Monday, April 30, 2012

A to Z: Zeitgeist

The spirit of the times. 

Genius seculi

What defines a nation, a community, an era.

Zeitgeist is important to writers. It doesn't just get us published. It makes or breaks our work's success.

Our characters may be alive and poignantly human, our prose organic, our settings crisply three-dimensional, the tension and inherent conflict present on every page, the stakes masterfully escalated... But without zeitgeist, the work's shelf-life is comparable to that of potatoes.

Is a zeitgeist book necessarily a best-seller? Keruac's On The Road and George Orwell's 1984 are classics, and they certainly define their era, but they only became successful--sales-wise--decades after their publication.

Then there is A Tale Of Two Cities, which according to Wikipedia is the #1 bestselling book of all time (200 million copies). It was out of character for Dickens: the book lacks his classic humor, and has less characters and subplots than is usual for him. Still, the zeitgeist in the comparison of Jacobine France to industrial-era England is obvious--and must have contributed to the success of the novel's monthly installments when they were published in the 1850's.

That same Wikipedia article shows Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code as #9 in the bestseller list of all time. Of. All. Time.

I enjoyed the book (I did, I admit). Being anti-religious, I found the whole Jesus-married-Magdalene theory fascinating. I went and got Holy Blood, Holy Grail, read it front-to-back twice. I also thought Dan's handling of tension and conflict was fantastic, even when his characters are a bit two-dimensional (I'm trying to be kind here).

Does The DaVinci Code's enormous success mean it's a representation of our time, our era? Maybe--in the questioning-religion sense, or perhaps, more disturbingly, in its vapidness (sorry, Dan). But if we consider bestsellership as the sine qua non of zeitgeist success, that would make The DaVinci Code the best representation of our time, the best definition of our era.

I can't live with that.

The Catcher In The Rye, just two spots below Dan Brown's opus magna in the all-time bestseller list, would be easier for me to accept. Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose, at #19, would also make me feel better.

What does that say about me, though, and my own sense of zeitgeist?

What is the spirit of our times, then? Is there just one, a global one? Seems like there should be, in this age of globalization and immediate communication, instant gratification. Is that it? Globalization? The environment? Electronic media and cyberspace? Diversity? Withdrawal from the spiritual? Or its opposite, the new-age rediscovery of a pan-spirituality? The return to basics?

Google has a yearly feature, Google Zeitgeist, that attempts to "reveal the spirit" of a year by the searches conducted throughout it. The insights: top three for 2011 are Rebecca Black, Google+, and Ryan Dunn. Steve Jobs is also there, and iPad 2.

The search can also be done by country. Mexico's top search for 2011 was Facebook. Hmmm.

So, as a writer, if I wanted to imbue my Great Novel with zeitgeist, I'd have to write about Rebecca Black (who is she?) falling in love with Ryan Dunn (ditto) after a Google+ hangout about Steve Jobs, which both Rebecca and Ryan participated in via their spankin' new iPads.

Yeah... NO.

How do we find zeitgeist, if not via Google? How do we bring it to our work?

#1 Live.

Writers... we're a lonely bunch. We hibernate in front of our screens and go days without seeing another human being--sometimes not even another living thing. We live in our heads most of the time (did you catch Veronica Sicoe's post last week, 13 Warning Signs You're A Writer? MUST Read!). We interrupt heated arguments to take notes (sign #5), and we basically measure anything by the storyline potential. We're intense, moody, and no fun--unless you're another writer, in which case we'll have a blast.

But, see, this kind of behavior is not conducive to living, to the actual experiencing of life in all its richness, all its variety, its color. And without that experience, without getting in touch with "real" people and "real" problems, even "real" opinions, our chances of perceiving, absorbing, and transmitting zeitgeist are... yeah. Null.

#2 Be true to yourself.

Finding and harnessing zeitgeist does not mean "pander to the masses". If that were the case, we'd all be writing bad vampire/werewolf/wizard stories

Oh wait--we are.

No one's riding to success on anyone else's coattails, people. Not to real success, anyway.

Zeitgeist, for me, boils down to the kind of writer you are--or want to be.

You aspire to Danielle-Steele-dom? Write for the masses. Write vapid love stories about vapid people in vapid places. Write without substance. Go forth and vape--with my blessing, if you need it. You'll make millions--because those "masses" you pander to collectively have millions to spend on your vapidity. And they will. Just ask Danielle.

