– by Alexandra Sokoloff
I attended an event last weekend where I was in a mix of people from wildly diverse backgrounds, which included a fairly intimate dinner, and we had a chance to all go around introducing ourselves and what we do, and of course instantly you get that validation of Just How Cool being a writer is if you don’t actually have to do it every day, especially those days when you know you’re never going to get that subplot to work. (Oh! Right! Yes! It’s cool!)
One woman was enthusing about self-expression – how great it must be to live a life that is totally about self-expression. And for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what she was talking about.
But she seemed so sure, and so I tried to get into her mindset, because I wanted to understand, but I didn’t see where the “self” part was coming into it.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I pray anything at all before I lie down to work each day (because now you all know I don’t SIT down to work) it’s something like this: “Please God/dess, Universe, Angels, Fairies, Story Elves – let me serve this story and make it whole and somewhat readable and also marketable, please, thank you, Amen, Sat Nam, Ashe, etc.”
It’s not that I don’t put myself into what I write – I know I do. I put my whole life experience and observation into what I write, all the time. I write on the themes and the subject matter I write because I care passionately about those themes and subjects. But what I am and what I’ve experienced and observed and care about is only useful as it serves the STORY. In fact, I myself am only useful as a channel to serve the story (although I have many other fine qualities as a person, but we are talking about me as a writer, now.).
But what this woman said really got me thinking about what we do, as writers – how we define what we do. And self-expression has almost nothing to do with my job description, as I see it.
I think what I do is create an EXPERIENCE for a reader or audience. Reading a book or seeing a film (and I’m talking about fiction, now, and especially genre fiction) is about getting completely out of yourself and going on a journey as someone else, or multiple someones, and LOSING yourself in that experience – an experience that is solely in your mind, but can sometimes be far more gripping than anything in real life.
Actually (and you can tell me if I’m being just too Hollywood for words) – you could say what we do is create theme park rides. Some of them very smart ones, but still, theme park rides. You could also say we create dreams. We take our readers through a dream. And our absolute, bottom-line goal is to create a dream state so hypnotic, so mesmerizing, so enticing – that readers/viewers get lost in the dream. And I’ve actually heard editors say this over and over again on panels – that the number one requirement they have for a book is that it doesn’t break that dream state.
Think about it. Isn’t everyone’s favorite review a sincere: “I couldn’t put it down”?
Hmm, now that I’ve put it like that – are we much more than pushers, really?
Okay, maybe I’m digressing. But now that I have put it like this, do you see what I’m saying when I say that this has very little to do with self-expression and everything to do with being acutely attuned to serving the EXPERIENCE – the needs of a reader/audience?
I am a genre writer. I am very aware that I was continually hired in Hollywood because I could deliver a certain experience of spookiness and sensual chills. As a novelist I continue to deliver that experience of spookiness and sensual chills. I am privileged as a novelist (much more so than I was as a screenwriter) to be able to bring my specific, warped tastes to the stories I tell – but my bottom-line mandate is to deliver the experience.
And my other bottom-line mandate is to serve the story. I am not doing my job, I cannot calll myself a novelist, if I do not deliver the STORY. That is: an uninterrupted dream of an experience, from beginning to end.
Now, as Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” We need look no farther than our Amazon reviews to realize that not everyone will have the experience of our stories that we hope that they will have. But our best chance of pleasing as many of the people as we can, as often as we can, is being as true to the STORY as we can be. And in my experience, that’s about acknowledging what I want to experience in a story – and then committing to get out of my own way as much as I possibly can, in order to let that experience come through me, unimpeded by some need for “self-expression”, so that I can provide that experience, uninterrupted by ego, for other like-minded people.
This may be an analogy that makes sense only to me, but I will try to explain it anyway. When I got involved with dance, first it was because I was acting, and dance training just increased my chances of being cast in productions I wanted to be in. I worked hard, really hard, to learn the language of dance, to make my body an instrument that was capable of dance. Then I kept dancing even when I wasn’t acting anymore because – well, because the endorphins made me less likely to have a complete nervous breakdown. And I kept dancing and training and improving just because I was actually really good at it and nothing else made me feel so much like myself, and it wasn’t at all about being cast or anything except the fact that not doing it was agony. And then, after all those years, I was actually good enough to get paid for it, pretty much accidentally.
Well, I’m sure a lot of people think dance is all about self-expression. But when for the first time in my first professional show I told a choreographer “That pose doesn’t feel like me,” and he looked at me in that totally dom way that choreographers have and said – “What do you have to do with it?” – it suddenly clicked for me that professional dancing is about serving the dance. I – and my body – were really just props – a medium of expression for something much, much bigger.
And that’s how I feel about my writing. I have honed my “instrument”, as actors say – after years and years of work I have the technical skill it takes to write, to deliver the complete experience of a story. But all of that technical craft is just so that the story can flow through me – from wherever the hell it comes from.
Self has something to do with it, no doubt. But mostly, we have to leave self behind, get out of our own way, and serve the story. And hopefully – hopefully – deliver the experience our readers are looking for, hoping for, wishing for, when they pick up our books.
So am I the only one who feels this way? Do the rest of you, or most of you, feel that your writing is about self-expression? Or how would you describe what it is that you do?