THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
October 17, 2015
Greetings! This week I have a brief essay about writing with both hands. Also, I’m pleased to present this month’s guest author, historical novelist J. R. Lindermuth. You’ll enjoy reading what he has to say about prejudice and circumstantial evidence. Also please don't miss the announcement of our new book from Daniel & Daniel: Urban Flight, by Jonathan Kirshner. It's a winner!
Writing with Two Hands
or: What Do Stories Do?
President Truman, when asked one year what he wanted for Christmas, answered, “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ‘On the one hand.’…On the other…”
This is a fairly famous quote, so you may have heard it before, but I first heard of it from Mary Wilbur, a skillful writer, a glorious gardener, and a delicious cook. That Mary is such an accomplished woman is all the more remarkable because she has done all this, and everything else she’s done, all her life (all 93 years of it, and counting )literally single-handedly. Mary Wilbur has only one hand, so she may be a fine writer, gardener, and cook, but she’ll never make it as an economist, even though she’s a graduate of the London School of Economics.
This introduction has very little to do with the essay I’m about to write. I just wanted to use the word “literally” correctly. Hint: never misuse that word, or your critics and detractors will be literally jumping for joy and rolling in the aisles.
Now then, what does fiction do?
Well, let’s begin with the basics. Fiction tells lies. That’s what the word means: the opposite of facts. Every fictional story is a pack of lies from the get-go. Oh yes, it may be based on things that really happened to the writer, and it may take place in a real city during a well researched period of history. It may be accurate in many ways, and it may be quite, quite believable. But fiction is untrue. Fiction can’t help it. Fiction lies.
On the other hand…Most fiction writers, and I’m willing to say any fiction writer worth reading, is doing his or her level best to tell the truth about something. Melville may have written the biggest, most outrageous whopper of a fish story about the one that got away, but Moby-Dick makes a sincere and honest statement about the nature of monomania in general, and in particular the absurd madness of man’s battle with a ruthless universe. Great fiction tells great truth, whether it be about war and peace, or about crime and punishment, or about love and death.
In fact, I argue that by lying, the fiction writer turns up the truth another notch. The truth is better shown when some of those devilish details are heightened, edited, rearranged, and underscored by a crafty spinner of yarn.
Now we face the question: “Why would a writer work so hard, even to the point of concocting lies, to tell the truth?” The answer is found in another thing that fiction does. Writers of fiction are born to teach. More than that (or as we say in charades, “sounds like…”), we write in order to preach. Somehow it seems all great fiction writers are on a quest to make this earth on which we live a better place for our fellow human beings and for our fellow species. We write to prove a point, in the wild and hopeless hope that our words will convince our readers to straighten up and fly right.
And sometimes it works. Sometimes fiction makes us progress. To take only a few examples of only one social disease that has needed, and still needs, fixing, consider and be grateful for the influence of these novels (and many others like them) that preached on the subject of racial inequality in American society: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Help. Of course the job isn’t over yet, and it will take a lot more than literature to defeat institutionalized bigotry. The thing about writers, though, is that they will never stop preaching, despite the odds.
On the other hand…What reader’s going to sit still and get preached at for hours at a time? I scratch my head in disbelief when I read about Victorian men and women who supposedly read sermons for pleasure.
Speaking of sermons, aren’t we most likely to listen to preachers who crack jokes every now and then? They know, and good writers know, that the way to sell message is to disguise it as entertainment. Even Jesus knew that the way to sell his message was to make up stories, which he called parables. Aesop wrote fables. Steinbeck wrote epic novels for the same reason.
Would Steinbeck have won any sympathy for migrant laborers by making speeches or writing tracts? Would we still be reading Grapes of Wrath or In Dubious Battle today if he were just reporting working conditions of an era that ended seventy years ago?
So fiction preaches, but it preaches successfully only because it entertains.
What else? Well, fiction explores the world. A good novel delivers to the reader great knowledge of places on all the continents and the seas between; of people of all ages and races and beliefs; of eras gone by and times yet to come. My living room is rich with knowledge because here I’ve learned about the Ojibwa from Louise Erdrich, the Neanderthal from John Darnton, the Middle West from Charles Baxter, New England from Alice Hoffman, and Oz from L. Frank Baum. Yes, and when we stretch the limits of fiction to include the planets and the stars and the even grander reach of the imagination, it’s fair to say that fiction explores the universe, as if with a telescope, and delivers it to the reader, page by fascinating page.
But on the other hand… Fiction may use a telescope to look outward, but it also looks inward, as if with a microscope, to explore the human heart and mind. The best fiction—perhaps the best writing—is about the plight of the human soul. Oh stop trying to sound so fancy, you tell me, and you’re right. But didn’t Holden Caulfield give voice to my teenage complaints? Didn’t Jack Kerouac make me want to travel light? Didn’t I learn most of what I know about the twists and turns of our overworked brains by reading the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, or Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov, William Golding, and Ken Kesey?
So, to summarize, Fiction tells lies, but it also tells the truth. It preaches while it entertains, and it explores the universe outside and probes the soul within.
But on the other hand…
Guest Author, J. R. Lindermuth
I take great pleasure in welcoming back to my blog a writer I much admire, J. R. Lindermuth. As usual, I asked John to write something about the joy of story, and he has done so by exploring the thorny issues of perception and the benefit of the doubt in questions of guilt of innocence. Please welcome John, and read his words:
It's easier to judge than to
understand another person.
