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Jul
24
2017

The Quintessence of our Techne: Spikes vs Poppy Petals -- by Lilaia

''The story is the king,'' people say. ''The word is the queen,'' I say. Down with this tyrant king! Long live the queen!

From the dawn of time, humanity has been an ever-moving mouth whispering tales. It's our nature to create something out of nothing, to record and decode life inside a palpitating web of words. But the truth is this: any fool can spin a yarn. It doesn't take any particular skills except for a little bit of an active mind. Anyone can make up a story.  People have been doing it all the time in all the languages of the world, from the little child whose imagination is galloping at the speed of light to the average Joe and plain Jane, from the middle-aged adult to the sweet, old lady next door.

But if this is an innate ability, then what exactly sets the writer apart from the non-writer? And most importantly, what distinguishes the bad writer from the mediocre, the mediocre from the competent, the competent from the good, the good from the great one?

Most often, the plot itself isn't the be-all and end-all. The plot isn't the terrain upon which a work receives nourishment and gains its flesh. One of the usual complaints we hear is that a writer has an interesting arc or a fresh idea or complex concepts and yet, that isn't enough to draw the reader in. Naturally, one wonders. What went wrong? Where did the writer fail and why?

The answer is the execution. A faulty delivery suffices to stifle even the most authentic voice, to mangle the most intricate and rich worldbuilding, to leave wanting the most singular narrative. A thick plot and multiple subplots are not enough on their own to sustain a work. A storyline is the spine that holds up our construction. But the mere skeleton of a house is barely habitable. We inhabit inside living, breathing bodies of buildings. The same applies to our books.

We are not after a kind of work that has merely acquired a raw shape from a quivering mass of mental sparks. We crave to touch its pulsing veins, to hear its beating heart. That's when we're flooded with he satisfaction that we gave birth to a being fully alive with an independent existence from our own.

Many writers are aware of what they want to convey. The entire game is played on choosing the most appropriate way to convey it though. That's where we enter the arena and engage in a bloody fight with words. It's all about them after all. To choose the best of them, the ripest, to arrange and rearrange them until they turn aflame. To hit the nail on the head. To pick the most suitable in order to present our thinking with the utmost precision and clarity. As Cicero put it in The Oration for Plancius, ''The difference between a good and a bad writer is shown by the order of his words as much as by the selection of them.''

That's all that stands between a run-of-the-mill and a mind-blowing narrative. We can all craft tales as long as we are literate. However, not all of us can write well or even pen something beyond the ordinary.

Words are sacred, therefore they deserve our love and reverence. Not a blind love just for the sake of it (verbal fireworks offer only hollow impressions. They suffocate the story like weeds the roses of a garden), but a profound love because of the vast semantic field they unlock before our very eyes.

Each word carries a specific meaning, a subtle or not so subtle nuance that no other can replace. Every writer worth their salt, every writer who's interested in creating a work of gravitas must be fully conscious of that. From an anthropological point of view, man is homo ludens. According to historian and cultural theorist Huizinga, civilization is based on a game, and all its various manifestations, from verbal communication to religious worship, can be understood as man's natural inclination to participate in this game.

Huizinga goes on to explain that in contrast with other aspects of civilization, like politics and law that have diverged from their ludic origins, literature still follows the principles that govern every game. Principles like taking part freely in acts devoid of literal meaning and unusual compared to the ones in our daily life, acts governed by rules the participants themselves have agreed upon and, even though they are aware they have no literal meaning, they take them seriously.

Under this prism, literature is a ludic, not literal logos governed by rules decided by its players that can be reconsidered and changed, nonetheless, during the passage of time. And the players, despite knowing that it's all game far removed from reality, play it as if it unfolded in the real world.

But what kind of game do we writers play when we play literature? We play with reality and unreality, truth and falsehood, fact and fantasy, morality and immorality, creation and destruction, order and chaos, beauty and the grotesque. But, first and foremost, we are word players. Whatever game we play, we play it through the only means at our disposal: words.

And what's the ultimate game words yield to us? Nothing more than a continuous hide and seek between what lies on the surface and what sleeps beneath it, awaiting for the reader to wake it up. All literature is an unending game of fluidity between denotation and connotation, between the word's literal and deviant from the common speech significance.

It's the writers's responsibility to be that kind of player, to render their words charged and pregnant so that the weight of their meaning alone will impale them on the paper, so that the wind won't blow them away like poppy petals (to heavily paraphrase the verses of a poet).

Language offers us by nature infinite possibilities to take advantage of in the most positive sense. It's the writers's job to broaden the semantic field into which they move in their works, to stretch their words beyond their strictest confines and infuse them with more ''strata''.

In that way, we create a work with multiple layers of meaning that each time it is read, it's perceived under a slightly different light. In that way, we craft a work with a transparent storyline that lies on the surface of the words, visible and easily understood by the majority, and at the same time with many more storylines that effervesce beneath the first layer.

