I’m guest posting today over at Affirmations Coffee. A friend of mine runs it, and he and several other writers regularly post encouraging articles. Click here to read my guest post and check out his website.
When Cody asked me to write a guest post for this site, I drew a blank. I knew I wanted to write something encouraging about finding yourself in God or being true to who you are, but couldn’t seem to come up with a specific idea until I saw a fruit loop on Pinterest …. read more.
Fiction affects society, for good or ill, often as much or more than real-life situations. If Charles Dickens had lectured about the plight of real-life orphans in London, would it have had the same effect as writing Oliver Twist? Or to use an example I see as very negative, would as many people have been obsessed with an essay about BDSM as they were with 50 Shades of Gray?
Fiction is powerful. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but all in a positive light since I was arguing that fiction has value. It can also have a more negative influence as well, which is why I think both writes and readers have a responsibility to self-censor. It’s not up to someone to tell writers not to write a certain kind of book or discuss a specific topic, or to tell readers what they can and cannot read. But it is a good idea (particularly if you’re a Christian) to think carefully about the reading and writing choices we make.
On March 31, 1750, Samuel Johnson published what has become one of the most famous statements in regards to the potential of fiction. While I don’t agree with his arguments against imaginative invention of the fantastic (I write fantasy, after all), this passage intrigues me:
if the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.”
I think what Johnson is saying is that authors have a responsibility not to use the power they weld to influence their readers negatively. Responsible authors exercise a form of self-censorship, which doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t talk about complex or even “bad” ideas. But fiction can be enormously influential, and authors should be conscious of the fact that what they are writing has the potential to fill their readers’ minds.
Writers of fiction set out to create a story that draws readers in, and once this happens the readers are under the writer’s influence. Johnson thought that, “the best examples only should be exhibited” so that there is nothing “mischievous or uncertain” in fiction’s effect. I don’t think we need to go that far, but we should be mindful of the power we have to influence readers.
As readers, we should also be mindful of what we expose our minds to, remembering that we’re giving our reading material the opportunity to change or influence our thinking. I came across a great article titled “Self Censorship Better Than Book Banning” a few weeks ago about teaching your children how to make good decisions about their reading material instead of trusting the schools or government to ban “inappropriate” books (which will be defined differently for each individual).
This is pretty much what my mother did, though I wasn’t required to talk about every book with her after reading it (I usually did anyway, so she didn’t really need a rule). The only time I remember my mother taking away a book was when I broke down sobbing one day and confessed that I was having trouble dealing with the main character losing her father to cancer. There were a few other books that she strongly recommended I give up, and I usually (eventually) agreed with her. Harry Potter was “banned” in our house when it first came out, and that’s the only book I can remember being specifically told not to read.
It seems to have worked for the most part. There are books I wish I hadn’t read (and a few I’m sure that I really I shouldn’t have been reading), but for the most part I’m glad I had that freedom. It helped teach me to think for myself, which, to reference John Keating from Dead Poets Society, is the goal of good education.
“Why would you write fiction? Isn’t it just a bunch of lies?”
It’s been a while since someone asked me that question, but I can re-play the scene clearly. They look smug, like they’d just discovered a great argument against writing and reading fiction. Fiction is not true, and so therefore it is not good. Why make-up stories when there are plenty of good, wholesome things, people, and events that already exist? In fact, why tell stories at all, especially fantasy stories? They just give children unrealistic expectations of the world, and adults an excuse to ignore reality.
Obviously, since I’m still writing and reading fiction, I don’t buy into these arguments. But why?
Probably the simplest reason for writing fiction is to escape. Much of fiction — both good and bad — falls into this category. Sometimes life isn’t any fun, and reading and writing fiction gives us a way to escape for a while without actually leaving our location or situation. This can be as simple as diving into Middle Earth while waiting for the clothes to finish drying at the laundromat. Would you rather stare at your t-shirts spin, or canoe down the Rauros with the Fellowship of the Ring?
In a New York Times article, ‘Why Write Novels at All?’ Garth Risk Halberg talks about the idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” Now we’re getting closer to the reason I write fiction. Escape is all well and good, but what are you escaping to? It’s not enough to just take off for Narnia — we have to find Aslan there or the journey means nothing.
We write to share who we are and what we think, and we read to connect with something outside us. Usually this is a new world or characters, but if we’re very lucky we’ll also sense the author as they bleed through the pages of their work. This connectedness is one of the chief arguments for reading and writing, since it carries over into “real” life: people who read fiction are more emphatic than non-readers.
Let’s say you have something you want to say about a controversial topic. We’ll use abortion as an example, and say you’re on the pro-life side. If you write an article telling people that abortion is bad, only the people who already agree with you are going to like it. If you tell a true story about a baby who survived an abortion or a mother whose life was ruined by an abortion, it will affect more people but you’ll still lose a large number of your readers.
Now suppose you write a story where you climb inside the head of a character and show what they are struggling with as she decides whether or not to have an abortion. You don’t just put your words in the character’s mouth – you imagine yourself in her shoes, and realize that she has real reasons to consider both options. You sympathize with her, and whatever your readers believe they sympathize with her too. Your ideas will filter through in decisions you make about how see feels when she sees the baby on an ultrasound, or whether or not she keeps the child at the end of the story. You can let readers know what you think, but you don’t shove your ideas down their throat. You give them a chance to feel with you, and let them think for themselves.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.
Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment. ” – Susan Sontag, from a speech at the Los Angeles Public Library
This sort of literature may or may not be an escape for your readers, but should definitely let them connect with something or someone. It should make them think. It should give them a chance to “meet” types of people thy might never come in contact with in their real lives, to question ideas that they take for granted, to consider what is and is not moral. Fiction lets us talk about things that are uncomfortable to discuss in real life, or give a new perspective on issue too charged in reality to have a dialogue about. It lets us ask “what if?” and run with the potential answers before actually changing the world. Yet.
The latest issue of Femnista is now online — and I have an article in it! The theme is Swashbucklers. My article’s about Robin Hood, and there are others for Blackbeard, The Princess Bride, The Three Musketeers, Zorro, Shipwrecked, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Jack Sparrow. Do us a favor and check them out 🙂
I’m sure I read somewhere that David Keirsey originally called the INFJ personality type “The Writer” instead of “The Counselor,” but I can’t find the article now. Nevertheless, it does seem that quite a few INFJs are attracted to writing. Even if they aren’t working as writers or typing away at a novel, they probably keep a journal/diary and are often more comfortable with written communication than they are with speaking. I’m a fairly typical example of INFJs in this regard — I write a blog (obviously), keep a journal, work as a writer, prefer writing e-mails to taking on the phone, and write fiction.
Speaking of writing fiction …
I won NaNoWriMo! I’m particularly pleased with myself for conquering the 50,000 words a day early in spite of having pneumonia in November. Anyway, back to INFJ writers.
There’s an INFJ profile written by Dr. A.J. Drenth (which no longer appears on his website, but you can read it here) that has this to say about INFJs:
Although INFJs are commonly drawn to music, visual arts, design, or architecture, writing may well be this type’s signature creative talent. Adept at channeling their right-brain creativity into a fluid and engaging left-brain storyline, INFJs are unmatched in their feel for and creative use of the written word.
This creative aspect of our writing talent seems to be tied to an INFJ’s primary function — Introverted Intuition (Ni). Intuitive types prefer possibility to actuality, future to the present, intuition to fact, and improvement over the status quo. When intuition is introverted, as for INFJs, the focus is mostly on an internal world where our minds tinker with “ideas, perspectives, theories, visions, stories, symbols, and metaphors” (Dr. A.J. Drenth, Introverted Intuition).
Even INFJs who don’t write typically have an affinity for stories and a “rich inner life.” We tend to live in a world of possibilities, and I find that one way to keep my fantasy life anchored in reality is to turn those ideas into stories and write them down. It’s weakness/temptation for INFJs to never move their ideas from possibility to reality. With creative writing, I can set my imagination loose and tell myself there’s a practical application for it as well.
INFJs as Writers
It’s hard to type people when you don’t know them, but there are some famous writers that we can guess were INFJs. Keirsey lists Emily Bronte and Emily Dickenson as “Counselor” types. Another list of famous INFJs adds writers like Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A forum discussion suggests Madeleine L’Engle, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Lois Lowry, Ursla LeGuin, Franz Kafka, and several others could be added to the list.
Now, the fact that many INFJs gravitate towards writing doesn’t mean that it’s always easy for us. I’m not sure how many stories I started and abandoned before finally finishing my first novel in 2011. It was for NaNoWriMo, and I needed that deadline to keep myself writing. It’s so easy to build the story in my head, and then lose interest in writing it down once I think I know how it ends.
Though knowing the end makes me lose interest in the story, I also need some kind of outline to keep me on track. I’ve discovered sticky notes on the wall is my new favorite way to plot-out novels. They can be removed or rearranged as needed, and you don’t need to have them all there to start writing. For my NaNo novel this year, I began with only half the plot laid-out, and added more scenes as I wrote and the direction of the story became clear.
I have two reason why you’re getting a rambling post about how I spent yesterday rather than a nice, neat article:
50,000 words in 30 days = one novel, and not much sleep. I’ve done it twice before, and I’m trying again this year with a Young Adult novel full of super humans (click to visit my writer’s website). I’m prepared with enough Lindt hazelnut truffles to reward myself every 5,000 words (plus a few extras, just in case).
2) Zoo Day!
Months ago we got half-price tickets to the Columbus Zoo, and just never seemed to find time to use them. Then we realized they expired in February, and it wasn’t getting any warmer, so we went yesterday. It was so cold that most of the South-Asian and African animals weren’t out, but the predators were very active.
Very, very active, in some cases. The brown bears were chasing each other all over their exhibit, my family saw a tiger try to pounce on one guy through the glass, and there was a cheetah stalking a child being pulled in a wagon.
We also saw an extremely rare creature — an awake koala. They sleep 22 hours a day if given the chance, and I think this is the only time I’ve ever seen one moving.
I’d say the dinosaurs were even more rare, but they weren’t moving much. Didn’t even try to snatch a tourist out of the boat ride, so I suspect they were animatronic.
The aquarium in Columbus might not be huge by public aquarium standards, but it’s certainly one of the most impressive at a zoo. I love the manatees. Columbus and Cincinnati are the only aquariums in the U.S. outside of Florida that help with manatee rescue and rehabilitation.