Every piece of text has a purpose. A shopping list is a reminder, and perhaps a restraining tool. A novel is meant to entertain. A car manual is designed to guide maintenance and repairs.
That’s up front. Behind it, invisible, is the belief system of the writer. That shopping list can be very illuminating regarding the lifestyle of its author. For example, my shopping list never has alcoholic drinks on it. If you read my stories, alcohol use tends to be limited to characters I disapprove of, or to characters who are going to learn painful lessons about what alcohol does to people.
Not that I am a killjoy. It is rather that my thinking-when-I-don’t-think-about-it is influenced by my work as a psychotherapist. I have seen the worst this substance can do, and automatically react against it.
Every piece of writing has such hidden messages. What to you is common sense, so obvious that it doesn’t need to be expressed, will be there, telling the world about you as a person. You simply cannot avoid this. And other people’s common sense is different from yours.
Nor should you want to avoid having your writing display your inner reality. Instead, make the unconscious conscious, and become deliberate about using your words to create the kind of society you approve of. This will give your writing strength and passion — as long as you carefully avoid missionary zeal. No one likes to be preached at by someone who is supposed to give you a few hours of pleasant relaxation, or useful instruction, or helpful information (depending on the type of writing).
This is one of the features that sets off hack writing from the memorable, whether we are considering fiction or nonfiction. A boy meets girl story can be a standard, formula romance. Read a half a dozen, and they’ll merge into one another. Or it can be powerful, emotionally compelling, because it is written with passion and conviction. The story is a vehicle for creating the reality of choice the author would like to see. It may have events in it the author would like to eliminate from real life, such as domestic violence, or racial hatred, or hanging on to past hurt. Without lecturing, it teaches.
A cook book is instructional, nonfiction. It can simply have recipes and pictures. But it is also an expression of the author’s sense of creativity, humour, views on health, knowledge of cultures — or the lack of these characteristics.
In fiction and creative nonfiction (biography, travel, journalism), memorable writing is set apart by passion and commitment. This is the fruit of self-understanding: knowing where you are coming from, where you are, and where you want to go.
So, make the implicit known to yourself, and write deliberately, with the aim of improving the world. Have that cook book become a tool for giving people better lives. Have that novel inspire and provoke thought as well as entertain. That travelogue can be a better geographical and cultural instruction that any text book.
Actually, coming to think of it, this is not only a recipe for writing, but a recipe for life.
[Recycled from Bobbing Around volume 13 number 8.]
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