Once I had drafted my first novel (which is currently in the revision stage), I felt rather proud of myself. I had set my mind to a project and actually followed through with it. Though I still never spoke about the accomplishment to anyone other than my friends or by a singular “I did it!” tweet on Twitter, the experience brought an unlikely revelation my way.
That is, I realized just how many people shared my goal and just how many people had story ideas exactly like I did.
Mankind is a creature intrinsically drawn to stories; stories exist in our everyday lives, our every moment. Actually, take this time to imagine a world without them. Yeah, sure, no one could write a book, but also, you could never talk about your day, either. You could never tell someone about a time when you were younger, or about a great grandfather that they will never meet. And, of course, you could never hear Karen complain about how she had to speak to the manager at McDonald’s. We as humans have the art of telling a tale bred into our souls, and life without them would be quite difficult (and perhaps unfathomable).
Photo by Morgan White
A friend asked me something the other day that I feel captures my ideology on this subject. He simply asked me “How do you write?” Though he himself is an aspiring songwriter and was mainly referring to poetry, the purpose of my message still stands. The thing is that, if you want to write——if you want to focus on telling stories or writing poetry——you must change your psychology. When I started writing, I thought a certain way, but now I don't think that way anymore. The very way that my brain functions isn’t the same as it was when I began writing. As I said before, man is innately predisposed to storytelling; however, I do not believe that man is aware that he is such. It doesn't come immediately. Thankfully, you just have to work at it——and, I believe, anyone can. Stories exist all around us; they are a constant in nature and a product of the very flow of time itself. As long as things are able to change, there will always be stories to depict those changes; as long as conflict exists, there will always be stories of how they were resolved (both ending well and ending tragically). But the eye of the writer must be able to detect these subliminal clues; it must be able to point out the hints and determine where the story lies within them.
One of my favorite quotes, by William Faulkner, will do well here, I believe:
“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”
A writer indeed has those three tools: observation, experience, and imagination.
You must train yourself to be observant to little things. The world around us is begging to be seen in a different way; it is begging to be found as it is, and not as it is merely seen. Likewise, I read books all the time where a writer explains something so small in such a brilliant way. That's the Writer's Observation at work.
Experience is a bit more concrete. Experience is known, where observation is acquired. You can inherently write about what you know and have lived through, mainly because you are the only one who wields that perspective, and you are the only one who wields in that particular way.
Imagination is the strange one, mainly because it's abstract. Imagination is a mixture of wit and creativity. It's the place where a writer becomes an artist and twists things to his liking. In the hands of imagination, the universe is but a tool of the mind; it is but the hammer that collides onto the red-hot metal as the writer forms it into something brand new——some foreign mutation of what it once was.
None of these three are promised and sometimes they are merely given. All around us, there are things for us to say and things for us to hear. We must simply know when to speak and when to listen.
On "The Raven Prayer," A Reflection upon the essence of Doubt
The birds will gaze upon the stars and wonder why they dance.
The sky above, so dark and speckled—-- they lust to feel the air.
Oh, Man Above, what do you see when you watch the ravens fly? Is it joyous? Do you weep? When you let the birds take wing——and do you care for the flocks of birds as much as you do me?
Oh Man Above——-- if you are above———do you see us scurry about? Tell me now, what is aloof in your mind? What do you think about the stars as you call their names when they fall or die?
And are we the stars that died ago, and does our light reach you? Do you see each of us here, striving to- and-fro———and what do you think of our lights———-- the ones that died long ago?
Oh, Man Above, I must admit———--
I watch the birds as I gaze upon the stars, and I wonder why we dance.
Photo by Morgan White
My idea for the above poem, “The Raven Prayer,” came somewhat subconsciously. It was written while looking at the stars, and it is a blend of my faith and the idea of existential isolation——the sort of loneliness you experience when looking up into a pitch-black sky. The little light pollution in that particular spot allowed me to view the great expanse of the night sky almost completely. I watched the stars and how they hung almost as if on strings in the black abyss.
