Lately I’ve been thinking: Great stories don’t so much come from expertise, training and talent as they come from what you believe. You do need to learn the basics, but then what? You still have to find memorable stories and tell them well. It’s difficult, of course, but maybe we’re making it harder than it is all on its own.
I’m wondering lately if we’re shutting ourselves down with all this talk of technique.
Are we so eager to learn from experts that we study blog posts, go to workshops, lean on our writing groups and read how-to manuals–trying to amass that last piece of knowledge that will land us in the middle of a well-told tale? I’m not saying we’re wrong to keep learning. I continue to do these same things myself, but. There comes a time when we may do better to stop learning. And I’m not saying start writing, despite all the exhortations that “a writer writes.” Been there, said that. But now I’m thinking: What about getting in the zone and getting out of our own way?
On not studying.
If we are too stuffed full of thinking there a danger of making writing a big computational exercise. Snappy first page: tension, a little character, sensual detail, a story question, and don’t over-write, but don’t under-write either. Enter the story at the precise right point, the dead-bang right point of view, and so on down the list.
But we’ve also read the advice that you must get the editor out of the way when you write. Save the technique for the rewrite. This sounds to me essentially like “Don’t think of a monkey.” It takes a mind like a laser to write freely when one is cramming in all that technique.
So give it a rest. If you’re the super achiever type, especially. Or if you worry about talent or the difficulty of the marketplace (all those daunting exhortations from agents and conference presenters!) It’s odd how compulsive we get when we’re worried that we don’t know enough. We start studying like crazy, and pretty soon we are crazy. Our brains are trying to tell us, there’s no more room, I’m digesting the last workshop, I’m starting to become a big shelf for collected writing wisdom.
Let’s get quiet and try to listen to this. Let’s give ourselves time to absorb wisdom, not just collect it.
On screwing up your golf swing.
Athletes know that there is a time to practice and time to perform. When performing, you get your head out of the way and let your body put it all together.
Imagine, fellow golfers, trying to get a ball off the tee this way: Address ball, correct frigging alignment, slow back swing, club face to the sky, don’t cock wrists too early, don’t overswing, don’t crouch on the way down, stay upright, turn first, release cocked wrists one millionth of a second before impact, continue turning and throw hands at the target while not falling off stance or creating dreaded elbow cock known as chicken wing.
How’d that work for ya?
Not a stellar drive, I would guess. You’d do better to get in the zone, which is the condition of mindful mindlessness, or some such state that I have yet to achieve on the links. In writing, however, I do think I know how to achieve some of that, and it starts with belief.
So here are six beliefs that precede, and are the grounding for, my best stories.
#1. Stories abound.
Fabulous stories are everywhere. Your brain is adept at finding them, because a huge portion of the brain is wired for relationships. And stories are about people. Think of the very air around you as saturated with plots and people and places to write about. Stop worrying about finding the right story; show a little gratitude for the world of stories and that you were born with the gene that let’s you see them. Even if this is not always manifesting day-to-day, the belief that stories abound is soothing to the mind and honestly, true.
#2. Stories are the mind at play.
Your brain loves stories: to hear them, read them, see them. Your brain loves the vicarious experience of plots, which it interprets at some level as actually happening. When you set out to be a writer, your mind begins a training process in which it begins to enjoy making up its own stories. Therefore: let go of the idea that it so damn hard to write, and start thinking of it as play. Even though we all know it is often difficult work, when we lose sight of play we are being harsh to our brains. And perhaps being a bit too serious in the execution of our stories.
#3. My story is true.
We make up stories, but they are meaningful nonetheless. They are not confections signifying nothing. When you seek your story, you are seeking a true thing, an illuminating thing. When you begin to settle on an idea for a story, you look into yourself and ask what you believe about this situation. What is the heart of your story? You summon all your experience and ask if what you are writing is emotionally true and how to achieve clarity. It is not a sleight-of-hand exercise to convince the unwary reader to believe. Thank goodness I don’t have to make up a ton of stuff to fill a 400 page manuscript. I just have to seek the truth.
#4. I am not afraid.
Writers have a lot of courage. To stay in this profession takes guts and determination; and here we are, writing! However, sometimes we let doubts nibble away at the joy of writing. We allow worries about publication and talent to perform a dripping water torture on our minds. Face the writing day with courage. Breathe it in for a minute or two if a physical exercise helps you to remember that you are not afraid. After all, what is the worst that can happen? You may write a weak story. What, you don’t believe some stories are practice? Some are, and they are not a wasted effort. You may not publish this one. What, you think your favorite author has never been turned down? Fear and discouragement are bad for the brain. Be fearless. Or act like it. Pretty soon it will be true.
#5. I am grateful.
I am in a community of fellow seekers called writers. This is a wonderful group, among whom I count some of my very best friends. Beyond this incredible gift, I write stories and sometimes get paid for doing so. The experience of swimming in stories and finding deep-water truths is an enormous gift. And even beyond this, I am grateful for my life and vow to remember this every day. To forget this is to live in the shallows, succumbing to envy and dissatisfaction. But how does gratitude help your story, exactly? It helps by freeing the mind of clutter, worry and sadness. It frees up hard drive space, if you will, for the act of storytelling.
Put these five things on your bulletin board, or a sticky at your desk.
What are the beliefs that sustain your stories?