“It is the greatest gift of my people, that we can bring our dreams to life for other eyes. Fantasy is a tool; like any other tool, it may be used poorly or well. At its best, fantasy reveals truths that cannot be shown any other way.”
– Sören Kristiaan Hansen, aka Deliann Mithondionne, the Changeling Prince (BLADE OF TYSHALLE, book two of the Acts of Caine)
A few years before I was born, an American journalist named Edward R. Murrow hosted a program on the CBS Radio Network called This I Believe. Each episode only lasted five minutes, of which three and a half were given over to an essay by a different contributor, each speaking about the specific personal convictions that they felt gave their lives meaning. In the generally terrifying atmosphere of the early Cold War, this program was the closest the 1950s ever got to a viral video. It was the most listened-to English-language program in history at that time, and it spawned books, and records, and other radio programs – some of which continue to this day.
When the good folk at Orbit decided to pick up my Acts of Caine novels, they asked me to contribute a blog-post-slash-promotional-essay or two for their website. I dislike writing about myself in any kind of biographical sense; if I thought that where I was born, my family, education, hobbies and pets and private life generally were any of your business, I’d write memoirs, not heroic fantasy.
I also have very little interest in commenting on my stories. My comments are the stories. Now – despite my dislike – I’ve done both of these things, and reasonably often, because that’s what people keep telling me I have to do to promote my books. The Good Folk, however, gave me license to write whatever I want.
I want to write about what I believe.
Most of what follows will be about story, because I make stories the same way I breathe: even to pause requires an act of will, and if I ever stop, it’s because I’m dead.
So… This I believe:
Not all honest writing is good, but all good writing is honest.
What’s not said is as important as what is. Often more important. Most of the trick to writing is knowing what to leave out.
It’s easier to make people cry if you’ve already made them laugh. And vice versa.
Whatever a story’s other virtues, if it’s not entertaining you, you’re wasting your time. A story is only great if it’s great for you. Personally.
What any work of art means depends on who you are when you look at it. What you get out of a book depends on what you bring to it. A book is only marks on a page (or pixels on a screen). The story is what happens in your imagination as you scan those marks. Books aren’t deep. Some readers are.
“Unreliable narrator” is a tautology. Belief in the reliable narrator is an act of faith intellectually equivalent to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.
(As Nabokov pointed out:) Books are read. Literature is re-read.
Two-valued systems break down in contact with the real world. True or false, right or wrong, good or evil: those are for mathematicians and philosophers. Theologians. Out here in the real world? Sure, there are sheep, and there are wolves—and there are also shepherds. And hummingbirds. And dolphins. And asteroids. And . . . you get the idea.
I agree with Wittgenstein’s analysis of language and meaning, but disagree with his conclusions. (At least, I disagree with what I think his conclusions are; ask me again in five years, because that’s the soonest I might have it figured out.)
Fiction is a slippery critter. From Ernest Hemingway: “You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of experience of the person who reads it.”
Another from Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
And one more just for fun: “You know what makes a good loser? Practice.”
(Paraphrasing Sartre in On Fiction:) Poetry is an object on the page. Prose is a window into the story.
“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” (Thanks, Mr. Keats!)
[And now from The Acts of Caine novels…]
“It is a truism that when one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The glory of art is that it can show this proverbial hammer how everything looks to a screwdriver—and to a plowshare, and to an earthenware pot. If reality is the sum of our perceptions, to acquire more varying points of view is to acquire, literally, more reality.”
“[He] had his own ideas about art. Art was not the creation of beauty, for him; neither was it merely the reflection of reality. Nor was it the depiction of truth. Art was the creation of truth.”
“Only by touching that living world within myself can I bear the pain of all the lives that come before me.”
“Everybody spends their whole lives pretending that shit isn’t random. We trace connections between events, and we invest those connections with meaning. That’s why we all make stories out of our lives. That’s what stories are: ways of pretending that things happen for a reason.”
“You never know how things will play out. You can’t. The universe doesn’t work that way. So cheer the f*** up, huh?”
And finally, to summarize:
“It is the greatest gift of my people, that we can bring our dreams to life for other eyes.”
This I believe.
May 21, 2013
The Acts of Caine novels by Matthew Stover comprise HEROES DIE, BLADE OF TYSHALLE, CAINE BLACK KNIFE and CAINE’S LAW. Pre-order HEROES DIE now for a special introductory price.