But if you aspire to zeitgeist, to write books that will survive the test of time, that will become an icon of our generation, that will inspire others to a better life, to a better understanding of their life... No vaping, people. No easy formulas, no pre-fab conflicts, no facile solutions.

Laud Codex
You must live (see step #1) and then put your lived self onto the page. You must write the stories that only you can write, and then edit and revise them to awesomeness. Those stories must transcend you, the author, and claim a life of their own. In writing them, you must hold yourself to a different standard--not just higher, but other.

Go all Aztec on yourself--crack open your chest with a midnight-black obsidian knife, pull out your own heart, and offer it to the Sun of literature to appease its hunger, to guarantee another day, another year, in the course of your creative life.

If you're a writer (books, short stories, blog, whatever), here's my A-Z-challenge farewell gift: find your zeitgeist. And then write the crap out of it.


  1. 'Go all Aztec on yourself--crack open your chest with a midnight-black obsidian knife, pull out your own heart, and offer it to the Sun of literature to appease its hunger, to guarantee another day, another year, in the course of your creative life.'


    1. Haha--too drastic? Sometimes I get carried away. My apologies :)

  2. Awesome, Guilie! Powerful post. :)

    Found you via Vero - glad I did! I'll have to wander through your A-Z posts over the next month. Playing catch up. ;)

    1. Thanks, Tracy! Glad you liked the post, and I look forward to your feedback on the rest of the A-Z ones as you (slowly and leisurely) make your way through them. Great to meet you!

  3. Guilie, thanks ever so much for your visit to my blog today and for your words of encouragement. I'll check out the Web site you suggested. Cheers!

    1. Glad I could help, and thanks for stopping by here. Hope to see you on the Internet Writing Workshop soon!

  4. Wonderful wrap-up to the A-to-Z! I'm inspired to find and nurture my own writergeist!

    Congratulations on a tremendous series during this month-long alphabetical blogathon!

    1. Thanks, Chris! Glad you liked the post and the series, and I look forward to staying in touch with you going forward. I've enjoyed your blog tremendously.

  5. Holy pink panther on a stick, where do I begin to agree?!

    "Finding and harnessing zeitgeist does not mean "pander to the masses". If that were the case, we'd all be writing bad vampire/werewolf/wizard stories.

    Oh wait--we are."

    --this cracked me up. You couldn't have caught the Zeitgeist of today's paranormal milieu any better. High five on this one!

    "You must write the stories that only you can write, and then edit and revise them to awesomeness. Those stories must transcend you, the author, and claim a life of their own. In writing them, you must hold yourself to a different standard"

    -- absolutely motherf*ing true!

    This post is absolutely marvelous, a great and straightforward reminder of why we must write our hearts out and bleed on the page until it shines and glows with the might of a thousand metaphors pressed onto a radiant, scorching sheet of universal plasma!

    Thanks for biting me in the calf and drawing my attention to your awesome blog (and your razor sharp wit), Guilie, it's been quite a dizzying month and stuff got lost on my to-check-out list.

    I'll definitely stay put in your followers list. ;)

    1. LOL, Vero--love it! I'm so glad you found inspiration in this post; that means it did its job :) And--ooooh, "the might of a thousand metaphors pressed onto a radiant, scorching sheet of universal plasma"!!!!!! Zeus almighty, I'm going to keep rolling that off my tongue just for the sheer pleasure of listening to it :D

      Thanks for the visit, Vero, and I'm so glad I met you and your blog. Both of you: *awesome*.

  6. We made it! I wanted to catch some Z's tonight but first I want to try to visit all my favorite blogs from the challenge.

    Well done!

    Great post to end with, Guilie. Everyone seems to be displaying inspirational posts tonight! After a month of blogging and neglecting my book I am itching to get back to it. Thanks again for telling me about this amazing challenge.

    1. Cindy, we did! We got to the end, believe it or not--yay! Thanks for joining me on this journey. Knowing you were out there writing "with" me really did make it easier, Cindy. I'm glad you enjoyed it (and didn't end up hating me for drafting you). And I'm so happy you liked this post! I'm itching to get back to Restoring Experience (or whatever new title it's going to have), too.

