True and original…or, why we write (or don’t).

For the last few years most of my intellectual fuel has been burned up in writing my first novel. But since I finished the novel this spring (apart from a few minor tweaks and rearrangements, still ongoing) I’ve had a hard time motivating myself to resume my old habit of blogging. Laziness is clearly a factor, but I don’t think I’m any lazier than I used to be – only more realistic about what I expect my writing to achieve.

Suppose we evaluate every piece of writing, existing or potential, on the following dimensions:

1) Truthfulness.
2) Originality.
3) Effort.

By “truthfulness” I mean, okay, yes, empirical truth: Did this happen in the real world? Can it be relied on, to a reasonable degree of statistical certainty, to happen again? But fiction can also be truthful, if its artifice reveals deep-down truths about humanity, social forces, whatever. When a character in a story does something no human would actually do, “It’s fiction!” isn’t a defense – unless the character is a robot or an alien – in which case “It’s science-fiction!” is a defense, provided that the robot’s or alien’s behaviour points to something true about our own reality. I guess what I’m saying is that truthfulness is a slippery and debatable concept – but that doesn’t free us to knowingly write lies.

“Originality” seems pretty straightforward. The older you get, the more you read, the more you start seeing the same old ideas, the same old arguments, coming around again and again. This doesn’t mean the old ideas or arguments are untrue. Sometimes people need to be reminded of things they already know, or used to know, or would have known if they hadn’t been misled by false-but-original intellectual fashions into believing daft things. Sometimes the old, commonplace ideas are so thoroughly forgotten that they become original again. Which is to say that originality is almost as slippery and debatable as truthfulness.

By “effort” I mean how much effort goes into writing. It’s easy to write something true if you’re not concerned about originality: Japan is a mountainous and densely-populated archipelago off the eastern coast of mainland Asia. It’s easy to write something original if you’re not concerned about truth: Japan was founded in 1949 by lobster people displaced by atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll. Writing something both true and original is exceptionally difficult. So difficult that very few writers ever manage it. To judge by results, most don’t even try.

Suppose you have an idea that’s true, but not very original. Should you go to the effort of writing it down? If you have a fair degree of certainty about its truthfulness, it’s probably worth sharing, if only to help increase the amount of truth in the world.

Alternatively, suppose you have an idea that may or may not be true, but you’re pretty sure no-one’s ever had before. In that case, again, it’s probably worth sharing, albeit at the risk of misleading people with what could be an untruth.

But if you’re only, say, fifty percent sure your idea is true, and fifty percent sure it’s original, is it really worth the effort to write down? Probably not.

One of the nice things about having a novel in progress is you can use it as an outlet for all the ideas you have that might not meet your standards for truthfulness and originality: Okay, I don’t believe this all that strongly, but it’s the kind of thing Katie (or Roland, or Helmut) might believe, so I’ll just rephrase it into that character’s voice and…and you look up from your computer screen and it’s 3 AM and, marvel of marvels, you’ve actually met your day’s quota. You can go to bed without hating yourself.

But a novel can’t be merely a repository for every half-baked idea you’re embarrassed to take responsibility for. Unless those ideas add up to a true and original whole, you’re better off saving yourself the effort.

Does my novel meet that standard? Probably not. But then, very few do.

M.

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