Squeezing The Tube

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-05-15 21:00:00 No comments

You probably have a tube of toothpaste somewhere in your house that looks like a shed snakeskin. You've squeezed everything you can out of that damn thing, to the point where you're ready to unroll it (assuming you rolled it up in the first place, like they told you to on the label), slit it up the side, splay it open, scrape out what's left with a knife, and butter your toothbrush with the leavings.

Sometimes you've got a story where you have some specific idea of what it's "about", and you end up squeezing the story's tube to get that meaning out of it. That's bad enough; it's even worse when you tear it open and scrape its guts out.

I like all my stories to be about something, but I like it best when they embody what they're about. Sometimes it's best to just write a story first, make the drama solid, then see what it's saying about things and consolidate around that theme in the rewrite process. Very rarely, if ever, do I get a good story when I say to myself, "This is a story about Theme X," and then proceed from there. Best to start with, "This is a story about this guy who ... " and see what that says about the material.

The smarter the writer, the easier it is to fall into this trap. Empathy and intuition for human behavior matter more when first putting together a story than intellect does, because if a story doesn't grab our attention and sympathies, it doesn't matter how "important" it is. Nobody reads stories about ideas. Even people who say they read stories about ideas don't do this; they read stories about ideas that also happen to be good stories.

That doesn't mean there's a dichotomy between fiction about people and fiction about ideas. Better to say there's fiction that embodies its ideas well, and fiction that embodies its ideas clumsily. Self-conscious and unselfconscious fiction, I guess you could call them. One of the reasons I admire Georges Simenon's works was how casually and readily the man's fiction embodied his worldview. (Ditto Patricia Highsmith or Dashiell Hammett at their respective best.) And Robert Musil was a rare example of a thinker's thinker who was also skilled at marrying his ideas to the form of high literary fiction.

But for every one of those, there's a double-dozen more who botched either the literary or intellectual side of that equation. And then there's everyone else, who may be entertaining but don't always know that they're embodying an idea in their story, or what the implications of that idea are.

At the end of the day, you have to let a story be a story first -- but then, in the morning, when your eyes and head are clear, you have to look at it and say, what kind of story is this, anyway?

Tags: themes writing