Keeping with the theme from my last post here, I’ve been looking at various other disciplines, at their fundamental truths, and using that perspective to think about writing. This practice is a bit like seeing the furniture moved around in your favorite room—you start to notice the walls again, and the windows and the scenery, where it had become too predictable before to prick your awareness.
So, here are a few fundamental truths about writing and creativity that I’ve observed:
A strong writer isn’t afraid to toss out a good idea.
I like Alex’s approach to collecting ideas that she blogged on yesterday, and it’s a tremendously useful exercise. One of the things I’ve found in the classes I’ve taught is that a lot of writers (whether new or experienced) are afraid to let go of a really good idea.
They’ve got the experience to grasp that it is a really good idea, one that has weight and length and depth and texture and lights and darks and those are hard to come by. But just like every cute thing is not something you can hold onto, not every idea is one you should write. Not every idea is right for you, no matter how good it is. And hanging onto that really good idea that you can’t make work means that you’re not able to have the freedom to explore other ideas and see if, maybe, instead of just really good, they could be great.
A lot of times, people think that they’re holding onto that really good idea because it’s not professional to quit on something, or that it’s indicative that they won’t finish what they’ve started, so they are determined to soldier through. And while this can be true, if it’s a perpetual thing, I’d believe that if you already know you’re tenacious and not prone to quitting, then the real reason behind hanging onto a really good idea that just isn’t working for you is fear: fear that you’re not going to have another really good idea. Or worse, that you’ll never have another idea at all.
This is the same trait that induces people to latch onto an offer or a sale or a relationship because they feel like it’s the best they’re going to get, that another one isn’t going to come along. It’s human nature to wonder about that, but it’s generally wrong. If you latch onto something because you’re in love with it? Wonderful. If you think that’s the best you can do and you’re settling? Even a little? Set it aside, and give yourself the chance to find out what else you can do.
All of which boils down to trust. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut. If you can’t let go of the really good idea because you love it beyond measure, but it’s just not working, then set it aside and trust that you’ll come back to it when you have the chops to do so. If you never ever have another idea, it’ll still be there, won’t it? But give yourself the chance to explore, to see what else is out there in the universe.
To enrich the full experience, you sometimes have to hold back a part of it for delayed gratification.
In architecture and in landscaping, this is called “denial and reward.” If you walk up to a house that is clearly magnificent, but easily visible from every angle on the grounds, there may be a sense of awe, but that experience is flat and over once the totality is already perceived.
However, create a winding path to the building where the view is obscured, but hinted at through partial views, or framed by unique architectural features such as an arch of a tree or a grove of oaks or suddenly rising out of a path of stunning gardens, and the anticipation of the total experience increases—the appetite is whetted—so that when the building is finally viewed, there is a greater satisfaction.
Life is replete with examples. The person who walks up and starts yammering about their entire life history the first time you meet them is going to be off-putting.
They may have had an interesting life, but it’s too much, too soon, to fully appreciate it. However, give us a little to whet our appetite and then let us discover more on our own, and that same person, same life history, could be fascinating.
Or, put in another example, we allow kids to dress up and trick or treat for candy rather than just go buy them a couple of sacks of their favorite junk, because it’s the work they have to do for it that gives them pleasure. They have to be creative, they have to cover a lot of ground, they have to see themselves as a different creature—all to get the thing that is rather common, but it’s the experience that they’ll remember.
So it’s true with stories. Resist the urge to give every piece of back story up front, every detail of history, the total of who the people are. Let us wind down some paths toward the totality by creating denial and rewards—give us greater and greater glimpses along the way, expose angles of the characters in new light and new detail as we go. We will love you for it.
Use juxtaposition to frame the quality you care about.
I want you to watch this video of an artist drawing the subject of a woman, and I want you to especially note a couple of things:
1) the artist uses decisive dark lines for some features and builds the shadows stage by stage until they are not just dark, but they are layers of charcoal from grey to black which give the subject contour and depth
2) those dark decisive marks are juxtaposed against the white of the rest of the image which
3) gives us a really strong image of a very soft, curvy, vulnerable face.
Had the artist used soft shades, backed off of those shadows, the overall effect wouldn’t have been a softer woman, but a poorer image. It’s the juxtaposition of lights to dark, hard strokes to soft that frames and evokes the quality that the artist wanted to achieve.
Juxtaposition is one of the best tools we have as a writer. If we never see the darks of the character, we can’t appreciate the lights, whether they’re the protagonist or the antagonist.
A straight path is a boring path.
Have you ever driven through Texas? Or Oklahoma? I have. That big, wide-open plain is shocking for someone like me who is constantly surrounded by immediate horizon here, with trees on every perspective, so the first few moments of traveling through that big big sky feels utterly freeing.
And then, not terribly long afterward, all that freedom and that straight line of road from here to waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay over there, with no bends or turns or scenery in the middle gets extremely boring. (No offense to those who live in the great big plains, but wow, how you do not fall asleep driving is a flat miracle.)
Now, on the other hand, hairpin turns that are organic to the story–meaning, it’s a mountain, of course there will be hairpin turns (organic) but how they’ll happen and when and how the characters will navigate them will keep us interested.