In my poetry, and especially in the “The Raven Prayer,” I don't try to make political statements or any other manifestos. Instead, I try to capture the inner workings of the human condition. These “inner workings” are qualities such as doubt, frustration, awe, melancholy, loneliness, etc.
In this poem, the ideas on display are definitely the ideas of loneliness and doubt and how they affect us. I tried to capture that sense of existential loneliness that we seem to unknowingly disregard: the feeling you get when you look up into the night sky and feel so small, and just what it is about the abysmal night sky that aspires a man to wonder what he is? That's the theme behind “The Raven Prayer.” Because I believe, when we really see reality for what it is, when we come to terms with the vacancy around us, we begin to wonder just why we dance.
In sharing the poem, I was asked by a friend as to exactly why I thought we danced. What is the dance, I thought? What is this visceral hope, this innate sense of purpose that drives us into a seemingly illusory concept of significance?
Well, in a sense, the dance is an illusion. The facade of happiness, or maybe even hope. It's something that is so ingrained in our minds that it almost becomes a drug——a hallucination——because in reality, when you put down the rose-colored glasses, you see a rather frigid picture. One of death, doubt, and debatable purpose. Like the title, the poem is a prayer, like a man praying to God for the first time or in his lowest moment, unaware as to whether God will hear him or if he simply is talking to himself. Yet, still, he prays with doubt and sincerity.
He wonders why we dance because he sees the uselessness of it all.
Everyone doubts. Where the religious man, in his darkest times, wonders if God exists, so does the atheist, in his darkest hour, wonder if perhaps he too is wrong. The speaker of the poem is an allegory. He is everyone, at some point. And it was these thoughts that were in the back of my mind during the creation of the poem.
As a writer, I found the foundation of my own style only recently. The fantasy genre is much more than merely stories about heroes, elves, and dwarves. As a genre, it includes a specific set of characteristics; as a form of literature, it represents a realization that wells deep from within the human condition. Fantasy——and fantasy, in particular——is the Escapist’s Genre.
The very rise of the fantasy genre sprouts from despair. For my example, consider Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Published in 1939, the classic tale of the adventure of Bilbo Baggins came onto shelves during the eve of what would quite considerably be the largest war known to humanity. More so, the story arrived merely two decades after what was, at the time, the greatest war the world had ever known. The world faced depression; the world stared into the mirror and perceived their own mortality.
And thus, people wished to find a way out——to another world, another time.
To write fantasy is to seemingly write a paradox through a jagged spyglass. The world of the story must be unreal in some way. In contrast, it is the story’s realistic nature that captivates a reader. While the readers read to escape their surroundings, the readers secretly read to find themselves within the tale. So, while it is true that one wishes to leave the real world behind, it is just as true that one wishes to find shards of the real world in the place that the tale takes them to.
Along this vein of thought, the fantasy genre is comparable to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. Imagine a person whom, throughout the entirety of his life, faced the back wall of a cave. And, as Plato puts it, there is a light that shines into the cave from the mouth, illuminating the back wall. People walk by the cave on the outside, casting shadows upon the wall for our prisoner to see. And, he sees nothing but these shadows. Given the only experience and knowledge he has perceived throughout his life, he would believe that these shadows are the “real” world and would not know that they are, in fact, merely the shadows of something else.
In certain aspects, fantasy stories follow this idea.
The writer creates a world, yet he can only make sense of it with what he knows and what he can fathom. One cannot write about something they do not cognitively perceive; creativity is only useful when it surfaces, not when it is dormant. So, then, the writer of fantasy, though crafty, must in some way or another cast shadows upon the wall for their reader (the chained man) to believe. This form of writing is, at its root, a type of trickery. It is a ploy by the hands of the writer, the Puller of Strings, to fool the reader into believing in the shadows: To make them care about non-existent characters, in non-existent places, doing non-existent things. With the reader always carefully in mind, the writer must piece together a mosaic of life and imagination, a collision of the real and the unreal. And therefore, as writers, we must watch the wall of the cave from the mouth, carefully observing the shadows that the world creates——and we must mold them to our liking.