I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have talent, to have purpose, to have a remarkable voice as a writer. In short, I’ve been asking myself why I write. And the truth? I don’t have a definitive answer. I enjoy writing; I derive an immense satisfaction from constructing worlds and setting down the roots of characters who will grow into memorable people. But I think being a true, worthwhile writer involves more than those pursuits.
Sometimes, I worry I simply don’t have anything to say, anything that thunders inside my brain and roars to explode onto paper with the very necessity of existing.
In short, I don’t speak great truths.
Which is fine. I suppose. But I’m asking you, my readers, to spend time on creations which I fear are half-formed and internally shallow. I want the worlds I craft to resonate in the reader’s blood and thrum in their marrow. I want my characters to burrow into your minds and tread upon your hearts–in the best of ways, the ways that make you sad the story has ended, the ways that make you think thoughts you never thought before entering my world.
One story that had such a profound effect on me was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin. I’ll be the first to confess the blasphemy that I never quite appreciated her novels, beautiful though they are, but I still remember with gut-chilling clarity the day I read this story.
I was eleven with rather trite literary interests. In fact, I was still at an age where fiction didn’t “speak” to me. Nonfiction I could spill into my mind at an alarming rate, but fiction? I was still cautiously circling fiction, testing it out, prodding it to find its worth. For that, I blame the tepid, milquetoast sort of stories forced upon young readers in elementary books when I was young. It’s hard to find the joy in reading when everything set before you has the appeal of overcooked broccoli. I spent so many classes with my head in my literature book as I drifted off amid thoughts of lunch and recess that I can still summon into the back of my nostrils that distinct scent found deep in the bindings of textbooks.
Or, possibly, I was simply a dull-witted child. I won’t rule out that option. See my migraine post for evidence of that.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” didn’t simply change my ideas about fiction, it set an explosive charge and blasted all my ideas about short stories into rubble for me to reconstruct in its aftermath. It’s a story without a story. There is no protagonist, no conventional plot or rising action. Is there a conflict? In a roundabout way, yes, but not in the way conflict was presented to the average sixth-grader. It’s immersive and beautiful. . . and it’s bleak. . .yet hopeful in its own tragic way. And that final line still bristles the hair on my arms.
It’s quite short, just long enough to pull me deep into the whirl of sensations elicited in the narration, just enough to show me first one world and then another. But at the end, I sat with the book across my lap (it had been a homework assignment) and stared across the room as though I could dissolve away sheet rock and plaster, and see somewhere beyond the realm of my own existence.
Some of the message resonated with me–although not as much as it would when I was older and knew more of the world firsthand as opposed through my regular reading of U.S. News and World Reports and Newsweek–but even I sensed the deeper truths within the story. Even I knew that Le Guin had something important, that she had reached out to a sensitive place in human nature and whispered truths to it.
If you haven’t read the story, please find and read it. I won’t link it here, but it exists on the internet (although, as a writer, I think it’s always better and more respectful to the author to reader it in an official source).
That’s the sort of story I want to write. I want to write the story that leaves my readers richer for having gone on the journey I set before them. Will I ever be so profound? I doubt it. But I intend to strive. That, to me, is what it means to write.