How to Write Great Literature
Avoid first person.
That isn't true, the writer says.
Her muse blinks slowly, then smiles slightly. I didn't write the rules, he says. I just follow them.
The writer shakes her head. Not if they're my rules. I make my own.
You were told to write a story. A literary story. I'm just trying to tell you what to do.
Literary fiction is about breaking rules. Isn't it?
On the contrary. Literary fiction is about sticking to the rules. I can prove it to you.
The writer sighs and looks up at the muse, sitting so precariously on the edge of the armchair. The writer has many muses, but this one is her most important, her most influential, her most loved. This muse in particular was crafted from wishes and hopes of the perfect person. This muse is her guilty pleasure, and she loves him, as only a writer can.
Prove it to me, the writer challenges.
Very well. The muse cracks his knuckles and flicks his hair. The writer is reminded by how cruel her subconscious is. Many female writers would create a muse made from chiseled muscle, with a passion for taming mountain lions or invading terrorist bunkers. You know, someone with enough testosterone to choke a filled room. But this muse is nothing like that. In fact, he is the opposite.
He is impossibly and irrevocably gay.
Says something about the writer, she thinks to herself.
Says something about a lot of things, the muse interjects. When the writer is startled, the muse smiles again. Honey, I'm in your head. Your thoughts aren't safe from me.
What about those rules? You gonna tell me about them?
Don't try anything dramatic. Literature is all about subtlety. It can cover a few seconds or it can cover a lifetime, but make sure nothing too exciting happens. No battles, no wars, no apocalypses. Unless, of course, they pale in comparison to the development of a character and the "human condition".
The writer sits in class, unable to concentrate because she is so preoccupied by her unoccupied hands. She remembers teachers in high school yelling at her for drawing during lectures. She had felt like laughing. Drawing is the only thing that helps her concentrate.
Why am I here? the muse asks.
I didn't call for you.
But you're bored out of your mind, so I'm here anyway.
Can't help it. Do something interesting. A joke. An anecdote. Hell, just sit there and preen if you'd like that.
And you'd find that interesting?
Obviously. Else I wouldn't have created you.
Suddenly the room shakes. Students cry out. The teacher carries on, red in the face, determined to keep their attention on the importance of nature in Victorian literature. Outside the window there is a flash. Just beyond the horizon of trees, an enormous and violent red cloud taints the sky. It looks much like a mushroom, but with a white ring billowing out in the center, almost like a hula hoop about its waist.
It's an atomic bomb, the writer says calmly.
Are we all going to die? asks the muse.
Of course. We'll all die horrible deaths.
Slapping it on thick, huh?
It's not the apocalypse. Just an atomic explosion in a city. It'll only kill a couple million.
I don't think you understand what subtlety is.
Neither do you. The writer stares at the muse. The muse is a drag queen. While he is not decked out in sequins and hot blue wigs, he does love big shoes and pink eye shadow, and he chooses this moment to pull a lipstick tube from his purse and apply it using a compact mirror.
You made me, the muse says with a laugh. Of course I'm not subtle.
The writer looks down at her desk, struck my a realization. So I can't write literature. I'm not subtle.
You could stop that explosion, you know. Could write a story about a bored girl in a normal everyday college class, who sees her father in the professor and finally comes to terms with her unpleasant childhood in a span of two minutes.
The writer shakes her head. I kind of like my atomic bomb idea.
The blast is almost here.
Well, then. Here. The muse hands the girl a 2H pencil and a piece of paper, this particular piece being the back of an old Algebra test the writer took in 9th grade. I can tell you're bored.
The girl eagerly settles down to draw, and the atomic bomb swallows up the city, horrifically murdering millions.
Look at what's ugly in life. In people. One or more of your characters should have a deformity, a fault, a scar or a personality that makes all other shy away from them. The weirder the ugliness, the better. How about a guy with a third ear sprouting from his spine? A girl who is seven feet tall. A child whose nerves cannot register pain.
I know what I am going to write, the writer tells her muse. I am going to write about a frog man who falls in love with a beautiful woman.
Let me guess. A sort of prince-meets-princess analogy?
Yes, but here's the twist. He only thinks she is beautiful because she is a frog-woman, and he's never seen one before.
You have no interest in frog people, and you know this. You're only doing it to satisfy the rule.
True. I really don't care. But I'm trying to pretend that I don't like beautiful people, just like everyone else.
I'm beautiful. You made me that way.
The writer is going to lunch alone, because she can't stand to join her roommate in her usual frozen-food consumption. She tries to feel like a noble and honorable loner, the sort that others notice but don't pity. She still feels pitiful, however, so she invites her muse along, simply for the company. He's not the greatest company, because her image of him is frail. He comes through perfectly on paper, but to conjure a completely dimensional picture of him is impossible for her, especially when she's also occupied with choosing between hamburgers and pizza. She knows he has blonde curls, blue eyes, and a loud, free laugh that conquers hearts. She knows everyone loves him, in her world and in his. No one can't; he's a total darling.
