Monday, January 23, 2017

Battling the Occasional Demon

New year. New President. New hopes and fears. New work.

It's often in the bad times that a man learns the most about himself. During my two week dry period I desperately sought a means to channel my frustrations and anger into "literary" stories. It didn't work. The stories I produced were boring and un-engaging, even to me, despite the fact they really happened. I did my usual sweep: Googling interviews with writers who'd made it and whose work was taken "seriously." Then, I realized why I wasn't satisfied.

I wasn't writing from the heart.

A simple comparison of American books heralded as "classic" should've told me as much. The Old Man and the Sea, Invisible Man, Slaughterhouse Five, and Of Mice and Men are all great works of fiction. They use different narrative techniques and tell different stories, but they're all considered wonderful books because they were written with passion and conviction. They're not all even considered "literary." Slaughterhouse Five is often labeled as science fiction.

It seems simple, right? But as always, easier said than done. It's hard not to feel that writing stories about magic, dragons, spaceships, and fantastical places isn't "real" writing. You may have met these people in real life or read their articles online, then sheepishly look at your collection of Tolkien, Lewis, Sanderson, and other masters of the imagination. But then, you meet people on the street who say, "Oh, I love those stories! They helped me get through some hard times." Then you realize there are just as many people defending the existence of faerie stories as there are defaming them. Just go on Tumblr or Facebook to see how many lessons people drew from Harry Potter.

Norwegian psychologist Frode Stenseg classified two kinds of "escapist" literature: self-suppression and self-expansion. The former is used in a negative tone, belittling things by labeling them as "kids books" or "make believe." There is plenty of bad fantasy out there, just like there's plenty of bad fiction about dysfunctional families, religious differences, and politics.

But I finally realized that speculative fiction can also have a literary quality.

Slaughterhouse Five is often hailed as the greatest anti-war novel of all time. I expected as much when I started reading it, but then I was very surprised by a scene when the protagonist is with the aliens who are studying him. After telling them about humanity's history and the ongoing Second World War, the man says he is part of a terrible species who is only good at destroying. The aliens don't even blink. "Why don't you hate us?" the man says. "Don't you think we're repulsive?" The aliens reply, "No, because we're just like you. We've also had wars, and done terrible things to each other. But we have also done good, and that's what we choose to focus on."

I didn't expect an anti-war novel to be pro-humanity at the same time, and that's profound! And it's a science fiction book, often ranked alongside books like the other aforementioned books.

With all of that fresh in my mind, I was finally able to get back to a fantasy story I'd been working on before the demon attacked. It's finished, at 12,000 words. I've also decided on a novel I'd like to finish this year.

At the end of the day, I'm still a writer. My stories are supposed to be awe-inspiring and fun, but they just might help someone see and understand reality a little better. Not everyone can see the world through the same lens as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Vonnegut. Maybe some Harbin glass is what they need.

Power to the pen.

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