is it okay to put your enemies in a book? the strange moral discipline of fiction writing

is it okay to put your enemies in a book? the strange moral discipline of fiction writing May 21, 2016

Writing a novel about life in a utopian Catholic commune has given me ample opportunity for imaginative play in the liminal realm between the certain and uncertain, the terrain of the gothic or magical realist. In this respect, it is a welcome release from the demands of a world over which, as I grow older, I realize I have so little control. In spite of what some popular language about creative writing entails, one does not produce an alternate reality without the discipline of control: descending muses do not inject into one’s brain an ability to manipulate sentence structure, or certainty that all one’s threads of narrative align. It takes work.

There is another discipline at work here, though, and this is a moral one. Because, writing about life in a utopian Catholic commune also has given me ample opportunity to draw upon my many experiences of weird religious types – unpleasantly weird religious types – dangerously weird, even. Leering red-faced figures preaching the gospel badly, egg-eyed false madonnas, delusional priests presiding over amateur exorcisms gone awry (as, how could they not?) – the spectres of memory come flooding back, but now they can’t distress me, because I have moved on, out of that sad old shell, into this glorious new edifice of my own construction. I grin, and think “I’ve got you now!” And it’s so easy. A bizarre upbringing is a gift of the golden gods, for a writer, because – a few snips here, a little alteration there, and voila, here is a memorable character, here a situation to captivate the reader. I didn’t even have to work for it; all I had to do was remember.

But this is where the moral discipline comes in, and the moral discipline happens also to be an aesthetic one. With the exception of a few specific genres – some fantasy, some satire – characters who serve simply as a showcase for hypocrisy and evil are too flat to be of much interest. And as long as I am avenging myself upon the spectres of memory, my art cannot blossom forth into something with a life of its own untethered to my private fantasies. It can not achieve what James Joyce spoke of as the “radiant body of everliving life.” Art is not self expression; it is creation. While creation does give hints and explanations of the creator, a creator does not create out of need, but out of abundance. If I am writing out of a need for revenge, I am not creating, and the work is not much good. If it’s about my feelings, who cares? A year from now, and I might not even care.

So the moral discipline comes into play as I purge myself of animosity, entering into the heart of the characters as subjects, not objects. I do not consider that I have written them well until I have taken the most loathsome character (the one who loves the downy hair on little girls’ legs, I think, is the worst, though other characters do more evil) – and learned to feel pity for him. Paradoxically, I suspect that the best way to keep my readers from hating my favorite character (Austen’s description of Emma, “a heroine whom no one but me will much like,” comes to mind, though this girl swears and smokes cigarillos and is nothing like an Austen maiden) –  is to be honest about just how hateable she is. There are no good guys, though there are better guys, the people you can turn to for sympathy and decency and humor. The bad guys end up having surprising motivations. Those who behave with most purity of intent end up sometimes causing the greatest harm. Tragedy and comedy both draw upon these ironies of life, that when we aim for the perfect we bring about destruction, that sometimes in our pursuit of wickedness we bumble towards good.

Faulkner spoke of the conflict of the heart as the “only thing worth writing about,” and this is true, whether one writes about religious weirdos, mermaids and dragons, aliens who live in seven dimensions, pretty ladies in floral gowns, angsty teens, or suburban families obsessed with having perfect lawns. Wriggle your way into the heart and, it turns out, no one is dull. But without this interiority, everyone is dull, even the sexiest mermaid or the most mind-boggling alien. Revenge is a serious business, but writing means learning to take yourself less seriously, learning that no one can be taken perfectly seriously, either, but at the same time everyone is of tremendous import.

This is what Flannery O’Connor gets so well: she give you the people the world approves, then she makes you hate them. Then, just when you are thinking “these people need to die” – she kills them, and you feel horrible about it. You realize that maybe no one deserves to die, or maybe everyone does.

It’s often said that writing means vacillating between self-congratulation, and self-loathing. This is true, but usually when I loathe my work it’s because I look at it and see nothing more interesting than my own reflection. That’s when I have to go back, delete, rewrite, revise, until I’ve given the damn thing a life of its own. So I can let it go its own way. I’m not going to say, writing makes you a better person, because I know too much about writers, and I don’t even like the phrase “a better person.” But at the end of a good revision, I find myself a little less full of hatred, not only of myself, but of the world. That’s got to be a bonus.

Image credit: “Throes of Creation” by Leonid Pasternak –, Public Domain,

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