A reflection on origin stories and literary craft
When I was in high school, I lived in Houston, Texas, the armpit of America. Only in Houston can you have 100% humidity, 100 degree weather, 100 AQI, and 100 minutes of rush hour traffic run together without meriting extraordinary comment from the locals.
While I guess I should’ve taken time to appreciate the humor in the absurdity of that city’s perpetual existence, back then, I wanted to take after the great romantic poets whose writing I adored, and whose lifestyles seemed to be even more worthy of admiration. They seemed to have everything I wanted. In their diaries and poetry, they told stories of pressing against the sharp edges of cliffs, and wandering through daffodil and marmot-filled vales, and stumbling into the sea spray of crashing waves. They watched lightning spill out over lakes and emerged from the experience radiant with literary genius.
Unfortunately, the most beautiful, fantastical sights I observed in my daily life were as follows:
– highly reflective puddles
– birds perched on telephones wires during sunset
– flower gardens (but only viewed from indoors, to avoid the mosquitoes)
– flawlessly applied eyeliner
It’s no wonder that a dearth of readily available, deeply provocative and beautiful moments in nature inspired me to become a fantasy author. After all, what’s more escapist than running off to an utterly different world?
The need to salvage even the most trace beauty from my surroundings is something I’ve taken with me wherever I’ve lived since–including definitively gorgeous locales such as Japan, Hawaii, and Colorado. As far as my writing process goes, the impact of my escapist origin story is firm, too: I typically begin crafting my stories by building a deep connection with my setting. The characters and the plot always follow from there, but it is the place that gives them power, and the beauty that I see there–especially when that beauty is escaping from ugliness.
In this way, art imitates life.
Nowadays, as a writer and full-time creative, I can’t stub my toe against a book, a movie, even a video game without spinning into literary critique mode: What kind of story did I just run into? I think; What kind of themes, plots, character arcs, and messages are being promised to me? How intentionally is the author folding all these things together in order to make the story rich and meaningful?
This is not how I used to be.
The hyper-sharp skill set I gained from my teenage years, desperate to observe anything and everything that could bring me a glimmer of beauty and joy, now is my bane. When I read new books, seeking out beauty, I read everything like an editor. I pause to write notes when I notice how foreshadowing is being used to create a plot twist; I fall out of the story if the transition is too good as opposed to being too awkward.
Can writers appreciate the beauty in fiction and yet still find escape in it? In other words, can they consistently and completely compartmentalise that side of themselves?
Catherine Drinker Bowen tragically and wonderfully, said, “Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences every thing twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”
What if striving after bettering our craft does stymie our escape through literature?
Perhaps this is why we need to keep writing, not reading—because we are not only writing our character’s way out of trouble, but we’re writing our own way out, as well.