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Writing Quote: In the Air

August 8, 2010

I don’t often pick writing quotes that I disagree with (okay, I can’t say I’ve ever done it, to date), but this week I thought it was appropriate.  (10 Points and the House Cup to whoever can identify the thematic link between today’s Writing Quote and this week’s posts.  I don’t intentionally pick a theme each week, and many weeks I don’t have a consistent theme, I just blog about what comes up, but a lot of times I’m able to draw out some common threads from most of the week’s posts.  That’s one of my special powers.)  So, here’s today’s quote:

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air.  All I must do is find it, and copy it.

~Jules Renard

On one hand, I agree that in principle, the story I’m writing “exists” – but not in the way Renard here suggests.

The idea that the stories we are writing already exist and that the characters about whom we write are real people with their own wills is a popular conceit among writers.  And though I mean no offense to writers who subscribe to this way of thinking, I disagree with it pretty strongly.  The characters I creat are just that: my creations.  They exist only in my head.  They have no independent will.  When I create characters, I try to give them the traits and qualities of real people, but ultimately this is to serve the story.

I said that, in a way, the story I’m writing already “exists”.  By that I mean that the pieces of the story are all already extant: the bits of mythology and history that are woven into the background, the details on how people lived, the interactions I’ve had with people throughout my life, the emotions I’ve felt, the things I’ve seen and done, and the stories that have come before me.  These are like the puzzle pieces that I can fit together to make my own, unique story.  But it’s a puzzle without a picture on the box.  I have to decide for myself how the pieces fit together and what the picture will be.  No one can do that for me. 

I feel that the experience many writers share of having to follow the will of their characters or feeling forced to change the story because it demands to be changed are really something a lot closer to  home: it’s the creative process working itself out subconsciously.  Even if the writer isn’t actively aware of it, he or she is putting the pieces of the puzzle together.  And sometimes, without realizing it, he comes to the conclusion that “Wait a minute, these pieces don’t go together at all.”    That’s when the writer realizes that the story must go in a new direction, or something different must happen because one character or another otherwise wouldn’t be acting true to her character.  That’s the creative process at work.

So, I find the suggestion that the story already exists in perfect form, waiting to be plucked out of the air and “copied down” denigrates the work of the writer.  Writers aren’t just cloistered monks, making copies of someone else’s tale word by word.  The work of a writer is hard.  It’s creative.  It’s to create something new from the pieces we have, to try to tell a new story.  Anyone can copy down what’s already there.  It takes someone special to make something new and different.

Happy writing.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2010 11:47 pm

    I like your analysis of the quote, and I do agree with your depiction of the creative writing process being like putting a puzzle together (and that the changes in the story are like rearranging the pieces).

    When I write, I aim to ‘be’ each character so I can depict consistent dialog and behavior. So in that sense, I do see my characters as their own people and they can influence the direction of a story. Like you, my characters usually are a blend of people I know, I just pick a different combination of traits to form a new “person”.

    • August 9, 2010 9:02 am

      I think there’s a difference, though, between trying to “be” the person you’re writing about – to channel the character traits and thought processes that would exist in that character – and the idea that the characters are “real” in the sense that they are separate entities possessed of their own will and physicality. The latter is, perhaps, a useful metaphor for the process of “getting into character”, but it isn’t factually accurate.

  2. The Knight permalink
    August 9, 2010 2:17 am

    I agree it conflicts with one creativity and imagination not to mention freedom. If his quote was right then everyone could write amazing works with ease….everyone could just write and sale their stories and make A’s . I like your vision and is good and healthy to disagree 🙂 See your are getting your feet wet in controversy of thoughts. I enjoy your writings!

    • August 9, 2010 9:04 am

      Well… everyone who has access to the stories that are floating around perfect in the air. 😉

  3. August 9, 2010 1:17 pm

    I never really thought of the story being in the air, free to all. I always thought of it as more of a subterranean process: digging out the bits and pieces of story, shaping it out of the dark mass of the unconscious.

    Maybe what the author of the quote is getting at is that the story you’re trying to tell may be already in your mind, and the hard part is doing justice to the story in words? OK maybe a bit of a stretch, but I’ve been encountering that frustration a lot with my WIP.

    • August 9, 2010 1:23 pm

      Yeah, that’s why I had to post a quote and then be disagreeable with it. Then again, this guy is French, and I’m sure he said what he said in French, so maybe some of the nuance was lost in translation. But yes, I agree, it is hard work, and to me this quote doesn’t jive with that hard work.

  4. August 12, 2010 9:00 am

    This was great!

    I still like to believe that my characters are “Real…” They have their own voices, own thoughts and opinions, they have a will of their own, they have likes and dislikes, and very importantly, they have their own personalities. If you follow their personalities, your story will remain true. But what you said is probably right. It’s just creativity, subconsciously.

    After all is said and done, some of my characters do exist. And I’m talking about in the real, physical world. When I was dwelling on my Grand Novel one day, I took a glance at one of my characters and realized that it was somebody I knew. The person subconsciously worked his way out of my mind and into the story. Weird!

    But writers are strange creatures anyhow.

    • August 12, 2010 9:38 am

      As I said, it might be a useful fiction for authors to conceive of their characters as real, or their story as real, etc. It probably helps to let the subconscious, where a lot of this story crafting is taking place, to do its job. And, in way, yes – those characters may be “real”, in the sense that we often, consciously or subconsciously, base characters off real people we know. (And, if we’re prolific readers, face it, we probably base some aspects of our characters off of characters we’ve read.) But the character I write might be a little bit of real-world Person A, a little bit of real-world Person B, a dash of real-world Person C, and a generous seasoning of fictional-character-from-a-favorite-book Person D for flavor.

      But you know, the way the subconscious works is still largely a mystery… but we know it’s there, and we know it plays a role… I just kind of think it helps if we understand that and try to nurture it… and I suspect that an honest examination of ourselves will help.

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  1. Sorry, But Montague Doesn’t Exist. | House of Happy

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