Writing: Decisions and Difficulties

OCT 2013 The New Yorker senior editor, Willing Davidson, talks to writers, Junot Diaz and Karen Russell, about the difficulties of writing short stories. I have drawn on aspects of their discussion which reverberated with me or linked to what I teach in the classroom. The full interview (1.5 hours) is available on You Tube.

Select a style suitable for your subject: What, if any, limitations are there with a particular style? Literature is either based in realism (where a reader may say “I recognise that”) or extraneousness (where a reader meets a werewolf). The latter allows conversations on topics, like rape, where we may entertain thoughts our defences would normally block. (Diaz)

Select a genre fit for purpose: Is dystopia the right genre for me? Dystopia is the genre of consumption. It isn’t new, just high in circulation. It functions as a narrative of consolation with an “It’s already too late to change” idea. Therefore, the reader doesn’t get an energy to change things. The purpose isn’t to reflect on a crisis but rather to resolve fears of where we are at, right now. (Diaz)

Dystopia is about doom, our own mortality. It is unleashed in an accelerated way. It is a dog eat dog kind of world. (Russell)

Appeal to a wide audience: When writing, if you deliberately focus on speaking to a narrow group of people, all sorts of readers connect to it. People like detail because the writing does not become pretentious or generic. The writer is really talking. (Diaz)

To reach a wide audience, write very specifically. (Diaz)

Diaz states, “Readers are welcoming” by nature and therefore, a writer cannot alienate someone. If a story has a human element or a sense of vulnerability, then it helps all sorts of readers connect. They see the character/writer as a human being. (Diaz) Even in a dystopian text, readers may be hit with the idea of potential or hope like in the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which Russell describes as providing a sense of utopia.

Include messages about issues affecting you or your area. Your passion will appeal to a certain audience. Russell’s first novel, Swaplandia!, is about the incremental damage to ecological areas like Florida’s Everglades. It clearly argues that development has its price.

Have a clear idea of the meaning you hope to convey: Interviewers often ask writers about the meaning of their text(s), yet these questions are superfluous since texts are always open to interpretation. Diaz replies, “The book is the sole property of the reader. It is irrelevant what the writer thinks.”

book is property of the reader not writer3

It would seem that several authors share this idea: Oprah Winfrey asked McCarthy whether The Road was just a story of a man and his boy or something deeper. (read full interview)

His reply was yes, but “…obviously you can draw conclusions about all sorts of things from reading the book depending on your taste.”

Welcome, rather than be wary of, different interpretations: Unintentional messages are a source of further discussion. Diaz notes that in some dystopian texts, women are invisible. In Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games (ironically written by a woman) the protagonist, Katniss, loses her sister, is cut off from her mother and only has productive relationships with males. There is a deficit of relationships. What is this saying? (Diaz)

I gather the writer is accountable for the simplistic, key, message (singular) to be gained from reading any literature but the complexity of that message unravels and permeates, for each individual reader as they delve deeper into the text, experiencing the world for themselves. The reader is accountable for becoming aware of a kind of collage effect of messages (plural). In this way, the book is never “finished”. It lives on, regenerating ideas. Perhaps this is why we refer to texts in the present tense, even after we’ve read them. When a book is finished, you can reopen it and the characters live again. It reminds me of those magazine piles which are never discarded but rather passed on from gran to mum to daughter to friend to her mum to her gran…

If you, too, have listened to or read an author’s interview which resonated with you, comment below.