Trees Falling Unheard

Philosophers ask whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if no one hears it. A different question is closer to my heart: does writing matter if no one reads it? I must admit to believing in the importance of readers to completion of the art that is writing. Hungry Writers and Smart Readers. Printed words are meant to be read. But likewise songs are meant to be heard, and yet I defy anyone to dispute the value of someone singing her heart out in that lonely forest of falling trees. Would we feel differently if she were writing and left her words behind unread? I want to believe the act of writing still matters, for reasons personal, professional and profound.

Personal. At the simplest level, writing is a form of play. Remembering to Play Pretend. We do it because we love it – at least that’s how it starts. Sometimes we may lose track of that along the way. We need to keep reminding ourselves that writing is a joy. Writing can also help us to make sense of our lives. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests writing daily morning pages as a way to open up pathways from the brain to the page. Whether as journal or fiction, writing provides us with a place to air grievances, share insights, confide worries and express happiness. Putting words to our feelings gives us a sense of release.

Professional. We learn to write by writing. Leading Against Your Strengths. Writing is a muscle that requires use to grow stronger. Failure teaches us, as well as success. And practically speaking, as long as it was yours in the first place, you can always steal from yourself. That minor character you once had to abandon may turn into the protagonist of a brand new piece. With computers, you can easily keep your darlings. You never know what new work your old may inspire.

Profound. Writing fiction is an act of sympathetic imagination. The Poetry in Prose. We take on the perspective of other human beings and look at life through their eyes. We open ourselves up to possibilities that we wouldn’t otherwise face. We extend ourselves outward by sinking deeper inside. Writing as Full Body Experience. Our words may be never be read by someone else, and yet we ourselves are changed. In addition, the effort to capture insight in words is, like other arts, an outward expression of internal vision. An attempt to create something new and unique. A Still Center. With or without an audience, that’s a profoundly spiritual act.

So, does writing matter if no one reads it?

Of course it does.

Writing as a Full Body Experience

Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour /
Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour /

Writers have to learn to work on more than one level. At the same time we’re writing, we’re also reading – we’re both creating and reacting. While my mind keeps track of the story and the character’s progress through a scene, my heart is connected to her mood and my gut is registering tension. All my senses are alert to what her senses would be. (I could add that my hands are typing, but you get the idea.) If I have a character say something that doesn’t suit her state of mind, I get a sense of disconnection which tells me that I have to go back. If the tension flatlines, the first clue is that my stomach has unclenched. To some, this full body approach to writing comes naturally, but it can be an acquired skill. Often I go over a scene numerous times, focusing on three levels in particular.

First, the heart check: is the character carrying forward her emotional experience up to this point? If something angered her in the last chapter, that should still be throwing off some heat. If she’s anxious, that should color what she says. If the story is in first person or close third, then everything in the scene should be filtered through her state of mind, even the description of objects. The most effective and authentic way to accomplish this is to carry that state of mind inside yourself. This will allow you to go beyond the analytic (she should) and experience the filtering directly in an act of sympathetic imagination (she would). I assign this to my heart simply as a way of ordering the experience. What I’m talking about here is deep identification with our characters.

Next, the gut check: is there tension? Would a reader need to read on? Is there a mystery, a worry, an unfulfilled desire, a conflict, or even just a disquieting imbalance, something that a reader would want to see through? As writers, we must try to anticipate the sensation of reading our work as honestly as we can. To captivate others, we have to captivate ourselves. As you write, is your stomach so tense that the world outside falls away? Or do you find yourself starting to skim? The feedback of your body doesn’t lie. I assign this one to my gut, which is where I actually experience this kind of independent processing. What I’m talking about here, of course, is our identification with our readers.

Last, I return to the mind, which is also where I start. The mind has the biggest job. Character development, dialogue, plot, setting, language, metaphor, the list goes on and on…. Writing is submersive. You have to bring all your talents and faculties to bear. But that is how we can spend so many hours by ourselves at the computer, or with nothing but pen and paper. We carry inside us more than one experience, more than one person. We create a world outside ourselves by expanding the one inside.

The Poetry in Prose

When fiction writers refer to putting poetry in our prose, we’re usually thinking of extended metaphors, expansive descriptions, and lyrical writing, all of which are indeed poetic and bring beauty and depth to a piece of prose. In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the bees act as an extended metaphor, foreshadowing the early threats in the plot and becoming part of what is nurtured by the end. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is rich with exotic descriptions. And all the novels recommended on these pages have lyrical writing, by which I mean words that are soaked in the voice of the protagonist and laid down with an ear for the rhythm behind sentences and the build of beats that drives each paragraph to its end. I hope to say more about all of these in the future. But a less obvious kind of poetry underlies the most engaging of fiction, regardless of genre: that of deep connection.

A novel is a work of sympathetic imagination. To achieve that, we need to allow ourselves to sink into our characters, share their heads and eyes, delve their feelings, and find their truest words. When Olive’s husband observes her alone in the garden in the beginning of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, “[h]e wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” We get both his insight about Olive, which is stunning, and his confession of the distance between them, which is all the more heartbreaking in its restraint. We see two lives in one flash.

Another striking example appears in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, when Virginia Woolf grapples with one of her headaches: “Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own.” Her words are too analytical for most of our characters, but they seem so right for Virginia – I ache for her as she tries to manage the unmanageable with her fierce intelligence, all the while knowing how futile it is.

But the character doesn’t have to be a poetic writer herself for the writer to find the poetry in another mind. In Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, the teenage Henry confides in the reader: “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind’s eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.” I believe the writer found that insight by submerging herself so deeply in Henry’s perspective, that she could look up at his mother along with him and discover how he felt.

In essence, that’s what deep connection with a character is: writing the poetry our characters would write if they could. Their perspective, their voice. The confessions of another soul.