The Fire, The Finger, and the Burn
Welcome to the Hammer Party #8
Welcome to the Hammer Party.
I just turned in a new draft of EVERYBODY KNOWS to my fantastic editor Josh Kendall at Mulholland. One scary thought that hits you when you turn in a book is about the next one - shit, I’m gonna go do this again.
It also means soon enough more people will be reading it. Always a scary and thrilling time. After all, we write to be read.
Thoughts on Writing
The Fire, The Finger, and the Burn
When we are unpublished, sometimes we begin to feel something like holy panic that our work is not being read. We’ve all seen the people who have been broke on this particular wheel. We know the signs: the desperate pleas, the hustle-gone-wrong and backfiring shills. And worse, the authors who become soaked in bitterness, angry and mystified and lashing out.
And at least a part of us is sympathetic because we have at some point in our writing life felt something like this. Because we all know this even if we don’t say it: a story doesn’t matter until it is read. In fact, I’ll go farther: until a story is read, the story isn’t. In a very real sense, until the words on the page are read by someone who is not the author, the story as we think of it doesn’t exist.
A quick pause to get the lingo straight: Since my goal is to write about storytelling broadly, including fiction, film, and television, sometimes my words can be imprecise. In general, I refer to the work as the thing that you have created, the literal words on the page or pictures on the screen. I differentiate between that and what I call the dream, which is the work as experienced by the audience. My core artistic belief is that your sole job as a storyteller is to cultivate and partner with your subconscious self to create a work that delivers a “vivid and sustained dream” to its audience.
What interests me right now is defining what that dream is. And also, where it is.
I’m aware that these essays are getting increasingly esoteric. Sorry ‘bout it. There are plenty of people you can find to tell you to use active verbs and avoid prologues, if that’s what you’re looking for. This abstract level of storytelling theory is where my thoughts are these days. Also, I’ve taken to reading modern continental philosophy that I barely understand lately, and it’s pushing my brain into some interesting places.
(I want to make clear that I’m grabbing little bits from these books, and what I am taking from the text isn’t anything close to what is intended. I’m bending these words to my own ends, so get bent, École Normale Supérieure.)
This is from the opening pages of After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux:
When I burn myself on a candle, I spontaneously take the sensation of burning to be in my finger, not in the candle. I do not touch a pain that would be present in the flame like one of it’s properties: the brazier does not burn itself when it burns … the flavour of food is not savored by the food itself and hence does not exist in [the food] prior to its indigestion. Similarly, the melodious beauty of a sonic sequence is not heard by the melody, the luminous color of a painting is not seen by the pigment of the canvas, and so on … remove the observer and the world becomes devoid of these sonorous, visual, olfactory, etc. qualities, just as the flame becomes devoid of pain once the finger is removed.
A fire by itself has no burning in it. A finger by itself has no burning in it. But thrust that finger in the fire and a burning occurs.
Likewise, a book is not the dream it evokes. An unread book isn’t thrilling or funny or awe-inspiring. It’s paper and ink. The thrill exists only in the moment of reading. The thrill occurs - you close the book - and the book is just paper and ink again. The writer cannot create the dream. You can only create the conditions for that dream to occur.
But does the dream occur wholly within the mind of the audience? That’s not quite right either. Meillassoux again:
If there were no thing capable of giving rise to the sensation of redness, there would be no perception of a red thing; if there were no real fire, there would be no sensation of burning. But it makes no sense to say that the redness or heat can exist as qualities just as well without me as with me … the sensible only exists as a relation. [emphasis added]
The audience is not the dream. The dream ceases to exist when the screen goes dark or the book is closed. Your memories of a movie are not the movie, your thoughts of a book are not the book. The dream can only occur while the audience is actively engaged with the work.
The question of where a dream occurs turns out to not be quite right. Because the dream isn’t a thing at all. It is a relationship.
The dream is a rope between the screen and the skull. A thread between the page and the eye. When I am at a movie theater and I become totally locked into the film, I lean forward, holding my chin in my hands, as if to shorten the distance between the screen and myself. To induce this state in others, which can happen with any type of story evoking any type of emotion, is my sole goal as a storyteller. And I think it should be yours, too. A solid relationship. A total and complete dream.
Talking about something so basic threatens to be banal, but to me this is incredibly important stuff. There are things to learn about this both as a writer and maybe more importantly as a member of an audience.
One thing this teaches you as a writer is to keep a loose hand. You cannot create the dream, you can only create the conditions that inspire it (or the conditions that ruin it). You cannot control every aspect, and you cannot control how your work is perceived. And furthermore, you shouldn’t try - you want your audience to be engaged, an active participant in this relationship. (In a future essay I’ll talk about the sin of sexless pornography - that to me, pornography is anything that denies the audience nothing).
It also emphasizes another point that I will expand on soon - the vital importance of the beginning of a story, the liminal space in which you induct your audience to the dream. A beginning isn’t just the time to introduce your characters or plot - it’s a time of establishing the dream and its specific qualia, to induce the state, to disarm and seduce.
It also underlines that all stories (and all art) are communal by nature. That if you hate or feel superior to your audience, you are missing the point of what we are doing. It reminds you that the work exists for the audience, not for yourself. Self-expression is a part of writing, but it is not the only part. Certainly not the most important part. Because you are just the person creating the conditions. You aren’t even in the room when the dream occurs. You don’t matter. Only the work and the audience matter.
This idea of the dream as a relationship also centers the audience and puts some responsibility on their shoulders. If you text or doomscroll while you watch a movie, have you really watched it? Are you allowing yourself to enter the dream fully? Are you doing your part to fall into the state that can only occur in this moment of relationship? If not, you’re just marking time until death.
The current vertically-integrated megacorporate system of art distribution does not care if you are engaged with what is on the screen (except when the ads are playing). In fact, they don’t care if you are watching at all. Television in particular isn’t made to be watched anymore; it is made to be talked about. It takes a conscious decision to become fully absorbed in art nowadays. It is a tiny act of rebellion to do so.
There’s something magical here. To make these candles, these flames that people want to touch (the dream is a safe place to burn). To create something that is never real with people you will never meet, maybe long after you are dead.
Ok, party’s over.