Today I’m thinking about values—those core beliefs that guide us as we go through life.
Some people think a lot about their values; some people don’t give them much thought at all. When life goes according to plan, our values can run largely on instinct. Our sense of the right way to proceed seems instinctive.
It’s when things don't go according to plan—when we have really tough decisions to make, or are confronted with a situation for which we have no real preparation—that’s when our values come into the spotlight. How do we behave when there’s no clear script to follow?
And now you see why the idea of values matters so much when we write.
Hard choices and high-stakes, unprecedented situations are the stuff great stories are made of.
Writing good fiction requires us to grapple with the toughest kinds of values-based decisions, scene after scene after scene. How does our hero decide what to do...
I’ve been reading George Saunders’ terrific collection of essays about Russian short fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s a book about what makes writing good with an interesting limitation, which is that the work held up for analysis is offered in English translation and Saunders doesn’t speak Russian.
Saunders notes the shakiness of the project when he describes the day a Russian scholar visits his classroom to explain how the tale currently under examination reads in the original Russian.
Saunders and his students are flabbergasted to confront just how much of the author’s intent has been lost to them. The jokes! The wordplay! The voice! None of it survives intact. The version of the story they’re scrutinizing for clues about good...