There’s this scene in the early parts of Stephen King’s IT that has nothing to do with the titular entity or anything scary at all, but which I love nonetheless. When the novel is going over protagonist Bill Denbrough’s college career and how it lead to him becoming a famous author, it shows one of his creative writing classes. Which is less of a creative writing class and more of a creative writing about revolution class. The weed-smoking teacher and most of the students all believe that writing should only be written to make a deeper statement about society.
In one class, Bill finally has enough and says to the class, “Sociopolitical, socioeconomic, sociocultural, socio-sexual, socio-everything. Why can’t a story just be a story?”
The professor says in disbelief, “Do you think Hemingway just wrote stories to write stories? Did Shakespeare write plays just to make a buck?”
Bill: “Yes, I think they did.”
The professor: “Clearly, you have a lot to learn.”
This is by no means an exact quote or even a very good paraphrase, so I hope this doesn’t bring me the ire of any King fans or King’s legal team. Also, while I can’t speak to Hemingway or whichever author the professor actually pointed out in the book, I do have enough knowledge of history and Shakespeare’s works under my belt to say that yes, Shakespeare probably did write to make a quick buck. Sad, but true.
But I bring up this minor exchange in one of King’s greatest novels for a reason: in the course of writing, you are going to meet authors who insist that when you write something, you have to be saying something or trying to change something about society. Not just themes woven into the story’s fabric, but when the story’s deeper meaning and the story itself can’t be distinguished from one or the other. Folks like this exist in just about every artistic medium, though in this case we’re talking about the literary types. Not knocking another artist’s perspective on the craft, just giving an arguably very simple definition of a viewpoint.
The question is, do the stories we write need to have some deeper statement? Are the themes we weave into our works not enough? Many of these “impact stories” have become famous and influential. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain often sought to instigate social examination and change in their work. Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening was probably written just to remind the world that women do desire more than marriage and motherhood. Those and other novels are taught in classrooms around the world to this day. Maybe we should try to give our work deeper meaning.
Well, from King’s novel, you can tell his view on the matter. But in my humble opinion?
Well, I’ve written both kinds of stories in my time. Rose, my upcoming novel, has had several different themes over the course of writing and editing it (I can’t tell you how many changes this book’s gone through since I started writing it in 2014). But while the themes have changed over time, there’s never been a moment where the novel was trying to say anything. Why would there be? It was primarily a supernatural horror novel involving an obsessed young man and a young woman in an impossible situation. I didn’t need to put any big statement or meaning into the story, because it didn’t need it and I couldn’t say anything trying to do so.
Another recent novel I wrote, River of Wrath, on the other hand, has a statement that can’t be cut away from the story. That’s because the novel is about the effect of racism and prejudice, as well as what it leads to, on your soul, and it takes place in the 1960s Mississippi. You can probably guess the rest from there.
However, I don’t think I could make every story I write have a deeper meaning. I enjoy writing too many stories that, while they may have themes woven in, wouldn’t do well trying to make a statement with. I mean, it’s kind of difficult to initiate social change when your story focuses on a ballerina and several cannibalistic murders. Not impossible, but difficult.
I think it’s a rare author who can make every story they write have this deeper message of social examination or social change. I think they have to seek to tell stories like that. As for the rest, I think as long as we’re enjoying the stories we write, that’s what really matters. And if a story has to have this deeper side to it, then it will arise organically at some point during the writing process.
Either way though, what’s important is that the writing is genuine, and that you, the author, love and are proud of the story you’ve created. That, in the end, is all that truly matters.
And while I still have your attention, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for spending so much time with us. We aim to help authors of all stripes, and seeing so many of you come to check out our articles time and time again, as well as becoming subscribers, makes it all worth it. So from us to you, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. I hope we continue to see you and help you in 2019. Cheers!
I find that while I never set out to add a deeper meaning to any story, there often is one by the time I’m done. But I suspect that were I to start out with the aim of putting one in it would feel forced.
Yeah, I have a feeling I’d be in the same boat if I tried to do that with any of mine.
Happy New Year.
Thanks! You too.