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Fiction: What it Means to be Human
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Two quotes: "Fiction is about what it is to be a fucking human being" and good writing should help readers "become less alone inside."

I saw both of these quotes by David Foster Wallace in the March 9 edition of The New Yorker in a story by D.T. Max. They struck me for a number of reasons, one was the sadness of Wallace's death and the fact that in part he killed himself because he felt that his writing had never really connected with readers on the level he set for good writing, but also because these quotes show the determination of the writer to use language as a means to create a sense of intimacy between the reader and the writer--the reader has to feel that the writing speaks to them on a very personal level.

In my last post I talked about getting language right in order to foster that sense of intimacy--wrong words spoken with an incorrect inflection will destroy intimacy and if these mistakes occur either at the beginning of the writing or throughout you will have lost the reader and the writing will fail.

Wallace, though, points to a larger truth, which is something that I have consistently written about in my blog postings. It is that the reader has to identify with the characters, situations and stories being presented to them and language is albeit critically important, but one small aspect of this puzzle. If all good writing is about yearning, which it is, then people have to understand the yearning, they have to empathize or even sympathize with the yearning of the characters and the way that they are presented. And to do this the writing has to display what it means "to be a fucking human being." This does not mean that the only good writing is similar to that of Updike or Anne Packer (a more contemporary example); both of whom looked at the experience of being alive in America and seeking the simple pleasures of happiness in lives lived in common with the people of the time (e.g. seeking to be in satisfying relationships; enjoy the marvel, frustration and joy of raising children; the search for meaning in work and in all other aspects of life; and more).

Good writing can take the form of stories such as "Harrison Bergeron" by Vonnegut, which examines a future where people with physical prowess are hobbled in order to level the playing field for everyone else. Or it can be in the stories of JK Rowling or Tolkein or many others who are able to tell stories that are wildly fantastic while expressing in very human terms the desire of the characters and the underlying pain that they bear as they traverse the pages of their lives.

At the bottom of it all, there is the ability of the writer to help the reader to connect, to become intimate with and develop a bond with characters that flow from the imagination--they become friends with, or in some cases more than friends (how does it feel when a beloved character dies or is their a male or female character that has caused you to search in real life for a similar romantic match. I found such a character in my 20s in a book titled "The River Why"). Good character in good stories help us all to feel a little less lonely in a very personal and internal way. I have rarely been able to describe the true reasons behin my affection for certain characters or distaste for others.

So Wallace sought in his writing to connect these two phrases--what it means to be human and to feel a little less lonely inside. It is about sharing, and as such, writing then becomes something of a quest for us writers as we seek to hopefully create some piece of art that approaches these very high goals. There is also another great truth to this that flows from the idea that in life, though we share our space and time with other people, and we can share certain experiences, we essentially make our way through life alone, we must walk into life as if we are walking into a darkened wood and must seek our own way through it. We can bring certain tools to this, relationships being one important example, but we must do it. Unfortunately for some, the search can be more than it is possible to bear.