And that's the kind of work that will leave an indelible impression on the mind and soul of the reader: a story of substance and depth that speaks about the things that matter without actually saying them.

Let us aspire to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Lilaia 24 Jul at 00:34
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 27 Jul at 18:52  
Lilaia — Good points here. The more I read, the more I'm convinced that the execution is crucial. Some books I can reread innumerable times, long after I know the plot by heart. It may be partly to spend time with the characters or in the setting — but a lot of it is simply to savor the words.

But there's another side to it also. The most elegant word-choices, without a good story to tell, just yield a sort of froth of prosody. What the words say — which embraces not only plot, but theme and characterization — is also important. Otherwise you get something like impressionism in music — which, obviously, some people love; but I always find myself, awash in a sea of nice sounds, wondering 'where's the melody'?

We need both form and matter, I think. The king and queen need to be together, in harmony, to make the country strong.

Rick
Lilaia 28 Jul at 01:08  
Quote by: Rellrod
Lilaia — Good points here. The more I read, the more I'm convinced that the execution is crucial. Some books I can reread innumerable times, long after I know the plot by heart. It may be partly to spend time with the characters or in the setting — but a lot of it is simply to savor the words.

But there's another side to it also. The most elegant word-choices, without a good story to tell, just yield a sort of froth of prosody. What the words say — which embraces not only plot, but theme and characterization — is also important. Otherwise you get something like impressionism in music — which, obviously, some people love; but I always find myself, awash in a sea of nice sounds, wondering 'where's the melody'?

We need both form and matter, I think. The king and queen need to be together, in harmony, to make the country strong.

Rick



You're absolutely right, Rick. We need both form and matter.They're both essential in order to write good literature.

Which is why I find the dichotomy of writing vs story ridiculous. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why some writers distinguish between the two. The words we choose as well as the order in which we place them shape up the story. In the same way, the story as in plot and themes and characters lead the writer to choose particular words and dismiss others. The writing is the story as much the story is the writing. To me, they are one and the same.


__________________
Always be a poet, even in prose. - Charles Baudelaire
My blog: lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com

Blandcorp 28 Jul at 03:52  
Quote by: Lilaia
For the life of me, I cannot fathom why some writers distinguish between [story and words]


Interesting. Where do you stand on the mind/body problem? Because I have a hard time believing you are a hardcore materialist who thinks the notion of a soul is vacuous at best if not even dangerous.

Cheers.
Rellrod 29 Jul at 10:24  
lol . . . A neat way to put it!
Jeff65 30 Jul at 06:19  
I would agree that execution and quality of writing are important. But the story idea and the plot are also important, perhaps more so. When obliged to perform an 'elevator pitch' of your book, you cannot convey anything of the quality of the writing, just the story idea. So if the story idea does not catch the attention of that person, the book has failed at the first hurdle.
The same remarks apply to the blurb which hopefully will make the casual browser open the book and buy it.
The 'Hero's Journey' structure underlies much popular fiction (and movies), emphasizing the importance of plot.

"But the truth is this: any fool can spin a yarn". I think quite a few writers would take issue with this, having tried it and found it rather hard. I know personally one writer who can write excellent prose (much better than me) but confesses that he can't produce a plot.
Shelli 30 Jul at 08:33  

Shelli 30 Jul at 09:19  
Thank you Lilaia wonderfully put.
Lilaia 30 Jul at 12:13  
Quote by: Jeff65
I would agree that execution and quality of writing are important. But the story idea and the plot are also important, perhaps more so. When obliged to perform an 'elevator pitch' of your book, you cannot convey anything of the quality of the writing, just the story idea. So if the story idea does not catch the attention of that person, the book has failed at the first hurdle.
The same remarks apply to the blurb which hopefully will make the casual browser open the book and buy it.
The 'Hero's Journey' structure underlies much popular fiction (and movies), emphasizing the importance of plot.



I believe that both plot as well as the quality of the writing are of importance. The first paragraph of my post was a deliberate hyperbole.

How many times has a reader been enticed by a promising, exciting blurb only to be sorely disappointed when he/she has a peek on the book's first pages because of the writing's poor quality? Too many. We need a good storyline. No argument there. But we need a better execution much more, if we are to hold the reader's attention for more than a few minutes.

Quote by: Jeff65
"But the truth is this: any fool can spin a yarn". I think quite a few writers would take issue with this, having tried it and found it rather hard. I know personally one writer who can write excellent prose (much better than me) but confesses that he can't produce a plot.


