Monday Motivation: Writing as a route to understanding

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

There are two kinds of people in the world, as I think someone else might have said before me: people who are more comfortable in the world of make-believe; and people who are more comfortable in the world of cold, hard facts.

I’m not talking about the sort of make-believe of which fantasies and fairy-tales are made. I’m talking about story, the fictions that story-tellers have shaped from the froth of their imaginations for the last many thousands of years.

I’m reading Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad, at the moment – the first of his two-volume account of the Battle of Stalingrad. It’s much more than a quasi-historical record, although I understand that it’s about as accurate as any formal history of this pivotal clash between Stalin’s and Hitler’s armies.

The story features real people – Hitler, Stalin, some of the generals on both sides – as well as a large cast of fictional characters whose fortunes we follow over the months of the battle.

It’s not a pretty story. The casual cruelty and brutality of the time, not just in Stalingrad, but across the entire theatre of the war, surpasses almost anything we can imagine.

And yet, and yet. The story, as it is shaped by Grossman, is exhilarating and uplifting. Despite the deaths of many of the characters, the story is inspiring. Reality, less so. Why should this be?

It seems to me that writers, and, of course, great writers in particular, are able to take the stuff of real experience, the blood and the horror, the random violence that strikes one and spares another, and turn it into art – and we can, for reasons that elude me, respond to art in a way that we cannot respond to life.

Artists make sense of what is otherwise haphazard, lend structure to what is otherwise amorphous, inject meaning into a universe that is otherwise indifferent to us and our fates. This is true however modest our achievements as writers. Grossman set out with huge ambition to make sense of a war, of sacrifice, of cruelty, of love, and of an entire society locked in battle.

You or I might shape scenes in a story in which a character confronts his small failures – or celebrates his small successes.

But the process is the same. We labour in the company of giants.

Some writers, I know, reject the world of fiction. The real world is their target – although I daresay that in describing it and analysing it, they use the same techniques that writers of fiction do, and in the end their objective is the same: to train a searchlight on one or other aspect of the human experience and, yes, make sense of it.

But maybe there’s a third category of people: those who skip endlessly between the other two categories. Perhaps that’s where I fit in. Perhaps that’s where everyone fits in.

So perhaps there’s only kind of people in the world after all.

Happy writing,

Richard

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