Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Metaphysical Aspects of Fiction for Readers & Writers by Professor Robert W. Walker aka Pontificator Extraordinaire


Robert W. Walker is a graduate of Northwestern University and NU’s Graduate School of Education; he holds a master’s degree in English, and has recently turned his 1972 dissertation into a novel entitled Children of Salem.




His novel Dead On is due out in July from Five Star Books. Rob is the author of the 11-book Dr. Jessica Coran Instinct Series, the 4-book Detective Lucas Stonecoat Edge Series, and the historical trilogy featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom in City for Ransom, Shadows in the White City, and City of the Absent.

Rob has published over forty novels and has recently begun publishing in ebook format as well.

While he grew up in Chicago and was born in Corinth, MS., Rob now lives with his wife, Miranda, and their four children in Charleston, WV. To learn more about Rob or to get his help on your next story, as he is an accomplished editor as well, visit him online at: www.robertwalkerbooks.com, www.myspace.com/robertwwalkerbooks, www.facebook.com/robertwalker


The Metaphysical Aspects of Fiction for Readers & Writers by Professor Robert W. Walker aka Pontificator Extraordinaire

Although I write scary, frightening, exciting, suspenseful, fast-paced fiction, I consider what I do literature first—that it strives for the level of literature. I don’t know if it’s great lit or bad lit but my definition of literature is a story that aspires to the metaphysical. I am ever-wanting to deal with issues both of a physical nature and a metaphysical nature—that is concerns of this life: hunting, gathering, sex, fighting, fleeing or how we live our lives when put in a pressure cooker. However, I also want to deal at the same time, in the same story, concerns of a spiritual nature, i.e. who we are, why we act as we do, and how we live our lives between the dates on the tombstone. Working both pumps at once has always been my larger goal, and the longer I write, the more important this has become for this author.

From the get-go, let us all understand what it means to talk met•a•phys•i•cal-ly. Yes, it is an adjective with five shaded meanings, and what mystery writer doesn’t like a little shading or noir?

1. Relating to the philosophical study of the nature of being and beings, or a philosophical system resulting from such study

2. Based on speculative reasoning and unexamined assumptions that have not been logically examined or confirmed by observation

3. Extremely abstract or theoretical

4. Without material form or substance

5. Originating not in the physical world but somewhere outside it

A writer’s quite physical efforts which cause him back pain and eye strain, and sometimes blood clots, his or her fifty re-writes result in openings, pivotal plot points, mid-point slumps, denouement, endings, but it all begins with an abstract notion of theme or various “threads” the author consciously wishes to examine and deal with and tug at or carefully pull through. A River Runs Through It is not just a title. In other words, what is physical aside from the manuscript itself are such things as establishing shots and props just as in the movies (or at least in the story these things are ‘physical’ and ‘real’). What appears in the story of a physical nature should be used for what it is—a door is a door for instance, and it should be opened and closed and be mired in the real world (to the degree a writer wishes to represent the real world). However, a writer is often working with abstract notions as well, and often a physical prop from a horse to a deadly stick can and does take on representational or symbolic meaning, or a double entendre as in a stout door that is impenetrable and standing between two characters, or a rope that is unraveling, or an unbreakable chain representing a “relationship”. And suddenly aha! You now have a foot in the metaphysical. Perhaps only the sparest of styles can avoid this lurch to an abstract level within the story—but even Hemmingway is layered with abstract truths.

Authors are throwing fast balls, slow balls, curve balls, knuckle balls, and sliders (physical cues with metaphysical wrappers around them), and it behooves readers to be engaged as catchers with the mitt held at the ready. Else a reader “misses” the strike, or calls a ball when it is a strike, or mistakes a bean-ball to the head, a hammer blow, for something else entirely. What I am getting at in a nutshell is that you can read John Steinbeck for just the story, and you may be happy with that—the plot’s the thing or as Shakespeare said, the play’s the thing. Both Shakespeare and Steinbeck seem to want to be taken simply as two storytellers—only! But if either gentlemen ever said that, they lied. Anyone who works at a Shakespearean play or a Steinbeck novel is an engaged reader who reads these men for the amazing layers of complexity and metaphysical truths each dealt with, most centering on the human condition, ‘human bondage’ so to speak—relationships, being born into hell, crimes of the flesh, addictions, obsessions. Often obsessions that get between a father and his daughters, a father and son, a mother and son, between brothers, among families from their joy to their suffering and back again. And sometimes they look inward and other times they look to the stars for answers.

True a reader can dissect an author to the point of destruction and ruin of style and art, but there is a great deal to gain in seeing the metaphysical aspects of the author’s work—the connections and the double entendres and the meaningful names and meaning-filled titles. Look at that fifth definition of metaphysical again—originating not in the physical world but somewhere outside it. Ideas of an abstract nature are the starting point for many an author. We say to ourselves, “I want to deal with this issue in all of its complexity and demonstrate its physical reality in a world of my creation.” It is kind of like roping a cloud and tying it to your hitching post as Pecos Bill once did.

Imagine the author takes the notion of hatred—a father’s hatred for his two sons’ mother, and it spills over into their relationship and poisons their every encounter. Give it a name: East of Eden. Now write the story and you have to tell a physical story—a fictional plot to illuminate a truth about hatred and anger poisoning the family well. Readers are asked to see how these abstract notions riding the backs of concrete props guide us down a dark path or a light path depending if it is Gone With The Wind or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or Slumdog Millionaire. In its way, East of Eden is as much literature as is King Lear—and all of the stories mentioned here deal with similar metaphysicals—themes or threads.

