Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
August 2009


In graduate school, I spent so much time analyzing literature that I think I forgot why I loved reading books to begin with. As a child and a teen, I loved the way that a book could make me feel like I was living someone else's life, like I was that person, in that world, facing those problems. I loved the breathtaking feeling I had when I could see the cliff I was hanging over. I loved the way that I could fall in love with Mr. Wickham, and then learn my mistake. I loved the way that I hated Mr. Darcy at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and thought that there was no way that Jane Austen was ever going to make me like him -- and then she did. Not only like him, but love him with much more depth than I ever loved the shallow, smooth talking Wickham.

But in graduate school, I wrote about symbols and themes, about hidden political themes, about the attempt to point towards utopia without ever claiming to achieve it. I read novels like they were philosophical tracts, or perhaps as if they were paintings. The only pleasure I found in reading was when I snuck into the commercial section of Princeton's library and secretly read (I did not check them out -- there would be records of that!) fantasy novels, without any conscious attempt at analysis.

You see, when you analyze literature, when you step between the writer and the reader, you take away the moment of catharsis which I think is the real reason that readers read. They read to feel the experience of the novel (or to experience the play) as the main character does. If they didn't do this, you could simply substitute a literary critique of a novel for the novel itself. But no one does this. Have you ever been in a class where the teacher actually said that you could just read the Cliff Notes instead of the book? If you have, then you hopefully began to see how thin literary analysis is next to an actual, live, breathing novel. Novels don't give simple answers to things like political tracts do. Novels show you life and people and let you come to your own conclusions. Novels let you live a life that isn't yours, either in the past or in a fantasy or science fiction setting that has never been.

When you find catharsis in a novel, you have to first go through the tragedy of the main character. You have to see what a good person he is, and then you have to see how he is brought low by a mistake that is unintentional. Only once you have been through all that can the catharsis brought by the end mean anything. Lessing and Aristotle mean a specific kind of catharsis in a tragedy where the hero is redeemed by his own actions, but I use the term catharsis more generally when I refer to it in novels. To me, the catharsis is the feeling of completion when you get to the end of a novel. You feel satisfied by the ending because it is both expected and unexpected. You feel a shape that is familiar to you that matches your view of the world.

This is the part of writing that I think can be taught, that must be taught. You don't get catharsis in your book without intending it to be there. You work hard as a writer to make the reader feel as if she is inside the book, as if he is the main character. You give details about the world so that there is transport. Sure, you can add symbols if you want, and you can have a theme. But the truth is, that's really the part of the book that is natural for me. Put too heavy an emphasis on those parts and it feels less like a novel. It's the "being there" experience that a writer wants to give to the reader, and all the literary analysis in the world isn't going to help you understand how to do that. You have to step back into the role of the reader to understand how to write. You can't step into that between spot where you are above the writer and the reader and distant from the experience in the book.

One more German writer I'm going to mention here is Bertolt Brecht. He tried hard to write plays that did not have a cathartic effect. He did not want his audience to relate to the characters on stage. He did all sorts of funny things to step between the writer and the audience, like having characters hold up signs that said things like "I am not a real person" and "This is an actor in a play," and refusing to actually make his stage look like anything but a stage. The problem was, this never worked. Brecht was too good of a writer. He wanted to be a politician, but he had stories to tell. And well, audiences want to relate to characters. They want to feel catharsis. They do it even when they are not supposed to. If you tell a good story, people will experience it with the characters.

Get out of the way and don't try to be more than a storyteller. It's the one of the best things you can be. Brecht was wrong. If you want a political message to get across, one of the best things you can do is stop trying to tell a political message and tell a story instead. Trust the audience to understand it. Trust yourself to tell it right. Leave the symbols to the professors who only read when they're paid to do it.

(I learned about Aristotle's idea of "catharsis" in college via the German writer Lessing. Some of my ideas on the subject have also been formed more recently around Robert McCormack's book The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, which is a book I recommend to all writers. Also, I have been to Dave Wolverton's (David Farland)'s excellent seminar on Writing a Best Selling Novel, where he talks about the importance of feeling an acceptable amount of jeopardy -- or he did when I took his course in 2000.)

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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