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Writing Quote: Revelation of Meaning

June 6, 2010

There are many sides to writing stories – be they fictional or non (I personally prefer the fictional variety, as you may have gathered).  We write to entertain.  We write because we “have to”.  But we also write to elucidate some moral or ideal, to find meaning in what can sometimes seem a meaningless life.  Philosophical, no?  Today’s Writing Quote comes from philosopher and “political theorist” Hannah Arendt.

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. 

~Hannah Arendt

What is it about stories that catches the mind’s eye, and that causes us to pause and think more deeply about our own lives?  Is it the role of the writer to be intentional and persuasive in imbuing story with meaning?  Or should the writer be transparent, invisible in the story, allowing the tale to take its place and the meaning to be woven from those threads organically?

No answers, today.  Only questions.  What’s your take?  How do you approach meaning, moral, and purpose in your stories?  Do you often think about these things when you read stories?  Do they inform the way you live and think about life?  Do they make you reconsider your perspective?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2010 8:44 am

    How true this quote is! The Writer’s constant nag is “Show, don’t tell.” Imagine a book that kept explicitly stating its “Point,” over and over. A-noooooooy-ing!!! I don’t want to read your “Point!” I just want to read the story!

    I think maybe a good story is “Just there.” Like the City of Ember; In my view, I saw the city as the entire world, which is deteriorating and coming to an end, and there’s a Message (read: Bible) that helps you to escape it. However, in Jeanne Duprau’s view (, it seems to have a save-the-environment message. Which I didn’t come away with. 🙂 We both came to very different conclusions about the same book, because she didn’t explicitly state (that I remember:) “…Then Lina and Doon found the box. By the way, this book is written to help you understand that we have to take care of our environment. Anyhow, they opened the box…” SAT-Essay-City!!!

    Maybe it’s up to the reader for interpretation, however if they come at it with the right mindset, it’s all right there.


    • June 7, 2010 8:45 am

      Largely, I think I agree with you. When I was growing up I always told myself I would never write a story that had a moral or political point to make, and that the point of a story was to entertain.

      Today, I have a more nuanced view. I actually think it’s good for stories to make moral or political points. I don’t think it’s good for that point to be belabored or to interrupt the flow of the narrative and the story. The story still comes first, I think. But if the story doesn’t make the reader think about things, if it doesn’t ask the reader some question, it might not be as good a story as it could have been. But… if the story is all about the point, so it’s kind of smacking the reader in the head with it, that’s probably not as good of a story as one that has no point at all but to entertain. Or perhaps, anyway. That’s a fine line to walk, I guess.

  2. Lua permalink
    June 6, 2010 3:48 pm

    I love that quote Stephen and truth be told, I don’t have the answers to any of those questions… All I can say is that I’ve read great stories where the writer was persuasive and allowed his/her self to be present and I’ve read great stories where the writer was absolutely transparent… I guess it depends on the writer’s voice and technique and how the story needs to be told.
    But personally, I love stories which force me to pause for a moment and think about my life…

    • June 7, 2010 8:46 am

      I don’t expect anyone to have answers, per se. Just wanted to provoke my readers to think in the same way that reading this quote provoked me to think.

      You’re probably right, too. It really depends on the skill of the writer in how this approach works.

  3. June 6, 2010 10:53 pm

    I have favourite books that fall into both categories. Either way can work, but as a general rule, I think I prefer the invisible author. I like to escape into a book and the author can sometimes jolt me out of the trance of reading.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • June 7, 2010 8:47 am

      Yeah, I think I agree, too… as a general rule. But I can see the value of the alternative approach.

  4. June 7, 2010 12:19 pm

    Readers take from the story what they will, and sometimes they take things from a story that the author never originally intended consciously (though perhaps unconsciously). I do prefer an invisible author. I don’t like having a message forced upon me.

    • June 7, 2010 12:26 pm

      As I’ve mentioned above, I think I largely have the same preference.

      But as a writer, my view is slightly more nuanced. For one thing, I don’t think it’s really possible for us, as writers, to avoid writing something of our worldview into what we write. It makes its way in, one way or another… We humans generally being a mixed-up lot, though, that still leaves lots of room for interpretation.

      • June 7, 2010 6:46 pm

        Yes, it’s probably impossible to separate ourselves from our work like that. I do think that even if you don’t choose to write something with a specific message, what you believe in strongly, will still be there in the writing. On the other hand, some writers do force it. I suppose there’s a time and place for everything though. It would really depend on the story.

      • June 8, 2010 8:35 am

        Yeah, I agree. Generally, I think most of us probably lack the skill to “force it” and have it work as a story. That’s probably why it’s generally better for us to try to stay transparent – or at least I think that’s part of it. I think that’s also why most stories that force it fall flat instead.

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