Wednesday, October 28, 2015


I just finished reading a crime fiction book that made me want to write something really good. The language was rich, the story solid and a little scary, and the characters deeply human. But what really grabbed me was that the book had depth and soul. It had at heart a sense of morality.

I was thinking about what inspires me not just to write, but to write a better book, like that one, to reach inside to what I really think is important and mix it into a story in such a way that makes me proud of what I’ve written.

For years all I wanted was to tell a story good enough to get published. Now I realize that I was not being true to myself and certainly not working to my highest aspirations. There’s a huge gulf between “good enough” and “good.” More and more I think about how to bridge that gulf.

I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of books that were good enough.  I don’t require that every book I read be the best example of art and craft in its category. So what is it that gets into me and makes me want to go beyond what I think of as simple entertainment and to write an inspired book?

I don’t think it’s the desire to be famous, or rich. There are plenty of rich and famous authors whose books I don’t admire at all. And some little known authors whose work I have tremendous respect for. Also, I don’t always feel the drive to step it up. Sometimes just writing a good, solid book is fine.

Does the drive come from competition? I doubt that as well. For some reason anytime I read Truman Capote, I feel the inspiration to do better. But imagining that I could compete with him would be plain foolish.

I think in some way it has to do with the reason we write to begin with—the desire to connect. I want to write stories that make people recognize their world in my prose—to recognize themselves and people they know, and to recognize the dilemmas we all face , whether we do it with courage or cowardice. I want readers to feel that the time they spend reading my books is not throwaway time, but hours well spent. I want them to remember little bits of things and recognize the human condition common to all of us.

John Gardiner wrote an entire book, On Moral Fiction, in which he addressed some of what I’m talking about. I fear that he would have sneered at my desire to write “moral” crime fiction.  His was a more high-fallutin’ world. But when I read the work of some of the best crime writers I know that the best writing transcends genre—and inspires me to do the same.


Suzanne Chazin said...

Beautiful essay, Terry. And I concur. It is such a challenge to write fiction that can do all of the things you so eloquently describe. I think that's why I struggle so much. I want everything to be that good and then get soooo disappointed when it comes up short.

Josh Stallings said...

Preach it sister Terry, preach it. Elegant prose mean a lot to me, that and an authentic voice. Some one (lets say my pop, I can't be sure but he'll do,) told me - "when going on a first date, be yourself. Otherwise you may meet THE ONE, only to have them not recognize you." Writing is like that. All that I have written has be for the outsiders. Not in the Trumpian billionaire outsider sense, real outsiders. Petty thieves, drunks, addicts and dancers. I write stories about the people I grew up with and have met along the way. A group of high school students in St Paul read my Moses books, for many in this last chance inner-city classroom these were the first books they read to the end, and for pleasure. I write for them. With every passing day I pray to write with fearless honestly. Even in funny entertainments. If I keep challenging myself to write gooder, I can spend what time I have getting better. You set the barre high for all of us.

Kathy McIntosh said...

Oh, yes. Wonderfully said, Terry. I think that may be what keeps me writing--the desire to eventually write something that readers will consider, as you said, worth spending time with. I want them to smile, giggle perhaps, and also think. Getting there is hard work. Your essay inspires me to keep going. Truly a lovely post, and clearly, from your heart.