dramatic purposes. And granted, the drama is of a philosophically higher order, and the deaths are more gentle and in some sense natural -- but in other senses they aren't natural, because they're fictional, and Madeleine L'Engle could have chosen not to hurt Vicky with her grandfather's death, or not to have written the book at all, which is more or less the same thing. I don't see why violence is the key there, or why it's sex and violence. It seems like the same "you will be numb, you will get used to it" arguments apply to anything bad, anything wrong, anything remotely negative.

And I think the assumption in play here is that the cloth of fiction is whole, that it has no antecedents in the rest of the world. That the sadness and death in A Ring of Endless Light came from nowhere and popped into existence when L'Engle put the words down. It didn't. It came from everyone L'Engle ever lost, every hurt she ever suffered, and it came from the reader bringing in his or her own hurts and losses, too, from us knowing what it's like to lose a grandparent or from us being scared witless of the knowledge that someday we will. It didn't create fresh darkness, it pooled the darkness we already have and said, okay, here's what we've got, what are we going to do with it, where does it go, how does it go? And the problem with violence in fiction of all media is not that it exists, but that sometimes it sends the darkness we already have into worse places. Sometimes. Not always. Not inherently. But sometimes. The fictional violence or other ills are fairly morally neutral until we figure out what to do with them.

And that brings me to Thomas and his entry on people who think Buffy is the morally worst show on TV. He talks a good bit about the complexity of the moral choices that Buffy presents, compared to other TV shows. I don't have a lot to say to that in particular -- I found that I could only watch Buffy in combination with reading Lolita, and it may be that I could only read Lolita while listening to Buffy, I don't know, but the point is, it's not my show. But. By the time he gets to the moral choices that the vampire-slayers have to make, he's skipped over the parts that people are objecting to. In this show, there is a strong element of the occult, and there is a good deal of violence. It is not Buffy The Kitten-Petter. And the people who have decided that Buffy is the morally worst show on TV are most likely going to object to the depiction of violence and occult events/activities, regardless of how the violence is used and on what side of the occult events/activities the protagonists fall. Because they really, truly believe that depicting fictional violence will make people violent and depicting fictional vampires, demons, and hell will attract people to vampires, demons, and hell, regardless of how they're portrayed.

It sounds a little foolish when I put it that way, because most of us don't believe in vampires. Even most of us non-Buffy-watchers figure that the Buffy-watchers can figure out what's fictional and what isn't. But it's essentially the same argument as Kingsolver's readers were having, and the same question Kiernan was asking herself: does the depiction of something condone or glamorize it inherently? When bad things happen to good people, and it's not because of avoidable mistakes they've made, is that all right? Is that life? If that is life, is it okay to show life being that way?

I think that stories tend to be more powerful if there are avoidable mistakes that cause problems, if the protagonist is not as pure as the driven snow, and part of what I've been doing as I edit The World Builders is trying to make it clearer where Noë made mistakes. But that doesn't mean that books have to avoid bad things happening to good people. At all. And if that's the only way things go wrong in your fiction, is if a character directly and avoidably caused it, that's not the greatest, either, because it gets into the "if it went wrong, you must have done something to deserve it" mentality. And that's just not how the world works, either.

I think it's perfectly fine to avoid works that graphically portray violence in whatever media. Some of the violence gets at me, too. But that's a personal preference decision, made for whatever personal reason, and I think it's a big mistake to extrapolate to the idea that people who don't make the same choice, people who don't avoid violence in all art that they experience or create, are getting off on the violence somehow.

I think I've worked some of the crankies out. I think. I'm going to finish reading Kempei Tai and work on the book and head out to the library when it finally opens at 1:00, which is just stupidly late considering that there had to have been 30-40 people waiting there last time I showed up at 12:55 and then people can't show up on their lunch hour if they work close by. Hmm. Okay, not all of the crankies have been worked out, evidently.

Oh, I know what'll finish them off: my daddy sent a letter to his congressbeing with some ideas about what he thought could/should be done with the EPA. And his congressbeing's office called back and wanted to know if he wanted to donate money and head up a small businessbeing's committee. Daddy said no, he didn't have money for them, but boy did he have ideas, most of them about the environment, did they want to talk about his ideas? Um. His congressbeing's office backpedaled posthaste. Sad, but, well, typical. Amusing, in a way. I'm just imagining their dismay: we thought we could get money out of this guy, and now he's talking about the environment? What does that have to do with his money?

Silly, silly congressbeings.

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