Creating Experience With Language

I recently read that good stories not only capture experience with language, they also create it. Hearing that gave me a boost not unlike the one I get when reading a story that seems fully alive, that captures fragile moments in the life of a made-up character and propels me into his future. In especially good writing, the undercurrents of a character’s history are hidden in words that show without telling. Well-written fiction can bring this history to life in the lines on the page and, better yet, between them, enriching the story’s movement through its present time. For reader and writer it can feel almost like magic.

When a writer has those creative moments, it can be joyous for him no matter how dark may be the character’s past. When he has those joyous moments, there is at least a reasonable chance his readers will have them, too. The experience they are both hoping to have becomes the bond between them.

That is why I value hearing from readers and writers alike about the “ahh ha” moments that spring from the pages of a story they love. When we talk about this together, we grow the importance of story in our culture.

What was the last book you read that struck you with particular power?

Jim

5 thoughts on “Creating Experience With Language

  1. When I wrote my debut novel Dance of Deception, I wanted the setting (an urban high school) to depict apathy and what can happen if no one’s paying attention. Then I found this quote much later in my writing journey: Apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand. How perfect to describe the gist the story. What do you think?

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    • Trish, that quote hits the spot. I like your use of setting to depict a state of mind – apathy – that colors a whole community – the urban high school. That’s precisely what I meant by using setting to move the story forward. I imagine the apathy not only affects what happens but also shows how the POV character feels about it. Readers get to know him by his responses. It sounds like your writing is very serious. I’d love to hear more about it. Perhaps we should trade books. What do you think? Jim

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  2. Jim I’m a fellow Wash U graduate (AB ’85). I’m a fiction writer and a poet. I wrote and published a novel, Long Green (iUniverse) in ’03 and am looking to get back into the creative mode after publishing a book of poetry, Lost Autographs (Moonstone Press). The last particularly powerful book I read was Herzog by Saul Bellow. I liked the way Bellow created fictional characters w which were “more real than real.” That’s what I tried to do in Long Green – a relationship book involving a young adult man and woman – both with trauma in their backgrounds and each tapping on a well of trauma that I was living with which became a little bit more nameable as I wrote. In the end they had their own momentum and dynamic, tastes, loves, and desires.

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    • Peter, thank you for the thoughtful response and for sharing the ideas behind your work. Years ago I read and loved “Herzog” and have thought about reading it again, but I seem to be bound these days to more contemporary fiction. I may change that with your reminder of Bellow’s brilliance.

      I am dealing with a serious computer problem that I must continue to address this morning. When it’s fixed, I intend to respond carefully to the substance of your remarks.

      It’s great to connect with a fellow Washington University grad. I hope you will choose to participate in my blog and perhaps in emails. There will be new postings and video conversations once my computer problems are fixed.

      Best to you,
      Jim

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    • Peter, I’m finally able to return to my website. I’ll be putting up more posts and video conversations soon. Thanks for your patience.

      My characters, whether in novels or short stories, have difficult histories that underlie the events of the stories’ real time. This seems to be what I care to investigate, what drives me. Like you, when I invest my characters with difficult histories, it is often a way of investigating aspects of my own that have been the source of troubles I’ve had to deal with. Like you, again, when I spring from aspects of my personal history into fiction, they become more nameable. I really like how you said that. I may steal it from you for a tweet!

      I also like what you said about your characters develop “their own momentum and dynamic tastes, loves, and desires.” I take great pleasure in discovering these things about my characters and watching how they drive the stories in different directions than the trajectory of my life. I become the first reader once they become themselves. They become real. They become people in my life.

      I love to deal with characters crossing boundaries, which is, of course, what I did in “Boundaries.” There it was about boundaries they shouldn’t cross – ethical and moral boundaries – and those they should – the constraining factors, the difficult experiences, and traumas that they struggle to overcome. In my new novel project – “Third Floor” – I have twins, a brother and sister, coming very close to a taboo toward which they are driven because of the trauma of their family life. It seems that I like to challenge readers to find compassion for characters who do things that are difficult to accept.

      In writing about these things on my blog, I hope to engage readers as well as writers in the conversation. If you have any advice about how to accomplish this, I’d love to hear it.

      Be well. May your writing take you wherever you want to go. Let’s stay in touch.

      Jim

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