My dad was a doctor for a really, really long time. He’s been retired for a few years now, but he can’t shake the pillar-of-society cloak that he assumed as a leader of the Taiwanese-American community in our region and as the eldest son in a family of six: Even now, at 80, he insists on teachable moments that manifest themselves in the annoying, pedantic rejoinder, “Very good!” with an uplift on the “good,” as if whoever he’s talking to is 3 years old or maybe a dog who’s just learned to widdle outside.
“Dad, we made reservations at the Thai place for dinner.”
“Dad, here’s a thing I found about World War II you might be interested in.”
Ick. Well, maybe it’s better in context of his profession:
“Hey, doc. My blood sugar is way down!”
“Very good!” (Here, have a sugar-free lollipop.)
Nope. Not better.
Whenever I hear my dad tell me I’ve done something “very good!,” I feel sticky, hot, and embarrassed, like I’ve spent most of life doing wrong and needed to be told when I finally got it right. I get a similar feeling whenever I encounter a story or an essay that has a moral to impart, something to tell me, work with a point to make.
Writing like this never, ever makes it out of the submissions pile at the Tahoma Literary Review, the magazine I edit for. Not because I don’t love fables or righteousness. Not because I’m not a sucker for confirmation bias.
We don’t publish these stories or essays because their morals come first, at the expense of everything else: Character, plot, setting, and voice all fall victim to the writer’s conviction that whatever message they’re trying to impart is of utmost importance.
One of my coaching clients is an executive, a CFO who also has some really strong spiritual convictions. Over the years, we’ve worked on several projects together, but the book we eventually brought to market is one that safely falls into the self-help section of the bookstore. In it, my client talks about his theory of interconnectedness and how every human being’s life and actions have a much bigger impact than we might initially prescribe to them.
My client had an axe to grind – a whole book’s worth. In this case, though, the work works, because of how we framed the thing. It was pitched as a book that would change your outlook on life and your relationships, even though it was rife with anecdotes from my client’s own life and work experiences. So while he was telling stories just like the writers in my open queue are, my client’s stories are stories that are exclusively there as buttresses to the larger point he’s trying to make. They’re convenient anecdotes.
But when you write a short story or pen an essay, that story or essay is all there is. It needs to stand on its own legs. For short stories, that means the plot and the characters must shine. For essays, that means the road to your eventual conclusion must grip the reader, and not ostracize them. In other words, stories or essays that beat the drum of inclusivity, #metoo, anti-bullying, refugees’ rights – all of which I’ve seen in the last reading period – do so most successfully if the moral is Trojan horsed into the work itself. In still other words, never let ‘em see you coming.
In issue 14 of Tahoma Literary Review, Ta’riq Fisher’s “Birds, Bees” tackles an issue that’s in the news a lot: young black men and their relationship to law enforcement. But Fisher does so in a slinky, sly manner: his hero, Michael, is a compelling narrator, someone you want to get to know, so by the time the Big Issue actually comes up, the reader is so caught up in Michael’s world and the way he sees it that he has you fast by the hand and you are with him. You are never letting go; you are going to see him through this thing, because you are a little in love with him and you want to know more.
If you don’t have an added perspective by the time Michael’s done telling you his story, or even a completely different perspective, then Fisher has not done his job.
In issue 9, writer Jonathan McDaniel’s flash essay, “Putting Up Shots,” contends with race relations from another perspective, but there, too, the deep emotional impact of the catalysts McDaniel’s worked through in his life – in this case, realizing that the shared games of hoops he played with kids in his neighborhood weren’t enough to overcome economic and racial inequity – is king. The voice McDaniel employs to tell the story is one so powerful that I can never read it without feeling compelled to read it out loud.
And in TLR’s issues 12 and 13, respectively, Annie Q. Syed tackles gun violence and Kiran Kaur Saini describes the hot spots of an interracial marriage, but never does the reader feel led by a big, fat brass ring through the nose to reach the conclusion the writer wants you to reach. It is, in fact, the characters who lead you there. But it’s never morality that comes first.
By contrast, let’s look at what happens when a writer lets his morals run away with the narrative: In a recent story I vetted, the issue at stake was a young man who’d recently won the green card lottery. When he came to the United States, though, he found himself homeless and bereft, wandering from park bench to police station, until a kind stranger takes an interest.
First of all, the verisimilitude suffers: In order to drive home the point that we should be kind to each other, the writer had to put the main character into a position to be rescued, negating the fact that no one arrives on a green card without a sponsor. Second, the character is robbed of agency: things happen to him, as opposed to his own actions driving the plot. Third, the narrative is predictable, nearly from the first page: We all know what we’re expected to see happen, and when it comes to pass, it leaves us feeling dissatisfied, since we’ve already predicted the ending before the story gets there.
I think what’s happening when writers pen work with overwhelming morals is this: The writer is so incensed by something they see happening in the world that they must address it, and that need colors everything else. This is a good thing. So much great work is driven by passion and outrage. So many minds can be changed by a beautiful piece of work.
But our job as writers is to find compelling characters or language in which to couch that outrage, this passion. Our job is to impart life lessons in wrapping that can be opened by everyone. This is also the beauty of what we do: How wonderful is it, to craft a character who might be able to convey new insight to a reader? Or to convey an eventuality, with the benefit of hindsight and insight, that has changed you?
Years ago, I met Sarah Ketchersid, a children’s book editor. She said that in children’s books, the book must always be on the side of the child. The book must always advocate for the child. In writing fiction and narrative nonfiction for adults, the writing must always serve the narrative and characters first, and allow for room for the moral to slide, inexorably, into the reader’s life.
Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.