Even with our modern jury system, there's sometimes a tendency to judge on perception, which helps explain the number of innocent people who have been found guilty.
Imagine how much more difficult it might have been for a person of limited mental capacity to be proven innocent of a crime in a rural village in the 19th century.
That's the dilemma of my character Ned Gebhardt in Something So Divine.
When a young girl is found murdered in a Pennsylvania rye field in the autumn of 1897, Ned is a prime suspect, though there are other suspects. He is known to have stalked the victim and gossip and prejudice contribute to the circumstantial evidence against him.
Ned's only defenders are his stepsister Iris and Ellen, a village shopkeeper, who believe him incapable of the terrible crime of which he stands accused. Influenced by their opinions, particularly that of Ellen to whom he is romantically attracted, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt.
Even after he discovers damaging evidence, Roth is willing to put his job and reputation in jeopardy to assure the boy a fair trial. This is partly because he's still unwilling to see Ned as a cold-blooded killer but also because he doesn't want to disappoint Ellen and Iris.
Perception colors our romantic inclinations just as it does other aspects of our lives. Ned's adoration of Susie, the girl he's accused of killing, is obviously obsession. Yet he's willing to sacrifice himself on her behalf. A more realistic form of love develops between Roth and Ellen, yet even he is willing to temper what his intellect tells him to satisfy what he believes she seeks from him.
A brief excerpt from the book:
The sound startled Jane Felty. The woman rose from the table where she'd been sorting clothes to iron and went to the door. She stepped out on the porch and looked down the lot to where her husband was chopping a fallen tree into kindling. The tree had toppled weeks earlier in a storm, and Elwood wanted to get the yard cleared of the debris and the wood stored before bad weather. He noticed her now, halted his work, and came up to the porch, ax held loosely at his side.
"I thought I heard a shot."
Elwood shrugged. "Nothing unusual about that. Especially not at this time of year."
She nodded. "I know. It just startled me is all."
He gazed fondly at her swollen belly and smiled. The baby was due in another month. They had other children (though this one was an unexpected blessing), and he knew pregnancy did things to women's emotions. "Nothin' to worry about."
Jane returned his smile. "I know. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Didn't. I was due for a break."
She jerked her chin in the direction of the tree. "How's it coming?"
"Slowly. It's a big tree. Should last us a good ways into the winter."
"Would you like something to drink?"
"A cold tumbler of buttermilk would be nice."
"I'll bring it. Some fresh-baked cookies, too." Jane turned and went back in the house.
Elwood started back to his project. A drink, a snack, and maybe a smoke before he went back to work. I'm a fortunate man to have such a good wife. The thought brought a smile to his lips. A peripheral movement caught his attention then. He looked up the hillside to his right as a twig snapped. Something moved through fallen leaves. Elwood stared but couldn't make out what it might be for the thickness of the foliage. A deer, he surmised, swinging the ax over his shoulder and seating himself on the tree trunk to await Jane and his refreshments.
Bio: A newspaper reporter/editor for nearly 40 years, J. R. Lindermuth is the author of 14 novels and a regional history. His short stories and articles have been published in a variety of magazines. He is a member of International Thriller Writers and currently serves as vice president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Since retiring, he has served as librarian of his county historical society, assisting patrons with genealogy and research.
Buy links: https://sunburypress.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/feeble-minded-youth-accused-of-murdering-young-woman/
Something So Divine (August 2015), Sunbury Press
The Tithing Herd (May 2015), The Western Online Press
AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR
New from Daniel & Daniel, Publishers
A Bird’s Eye View of Big Apple Corruption
a novel by Jonathan Kirshner
It’s New York City in the dark days of 1975. Crime is up, the roads are impossibly gridlocked, and the Big Apple is on the verge of bankruptcy. And, just as he had threatened, there isn’t even Nixon to kick around anymore. High above the despairing streets, Jason Sims, part-time guitarist and one-time sixties idealist, now pilots a helicopter for the traffic reporter of a television news station. At the request of the station’s mysterious owner, Jason agrees to do some extra flying, leap-frogging over the impassible streets below. But during these extra-curricular flights he observes activities that could be related to the urban corruption scandal that his best friend, journalist Adam Shaker, has been investigating. As Jason becomes inadvertently enmeshed in the City’s political crisis—and a new love interest—he confronts the demons of his past and experiences a personal re-awakening.
“Bribery, corruption, murder…a wise-cracking hero helicopter pilot, a compulsively sleuthing reporter, an up-for-anything history professor.… Take all this and drop it into the stew of a city going to hell, and it comes to a boil and stays there until the end.”
—John Darnton, author of Black and White and Dead All Over
To read more about Urban Flight and author Jonathan Kirshner, visit: http://www.danielpublishing.com/bro/kirshner.html
Reminder: The deadline for November’s 99-word story submissions is November 1.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY:
Use the following sentence as either the first or the last sentence of the story:
“The old woman walked out of the bar with a smile on her face.”
Deadline: November 1, 2015.
If you follow the rules, your story will appear on this blog November 14.
Thanks for dropping by! See you next week, I hope. Meanwhile, keep writing, reading, and celebrating the Joy of Story!