Another deliberate hyperbole from my part. I read a little bit of everything: literary fiction, genre fiction, poetry, classics, books considered trashy. You name it. Most writers can come up with a plot. Some admittedly are much better than others. I've seen simple plots, complex plots, plot twists and plots in between. But the stories that have depth and meaning, the stories that have true artistic/social/political/cultural impact are those in which there's effective use of language. I don't necessarily mean fancy words or an artificially elaborate writing style, but word choices placed in such order within the narrative that they make the reader realize that every time he/she reads a book, there's always room for one more interpretation. In other words, every time a book is read, it hasn't finished talking. There's something new and relevant to life that it has to say. And from my reading experience (vast compared to some, limited compared to others, I suppose), few writers have the skill to write such a book.





__________________
Always be a poet, even in prose. - Charles Baudelaire
My blog: lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com

Lilaia 30 Jul at 12:14  
Quote by: Shelli
Thank you Lilaia wonderfully put.


I'm glad you liked it.

__________________
Always be a poet, even in prose. - Charles Baudelaire
My blog: lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com

Shelli 31 Jul at 05:55  

Shelli 31 Jul at 07:03  

Lilaia wrote: But the stories that have depth and meaning, the stories that have true artistic/social/political/cultural impact are those in which there's effective use of language.

I would add that the author also has something important to say.

I also differentiate art from entertainment, the artist from the person who wants to write a best seller.

Art is not motivated by market demands. If you're lucky enough to be an artist that creates something lots of people are willing to pay for, great.

Creating things to sell is commerce. Entertainment is commerce.

The distinction is all but non-existent in the general American public, but not so in that of continental Europe, where there is no such notion of "the arts" as something separate from everyday life.

Lilaia wrote: I don't necessarily mean fancy words or an artificially elaborate writing style, but word choices placed in such order within the narrative that they make the reader realize that every time he/she reads a book, there's always room for one more interpretation. In other words, every time a book is read, it hasn't finished talking.

Hear hear!
And I would add that it's not the fancy words per se but the lack of authenticity and trust they can conjure if they the author doesn’t know what their doing.
Shelli 31 Jul at 07:06  
they're doing
Lilaia 31 Jul at 07:40  
Quote by: Shelli
Lilaia wrote: But the stories that have depth and meaning, the stories that have true artistic/social/political/cultural impact are those in which there's effective use of language.

I would add that the author also has something important to say.



Well, that's what effective use of language signifies. It's not merely eloquent prose but primarily prose charged with depth and meaning.

Quote by: Shelli
I also differentiate art from entertainment, the artist from the person who wants to write a best seller.

Art is not motivated by market demands. If you're lucky enough to be an artist that creates something lots of people are willing to pay for, great.

Creating things to sell is commerce. Entertainment is commerce.

The distinction is all but non-existent in the general American public, but not so in that of continental Europe, where there is no such notion of "the arts" as something separate from everyday life.



Many times the distinction between art and entertainment is clear. But who's to say that art cannot entertain or cannot sell as well or become a success? After all, each reader sets his/her own standards on what constitutes entertainment. To give one example, I read Calvino's Baron in the Trees a few years ago. It is high quality literature but it is also good entertainment with a fascinating and original plot.

__________________
Always be a poet, even in prose. - Charles Baudelaire
My blog: lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com

Mhtritter 31 Jul at 14:27  
I agree with Lilaia on this, and though I also agree with those who are proclaiming the importance of plot, I actually think the prose holds more power. The chess piece analogy is surprisingly apt, for if the king is the plot, and the game ends the moment the king/plot is toppled, making the king the most important, it is the queen/prose that holds all the power.

The example of the hero's journey I think makes the case more for prose than plot in that it shows us that we are, all of us, actually retelling the same story over and over but with new characters and settings and words. I should think we are telling the same small handful of plots in ways that feel fresh but are, underneath it all, the same, for probably if someone were to come up with a story line which at its core had never been told, one which wasn't about the struggle of politics or love or inner growth, but completely fresh and new, it would be so unusual as to be unpalatable. There must be something familiar to hang our perception and conception upon to avoid a swirling miasma of ideas that are unrelatable.

And so it is the freshness of the prose that excites us. With that, the setting, even the familiar journey, feels new and unknown and draws us in. Then, when the story inevitably culminates into it the hero conquering their inner fears and conflicts, when they internalizes the advice of the mentor and utilizes the gift of the gods, and finally slays the oppressive evil which threatened the land, and emerges victorious, that too becomes welcome, having completed the passage from unknown into familiar and welcome.

Great blog. I especially loved how its execution was its premise. I left it feeling both impressed and inspired.
Lilaia 31 Jul at 16:20  
Quote by: Mhtritter
Great blog. I especially loved how its execution was its premise. I left it feeling both impressed and inspired.


Thank you. If you feel this way, then I reached my goal with this blog.

__________________
Always be a poet, even in prose. - Charles Baudelaire
My blog: lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com

Rellrod 2 Aug at 17:56  
Incidentally, I'm still enjoying the phrase "the quintessence of our techne."

Rick

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