Beautiful in a strange way, the writer claims defensively. You are a drag queen. Not everyone finds them beautiful.
This frog man. What does he look like?
Oh, he has warts, his skin is greenish, and he's got a goiter on his throat. The woman he falls in love with is much of the same, sans goiter. But she'll be hideous too.
Why, though? Why make them so ugly?
I've never met someone so horrendously ugly. Why not write about real people? People that everyone knows?
The writer laughs, holding a hand over her mouth to keep bits of burger from flying. No one is interested in reality. Why do you think everyone reads? If I wanted reality, I wouldn't write, I wouldn't draw, and I sure as hell wouldn't read.
You'd also have more friends.
The writer tosses a small bit of burger at him while he laughs. That pure, genuine laugh that makes her happy each time she hears it. She wishes more people would laugh like that. She wishes people wouldn't titter or chuckle or giggle. She wishes they'd laugh.
I don't think they have to be so ugly.
They have to be. The moral of the story is that looks don't matter.
No, the moral of the story would be that ugly people find other ugly people and make ugly babies.
The writer laughs again. Then she sobers. But I can't write about people like you. People will say I care too much about looks, that I'm shallow.
Then they'll be liars. Everyone cares about looks, and everyone is fascinated by the beautiful. To me, a story about beautiful people tells just as much about society as a story about ugly people.
Says a beautiful muse.
I'm only beautiful in your head, dear. Maybe others wouldn't think so. Maybe some neo-nazi out there would hate me. He'd think I was dirty, an abomination.
The writer shakes her head sadly and states, This conversation is turning into a clichéd punchline about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I'm just saying that maybe you shouldn't write about frog people.
Okay, fine. I'm getting some pie.
The writer stands and heads for the dessert trays.
Do something wild. Something that very few others have dared to do. This will make you look like a creative genius, when in actuality, you're probably just pulling stuff out of your ass. It doesn't matter. If you can sell it, it's art.
I hate abstract art. The writer frowns.
She and her muse stand in a museum, gazing at paint smears on a canvas. The muse is much taller than his creator. He is blonder, tanner, and more in shape than his creator as well. He is a social creature, a real sweetheart, and he'll get into conversations with strangers on the bus. At least, he does in his world. In hers, even his presence isn't enough. She still clings to her own world and stares out the windows of buses in silence.
The muse is naturally defensive. He always defends those who can't do it themselves.
It's done by a famous painter.
I don't give a shit. This painting is shit. He threw some paint down, smeared it around with his bare ass, and then sells it to some stuffy art enthusiasts in another country. I'm just shocked he did it in his lifetime. Usually artists have to die before that happens.
Art isn't about knowing what the thing is about. It's about the guessing.
I don't want to guess. I want to know. I don't know anything about life. I don't know why I'm here, you're here, that person over there is here, why the Earth was born or the stars around it, how the dinosaurs died off, why my orange juice fermented three days before the expiration date, or why my cat farts and my dog doesn't. I don't know anything. So this artist thinks he can make a living off of giving me more things to not know? What a dick!
The muse laughs. He laughs at all the writer's jokes. She wouldn't keep him around if he didn't. Then again, he makes her laugh too. She likes that sort of relationship. Being able to make each other laugh. She only wishes all her relationships went that way.
For an artist, you sure like your cold hard facts. The muse's eyes dance. He is happy. He's always happy. The writer likes that too.
The writer wraps her arms around herself. As long as I'm the one who makes them.
Have an object, color, or scent that the story focuses on. It doesn't even have to be a metaphor, but something that is brought up again and again, something that would hurt the story if it were removed.
The muse rolls his eyes. A spoon, he repeats.
And so what function does this spoon have in your story?
I don't know yet. I'll just throw it in there and let the readers do the work for me. Let them stress over it for awhile. A spoon? they'll think. I can't figure it out! they'll cry. If I'm lucky, it'll haunt their sleep.
Would it haunt yours?
Nah. I'd never even get the reference. That's why I've gotta make it obvious. That's what I'm saying: it'll be so obvious that I'm trying to say something about its metaphorical importance, but I'll never allude to what the importance is. Ambiguity, okay? Everything in literature is about ambiguity.
Or maybe you're just being lazy. I want to know the purpose of the spoon.
They are sitting in the writer's room. The muse is seated on the bed, swinging his legs like a child, face open and guileless. The writer made him like that. He never pretends to be cool, lame or otherwise.
