Good art can change the way you view the world. Everyone who creates art: pictures, movies, comics, books, etc., would like to have their art affect people's world view, to create something that leaves an indelible impression.
I was thinking about that goal today because I saw a Beware of Dog sign. Many years ago, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon of a man standing in a yard behind a tree. A Beware of Doug sign hung on the fence. Ever since I saw that cartoon, when I see Beware of Dog, I think Beware of Doug. (To respect Larson's copyright, I'm not going to put the image here, though it's easy to find online.)
Gary Larson is a great artist because he looks at Beware of Dog and thinks of Beware of Doug. His skewed vision has changed the way I view the world. However, he not only had the idea of Beware of Doug, he fleshed it out with an image of an oversized man unconcealed by the tree trunk he's hiding behind, and a traveling salesman about to enter the yard. Doug's face is visible, but only his large eyes, not his mouth, so his expression is hard to read. He almost looks afraid, but maybe he's just watching, waiting to spring. The viewer's imagination writes the story from there. Does the salesman heed the warning? If not, what happens when he enters the yard and Doug attacks? How does Doug attack? What emotion drives Doug to attack? Who posted the sign? Great art also leaves you with questions, ongoing thoughts you have to decide for yourself.
Beware of Doug is what I aspire to. But all I can do is write the stories I have and hone my craft so that when I get an idea, I can try to flesh it out in a way that entices the reader to read, and hopefully to think about what happens to the characters after the story ends.
I'm not sure any artist knows when they succeed. Sometimes I know I have something, that my writing has spark. Other times I feel like I'm blowing on wet wood, trying to get my story to ignite. Last month I wrote a story too bad to send to my writer's group. I worked on it some more, and still feel it's pretty bad. Meanwhile, I wrote a different story that has a spark of something, even if I'm not sure how well I've executed on it. The new story will go to my writer's group. The old story? Maybe I'll work on it some more, or maybe I'll just let it go. But knowing if a story will change someone's world view? That's way above my pay grade.
Literary journals often post in their guidelines that they want beautifully written stories that move them, stories that change the way they see the world. I pay no attention to those lofty criteria, because if I did, I'd never send out anything. Who writes a story and thinks they've just written something beautiful, haunting, world-shaking? I just send stories in and see what happens. Sometimes the journal accepts a story. Who knows why? A story can be rejected fifty times before getting accepted and read with high praise.
So much of writing, of life, is just doing the work and seeing what happens. Opening the gate and seeing what Doug does.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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