Mission Control

(Originally posted on Blogger site.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of mission statements and how they could relate to what I’m trying to do as a writer/creative artist/person. I mean this in the grand sense — what I have in mind as a long-term ambition for the work I produce, and having that work also fall into step with the personal principles and ethics that I espouse.

Of course, this idea came from somewhere. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently read a book by Jeff Vandermeer on writing. In it, he talked about the importance of creating this sort of mission outline, creating a focusing document to essentialize everything that is important to you as a writer/creator. Having something like this would probably help to keep us better attuned and more honest to ourselves as human beings, too. Vandermeer may well have extrapolated to this conclusion in the book as well — probably did — though I don’t have it with me to confirm my suspicion.

At any rate, this post is my attempt at outlining a stance, an ethics, and a personal, creative guideline.

OUTLINE OF PRINCIPLES

Mood
Though I’ve blogged in the recent past about some of the shifts that I’ve undergone in my approach to writing, there are a few things that seem to have adhered to my style like the blackened, charred sludge on the bottom of a roasting pan. (You know, when you’ve been making chicken with a reduction atop it — already thickened in the reducing process — and then you put it in the oven for a while and it drips off the chicken and cooks some more. Yes, that. Like volcanic rock it is.)

One of those clinging elements is mood. I like my fiction cripplingly-dense with mood. And, most often, this mood is a dark one. They say “when it rains, it pours.” Similarly, distress and tension and confusion can be found in deluge quantities in my work.

But how would I break down a story and expose the “mood” that I’m talking about? It would be difficult for me to isolate this Fundamental Motivation for Mood from how I view the other elements in any given story; they are all interconnected. Setting, action, exposition, dialogue, and…anything I’ve missed, I suppose, all come together to create a permeating atmosphere that must, as I see it, serve a governing tone. If any of these elements slip out of sync with that aim, it is both apparent and a flaw.

I suppose this is also true of the fiction I read. It’s often difficult for me to feel that any novel or collection is a world-shaping masterpiece when it lacks a particular mood. I’ve found this lack of mood to be particularly apparent in a few cases recently. Particular names conveniently escape me right now. Suffice it to say I either read them in a recent Year’s-Best-style anthology or heard them being performed on This American Life. I’m not sure if the lack of mood I detected was a deliberate affect or a by-product of quirky style, but it certainly felt like the antithesis of what I’m striving to achieve in my own writing.

There are, admittedly, complications to this. It tends to imply a polarization in tone; you end up with a piece of fiction that has either a very, very serious voice (and treats it’s subject matter with the same level of seriousness) or else is treated with a ridiculous lack of gravity. Interestingly, there are a few times when I try to blend two tones together, or shift between lightness and gravity. I’m unsure if I was successful in these efforts, but it seems to me that it’s possible for these two to exist together successfully in writing, as they do in life.

Language
For a while, this seemed to be the primary consideration in good fiction, as far as I was concerned. Constructing a really good sentence was the overriding concern, and, if you had that working, you were nine-tenths of the way towards a successful piece of writing. Many other aspects of the work could fall to the side, or be underdeveloped — this was all secondary. Language: that’s where it’s at.

With time, I feel my approach softened and broadened. While I still have a love of the good writing, I’d say that my appreciation for the gestalt nature of fiction has definitely expanded. That said, I feel that I feel better about my fiction when a lot of attention has been attuned to the level of the sentence. Prose that acts purely as an instructional vehicle to convey plot and other mechanisms of the story is doing an incredible disservice.

Pacing
This is another element that I feel is crucial for success in my work. I believe this holds true for film, as well. In fact, I feel it’s especially true for film, where the pacing can become disrupted with greater ease because of the nature and power of editing to construct perception and reality. But, in the same way, fiction needs to keep a continuity of pace throughout, to not have disruptive fluctuations in the flow. This is important to me.

Balancing Storytelling With Innovation
This idea also pairs well with the Language section above, in that innovation can be courted and tested through things like language-use and form. I choose to name those areas specifically because they are the ones toward which I tend to lean when experimenting. There can be powerfully-compelling forces at work in simple stories (I love folktales, and they’re some of the earliest forms of narrative), but I also feel it’s important to always bring some strain of experimentation to my writing, even if it’s slight. I want to push at some boundary or convention in each piece, if I can.

Open Access/Freedom of Knowledge
It wasn’t until I was pursuing my library science degree that I really came to appreciate the open access movement. I genuinely believe that information should be casually thrown around like so many tote bags at an ALA convention. It’s something that should function independent of economics and ability. It is, at its core, a way of operating that indicates we’ve managed to rise above animal instinct and can function outside of an opportunistic, self-centered parameter that focuses solely on survival and gain.

For this reason, I decided that I would distribute any work that I created in a free manner under Creative Commons licenses. It was important to me that the ability to access and own (and, dare I dream, perhaps even enjoy) my work wouldn’t be predicated on having a certain amount of money. I’ve got a lot of problems with capitalism, and so I felt that distributing my work this way would allow me to feel less hypocritical, and in closer alignment with a better way of existing.

Philosophy/Worldview
It’s important to me that my fiction reflect some small part of my world view. More to the point, it’s better to say that I feel my fiction should never compromise or move too contrary to my philosophy of life. It’s acceptable to me that a piece appear to espouse a worldview to which I don’t subscribe personally, but it would be…uncomfortable for me if that philosophy went down an avenue that diverged radically from my own. I suppose this is pretty true of most writers, but it bears repeating here, as it’s important to me.

A Distilled Mission Statement
It is my ambition to create thoughtful, challenging, well-written, well-paced fiction that works in harmony with my personal philosophies, and which is freely, openly accessible (in some form) to anyone under a Creative Commons license.

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