So by now you’ve got to be asking, “So what’s Walker’s point?” In writing a noir novel, an historical novel, a suspense novel, even a horror novel, this aspect of literature is at work if the author chooses to cultivate it. It is
what I demand of myself—and what many authors demand of themselves. It ain’t easy! But for moi it is a necessity—as I learned to write by closely studying the classics, often reading in a dark closet of a room in a Chicago ghetto. No matter the nature of the novel or story I am working on, I need an abstract target! So again if a reader reads without catching the nuances, say if he reads with ears closed to the sound effects embedded by the author hurling them from the mound . . . if the reader misses the unveiling of the special effects embedded, the taste of the book, the smells embedded by the author, the sights and props, then the metaphysical aspects of the story may remain invisible to such a reader whose only interest is a well turned plot that asks nothing of the reader and does not disturb him into asking questions of himself and of mankind.

All of these spit balls and fast balls—props to sound effects—are pointing upwards from the bargain basement of the physical world. In other words, reading story for plot alone and being satisfied with that is similar to writing
for plot alone, and not challenging oneself to reach for the clouds where the philosophical aspects of the story live. If writing is like keeping twenty spinning plates in the air at once while riding a unicycle, at least one or two
of those plates ought to be metaphysical in nature.

9 comments:

CC_Authors said...

WOW! Rob, you have really thought this thing through. It will take me a week (at least) to digest all of it. Who knew I was thinking so much when I was writing?

Joyce Lavene
www.joyceandjimlavene.com

Theresa de Valence said...

Interesting post, Rob, and I concur (mostly ;)).

Theresa de Valence
Authors need Better Software To Write
http://www.bstw.com

Pat Browning said...

Rob,

Applause, applause! The best of today's crime fiction engages the reader on a deeper level than the flood of paint-by-the-numbers books that start with a gimmick and end with a twist.

Gimmicks sell, and there's nothing wrong with a twist at the end, as long as there's a deeper meaning in
between.

My favorite example is Ian Rankin's The Hanging Garden, where Rebus pursues an old Nazi who has been living in England. When he questions his own motives, a veteran Nazi hunter reminds him that Rebus is not pursuing an old man, but a young man who committed crimes in his youth and has now grown old.

That idea was new to me, and changed my outlook. The advent of DNA testing has brought a lot of old crimes to resolution, and every time I read about it I remember Inspector Rebus. That is true art.

Loved your post!

Pat Browning
ABSINTHE OF MALICE
Krill Press 2008
authorsden.com/patbrowning

Suzanne Adair said...

Rob, it's a pity so many readers *just* read for the plot. Authors sweat blood over those metaphysical layers. Thanks for your post today.

Joyce, we don't think it when we write it. We Zone it. :-)

Pat, Rankin's great for sneaking that stuff in, isn't he?

Suzanne Adair in snowy Raleigh, NC
www.suzanneadair.com

Ken Lewis said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Professor Walker. I know you and I discussed this at length over emails during the final editing of my novel. You have no idea how truly honored I was, Rob...and still am...to have earned the words (fantastic)"humor," "pathos," "atmosphere," and "emotional power not often seen in a first novel," from one such as yourself in the blurb you wrote for me. Like I mentioned once before, twenty years ago I used to wander the aisles of my then hometown public library, pulling several of your titles from the shelves and wondering out loud to myself: "How did this guy do it? How has he written so many books? How will I ever be able to do it?" Now I know the answers to those questions. It was fifty percent metaphysical, forty percent damned hard work, and ten percent plot.

Ken Lewis said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Professor Walker. I know you and I discussed this at length over emails during the final editing of my novel. You have no idea how truly honored I was, Rob...and still am...to have earned the words (fantastic)"humor," "pathos," "atmosphere," and "emotional power not often seen in a first novel," from one such as yourself in the blurb you wrote for me. Like I mentioned once before, twenty years ago I used to wander the aisles of my then hometown public library, pulling several of your titles from the shelves and wondering out loud to myself: "How did this guy do it? How has he written so many books? How will I ever be able to do it?" Now I know the answers to those questions. It was fifty percent metaphysical, forty percent damned hard work, and ten percent plot.

Rob Wallker said...

Hey Meanderers and Musers -- first, thanks for taking the time to let me know that I wasn't just talkin' to myself and blowin smoke for one; often you never know. The more I write, the more layers I see necessary to make a novel more than a mere story. I sweat my students to get in three to five of the five senses in every scene, for instance, and then I challenge them to take it to the sixth sense, the spiritual sense to see then what happens to the story. And true, I don't plot or plan out every meta element; it comes with rewriting and often my own discovery of it lurking just off stage, just on the outskirts of the plot and wanting in, not wanting to remain outside the window and looking on. You might call it the soul of the story if you will. The ghost in the machine. As far as outlining and using character cards--fine for others but I can't do either. My second chapter grows out of my first, and so on, and so on. Joyce--great to see you here! Ain't Kaye just the bomb? Pat, thanks for your support over the years. Ken, you must stop groveling at my feet because my toes are getting chapped (kidding my friend!) and Theresa, thanks for dropping by as well. Suzanne, thanks for your kind words, too.

I'll check back later to see if I need to answer any more comments. My next DEAD ON is due out in July from Five Star. Read all about it at my website- robertwalkerbooks.com

Man a lot of DLers are sure missing out if they're not coming to Meanderings to see Kaye and Friends.

Earl Staggs said...

Darn you, Walker, now you've got me thinking and that always gives me a headache. Because of you, now I have to go back and read my stuff to see if anything metaphysical slipped in. Because of you, now I'll look differently at every thing I write. And because of you, now I know more about writing than I did before.

Thanks for that, Bubba. Good job.

Kaye Barley said...

Rob - Thank you!! You're always a joy and you ALWAYS make us think. And I appreciate you taking the time to be here, my friend.