Monday, July 11, 2011

great big truths

Have you ever sat down to write a story and found yourself thinking "I'll write about a heartbroken detective who returns to his hometown! No, that's been done. OK, I'll write about a boy genius who wanders the streets of New York. Dammit—done. OK, come on brain..."

The more you think about it, the more it seems like every story idea has already been used a million bazillion times. What's the point of even writing another novel?

This is a scary question, and if you think about it too hard, you risk falling down a nihilistic rabbit hole and bumping your head. What's the point of writing novels—so many novels—when there are already so many out there? It almost seems pathological. Or greedy. Or something like that.

The answer to this question—or at least, one possible answer—came to INTERN yesterday while she was out mushroom hunting (she found a handful of slug-eaten chanterelles and a lovely if inedible russula, in case you're wondering).

A novel is more than just a collection of made-up plot and character details that fit together in a satisfying way. A novel, if it's good, will also contain one or two big truths. And no matter how many novels get written, here's the thing: Big truths are worth discovering again and again.

Finding out that Mrs. Hootlesby murdered her husband with a vienna sausage is astounding once, after which there might be little reason to read the book again. But finding out, along with Mrs. Hootlesby, that all relationships are banal, or that society itself is a murder machine, or that love conquers all—those ideas (or "truths" or "themes" or whatever you call them) are big enough to chew on for a long time. They elevate a story beyond the sum of its plot twists and make it shine.

And sure, maybe every great truth has been written about a million times too. That's because they demand to be grappled with. The triumphs they offer are fleeting, and need to be earned and re-earned again and again. Mrs. Hootlesby's murder plot is like an algebra equation: once you figure it out, the mystery's gone. But big truths are never quite figure outable. They're too big. There are too many moveable parts. And so we can write about them in so many different ways, and they never lose their power.

So write big. Plot, and even character, can feel like a crowded pond, but the big truths are an ocean that will never run out of space.


  1. Ah, I'm so glad I read your blog!

  2. Love this post. Maybe not every writer asks why-bother when it comes to trying to put another story into the universe, but I have and this is what keeps me going too. Love the way you describe the fact that these big truths can never be fully explained, the moveable parts, etc. Brilliant.

  3. This is amazing. So true, and expressed so eloquently.

  4. I think this is very true--that the reason to write your bildungsroman or whatever is that, while the plot might be similar to some other bildungsroman, thematically it will be different, because it's your bildungsroman (*giggle*bildungsroman*giggle*) and not somebody else's, and so it's infused with the truths you perceive in the world.

    That said, I'm not positive it's necessary or even good to try to "write big." Unless you're all but plagiarizing the most hackneyed of formula plots--and possibly even then--I'm thinking your Truths will shine through without a lot of effort on your part to make them.

  5. Well said. Thanks for passing along a very fundamental truth.

  6. thanks for the comments, everyone! this blog is pretty much INTERN's only connection to a writing community right now (living as she does in an isolated cabin) and it means so much to be able to talk about this stuff with like-minded writerlings...

    much love!

  7. All so true.

    Be careful with the mushrooms, some emulate edible ones but they're tricky...

    A vienna sausage? Astounding.

  8. Hi INTERN,

    I'm reading your blog again. I thought the other day, could she have returned to her blog after after her magic journey in a trailer? I checked in and here you are! I'm pondering your big truth idea. Is that it? Or do we resonate to someone's passionate engagement with his or her world? The deep themes or big truths are important, of course, but there's something about the writer's passion and generosity of heart that make thunder. Anyway, your blog is great.

  9. Well spoken.

    But it's not just the big truths that distinguish one unoriginal plot-line from another. As it turn out, this subject goes quite a bit deeper: