Monday Motivation: Marxism v. Pear Petals

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog, Tips for Writers

Frequently when we’re asked to assess someone’s manuscript, or help a writer brainstorm a story idea, we have to begin by stating a fundamental principle of fiction.

It is, we say, a really bad idea to launch into a story in the hopes that it will improve the human condition, persuade us to mend our ways, beat our swords into ploughshares, or let a thousand chrysanthemums bloom where previously hatred reigned.

Of course, it is extremely laudable to harbour such ambitions. We would love to leave the world a better place than we found it. Who can find fault with a person who wishes to teach her readers to make good choices?

The problem is that setting out with pedagogical ends in mind will damage your story. Your characters will become mere ciphers, your story a moralistic diatribe that will drive your readers away.

The issue essentially concerns the difference between the abstract and the concrete. Moral teaching relies on universal truths – abstractions regarding human nature and ethical truths.

Stories, by contrast, are essentially about concrete particulars. Any given story is about the very specific problems of very specific characters who, under pressure, have to make specific choices.

I was reminded of this contrast by Joan Didion, the American writer one of whose books of essays was featured in a series of programmes on the BBC recently.

In an essay entitled Why I Write, she says:

“I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

“In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.”

Thinkers and scholars think in terms of abstractions and -isms. They anatomise notions like determinism and freedom; they analyse the current threats to democracy; they weigh the culpability of the big men who bestride their countries and seek to impose their will on their neighbours.

Writers, though, notice the petals of the pear tree that flutter to the ground.  They pay attention to the agony of a father holding the hand of his dead daughter in the ruins of a building destroyed by an earthquake. They memorialise the expressions of people in paroxysms of joy – or despair.

They focus, in short, on the particular details of people’s experience. And, paradoxically, by doing so achieve the objectives of the abstract thinkers who, through their teaching, hope to alert us to the large issues confronting us all.

Happy writing,


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