Racists of America Club Note #10 (A Cry For Help)

Hey dog,

Hope the shingles aren’t too bad. I talked to mom last night. She’s thinking about coming up to <> and nursing you. She also convinced me to get the shingles vaccination. She’s in full mama bear mode 🙂

If you are feeling well enough, I have a question about the Racists of America Club. I’ve been working on it like I said. I seem to have gotten into it by opening it as an interview. Right now it doesn’t have the bite of a real story though. It is more akin to one of the Socratic dialogues in Plato in which the star is the idea less than the characters discussing the idea. I think one of the problems of the story for me is that I actually believe in the idea too much. It is not like a real interrogation. I’m too one sided about it. Have you ever had this problem writing a story? Maybe I should be writing an essay instead? Help!

The reply…

Alright, as far as your question about RAC, yes, this is a common issue for a lot of writers, especially people newer to fiction writing, though we all face it. I see it with my students sometimes: they want to write the “Message Story” that feels like it has a thesis statement that they lead with but then remember they’re supposed to tell a story so they try to paste some one-dimensional characters and plot onto sexy their idea after the fact. I sometimes think of this as the story that knows too well where it wants to go so all the arrows point in one direction. It’s not that fiction should avoid big ideas by any means; it’s just that those ideas are always WAY more interesting when they grow out of three-dimensionally complex characters who have the real life human fears/hopes/conflict that we all do. That’s harder to do, I know, but if you don’t you run the risk of making the story about the idea and the idea only, and so the characters become cardboard cutouts spouting the author’s big idea. As a reader you feel cheated: You came looking for a story and you got a treatise, so you sort of feel like, Homie, why didn’t you just write an essay or polemic?

Actually, Pynchon of all people has one of the best lines about this. In one of the very few–perhaps only–nonfiction writings about his work (it’s the introduction to his volume of early short stories which is called Slow Learner) and in it he talks about an early short story he wrote that was titled “Entropy.” Entropy, of course, is the central Pynchonian metaphor and concern for all of his mature work, but early on he tried to write a story about it with that very fucking title and he has this great line about it: “The story is a fine example of a procedural error beginning writers are always being cautioned against. It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol, or abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.”

So you are not alone. We’ve all been there. You don’t have to take me to funky town. I already live there.

But while the diagnosis is clear, the solution is obviously much harder. I do think it all essentially comes down to character. You cannot have Socratic mouthpieces. These need to be characters that you make the reader feel like are real, that we have known or can recognize as true to our lived experience. You need to think about who these people in your story are. Sit down and think about their backstories and what has brought them to the present moment of your story. As yourself what their greatest fear or hope is. What’s their greatest shame? What’s their biggest wound in life, or their greatest joy? Where did they grow up and why is that significant? What’s the one thing they’ll be thinking about or remembering on their death bed? Not all of this will actually appear in the story, but they will help you get to know your character and you need to know it because that will help you make them three-dimensional. It will give context and complexity to the way in which you write/present them in the present narrative of your story.

The other thing about this gets back to this notion of the story knowing too well where it wants to go. I think it’s okay to have a sense of where you think the story might go, but you can’t be locked into it. I typically try to have a rough outline for a story. Very rough. I sometimes think of these as almost stage directions (By the end of this scene Character A has to wake up, go to work, and have a fight with a coworker) that mostly function as floaties that help me get into the big pool: they help me get started writing when I feel the anxiety of ‘what the hell do I do’ as the cursor blinks back at me. But I’m not beholden to an outline in any way. Because usually no matter what I think might happen in a scene or story will actually change in the act of actually writing it. And that is one of the exciting parts of writing. You have all that highly conscious forethought about your story and what you think is gonna happen, but the hope is that at some point you sort of drop into the zone/muse, that less conscious level that can’t really be planned for except by doing, that opens up new doors to and changes the way you thought the story would unfold.

I guess the last thing I’ll say is about my own personal experience with this. In <> I very much set out to write about politics in an overt way, which was risky. And obviously as a leftist/socialist I have a particular world view and belief system. One of the big tricks for me was figuring out how to not shy away from politics (which I think a lot of writers try to do to avoid charges of dogma or propaganda), but how can I write about it in a complex and interesting way. I think when people say they don’t want to read about politics in their fiction what they’re really saying is they don’t want to read bad writing, whether it’s Ayn Rand or Soviet social realism. So I wanted to write about these abstract ideas that I’m committed to, but to do so with complexity so that it didn’t just feel like characters were mouthpieces for my politics. This meant giving complex issues their due complexity, which meant I oftentimes had to undermine my own politics or point out its flaws or contradictions or limitations (even if I personally still remain committed to them). I felt like that was the only way I could write overtly about politics while still making the good kind art that strives to make the simple more complex. Thankfully I’m better at this in art than in my daily life, where too often I want to make something as complex as economics or politics overly simple.

A few years ago this website asked me to write some advice to young fiction writers. I ended up coming up with a list of 25 pieces of advice. Some of these might be silly, but I think at least a couple of them might be helpful for you in thinking about how to tell this story. Anyway, I attached a copy here if you want to take a look.

I hope I didn’t overwhelm you with all this, but it’s a big and complex issue in writing so I wanted to give you my honest thoughts.

Check out other work in the Racists of America series here.

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