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There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams--not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.
The Great Gatsby, Chapter 5
I’m teaching The Great Gatsby this term, for the first time since leaving the US. It’s a novel I didn’t read myself until after college, one that upon that first read failed to grab me, did not mean much, felt antiquated in its portrayal of materialism.
But there’s something about teaching a text, the close attention and the sustained gaze and the responsibility of playing the guide, or perhaps it’s something about seeing a room of teenagers debating the American Dream, pondering a green light, and reconsidering their definitions of love–somewhere along the way, I think I got it, and the book has been greatly redeemed for me. I’m glad.
We’ve just read Chapter 5, Gatsby and Daisy’s so awkward teatime reunion, the tumbling clock, and the stopping and restarting rain, which the students relished to dissect. And at the end of class, a student hung back, slowly packing up her bag, a student who had kept quiet that lesson, who I worry doubts her confidence despite such palpable dedication. And she said, and, I confess, I paraphrase it now, that “I don’t understand why writers put those literary features in. Why don’t they just say what they mean?”
The question, it’s one I’ve heard many times as a literature teacher, less as a creative writing teacher, born typically of reader’s frustration, but I think on this occasion, mixed too with an earnest curiosity. And this question goes so directly to the heart of what it is to be a writer–
I gave an answer. We discussed. The student left. But I’m still thinking about the question, as much for my own benefit as hers, because it’s something I think I need to clarify, to lay out a foundation for: why do we write stories instead of essays? Why is this the way we choose to communicate?
Why don’t we say just what we mean?
Fiction is a strange thing. To tell a story which is explicitly invented, yet which we claim communicates–it is in some ways a blatant contradiction. If I have an idea about the world that I seek to communicate or even a personal experience that I want to share, what would possess me to bury it in an imaginary tale? Fiction must blunt our messages, or at least obscure them. As a form of direct communication, fiction is mired in difficulty, relying on readers of varying backgrounds each generating the interpretation we desire–how foolish an enterprise it is, and how susceptible to failure.
Sometimes I think there is a cowardice at play here. We may fear the repercussions of so open a declaration of subversive ideas, and so we hide them away in stories, where we always maintain that plausible deniability that–oh, you were offended? But it is just a story, after all. It was the character who said it, and not me, and we flash that disturbed reader a conciliatory smile.
If we are not cowards, then we must be the gaudiest of fashion designers, who suit their message up in wild clothes and haughty face–go dazzle ’em, we say. My message has a neckline deeper than yours, after all, and perhaps we have lost sight of the person under all that cloth, and it is not a message at all we are peddling anymore, but an empty suit and a robotic step.
Fiction is a carnival show–fifty cents for the haunted house, a thrill of escapism masquerading as serious comment on humanity, or fiction is a labyrinth for our ailing hearts, to which we sacrifice the time and attention of readers, those unsuspecting Athenian youths, to our voracious need for voice.
Yet we persist
And yet. Well, of course this isn’t it. Of course there is another story. What else can we do, we writers, but throw another story at a problem?
Last week, I was standing in the shower, ten at night, numb from a fourteen-hour day of work, and also from a hard rejection to a piece of writing. And–okay, there it is. That’s what this post is really about. Rejection. And I hid it away three fourths of the way through. That’s me the fictionaire. Breathe. Alright. Let the self-doubting wash away.
But I really was standing in the shower, thinking about writing, and I felt, in spite of or because of the lowness of that moment, that fiction at its base for me is of a deep truth. It is a participation in the great human movement of storytelling, the latest way we sit around our fires and pass the dark, cold night. And stories can stay with us as an essay rarely does, for it is the stories we remember year on year, the novels that move us, not the textbooks. Stories are a bit like trees, sometimes. They root down into us, and once there, they’ll grow a bit, leaf out, become some part of us, a structure we can hang ideas on. Anyway, they can be.
Of course we’ll keep writing. It’s our art. It’s some expression of the soul, that in the right moment can be truer than an essay, or at least true in a different kind of way. We must remember that. I must.
I’ll close, as I must, I feel, with Gatsby once again, and which direction the quote below will point us to? Well, it depends on us, the readers, the meaning-makers from the author’s splat of words. Why do we write, after all? Why these stories?
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----
Best wishes for the week ahead, and don’t forget to check out the other #AuthorToolboxBlogHop posts this Wednesday!