If, in your stories, the story arc is carried straight through – problem……solution – then the story will be flat and boring. Each problem should have what the characters believe is a straightforward solution—but that very solution should create a new problem that whiplashes them into a different direction. They need to be challenged in new and greater ways with each failure as they keep trying to solve the problems in order to accomplish the one overall task set up at the beginning of the story. Keep the curves in the road and you’ll keep us interested.
“If you can’t explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms that she understands, you don’t know your subject well enough.” – Matthew Frederick in 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School
I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.
You have opinions, you believe in something. You do, whether you’re bashful about it or not, you have some perspective on the world that is uniquely you. If you’re a writer or endeavoring in any other creative art, you do so because you think you have something to say.
So say it.
Have faith in it.
No execution of any art is perfect. But persuasiveness in art, absolute conviction in a viewpoint often makes us forget the imperfections, particularly if we get to see that conviction through unique characters and conflict.
You cannot know everything in the beginning in order to prevent yourself from failing, so you might as well move forward and try for success anyway. To stand still and do nothing is to fail already.
When you were two and toddling around…
(my granddaughter, Angela Grace)
… you didn’t know what the joy of being able to run and leap was going to feel like, and you didn’t know that what you were doing was taking baby steps, though you might have perceived some difference in what you were doing vs. what your siblings or parents could do. Still, you put one foot in front of the other and when you mastered walking, you moved on to running.
When you were four and riding your tricycle, you did not yet know what driving or flying would be like, though you saw cars and planes. You may have even been inside those vehicles, but until you were responsible for navigating the actual car or plane or truck or train, you could not know all of the obstacles you’d have to avoid, preparations you’d have to make, maintenance you’d have to see to, obligations you’d have to field, or the freedom of the open road. Yet, you peddled that tricycle for all it was worth, racing around the yard.
Writing is the same. Start somewhere. You’ll eventually grow and improve and then you’ll see the next level to learn. But you’ll never see that next level if you don’t master the one you’re on now.
It’s not always about you.
It takes a tremendous amount of ego (and hope) to believe that if we create something, someone somewhere else is going to want to see it or hear it or read it. It takes even more ego to think those people might want to pay for the privilege to do so. This is normal. It takes a big ego to sustain any sense of self while going through the learning curve and getting negative feedback. It’s that sort of ego that is a distinctive divide between those who will send out their work for potential evisceration and those who will keep it safe from persecution—which, of course, prevents it from being seen/purchased.
However, once a work has left the artist, it is no longer about him or her, any more than a child is “about” his or her mother. That work has to go out into the world and interact with the world on the world’s terms, not the artist’s.
Everyone who views/sees/hears art does so with their entire life informing them as to how to respond.
All of their experiences, their hopes, dreams, failures, frustrations, lies, truths, expectations, cynicism, education (etc.) comes to bear in that first moment when they interact with the art.
Their mood of the moment, their stress, their time limits all have influence in their perception.
The artist cannot control those things. Because of that, art… arts… in that moment when the participant and art intersect. It is not about the artist in that moment, but is, rather, about the experience of the person interacting with the art. You can’t make everyone appreciate the same thing or appreciate it in the exact same way—they’ve come to that thing with too many differences. So, keeping that in mind, it is no wonder that the very thing some people love, other people hate. There is no universal when it comes to art, because there is no one single experience we all share, save for being human, and even that is somewhat questionable.
So when a work is out in the world, expect it to be hated, hope that it will be loved, and move on to the next piece. The world’s reactions to the art no more validates you as a person than it does eviscerate you. It just is. Let it go.
“No” is not the end; it is simply an invitation to pursue new ideas, new angles, new opportunities to re-think, reconfigure, and persuade.
Work the problem.
You do not build a city in a day. You build it brick by brick, yard by yard, building by building, road by road.
You won’t solve the problem by simply naming it and then whining about it. You solve it by breaking it down into solvable parts, working those solutions, and using those solutions to help you break down the bigger problems. You solve the problem by asking for others’ perspectives, by researching, working, listening and learning. You solve the problem by going to see what had been done before you historically and how someone else solved something similar.
If all of that fails, then you challenge how you’ve defined the problem, because often our failure in problem resolution is that we don’t fully grasp the organic cause of the problem to begin with. If linear cause and effect aren’t cutting it, think in 3-D.
Think associationally. [My Word doc is informing me that I totally pulled that word out of the ether.] Think in context. Think in layers. Turn the problem around and upside down.
One of the things that bugs me about watching a lot of sci-fi shows with ships in space is that they often treat space with an up/down forward/back context, as if the ships are cars on a highway. But as Orson Scott Card’s fabulous Ender’s Game so beautifully illustrated, there is no up and down in space.
The solution to problems can sometimes require us to break out of our own mold of thinking—how we think can be as much a part of the problem as the problem itself. So challenge the way you’ve defined the problem, challenge your assumptions. You may surprise yourself in that you are suddenly seeing the problem from a different angle and there, lo and behold, is the solution.
So that’s my ten. How about you? Any premise that you learned in one field that you can now apply to writing or any creative endeavor?