Literature and Life: Throwing Stones

I have normally written about my weekly Night Writers meetings at our Night Writers blog.  For several reasons, I have not had the time to update that blog lately and so will write a bit here.  At last night's meeting:

  • I read two scenes of Simon working his way into ever-greater power, plotting, conniving, and turning people against one another
  • Stephanie read about Claude's funeral in the lumber camp in Secrets in the Timbers, and how it impacts Lally's decision to make a greater effort to break through Jared's walls
  • Lyn read a chapter giving a great deal of background on aunt Inga and her niece Alicia, explaining why Alicia hates Inga enough to kill her fiancĂ©
  • Judy read a re-write of Kate confronting Marshall, just as he's stolen the millions (or thinks he has) in See That House
  • Genny read a re-write of her experience being one of the featured guests, along with Bobby V and Fabian, seven years ago, at a big event in Minnetonka

Because we had 40 minutes left, I read something far outside my usual--a short story called Throwing Stones.  It is the tale of a man who has retreated to a cold, dark place--literally and figuratively--unable to carve the fantastic figures he once did.

On reading the piece out loud--a first draft, as compared to usually reading sections I've worked on at least somewhat--I decided it could be cut by 25-33%.  Apart from that, it was interesting to hear the opinions.  Although all agreed it was well-written, and Genny said it brought to mind Call of the Wild, the emotional reactions ranged from a low of "I hated it!" all the way up to "It's not a short story--it's a work of art!" 

It was more interesting to hear the reasons behind the opinions, and I think those reasons speak to the heart of the purpose of literature in our lives, what we may want from it versus what it should deliver.  The reactions to the story centered around the ending, which is tragic. 

Genny didn't care for the conclusion because it definitively ended the story, and she wanted it to go on and on, to hear more, to see it grow from what I read. 

And she's right.  There was a very, very different direction the story could have gone.  It could have had a beautiful ending, had Alan chosen differently--or chosen differently sooner, or tried harder to rectify his mistakes.  And right there is one of the points of literature.  In every single one of our lives, there are many directions we could have gone.  Or might still go. 

We often see more clearly in a story, than in our own lives, all the options, and in theory gain some wisdom from that.  This is, in fact, the basis of many stories: watching the two versions of a person's life unfold into two very different futures, hinging on one very small decision.  I may write another version in which Alan--or the dog--makes a different choice.

Lyn said she wants happy endings, while Judy felt that this particular tragic ending made the story meaningless.  Alan never learns, never grows, and remains stuck in his negative beliefs.  I would say that's only partially true.  He does reconsider his views and he does regret his actions.  But by the time he does, the die (along with the stones) has been cast.  His actions have consequences.

As a side note, Lyn's reading had the same motif.  How Inga treated Alicia as a child had long term and very tragic consequences.  Stephanie's, likewise, focused on a similar question of realizing we sometimes need to step up our efforts to reach out to others, to repair relationships, while Throwing Stones addresses other dimensions of that issue.

Ross, in contrast to hating the ending, believed the story was perfect as it was, that it couldn't have ended any differently.  This story is a work of art, he said, and you don't have to agree with a work of art.

On reflection, I tend to agree with him that for this story, this is the appropriate ending.  His comments called to mind my February Books and Brews with Ross Fishman, and our discussion of Russian literature--how it is often dark and tragic.  In fact, my March program had a similar discussion around the tragedy often found in Irish ballads and literature, too.  Yes, Throwing Stones is dark--literally and figuratively--and tragic. 

But, as Ross (Fishman) said of Russian literature, life is often dark and tragic.  Life doesn't always have a happy ending.  And the tales in Russian literature teach wisdom: to think about our actions ahead of time.  They warn us about how easy it is to back ourselves into corners that are difficult to get out of.  They warn us--over and over--that our choices and how we treat others may have long-term results that become steadily more difficult--and sometimes finally impossible--to turn around.

What is the purpose of literature?  What do you want from literature?  What do you believe makes a book literature rather than a story?


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