Friday, December 10, 2010

Writing a Story is Hard

Let us have no delusions. Writing a story is very hard.

Writing down a story is one thing. You already know what happens, what the setting looks like, and who the characters are. Your task is straightforward: relay the story to your audience as interestingly and convincingly as you can.

But what if you want to tell a new story? What then?

You can write from an outline, systematically fleshing out a predetermined plan.

You can write from a conglomerate pile of scenes and ideas, like a patchwork quilt.

Or you can just write blindly, starting with an object, a place, or a color, and then following headlong wherever it takes you.

I generally like to know where I’m going ahead of time. The problem is I don't possess or haven't developed the raw creative imagination to map that out. I may need to depend for the short-term on a hybridized approach that follows a sort of creative intuition looking for signposts that point me where I want to go.

Maybe this isn’t so bad.

In solving a crossword puzzle, we work on what we know and then use that information as stepping stones into what we don’t know. In rock climbing, we use the holds we can see and move upwards, looking for new opportunities. You don’t know the answer to the puzzle or where the top of the route is, but you know you want to find it. Perhaps creativity trusts vision more than perseverance does, and requires more focus.

Writing, especially fiction, is a vulnerable undertaking. The reward of being understood comes with the risk of being rejected, and I'm just me.

The world of literature looks intimidating from the outside - self-contained, buttressed, unassailable. The classics seem inevitable, like they simply wrote themselves. It is all very discouraging.

It is clear we must take a different view. Every classic began with someone who decided to tell a story and then told it. They had to make decisions, edit, modify characters, and sometimes just put one word in front of another. (No doubt this all seems very basic, but it is necessary. Fear must have nowhere to hide.)

What if there were 4 musketeers? Or 105 dalmatians? What if the Big Bad Wolf was the Big Bad Hyena? What if The Little Engine That Could was red and Miss Riding Hood blue? Of course it is impossible now, but it was possible at one time, and that is the point we must understand.

Turn your attention back to your own work, which has been looking rather insecure and one-dimensional. People in your head are saying “It’s too much like so-and-so; it’s not original.” Stop it. As long as you focus on that danger you may succumb to it, just like you may steer into a passing truck if you watch it too long. Look where you are going, for Pete’s sake, and just tell us what happens.

We spend too much time thinking about art and not enough time thinking about life. Originality is not as important as honesty. When we look at life honestly and creatively, art is the result.


  1. Very encouraging to me! As a photographer (and an amateur one at that!), I go through these phases of feeling as though I'm not being original enough. And fear is hiding in there somewhere, too.

  2. Ecclesiastes 1:9 "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." I am reminded of this verse when I become discouraged with my music. It is impossible to create something that is truly new, but we can arrange our thoughts in a unique and creative way.
    Thank you for writing this. It was very helpful to me.