I am the Next James Joyce (or why writing to theme can be bad)

In my Irish Short Fiction class this quarter, our midterm assignment was to “rewrite” a story by James Joyce and then compare it in an essay with the original story. “Rewrite” is in quotation marks because we could take many liberties so long as our story was inspired by Joyce’s. I will admit: because I also had an 80-page novella due in my fiction writing class this week, I opted for finding a story I’d already written that was similar to a Joyce story rather than writing a new one.

The story I ended up comparing is one I wrote last year (so before I was officially a creative writing major). I had workshopped it in my writing group, but after writing up those comments, I let it fall into the abyss of my computer filing system. When I found it over a year later, I could see the truth in what my workshop group had said. But since I was being graded not on the quality of my story but the quality of my essay, I decided I could live with the imperfections in my story for the moment.

So I opened up a new word document and I opened up Joyce’s “Eveline” and started on an argument. “Eveline” is a story about a young woman about to run away from a restrictive, abusive life with her family to sail to Buenos Aires with her sweetheart (in turn-of-the-century Dublin). She is very passive, the story is told mostly in summary/narrative form, and at the end, she is too scared of the life she doesn’t know to leave.

My story, “Valentine’s Day,” is about a middle-aged man in contemporary America who delivers pizza for a living and decides to take a special “Valentine’s Day” pizza to his estranged wife to try to make up. Some of the comments were that the story relied too heavily on summary without enough scene, that the story dragged in the beginning, and that it probably should have been in first person, rather than third. But as I was writing my essay, I discovered I could justify all these choices. The summary reflects Terrence’s passivity; the drag in the story reflects his passivity; the fact that it’s in third person (he’s making someone else tell his story for him) reflects his passivity. Obviously I am the new Joyce.

This exemplifies why one of my first creative writing professors said to never write to theme. In any piece of writing, no matter how bad it is, a good English major will be able to find patterns that can be spun into a thesis. Yes, as it is written, my story “Valentine’s Day” does a pretty good job of showing Terrence to be a passive character. But could I do it more effectively? Could I do it in a manner that would engage the reader more instead of forcing them to write an essay to figure out what I’m doing?

I tend towards not appreciating concept art for this very reason. When the idea is stronger than the story, it gets plain boring, or frustrating, or empty. There’s the famous example of a urinal labeled “Fountain” by an artist and put on exhibit. It’s generally considered art simply because the artist is forcing us to think about an everyday object differently. But where is the technique? Where is the beauty?

Idea is very much important to the appreciation of literature, and too many writers don’t pay attention to what they could be layering into their stories. But I believe this layering should come in revision, when you already have a viable, compelling story, and I believe it should not sacrifice that story. So when it comes time to sharing “Valentine’s Day” for real, I’m going to make sure I’m making Terrence passive in the most effective way. I want to convey my brilliant ideas while stinging the reader with emotion. If I can do that, then maybe I really am a literary genius.

PS If you’re a Divergent fan, there’s a scene up that is written from Four’s POV!

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