”The story is the king,” people say. ”The word is the queen,” I say. Down with this tyrant king! Long live the queen!
From the dawn of time, humanity has been an ever-moving mouth whispering tales. It’s our nature to create something out of nothing, to record and decode life inside a palpitating web of words. But the truth is this: any fool can spin a yarn. It doesn’t take any particular skills except for a little bit of an active mind. Anyone can make up a story. People have been doing it all the time in all the languages of the world, from the little child whose imagination is galloping at the speed of light to the average Joe and plain Jane, from the middle-aged adult to the sweet, old lady next door.
But if this is an innate ability, then what exactly sets the writer apart from the non-writer? And most importantly, what distinguishes the bad writer from the mediocre, the mediocre from the competent, the competent from the good, the good from the great one?
Most often, the story itself isn’t the be-all and end-all. The plot isn’t the terrain upon which a work receives nourishment and gains its flesh. One of the usual complaints we hear is that a writer has an interesting story arc or a fresh idea or complex concepts and yet, that isn’t enough to draw the reader in. Naturally, one wonders. What went wrong? Where did the writer fail and why?
The answer is the execution. A faulty delivery suffices to stifle even the most authentic voice, to mangle the most intricate and rich worldbuilding, to leave wanting the most singular narrative. A thick plot and multiple subplots are not enough on their own to sustain a work. A storyline is the spine that holds up our construction. But the mere skeleton of a house is barely habitable. We inhabit inside living, breathing bodies of buildings. The same applies to our books.
We are not after a kind of work that has merely acquired a raw shape from a quivering mass of mental sparks. We crave to touch its pulsing veins, to hear its beating heart. That’s when we’re flooded with he satisfaction that we gave birth to a being fully alive with an independent existence from our own.
Many writers are aware of what they want to convey. The entire game is played on choosing the most appropriate way to convey it though. That’s where we enter the arena and engage in a bloody fight with words. It’s all about them after all. To choose the best of them, the ripest, to arrange and rearrange them until they turn aflame. To hit the nail on the head. To pick the most suitable in order to present our thinking with the utmost precision and clarity. As Cicero put it in The Oration for Plancius, ”The difference between a good and a bad writer is shown by the order of his words as much as by the selection of them.”
That’s all that stands between a run-of-the-mill and a mind-blowing narrative. We can all craft tales as long as we are literate. However, not all of us can write well or even pen something beyond the ordinary.
Words are sacred, therefore they deserve our love and reverence. Not a blind love just for the sake of it (verbal fireworks offer only hollow impressions. They suffocate the writing like weeds the roses of a garden), but a profound love because of the vast semantic field they unlock before our very eyes.
Each word carries a specific meaning, a subtle or not so subtle nuance that no other can replace. Every writer worth their salt, every writer who’s interested in creating a work of gravitas must be fully conscious of that. From an anthropological point of view, man is homo ludens. According to historian and cultural theorist Huizinga, civilization is based on a game, and all its various manifestations, from verbal communication to religious worship, can be understood as man’s natural inclination to participate in this game.
Huizinga goes on to explain that in contrast with other aspects of civilization, like politics and law that have diverged from their ludic origins, literature still follows the principles that govern every game. Principles like taking part freely in acts devoid of literal meaning and unusual compared to the ones in our daily life, acts governed by rules the participants themselves have agreed upon and, even though they are aware they have no literal meaning, they take them seriously.
Under this prism, literature is a ludic, not literal logos governed by rules decided by its players that can be reconsidered and changed, nonetheless, during the passage of time. And the players, despite knowing that it’s all game far removed from reality, play it as if it unfolded in the real world.
But what kind of game do we writers play when we play literature? We play with reality and unreality, truth and falsehood, fact and fantasy, morality and immorality, creation and destruction, order and chaos, beauty and the grotesque. But, first and foremost, we are word players. Whatever game we play, we play it through the only means at our disposal: words.
And what’s the ultimate game words yield to us? Nothing more than a continuous hide and seek between what lies on the surface and what sleeps beneath it, awaiting for the reader to wake it up. All literature is an unending game of fluidity between denotation and connotation, between the word’s literal and deviant from the common speech significance.
It’s the writers’s responsibility to be that kind of player, to render their words charged and pregnant so that the weight of their meaning alone will impale them on the paper, so that the wind won’t blow them away like poppy petals (to heavily paraphrase the verses of a poet).
Language offers us by nature infinite possibilities to take advantage of in the most positive sense. It’s the writers’s job to broaden the semantic field into which they move in their works, to stretch their words beyond their strictest confines and infuse them with more ”strata”.
In that way, we create a work with multiple layers of meaning that each time it is read, it’s perceived under a slightly different light. In that way, we craft a work with a transparent storyline that lies on the surface of the words, visible and easily understood by the majority, and at the same time with many more storylines that effervesce beneath the first layer.
And that’s the kind of work that will leave an indelible impression on the mind and soul of the reader: a story of substance and depth that speaks about the things that matter without actually saying them.
Let us aspire to that!