Monday, June 16, 2008

Why I Write: To create something of meaning

This is very important to me. I want to write work that inspires, because it has meaning.

But what do I mean by meaning? I have two questions and a test.

The first question is whether the story is meaningful to me. I'm going to spend a lot of time working on this story, and I need to know that it moves me. There's plenty of projects that don't fulfil this test, and plenty of them are worthwhile. Just because I think they're good ideas doesn't mean I personally should be working on them. I've already talked about the idea of pursuing the heart of the story, which I called the nugget. That glow of the nugget indicates the story has personal meaning for me.

(So what are the topics or themes I consider meaningful? One of my goals for this blog is to help me figure that out. I want to dig into the projects I have written and try to identify what was driving me to write them. By identifying these nuggets I expect to find some common topics and themes, and some I'll still want to be writing in the future.)

The second question is whether the story is meaningful to others. This is harder to accomplish, and is a true test of the writing.

I may find something I've written meaningful, but that may not be having that effect on a reader. That may be because I haven't written it well enough yet (entirely likely) or this person doesn't find that story as powerful as I do. Given it can be an individual response I try to show my work more widely. But if no one is relating to the story, then this particular piece of work either needs more work or is staying on the shelf.

So how can I test whether the story is meaningful? I've identifying three factors that I want the effect of a story to have, based on my own response to work that inspires me.

Force. A story must carry force. It must make an impact by the reader.
Depth. A story should affect the reader at a personal level. They should feel it affects them deeply.
Longevity. A story should have a lasting impact.

So when I say I want to write something meaningful, I think I mean I want to write something that forcefully strikes the reader at a personal level, the experience of which stays with the reader over time.

How about you? What does meaning mean to you?


Tim Jones said...

I like the idea of creating something of meaning, but I wonder whether that is too "willed" a goal? Perhaps one could start with another goal, such as writing because it gives you pleasure, or because you feel a compulsion to tell a certain story (I guess this relates to your "nugget" idea), and then hope that the meaning the story/screnplay has for you transmits itself to your audience.

But maybe that's an approach that's more feasible for a short story writer or poet, rather than someone working in a longer and more time-consuming form.


Sean said...

Hi Tim,

Absolutely it may be too willed a goal! Great point.

'To create something of meaning' is definitely one of my reasons for writing, but I'm seeing that it does have problems for individual projects that I think you're drawing out here.

Thinking about any creative project in such a demanding way can add unnecessary pressure and expectation for very little achieved.


Sean said...

Hi Tim,

Thinking about this further through the day, I've decided I wanted to explore your comment a little more, through the lens of "what do I do?", which is the lens of this blog for me.

1) I have found that the goal to 'create something of meaning' can put too much pressure on an individual project. It's a terrible weight on a blank sheet of paper to say "Now I'm going to create something of meaning. Go!"
2) So I've made more progress following a different impulse, such as the nugget
3) But I certainly have the aspiration with my projects to create something of meaning, and this does drive me onwards, so
4) I do hold this goal/reason for writing in mind when I'm working on a project, but it's one of several/many simultaneously operating.

If this blog is showing me anything about myself, it's that my reasons for writing are far more complex than I thought when I first posed the question "Why do I write?"

Tim Jones said...

It's very interesting to read your further thoughts on this point, Sean. I'm not very reflective when I'm writing a first draft - I tend to follow my nose and get the words down on the page without worrying much about whether they make a whole lot of sense, let alone what freight of meaning they carry. When I come to edit the piece is when I start to exercise my critical faculties (such as they are).

But I figure that meaning is found in a piece I write by those who read it, rather than imposed on it by me: all I can do is decide what to write, and then write it as best I can.

Helen Rickerby said...

I'm finding this discussion really interesting - I always find it fascinating the way other people write and think about their writing.

Like you Tim, I'm a very instinctual writer - I follow my nose, I sometimes get started by just writing 'automatically' whatever crap pops in my head. And yet I'm a big advocate for meaning in and writing something that means something. I like to think there is meaning in my work, even if I'm not entirely sure what it is.

Being an instinctual person, I'm not sure I've really defined for myself exactly what that means, except I guess I'm looking for some kind of depth, something that is bigger than itself. I think western culture, by and large, is suffering from a lack of meaning - too much surface and spectacle, but no point, no depth.

Possibly it can be dangerous to write with a particular meaning or message in mind - that could turn into propaganda. Often the worthwhileness of art can be in asking questions, not giving answers.

Now that I've written all that, I'm not sure I really said anything coherent, but never mind...