The writer is at her computer, thinking. She doesn't want to write about spoons and frog people, but what other options does literature give her? She wants to write about her muse, but she knows that it will be cheating. He's not literature quality. He is what he says he is, and literature isn't interested in that. Literature wants layers upon layers, layers built on lies and pretenses, layers that keep the readers wondering who is this person? No one would ever wonder who her muse was. They'd know from the beginning.
She plays with a pencil on her desk, a familiar 2H pencil, the kind she likes to draw with because it doesn't smear when she brushes up against her drawings.
Can you at least humor me? What could a spoon stand for?
The writer thinks some more. Hunger, she eventually states. Both physical and emotional. Western culture. Sophistication. Advancement. Food. Her eyes grow. A salad fork! That could narrow it down, right? Who the hell uses a salad fork?
People who eat salad?
I don't even know what a salad fork looks like! the writer cries, excited now. It can represent how the rich gormandize while the insolvent masses famish!
Do you even know what you just said? And I don't think insolvent means poor-
Then again, I'm not going for a moral, am I? Ambiguity. The writer sighs, frustrated. I suck at that. I want the message to be processed, packaged, and spoon-fed to me. So now I'm just going to go with the spoon again.
You're not even going to come up with your personal thoughts on its purpose?
The writer thinks for a while, then smiles to herself, tapping her pencil against her teeth. Hell, I don't even know what this story is about.
Tragedy is golden.
So you blew up the city with an atomic bomb.
The muse now sits beside the writer on the bus, clicking his long nails on the seat in front of him. He's wearing pink lip gloss today. It glitters in the sunlight through the window.
Seems like a pretty stupid tragedy.
The writer gapes in offense. Excuse me? Millions dying is a stupid tragedy?
There's really no depth to it. Bomb goes off. Everyone dies. The end. There's no complexity to death. It's the aftermath, the people left behind. That's the tragedy. The dead people don't think it's tragic. They're dead.
Fine. The frog daughter of two frog-people parents finds out that her parents were murdered in the blast. She uses an old sterling silver spoon to pin up her hair before she takes the bus to ground zero. She falls down and weeps. Goes crazy. Starts talking backward. The whole story is delivered in this way. Readers want to burn it after reading it. The end. The real tragedy is the headache the audience gets afterward.
The muse rolls his eyes. Now you're just being a jerk and not taking this story seriously.
The writer laughs, because to her, everything is a joke in the end. The bus slowly climbs a hill. The writer's stop is close.
Tell me you have a better idea, the muse begs.
Okay. How about a simple romance in which the girl never gets the guy? Everyone can relate that. I'll shove in a few details to make it literature quality.
You don't have the heart to write anything romantic.
It was true. The muse knew her too well. Then again, he knew everything about her. No one knew her like he did.
Sure I do, the writer insists. I read romantic stories all the time. I write them.
Then why am I your muse? Why not some gorgeous hero from a story?
The writer shrugs. She doesn't know. It just feels better this way. More comfortable. Friends are more real to her. She understands friends and the need for them. She doesn't understand romance and the need for it. So she invents this muse, this eccentric drag queen with blonde curls who stands a foot taller than her.
The writer and her muse get off the bus at their stop and head toward their place. The muse keeps his strides short in consideration of his writer.
No atomic bombs and no jilted lovers. Then what is the tragedy?
Maybe I won't have any. The writer shrugs again. Who needs more tragedy anyway?
Literature must have tragedy.
Yeah, I guess.
A man is standing at the entrance to the writer's building. He sees her and opens the door for her. She did not ask, and secretly she feels guilty, because this is one favor she can't return. She hates debts.
"Thank you," the writer tells the man.
He nods and looks away. The writer slips through the open door. The man lets the handle go, and the door sweeps straight through the muse's shoulder. He isn't harmed. He doesn't even notice it happening. But the writer does.
What is it, hon? the muse asks.
The writer shakes her head and smiles up at him sadly. Nothing, she says. Let's go.
Author's Note: This is what you write when you're told to write a 15-20 page story for class, aha.
If anyone wonders who the muse is, check out my story Confessions of a Drag Queen and a Girl Named Dot. I think people who read this who aren't writers may think I'm totally off my rocker, but I think writers can understand how real their characters can get to be after years of obsession. XD And since I have such horrible social skills, sometimes he's all I've got.
To any naysayers: Yes, I purposely left out the quotation marks. IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE DEEP. XD Actually, it's supposed to emphasize that this whole conversation is going on in the writer's head. Also, this is a response to all of you who have been forced to read "deep" story after deep story. You get really sick of it after awhile. This is my criticism of literary fiction. As an English Writing major, literary fiction is slowly becoming the bane of my existence, aha. Also, I'm an art major, and looking at contemporary art frustrates me as well.