Monday, March 5, 2012

Who Cares? (The Most Important Question We Never Ask)

For the past few years, I have started every creative writing class by telling my students that there is one question that I can't ask but that is more important than any other. "Who cares?"

I tell them this on the first day of class, before I've seen any of their writing, because I can't read their stories, the ones they've worked so hard on, the ones they've poured so much of themselves into, I can't hold those narratives up in front of all their peers, and say "honestly, y'all, who cares?"

To do so would be soul crushing, and it is neither my job nor my desire to crush souls. Still, before we've read any stories or can attach the question to any one writer's work, I have to put the question out there because, if we're serious about writing for publication, then our writing must above all other things make someone care.

Fiction, when it works, works like a gut punch. Whether we're out to make someone happy or sad, the purpose of fiction is not to move someone's rational mind, but rather, to move them emotionally. That's not easy to do. Most people are tired at the end of the day.

Flannery O'Connor knew this and wrote brilliantly about it (see her essay on "The Tired Reader" in Mystery and Manners).. The only problem is, she blames the reader, writing “I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.”

Now, I love Flannery O'Connor, and, though I know she is in part being facetious, I also want to believe that she is right because so many people are moved by her writing. Still, I wonder if the less-talented rest of us can get away with this attitude? Don't we have to go after those tired hearts and, if not uplift them, make them at least care a little about the characters we write? If we're moving hearts, and then minds along with them but hearts first, isn't making someone care the single most important function of a piece of writing?

I'm not advocating we start asking "who cares?" on any student's story. As I said earlier, I believe it would be destructive and harmful in the long run... Still, I'd like to throw the question out there as one we writers should be asking ourselves. We may not live in the sentimental age of the Victorians, with their love of melodrama, but nonetheless, readers turn to fiction because they do want catharsis; they do want to care. Our job is to provide matter worth caring about.

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