What does this mean? Maybe it means there’s nothing new under the sun. Or there are only so many ideas that can exist at one time. Or someone else is always smarter than you are. Or Ray Bradbury’s passing has me unhinged and I need to talk about something at least marginally less depressing. Lots of potential significance to hand out, for those interested in significance. Sometimes I am. Interested, that is. Not significant. And I certainly wouldn’t rule out the “unhinged” part.
That bit of surreality brought to you by my prior reading, a collection of interviews with the likewise gone but always eccentric Edward Gorey. He said, among other things and I do paraphrase, “I have this crazy theory–I think that good art is not about what it seems to be about.” The interview was from, oh, twenty years ago or so. It just smacked me on the head because, now and then when I do panels at conventions, some wannabee/hopeful/beginner/glutton for punishment sometimes asks, “How do you know if a story you’re writing is going to be any good?” The obvious answer of course is “You don’t.” Even so, at least in my case, there eventually comes a point, usually before the end, when I do, in fact, know that I’ve hit the mark or missed it. And I’ve said it so many times it’s become my stock answer, mostly because it’s true: “For any given story, you have to ask yourself two questions: 1) What’s the story about? and 2) Ok, now what’s it really about? If I can answer both questions, then the story usually works.” This is not meant to be flip. On the contrary, it is deadly serious, since the first question refers to what happens in the story, but what happens in the story isn’t the story. On the surface, “Romeo and Juliet” is about a family feud, but that’s not what it’s really about. Anyway, Gorey said it first. Or at least before I did. Probably because it’s really obvious. Well, once you see it, that is. Like most “obvious” things.
Okay, there’s also something else we need to get out of the way while we’re both here–I have no Inner Child, okay? I am my Inner Child. I think Ray Bradbury is primarily responsible for that–he certainly led by example. So what I’ve got here is an Inner Fatuous Old Man, and sometimes he takes over. Maybe like now.
Just consider the source.
Very good piece. I just discovered your blog via Sandra Seaman’s.
I sold a story this week and I admit with embarassment that only after I got the contract did I ask myself what the story was really about. I concluded that it was about the power of storytelling. Then I checked the first sentence. It turned out to be:
“Here’s the story,” said the man whose name was probably not Richard.
So I guess part of my brain knew before the rest did….
Usually when I figure something like this out, it’s because I’d already been doing it without realizing it. Only later does it become something you can put a name to.
Hooray, says this Fatuous Old Woman, in response! And guess what? A writer will never know if a story is any good or not if he/she never starts writing it!
That is, yes, one way to never be sure.
“…1) What’s the story about? and 2) Ok, now what’s it really about?…”
Reminds me of an anecdote Gregory Peck once told. They were shooting “Guns of Navarone” when he approached the film’s leery writer to say he’d figured out what the story really was about, and he proceeded to explain that this character was on the rebound from an affair with that character, who himself was now having an affair with this other character, and the went thru the whole male cast. Alas, Irene Pappas wasn’t included. Sigh…
At least he didn’t have to ask “What’s my motivation?”