Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Write Who You Are 5 - Eight paths

As you work to create stories only you can tell and to make them as good as they can be, it's worth considering different approaches to excellence. While I don't claim this is a complete list, here are eight paths you might take as you write who you are:

Pay attention — Any ideas you have need to be expressed in terms of the world around you, even if your work is fantasy. The closer you observe nature, people, and social structures, the better able you will be to ground your work in a reality that encourages people to share your fictional world.

Follow your heart — There is a mathematics to storytelling, and it can be helpful in revision, especially in finding missing pieces. However, since people read fiction for an emotional experience, it's invaluable for you to pay attention to what moves you and connects you with truths that go beyond facts, logic, and order. Trust your gut and follow your intuition to its limits.

Explore — Treasure your curiosity, both in terms of what life presents you and in new ways to express your vision. Don't be afraid to move into areas that are unfamiliar, strange, and even offputting. Always welcome the possibility of surprise.

Take risks — It's good to remember that you never have to show anyone a single paragraph you've written. You can write a chapter in blank verse or a love scene that would make your friends blush. You can write down the ramblings of a vicious murderer or share delicate feelings and experiences that are too close to speak aloud, even in a whisper. Once you've captured these, it may be that you'll find only a few that you'll dare to make part of your manuscript, but those you do choose to share are likely to be precious.

Do the hard thing – Whenever you have a choice between a point of view that feels uncomfortable and one that doesn't, between a character's extreme action and their reasonable response, between a theme that embarrasses you and one that is likely to bring acclaim, select the former and not the latter. You can always go back and redo your work to bring it into line with the establishment, but it's unlikely you'll be able to work in the other direction. So stretch yourself, always, to do work that disturbs you.

Have courage — This can be difficult if you are not a daring person. We all want to be accepted and many of us want to be rewarded. Few people are happy with disdain and disapproval. Take a chance once in a while. Fail and learn from the failure. If you never have anyone hate the work you do, you're unlikely to find anyone who's transformed by it.

Seek mastery — Keep learning about your craft. Take courses and talk to colleagues and find mentors. Most of all, study work that is outside your interests and that represents the best that can be done.

Now, all of this is good but insufficient. It's critical that, once you recognize a technique or an approach that pushes you to do your work at the highest level that you make the effort to be the best you can be. Do exercises. Write samples. Get feedback for your work. Always be trying to go beyond "good enough" in one aspect of your writing.

Aim higher — While any work that is masterfully done is a delight, it's good to strive to have real impact with your writing. It has gone out of vogue to distinguish between high art and low art. In part, because of the abuse of experts, who traditionally have used their definitions to exclude approaches that made them uncomfortable and people who they thought didn't deserve recognition. There is a long history of intolerance for diversity that has twisted concepts of what should be respected. However, I'd like to suggest that there are differences in artistic ventures worth keeping in mind.

My personal pyramid, going from bottom to top, begins with conveying facts and lessons. Next is entertaining work, with all of its charms. Up at the next level would be worked that immerses you in the experience. Above that, stories that present, in an elegant way, insights and epiphanies. Fresh perspectives often offer even more. And near the top would be those tales that raise questions and provoke people to challenge, explore, and rethink the status quo. Somewhere in here, perhaps at the highest level, would be breakthrough work that reimagines how storytelling might change us and our society.

Be kind to yourself — This isn't one of the eight paths, but I feel compelled to add it because much of what I've included among these approaches can be demanding both in work and in sacrifice. You're not required to be a hero all the time. Stumbling and giving in and taking things easy are all part of the human experience and acceptable. No good comes from insisting on perfection all the time.

I hope some of this is helpful as you take on the challenge of writing who you are. Next time, I'll explore the "aim higher" pyramid in more detail.

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