I really don’t like people with agendas, the kind who are just looking for the perfect segue allowing them to set up shop with their soapbox. Here’s an example. Say you’re holding a newborn in your arms and someone else in the room comes up to you and marvels along with you at this beautiful baby, saying, “Isn’t it just amazing how a few weeks ago she was still inside her mother?” and then right after that going, “And can you believe people want to kill these precious gifts?” Regardless of your view on abortion, being poorly sneak-attacked like this would be highly annoying.
And with that in mind, this is one of the challenges in writing: avoiding the presentation of having an agenda. Many writers try to write so as to “get their point across,” or some try to weave social agendas into their fiction. This infuriated Flannery O’Connor. She plaintively stated such literature is never worth reading because it’s so horrible. Story always comes first, and writing a great one should be the foundational intention. People who want to turn a soapbox or indignation into a great novel will (and should) fail every time. We call it didacticism. It’s heinously obvious and revolting to encounter as a reader.
I’ve mentioned before how my friend Alan and I are writing a short story collection with the Seven Deadly Sins as the theme. Often we figure out what we feel is the root evil of the sin we’re going to write about and then construct our story from there. That approach and my hate for soapboxes may sound hypocritical, but Alan and I will be the first to admit our primary goal is to write a great story. We couldn’t care less about emphasizing the theme accurately. If we write a tale that transmits what we’re trying to say, but the story itself is abysmal, then the former doesn’t matter. Not one bit.
And if it makes for a bad story, take that a step further into the realm of our own personal lives and how we’re on a journey, which means we’re essentially writing our own stories. There’s nothing wrong with passion, but when a soapbox dominates the plot of someone’s tangible, lived-out saga, it repels the people around him. It makes for sickening literature and a distasteful life.
Sadly, though, many of us (especially in my generation) do not understand how to express our ardent interests without bringing out the wooden crate formerly packed with Olay to stand upon it in the city square. For many of us, such violent story-living is probably hereditary or cultural, an inheritance given to us by either our literal fathers or communal forefathers. For some of us it’s the only way in which we know how to further our cause or proceed to the next chapter.
Makes sense, I guess. The American novel has always been one of violence, bloodshed, and furor set to an almost religious tempo. We’re American; this is what we know; it’s in our blood, land, and love; and we have this knack in this country to keep doing what “worked” two hundred years ago. I wonder if many of us—subconsciously, of course—our living our lives out like an American novel. Actually, I doubt my own premise because the number of books an average American reads in a calendar year is shockingly small. Was just a thought.
But there is a dangerous need for peace to be present in the way in which people live their stories. People may think peace and passion go together, and I would posit the thought that they should. But I’m not sure they can when a person brings in an agenda before keeping peace first and foremost in their mind. And someone may not necessarily be using his hands for malicious intent. Often it exists on a much tinier level in the merely spoken realm. Words are just as painful and used, perhaps, more often than they ever should be.