The title of this post is a steal from William Zinsser, author of Writing Well. His Writing to Learn is about writing nonfiction as part of a learning process. Both books are worth reading for anyone who’s serious about becoming a writer.
I realized a long time ago that writing is my way of thinking. Yes, I think when I’m away from the computer, but writing is my way of working through topics and problems. For some reason, writing helps me think more clearly and more deeply. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to remember what I was thinking five minutes ago or yesterday, or lose track of a thread when a new idea pops up. Writing makes my thinking concrete.
It didn’t occur to me for a long time that this was just as true of fiction as nonfiction. I didn’t see my stories as a progression in my thinking and understanding about topics that I’d either never thought about before or had barely been aware of. My fascination with human psychology and power relationships blossomed into stories about slavery. And now I find that those stories are moving from a concern with the individual to larger concerns. The ethics of slavery and its effects on the slave and the slave owner has been a thread running through each story. But the individual has been central — the individual, and his life in a rather circumscribed environment.
With my most recent story, The Warden, I’ve started moving away from that limited perspective. Interestingly, I didn’t realize what was happening until I was close to the end of the novel and already thinking about the revisions. I’m beginning to move my characters into the larger world around them and look at how that world impinges on slavery, on the whole idea of personal freedom. The ethical issues are becoming more complex and more socially oriented. The individual is still at the center, but the world he inhabits is much larger.
The other thing that’s happening is that the stories are becoming less fantasy and more what-might-be, given the world as it is and as it might become. It’s been hard to see where my work fits any genre, given that it contains elements of several. I’ve always seen it as science fiction, but wondered whether it also belonged in erotic romance. It doesn’t, thank goodness. It’s moved solidly into science fiction, where I prefer it to be, and it’s becoming more the kind of science fiction I prefer to read.
The value of science fiction, at its best, is that it throws a brilliant light into corners that ordinarily stay dark. It creates societies that are metaphors for our own, and people who might be ourselves in different circumstances. It remembers the past, looks unswervingly at the present, and tries to envision the future. That’s the kind of fiction I’m learning to write.
Learning to write. Writing to learn. I’m doing both, simultaneously.