Friday, March 31, 2006

Artistic Choice: Is Nothing Sacred?

A writer friend of mine claims that when a writer plans his story, all of the elements should be open to debate. The writer must scrupulously scour every inch of his idea for inconsistencies or extraneous content and be prepared to cast aside whatever does not fit. Nothing is sacred. He says that the final product may look nothing like the original idea, and that's okay.

I'm not so sure.

I should state up front that his ideas and mine are more alike than different. For example, I agree that most of the hard work in writing a story is in planning it. I also agree that a writer must be scrupulous about consistency. Everything must fit within the theme, and whatever does not fit should either be cast out or changed. But a couple of dangers lurk here in these murky waters, dangers that I am only beginning to understand as I spend more time in the craft. I'm talking about dangers that can actually kill your story.

First, there is the risk of being wrong. Planning a difficult story can sometimes seem analogous to performing brain surgery on a fetus in utero. Your mind's child is still just a potential. If you do something wrong now, it may not live to be any more than that.

"No problem," you might say, "just think very carefully about what you're doing." Yes, but therein lies the difficulty:

One of the greatest challenges for a writer is that the real engine of his productivity is not his conscious mind but his subconscious. Notice I said engine, not architect or captain. I'm talking here about the specific faculty that must be relied upon to produce 90% of his output. While the conscious mind queries, suggests, waits, and prods, at the end of the day it is the subconscious mind that must actually deliver the goods. This is important for the writer to understand, not just for practical reasons but also for spiritual reasons (which I'll explain in my second point).

The practical difficulty here is that the writer doesn't always know why his subconscious has delivered what it has. The writer may come to believe that an inspired idea does not fit within his story when in fact it does (or should). Sometimes his subconscious is actually giving him a very important clue and he's not listening to it. In other words, the captain, or the conscious mind, remains unswervingly committed to a plan despite his subconscious's realizing (implicitly) that it will not work. In such a case, he would do well to pay closer attention to what his "heart" is telling him before he starts snipping out pieces. This is not to say that the captain should ever abdicate his responsibility to discern between one idea and another, only that he might learn something by listening more carefully to his own responses to values.

This brings me to my second point, which is the greatest danger of all: that of not caring about the story anymore. This is where I have reservations about my friend's ideas. I do believe that some elements of an idea are in fact sacred. Some aspects of an idea should never be cast aside. Why? Because they represent the very reason that the writer fell in love with the story in the first place, and if a writer does not love his stories, then he'll either die an unhappy martyr having failed to write anything worthwhile or he'll quit writing altogether.

Consider these two interesting drawings over at Rational Art. The first sketch represents an idea for a painting (maybe a late revision of an idea, but an idea nonetheless), while the second represents a noticeable improvement over the first: the man's posture is more prideful, the woman more elegant, their relationship more dramatic, the champagne glass angled more appropriately, and the city sized to evoke more of a distant view rather than an imposing presence. There's even a bit of commentary about improving the piece by adding fireworks instead of snow. But notice something important: The spirit of the piece remains intact, and by spirit, I do not mean something floating in abstract space like a disembodied idea. I mean the stylized idea in concrete form. Specifically I mean a loving couple staring at some kind of cityscape on a special occasion.

I am willing to bet that if this artist were to cast aside these key elements, he would probably just as soon slavishly illustrate the cover for some technical manual as complete this painting. (I do not know this as a matter of fact, so don't quote me on that.)

Writers and other artists are not just theme. We are mind and body. Our values are inextricably tied to what we know in fact, not just in theory. For this reason, we should not be too quick to discard particular elements of a story on the basis of theme alone. At the very least, great care should be taken to understand the purpose and value of each element before we make a change.

Here, then, is some advice that I myself must follow more carefully: When evaluating an idea for a story, ask yourself what it is about the idea that you love most and why. Do you love the main character? Do you think he's especially sexy, smart, or courageous? If so, don't be too quick to run away from these notions just because they seem "shallow" or non-thematic. Your interest may be a clue to what your theme ought to be.

Did you first come to this story by imagining a single, glorious sentence that appears at the very moment of the climax or perhaps some little vignette that happens in an epilogue? Hmmm, I wonder: Could this be the one, key element that will make you care more about this story than anything else for the next three years? If so, then by god don't snip it, or your story just might die on the vine.