What will be your writing legacy?
June 11, 2012
You will have to pardon the somber tone of this blog. It emanates from a brush with tragedy over the last thirty-six hours.
A close friend of my eighteen-year old daughter was in a serious automobile accident Saturday afternoon and remains in critical condition as I write this. Her teenage classmates are huddled at the hospital, standing vigil for her.
Another person died in the same wreck, in the twinkling of an eye.
This tragedy did not involve teenage drinking and driving. It was not a cautionary tale about the aftermath of bad decisions.
It was just two people who for whatever reason were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe I will write about the accident itself in a few days when I gain some distance on it.
In the meantime, I have struggled with the lessons this tragic episode teaches me about my legacy as a writer.
Tragedy strips our defenses and exposes our bare skin. It puts the trivial things in our lives on hold while it forces us to deal with life and death, love and loss, the meaning of life or its absurdity.
It strikes me that this is the way writing, great writing at least, should be. It should not be just an exercise of putting words on a page with a certain degree of skill. Neither should it be about a formula where the writer delivers a tried and true punch line he knows will bring a laugh.
Our writing must be more than that. It is not enough that we peruse the bestseller lists, see what has sold and mimic it. A trained monkey can do that.
Rather, we must write about those essential things that make us human, the darkness that threatens to overpower the light of our souls, the dynamics that motivate a parent to love her child, a husband to care for a wife on her deathbed at the end of a long and tortuous losing fight. We must attempt to capture in a phrase or a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter the distilled essence of the human predicament.
And we must accomplish this with simple stories, parables so clear that they cut to the bone.
I don’t mean to say here that genre fiction cannot reach these noble goals. It doesn’t matter if the author packages his insight as a thriller, a mystery, a romance, or a paranormal story. What matters is that the story means something, that it grabs us and shakes us hard. It must peel away the false layers and bore into the marrow.
The author must be willing to lose himself in the work, so that the book becomes the thing, not a toy to display, but a collection of insights which stands the test of time because it is true to our experience.
So, what will be our writing legacy? At the end of the day, when we have run our race, will we be able to look back at our body of work and say we did our best to show the world as it is and as it should be?
If so, we authors will have left something for our children to treasure.
Perhaps my wife said it best earlier this evening when she reflected on the events of the last couple of days.
“We have so little time. We need to do all the good we can while we have the chance,” she said.