After finishing my most recent book, I had to call my mother and warn her that it features a mother she will not like—but that this person has nothing whatsoever to do with her. She laughed and said, “Oh, I know.”
I often write awful mothers. No idea why, because my own mother is and always has been quite devoted. We have our issues—what woman doesn’t have issues with her mother?—but in general, we get along. We like a lot of the same things and will invariably order the same food on a menu. I credit her with my adoration of books and reading and cooking, and she whispered freedom so fiercely in my ear because she was captured early by circumstance and era.
Actually, I know exactly where this comes from. Women without good mothers are extremely vulnerable in the world. Mother issues are all over my books not because of my own mother, but because of her complicated and difficult relationship with her mother, who was the grandmother I adored and adored me back.
See the triangle? How could I not write about that?
I don’t write very often about the act of being a mother, although I am one, and by personality, I’m a Demeter type, a mother to the world, growing plants and giving homes to stray animals and cooking for anyone who needs food. The relationship I have with my children is not troublesome. I have my flaws, but in general, I had the skills and maturity and devotion to raise two decent people. I don’t need to write about that.
What do you need to write about? What core stories are at the center of your work? What themes and ideas do you return to, over and over and over?
What message are you carrying to the world?
This is a core piece of voice. One of the questions I ask writers to answer in voice classes is, “If you could magically solve one world ill, what would it be?” Do you know what yours is?
I’d make sure every child on the planet always had good healthy food to eat. It sounds so prosaic, but how can you possibly thrive in any other way if you’re hungry? So many children are, and it’s such a solvable, addressable issue. (Not like, say, war.)
I noticed recently that when I’m recommending a book I loved, I often describe the writer’s “tenderness” toward their characters. I love a book most that leans toward kindness, toward an understanding of the foibles of our flawed humanity, and the ways we can rise above it. Without too much hubris, I think I can point to this as an element of my own work, too.
This, too, comes from my core values.
I was a child during Vietnam. I had the flu and was home from school during the evacuation of Saigon, and I sat on my couch and cried and cried. It seemed so terrible that I couldn’t remember a time before the war began. It colored everything I think about the world. Not only the war itself and the toll it took on young men—it’s hard to think about that now, that people were drafted; they had to serve whether they wanted to or not—but the chaos and protest it triggered.
This doesn’t color my core story as overtly as the mother issues, but it’s definitely present in my need to create worlds where peace is a core value, where people from multiple cultures live side by side. The omnipresent, constant, dinnertime violence and body counts of Vietnam turned me—and a lot of people in my generation—into crusaders for love, peace, and brotherhood. We want a good life for everybody. The poor, the animals, the farm creatures, the lonely, the old, the ill and infirm and lost.
All of that permeates my books, too.
What things happened over the course of your childhood that marked you and your work? Can you find any threads?
These are the things that bring power and singularity to our individual works.
John Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, writes:
“In a world where everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic…that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us.”
I wouldn’t agree that art is tinny and commercial, because we’re living in a world that’s rich indeed with all kinds of story, in dozens of forms, exploring life in many directions, but I do love the general idea. Holding off the twilight…
Robert McKee, in his dense and sometimes pompous but fantastic work, Story, urges us to explore the story values in our work. If a primary value is peace, then the novelist (or screenwriter) is required to explore the contrary and contradiction of that value, and to take it all the way to what he calls “the negation of the negation,” which is the most opposite of opposites, the very blackest form of opposition to the positive value that you can possibly find. Not just hate as the opposite of love, but hate masquerading as love. War renamed peace.
A lot of that negation of the negation going around at the moment.
What are your main story values? Do you know? Which story do you tell, over and over and over again?
This does not apply only to literary writers or those who think of themselves as serious. A light or funny or genre novel of any kind exhibits story values, which are always, always, always a reflection of the values of the writer. Every novel has story values. They can’t exist without them.
Knowing and understanding these influences and values and how they show up in your work can make it infinitely stronger. Not only each individual work, as you strengthen the viewpoint that you’ve presented (love matters—but these are the things that get in the way. Faith is powerful—but undermined by these circumstances), but as you choose the work you do next, and then next, and next again, building a body of work.
We don’t always see everything in our own work, understandably. That’s okay. You’ll see more and more over time, as that body of work presents itself.
What can you see now as the values in your work? What archetypes present themselves? What matters most to you?
And if you could magically fix one ill in the world, what would it be?
Can you see that value in your work?
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