October 3, 2016

The dangers of a confident message

People compare stories to all kinds of things, but the one I repeatedly come home to is this: writing a story is an experiment. Specifically, it is an experiment to discover what you, the author, really believe.

This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. As Neil Gaiman put it, “I write to figure out what I think about things.” And while it might seem odd that people might not know what they think or feel or believe, there are countless bias tests you can do to discover that all of your decisions and estimations and convictions are affected by influences around you, and some are more visible than others.

So, sure. I write to write a fun story, to entertain myself, to put myself in difficult situations and then try to think my way out of them. But I also write as an experiment to test my beliefs and try to figure out where they’re weak or where they’re strong.

In a way, the method I use to write my stories is the same way I was taught to write essays.

You take an assertion about the world. You explain that assertion. Then you rigorously challenge it, and discuss more or less with yourself how those challenges hold up. Then, at the end, you revisit your assertion, and you see how your assertion has changed in the face of these challenges.

The problem comes in when your assertion hasn’t changed at all: if your assertion is completely and totally triumphant, in other words. If that’s the case, then… Well. It makes for some very boring reading.

Because an essay – or a story – is a discussion that takes the audience on a journey to some kind of revelation. That revelation doesn’t have to be all that revelatory – “A mother’s love profoundly shapes a child’s life,” is not especially new or unique, but if this was one of the revelations a story arrived at, I wouldn’t begrudge it much. But it has to go somewhere. The narrative must progress and change, moving forward toward some kind of epiphany, great or small.

But this progress is nullified if you’re basically returning to your original assertion unchanged and unharmed.

In essence – no one wants to read a book in which the writer thoroughly confirms that their worldview is completely right, thank you very much.

Doubt and ambiguity and complications are in many ways the cores of the human experience. To write a story in which your beliefs and your assertions defeat all doubts and are unambiguously correct is a surefire ticket to a lethally boring story. Reading that would be like sitting in a long car ride with a particularly self-righteous relative who’s revisiting all of their personal grudges at length and reiterating how they were in the right every time.

The problem comes when you feel your assertion is unimpeachably right and cannot be challenged. And some assertions are absolutely like this.

For example, racism is bad. But the statement that racism is bad is not interesting. And a story that interrogates racism and finds it to be bad is not going to be an interesting story.

So if you’re finding yourself writing one of these stories, in which your worldview is being totally confirmed and your assertion is unimpeachably right, and you know it’d be a moral wrong to suggest otherwise – then I find it often helps to broaden or narrow your assertion: to make the question either bigger or smaller in some regard, or at the very least complicate it somehow.

For example, rather than write a story whose thesis examines that racism is bad, you could complicate it into a scenario like:

The discriminatory zoning practices in [NAME CITY HERE] have inarguably harmed the Asian-American community and helped perpetuate racism – but after a new cultural movement emerges among the younger generations, it suddenly becomes popular to reside in historically Asian-American neighborhoods on the West Coast.

Is this new cultural movement a victory over racism? Is it just racism in another form? How do the Asian-American residents respond to this movement and its effect on their neighborhoods and way of life? What elements are admirable, and what elements regrettable or outright despicable? What is gained and what is lost? And how is this conflict emblematic of our national struggles to come to terms with our own troubled history, and integrate with a historically marginalized group of Americans?

That’s something I basically just pulled out of my ass. But you can see the ambiguities there – these aren’t easy questions. And they shouldn’t be. Your experiment should be difficult.

If I wrote this story – and I, being who I am, wouldn’t at all feel experienced or accomplished enough to do so – I’d probably look at it from the point of view of two Asian-American characters, one of which embraces this cultural movement, while the other fights it. Both would have their beliefs about this movement challenged in some fashion during the story. Their decisions on how to proceed after this challenge would decide the rest of their stories.

And if, at the end of the story, I felt completely convinced about my conclusions, then, to be honest, I probably did it wrong. Like, if I, Robert Bennett, write my story and find I feel I’ve got some completely concrete and unassailable convictions about how to approach and think about the developing race issues in America… Like, I’d have to be an idiot. I’d be mad to be so completely confident about such a complex and difficult thing. To tie things up so simply and so completely would be a disservice to the subject matter.

But that’s the point, frequently. You write to find out what you think about things. But it’s a very human thing to meditate and realize that your feelings are far more complicated than you initially thought. Yet that’s what makes the story – or experiment, or discussion – worthwhile.