As part of the previous post in my Write Who You Are series, I opened up the topic of intent. Specifically, I introduced my own non-Academy thoughts on what might be considered High Art.
I did this not as a way to exclude people or topics, but to inspire and raise questions. Even if you believe the thirty-second television commercial is today's Cathédrale de Chartres or the value of art is completely subjective, you may find what I bring up here provokes a response that suggests new directions for your work. I make no claims that this is authoritative, but I've found it helpful for me.
So here, from the base up, are the details:
Convey facts and lessons. Because no lab bench was available to me, I started my career as a biochemist by writing up processes for every product my company produced. These had to be simple, clear, and complete. I paid special attention to any cues (such as color changes) along the way that might let people know they were successful. Since some mistakes could be costly (millions of dollars) or life threatening, I had to get it all right. In addition, these works made it possible for this start-up to cash in at a later date.
That's challenging, honorable work, but pretty basic. A higher level in this category is material to supplement education. My courseware usually includes examples, exercises, and indications of the practical value and social values of the information.
Mastery requires deep understanding of the readers and what they are bringing in terms of skills and knowledge. It's important to know why people might read the materials and to pay off their expectations. Motivating them to reach further is a plus. Clarity trumps style and subtlety.
Entertain. I like roller-coaster rides, desserts, and fun. I resist my Puritan heritage and accept the validity of amusement and good times. Though I'm always suspicious of charm and charisma, they both have value in drawing people in, distracting them from sorrow and tedium, and even making the rough journey to enlightenment more palatable. Is it sweet, savory, sexy, and/or playful? Bring it on. I'm also inclined toward and respect the sensuality of language. I read poems out loud because they feel good in my mouth.
In the same area is surprise, a trick of time, expectations, and revelations. It's the key to thrilling readers.
Mastery here requires a knowledge of structure, timing, telling details, recognizing the quirky, and raising questions. Be sensitive to what journalists look for -- the unusual, the useful, the dangerous, the endearing, and the salacious -- is important. Charm and X-factors can supercharge the entertainment value, but I'm not sure if they can be mastered or if you need to be born with them.
Immerse the reader. When marks on a page put someone into another reality, they can have experiences that are deep, authentic, and valuable. These literary simulations, which I covered in detail in my Lost in the Story series, bring people out of the narrow worlds they live in. When a writer is at his or her best, the story will involve readers with just enough details to invite them to complete the worlds with their own imaginations.
Mastery is mostly based on creating emotional engagement, but sensory details and verisimilitude are important components.
Provide insights. I love aha experiences. For me, these have come via experiments, calculations, conversations, and being present as life rolls on. They've also come in reading. James Joyce consciously framed his stories to provide epiphanies -- not the surprises at the end of O. Henry stories, but revelations that were deeper. Sharing, in a way that is earned by the story, something that shapes the meaning of life, is a high calling. It can change individuals on a personal level and help move societies toward sensitivity, justice, and awareness.
Mastery comes primarily from creating rich characters readers can empathize with and challenging situations. Authentic insights in real life come out of struggles and require facing contradictions. The same is true in fiction.
Offer fresh perspectives. One of the wonders of fiction comes down to a simple offer -- Come along with me and live in someone else's head. Stories allow us to think strange thoughts, participate in unfamiliar decision-making, and experience the world in ways that are foreign to us. If you went through your average day within the body of another gender, or as someone with a disability you've never had, or viewing everything through the eyes of someone who has different values or ethnicity, you'd never see things the same way.
Good fiction does this. In my lifetime, doors have opened that have allowed me to share the points of view of people who were hidden during my parents' times. Diversity does matter, as much for those who read as those whose stories still need to be told.
Mastery here may mean finding what you alone have to offer and, even if risky and painful, presenting it with care and authenticity. But don't be afraid of appropriating other cultures. When done with honesty and respect, this only expands perspectives.
Provoke. This one is obvious. Raise questions. Get past assumptions. Disrupt. Take on conventional wisdom. Challenge the status quo. Speak truth to power. Disturb the comfortable.
Mastery demands you take chances and not be coy about it. Also, that you examine yourself for blind spots, prejudices, and unquestioned beliefs. Learn the tricks of being memorable and hard to ignore.
Break through. Reimagine your art. In the service of providing something truly new and essential, dare to innovate.
It's fun to explore these in isolation and see how the best writers accomplish these aims. Of course, it's exciting to read works that are able to do all of these well at once. We call these masterpieces.