handwritten writer

On the Particular Temptations of Writers: Pt 1

handwritten writer

Every profession and pursuit has its merits and dangers I suppose. Lately I’ve been musing on the peculiar temptations of writers. There are certain internal hazards that come with navigating the literary landscape, some of which are not readily apparent when one starts off down that road.

Don’t get me wrong, the ability to write is a wonder. Dropping crumbs from the sweet morsels of imagination allows writers to leave behind a timeless trail for others to follow long after they are gone. These serendipitous paths can warm our hearts, cut us to the quick, or make us see the world in a new light, sometimes all in the same paragraph. And yet writing is tricky, too. Sometimes the crumbs get carried away by the wind or buried in mud. Sometimes they get stuck to our fingers and never land. Sometimes they are hard to follow. And sometimes they lead us down paths where we ought not go.

Gluttons for punishment

For all the potential there is that what I write may turn out “crummy” (yes, I made a pun), I count it a great joy to be able to write. I particularly love writing in the “genre of imagination” as I like to call it, because it allows me to invent things that do not exist or to explore what a world would be like were dreams are made into reality. Need a cure for cancer? Coming right up. Wish that you had super powers? That can be arranged. Everything and anything is on the menu at this all you can read buffet.

And that brings us to our first pitfall: the temptation to over indulge. What do I mean by that? Well, you see, just like those all you can eat places, whenever we give into the temptation to simply write to our passion or imagine the world as we would like it to be, we run the risk of stuffing the minds of our readers with all sorts of atrocious, bloated, greasy fare that will hurt them in the long run. All of those chocolate eclairs may have felt positively divine on the way down, but our burgeoning waste line and mounting dental bills may not seem so delicious.

Now more than ever, the making of books is a business, I get that. But when we churn out one titillating, spine-tingling, gut-wrenching, addictive, “got my hooks in you and won’t let go” story after the other, we may be pleasing our readers, but we may not be doing them any good. In fact, we may, in the long run, be doing them a great deal of harm. Because it’s not enough to connect with the characters in a story or wish that we could live in the world an author creates. If the world or characters created are ones that trick us into thinking what’s wrong is right and what’s right is wrong, for all we may enjoy them, for all we may want to pig out at this particular buffet, we are worse off for having read such an author’s work.

michelangelo boy man

An oxymoron is still a moron

The temptation to “let one’s hair down” in our writing is really just an expression upon the part of an author of the desire to play God. Like the true Creator, writers are world-builders, inventors of people and things seemingly out of nothing (though really we are just standing on our own experiences and observations). As Victor Hugo said,

“A writer is a world trapped inside a person.”

Because of this, there is the tendency to want to rewrite the rules as we see fit. Maybe we were socially awkward in school and long to see the pale-faced brainiac get the girl or win the admiration of his peers. So we write things the way we wish they could be. Some of these tendencies may make our books inspirational, giving our readers a positive vision of what the world could and should be like. But like the Developers in my series The Chronotrace Sequence sometimes by recreating man in our own image, we twist and mar that image and we trade the truth for a lie.

In a recent interview I heard, an author was giggling and giddy over how much “fun” she had writing her evil characters. It wasn’t enough, she said, to have them murder a few people, it had to be a depraved sort of killing, with maiming and splattered blood and dark rituals. She gave the impression that, although she considered herself quite a “nice” person, she was thoroughly enjoying this sort of vicarious, “acting out” through her villain. Might I suggest that truly nice people don’t enjoy depravity in their entertainment and art? And truly nice people don’t feed the inner demons of their audience either.

So, to paraphrase a children’s song, “be careful little eyes what you read and be careful little hands what you write.” The decision to take up the pen and paper ought to come with a sense of weighty responsibility. With every word we write, we are implicitly saying, “this is worth your time, this is worth remembering.” We have an unwritten contract with our readers then, and with ourselves, to make good on that promise, and to write things that will lift them up and not tear them down, even if we, and our readers themselves, enjoy watching the good, the true, and the beautiful, burn to ashes on a literary funeral pyre.

That’s all for this installment. I talk about some other potential flash points for writers in part 2.

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Comments (6)

  1. Abbey January 17, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I’m catching up on blogs today, so excuse me for commenting a month and a half after the fact…
    This is a fantastic blog post. As a giddy enthusiast for wordplay, I loved the “food” metaphor that you carried on through the first half of the post.
    The topic of your post has made me think, too. I read a somewhat similar post the other day about how the statement, “It doesn’t matter what they are reading, so long as they are reading” isn’t the best because the quality and topic of reading material will have an impact on the reader and if a person is reading only trash, their mind won’t be heightened in any way. Nowadays, reading audiences enjoy stories that are quick, easy, and full of emotional trauma (for the sake of emotional trauma). As I writer, I’ve felt pressure to succumb to this trend, but I think that quality of topic and word choice is more important than having the next best selling thriller.
    I like your point about lifting up the reader rather than tearing them down, too. So many stories focus on reducing their audiences to sobbing masses. I much prefer stories like Lord of the Rings. Hardly anyone dies, goodness prevails, and I feel uplifted during the reading process instead of dreading what’s to come because maybe my favorite character will die.

    • DJ Edwardson January 19, 2016 at 8:10 am

      Thanks, Abbey! I do think most artists these days do not give much weight or even thought to their responsibility to shepherd the souls and consciences of their readers. It’s almost like a parent child relationship, to use another metaphor, as if the readers don’t really know what’s good for them. It’s the job of the parent to protect them from harm and provide a loving home in which they can grow. May we be ever mindful of the sacred charge we have to our readers!

  2. Pingback: On the Particular Temptations of Writers: Pt 2 - djedwardson.com

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 4, 2016 at 1:05 am

    I’m reading late, too, but you’re right about villains/antagonists/bad guys – and writing them has to be human, which is why I write mainstream fiction and not thrillers.

    But it is VERY hard to do, and I remind myself that, in the twisting I’ve made of the lives of the three main characters in Pride’s Children, the machinations of the Evil One are thoroughly justified from her pov, and absolutely necessary to the story. Without her, there is the beginning of a story – a tale – and it will never come out right.

    It’s a heavy responsibility to entrust a character. And I can ALMOST see why she does things I might even think of doing – in her place, if I had grown up her.

    • DJ Edwardson November 4, 2016 at 9:48 am

      I liken evil characters to someone solving a math related problem involving several steps. The “math” is actually write in all but one or two steps, but that crucial error throws off the whole equation and leads them to an error in their final solution.

      It is quite possible, and indeed the duty of every author, to write compelling villains without glorifying their villainy.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 4, 2016 at 1:50 pm

        Love your perfect typo!

        Exactly. If we make straw villains, nothing we do to overcome them is useful. If our antagonists are powerful, and motivated by their own agenda, showing a tiny bit of how they got that way, and not condoning it, is part of our job.

        In reading fiction, you get to live – and make decisions about – MANY lives. It’s the main reason we’re compelled to read stories: self-interest.

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