  7. This might be the best post I read all day. You really touched my writer soul.

    1. Aww, Susan--thank you! I'm so glad you liked it, and that your writer soul rose up to chill for a while with mine :)

  8. Very good post. I feel the same about Dan Brown, and it disturbs me a little. I hope that our generation will be remembered for better than that. This is definitely one of the best challenge posts I've read.

    1. Thanks for the visit! Yeah, the whole Dan Brown phenomenon is disturbing (maybe not as much as, say, genocide or seal slaughter, but still), and, like you, I hope our generation produces better stuff to represent us in the future. Otherwise... Well, I don't even want to think about it :D

  9. This cracks me up. Based on your conclusions I'd say we are doomed. The Mayan calendar was right. The world ends in 2012.

    Congratulations on making it through the A to Z Challenge. Join us on May 7th with your Challenge Reflections post.

    Places I Remember
    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

    1. LOL, Lee... Indeed, the Mayans may not have been so crazy after all :D

      Couldn't have done it without you, Lee, or without your co-hosts--thank you again for everything, and for sure I'll join the Challenge Reflections list next week.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Thank you for dragging me into this challenge. I've enjoyed the experience and want to continue with regular blogs. But not yet. First, I want to get in touch with my alive and poignantly human characters, who have waited patiently throughout the month for my return. I left them with the world tilting on it's axis after a comet colission. It's raining. I hope they haven't drowned. Let me get back and check on them.

    1. Hahahaha... I hear you, Francene. My own characters are pretty much stuck in the rain, too (but with cappuccinos, thank God). I suspect they're not even talking to me anymore, and it'll take some serious cajoling and groveling to gain forgiveness. *Sigh*.

  11. Go all Aztec on yourself--crack open your chest with a midnight-black obsidian knife, pull out your own heart, and offer it to the Sun of literature to appease its hunger, to guarantee another day, another year, in the course of your creative life.

    Absolutely the only writing advice a writer ever needs.

    1. Innit the truth? :D Thanks for stopping by, Damyanti!

  12. Hmmm, yes, I'd like to go all Aztec on myself. Sounds intense. I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't have a clue who Rebecca Black or Ryan Dunn are.

    I wouldn't get too upset about Dan Brown. The masses who enjoy that book are not writers, so they don't notice vapidness. I bet there are fine artists who shake their heads at the popularity of Thomas Kincade (may he rest in peace) and musicians who roll their eyes at Beiber fever. Do what you love and what moves you. Trying to figure out what will appeal to the masses sounds as easy as predicting the stock market.

    1. Hahahahaa... That does make me feel better, Tamara (about Ms. Rebecca and Mr. Ryan--and yeah, I'm refusing to contribute to the 2012 Google Zeitgeist by googling them, haha).

      You're soooo right about the Kincade and Beiber thing, haha. The only thing we can do is--yep, you said it--do what we love and what moves us.

      Thanks for the visit!

  13. Hi -- one more thing:

    I'm nominating you for a Liebster Blogging Award. I site and think you totally deserve it!

    Stop by my blog if you'd like to accept it:

  14. Really trying to apply #2 to my writing. If you met me in person, I believe it would take less than a minute to figure out who I am and what I'm about, mostly because I can speak my mind. Unfortunately, I'm just learning to do that with written words. Really put my fingerprint on what I'm say, you know?

    Lovely, lovely post.

  15. excellent post - I believe we are doomed...or maybe not. Reading your blog through this A to Z challenge gives me a bit of hope in humanity. There are smart, insightful, deep writers and I am happy to have met one Guilie!

    in other news, I broke my blog - new url is
    (note the stupid dash between sylvie and branch, yeah that was a mistake...)

  16. You nailed it! This post should be every writer's guide. Great book choices. (Yep, Rebecca Black's gotta be in there.) Many, many thanks for your comment! I'm starting to get that steely-eyed, oh yeah glare when I think of that reporter. If he could call me for info, he could've had the simple decency to call me about the book in the first place. My acceptance speech will include this: I would like to thank **** for trying to crap on me, LOL!

  17. Wow, I think I might need to look behind the sofa for my zeitgeist, or maybe one of the cats has eaten it.

    Great post, congrats on finishing.


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