Is there a middle ground between the average person and the heroes of literature?

Lately I’ve gotten that social media fatigue that everybody’s been complaining about for ages. I haven’t gone much on Twitter. Haven’t even logged into Facebook. Haven’t posted on this blog. I think one day I was on Twitter, and I was just like, why am I doing this to myself? I don’t know these people, and they don’t know me. So I decided I’d stop maintaining all these unidirectional relationships. Even watching TV, which I’ve been doing quite a bit, seems a better use of my time than scrolling endlessly through Twitter.

I’ve started to feel my years. Not in terms of “I’m not the success I want to be.” Instead I keep wondering, “Am I writing the way I want to be?” I find myself scrutinizing every sentence I write, thinking, “Is this the sentence a great writer would write?” I think, “Would Tolstoy use a phrase like ‘writer would write’? Probably not, to be honest.”

My writing style has matured considerably in just the last year. Now when I sit down and write a short story it comes out in this odd, this odd sort of, well it’s very hard to describe, but it’s sort of like a historian’s chronicle–event follows event, with lots of summary, and then a few scenes that explode outward in great detail. Thinking back over my reading from the last fifteen years, I honestly think no book has affected my style more than the Sarashina Diary. Which is an odd thing. It’s one of my favorite books, but not my absolute favorite. I’ve also learned from Tolstoy. When you read him, you’re like…this is so simple. Why can’t my work be this simple? You just tell the story. That’s all you do is tell the story. And if that includes a fifty thousand word soliloquy about Napoleon, then that’s what you need to include.

But I still look at my novels and my stories, and I think, is this it? I think there’s a point, fifteen years into your writing career, when you’ve learned quite a bit, and you suddenly wonder, “Do I have a voice? Do I have anything new to contribute?” It’s that whole anxiety of influence deal.

I came out of the world of commercial fiction, where, honestly, voice is deemphasized. Instead of voice, people talk about your world-building or your ideas. It’s like language is this set of bricks, and what matters is what you build. But language isn’t bricks. Language is atoms, and you can choose to form those atoms into bricks, or you can form them into some other, stranger sort of connector.

When I read literary fiction, I quite often think, wow, you tried too hard to develop your own voice, and you forgot how to tell a story. Because story and character are part of voice too, and there are numerous writers whose style is nothing special, but who added new ideas and new forms to the world of literature.

At the same time, I admire those literary writers (the ones with too much voice) for knowing, from early in their career, exactly what’s required if you’re to be a great writer. A literary writer often feels like a child. You read the book, and you’re like…did you put any thought at all into the overall structure of this story? But at the same time, they often have the wonderful ingenuity of a child.

I’ve been reading a lot of Ibsen. His plays aren’t too long, and I’ve read seven or eight in the past few days. I like them immensely. What I enjoy in a play is the feeling that I’m witnessing some sort of interaction that would normally be private. Many plays contain an absurdist element that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. I want to know, instead, exactly what it’s like to see a husband and a wife, arguing alone in their room. Not in the theatrical, stylized way that people do for television. In the theater, characters argue differently, they speak differently. At times it can feel very honest.

I also think, “These plays weren’t meant to be read.” It gives me hope. In Ibsen, the beauty isn’t in the lines. To be honest, the words, at least in much of what the translations that I read, were a bit pedestrian. What was of marvelous complexity were the characters. And I think what draws me to Ibsen is also that his plays contain a hint of the ideal. They’re not entirely realistic. His characters have a heroism. This is particularly notable in his most famous plays, like in “Hedda Gabler”, which is about a vile, self-centered woman who cares only for style. What she wants is for the world to contain some element of panache. And when her former lover can’t even commit suicide right, she resolves, like Kirillov in Demons, to show the world how to end your life correctly.

For the realist writer, managing that hint of idealism is one of our toughest tasks. Because we don’t want to write characters who are too plebeian. We want our characters to contain mankind’s finest qualities. But at the same time, we don’t want them to be unrealistic.

In a lot of my work, I spiral around the concepts of strength and weakness. I can’t tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve written which were rejected because the main character was “too pathetic”. I think if most people were to be written about, we’d be dismissed by readers as “too pathetic”. I don’t want, in my writing, to shy away from the things in all of us that are, quite frankly, loathsome. I’m not talking about greed, I’m talking about its opposite. So many people seem so inert and apathetic. The heroic qualities we associate with the characters in literature are entirely absent from the average person’s life, so much so that if a person is capable for even a second of breaking free from inertia, then it almost seems a miracle.

I’m fascinated by that inertia. I’ve experienced so much of it in my own life. The feeling that I’m born along by fate, and that I’m unable to take control. And I’m not a weak person. I’m stronger than most, if the truth was to be told. But even so, I fall far below the standards set by literature. It seems to me that there must be some middle-ground between the average human and the heroes of literature. Some middle ground where people are a little bit heroic. Or a little bit powerful. Or where they occasionally rise above themselves. And that’s what I seek, not always successfully, to write about.