Fiction As Communication

I recently participated as a judge in an on-line short story contest. As I perused thirty-nine short stories, I was reminded of something that occurs to me every time I teach creative writing: that fiction is just one more form of communication.

Yes, I know. This seems obvious, right? But, alas, you'd be surprised how many beginning writers forget this.  Leaving all other craft elements of fiction aside for the moment, the prose of beginning fiction writers is often so muddled that one has trouble figuring out what the hell is going on, much less getting engrossed in a tale and being moved by it in some way.  

The basic nuts and bolts of writing a good story is really not much different than writing a clear and powerful essay, but I think the idea of writing "fiction" somehow makes a lot of beginning writers temporarily insane. They're like a piano student who can play "chopsticks" just fine sitting down to the piano one day and trying to pound out the complete works of Rachmaninoff in one afternoon.  They're going for the gusto and the glory of the high levels they know to exist in the mystical land of fiction without having carefully, methodically, trained themselves to cover the vast expanse in-between (and the in-between is, really, where the true glory and craftsmanship lies).

I found a passage in a Paris Review interview with Jorge Luis Borges that speaks to this:

Look, I mean to say this: When I began writing, I thought that everything should be defined by the writer. For example, to say “the moon” was strictly forbidden; that one had to find an adjective, an epithet for the moon. (Of course, I'm simplifying things. I know it because many times I have written “la luna,” but this is a kind of symbol of what I was doing.) Well, I thought everything had to be defined and that no common turns of phrase should be used. I would never have said, “So-and-so came in and sat down,” because that was far too simple and far too easy. I thought I had to find out some fancy way of saying it. Now I find out that those things are generally annoyances to the reader. But I think the whole root of the matter lies in the fact that when a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is going to say is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament, under words taken from the seventeenth-century writers; or, if not, and he sets out to be modern, then he does the contrary: He's inventing words all the time, or alluding to airplanes, railway trains, or the telegraph and telephone because he's doing his best to be modern. Then as time goes on, one feels that one's ideas, good or bad, should be plainly expressed, because if you have an idea you must try to get that idea or that feeling or that mood into the mind of the reader. If, at the same time, you are trying to be, let's say, Sir Thomas Browne or Ezra Pound, then it can't be done. So that I think a writer always begins by being too complicated: He's playing at several games at the same time. He wants to convey a peculiar mood; at the same time he must be a contemporary and if not a contemporary, then he's a reactionary and a classic. As to the vocabulary, the first thing a young writer, at least in this country, sets out to do is to show his readers that he possesses a dictionary, that he knows all the synonyms; so we get, for example, in one line, red, then we get scarlet, then we get other different words, more or less, for the same color: purple.
You've worked, then, toward a kind of classical prose?
Yes, I do my best now. Whenever I find an out-of-the-way word, that is to say, a word that may be used by the Spanish classics or a word used in the slums of Buenos Aires, I mean, a word that is different from the others, then I strike it out, and I use a common word. I remember that Stevenson wrote that in a well-written page all the words should look the same way. If you write an uncouth word or an astonishing or an archaic word, then the rule is broken; and what is far more important, the attention of the reader is distracted by the word. One should be able to read smoothly in it even if you're writing metaphysics or philosophy or whatever.
Good writing doesn't need to be fancy, though it sometimes is. The most important thing a writer needs to do, before he uses fancy words or proves to the world how clever he is, is communicate the idea behind the story he's trying to tell and do so in a vivid way that resonates with (as opposed to impresses) a reader. This is why a good writer is a paradox of ego centric (I'm god! I fucking created this world and I made it awesome!) and ego-less (who cares what people think about me, the real world person, as long as I've served the story in a honest way and done it justice without blatantly forcing my own agenda on it). All writing is communication and communication, like love in that ubiquitous wedding poem, is not proud.


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