Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Write Who You Are 3 - What you care about

The stories you were born to tell are essential to you. They are intertwined with how you see the world, what you value, experiences that have changed you, and the connections you have with others. They touch on your principles and your sense of justice, but also on your obsessions and what you find irresistible.

Do you know what you care about? Not all writers do.

It's easier to look at your favorite creative people and see what they care about. Take a minute and list five films you love or TV shows you can't miss or novels that you've reread. If, for any of these, the writers or directors have a body of work you're familiar with, you probably can identify what they care about.

Martin Scorsese is, among other things, focused on loyalty (and betrayal), violence, and religion. Woody Allen is obsessed with the meaning of existence, communication (and miscommunication), and sex. George R. R. Martin is fascinated by power, duty, language, and pride.

You can probably add to the above easily, both expanding on my thumbnails and delineating the passions of the artists who form your personal pantheon. By doing that, you'll find some of the things you care about most. Certainly, we are attracted to works that are far from our own interests -- most writers are insatiably curious -- but a high percentage of the novels you read and the movies and television shows you watch reflect your own delights, concerns, and questions.

If you look at the people you surround yourself with, you probably can list what they care about -- a skill of yours that's evident if they appreciate your recommendations, advice, and gifts. Again, if you write down these obsessions, chances are some of what you record will resonate with you. Some of it will tell you what matters to you and provide direction on what you're meant to write.

It's good to continue to explore what you care about most. Diaries, your past writing, the answers you give people with problems, embarrassing moments, memories you revisit, and risky actions can all provide clues. Some will be enchanting and some will be disturbing, but all of them will be irreplaceable treasures for you as a writer.

Here are a few caveats: Not everything you find compelling will lead to your best work. Don't try to use dreams directly for stories because they rarely can be given the context they need to appeal to others. Grudges and grievances tend to be petty, reducing the scope of your themes (though they can be good fodder for comedy). Fresh wounds and infatuations seem like the real thing, but they are usually too new to have been processed by your artistic sensibilities. Take notes for later.

Looking for more? Try these:
  • Who were your childhood heroes?
  • What are your favorite sayings?
  • What's the biggest mistake you ever made?
  • What's the hardest choice you ever faced (or one you hope never to face)?
  • Did someone ever deeply disappoint you or betray you?
  • What would be the worst thing to lose (possession, relationship, talent, memory)?
For any of these that resonate, see if you can write about 200 words exploring the details and why it is meaningful to you. Think in terms of family, community, justice, vulnerability, and right and wrong. Pay attention to your emotions.

You may find some stories, and that's good. But the most important things you can discover, by approaching yourself sideways, are the themes that matter most to you, the very ones that are obvious in the work of your favorite creators. Once you have these, you'll be in possession of essential keys to telling the stories that offer the most to you and your readers.

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