Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Why of What We Write

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Recently I was given a list of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. It’s a great list for anyone who writes fiction. Number #14 on the list is not really a rule, it’s a question, and it’s the most valuable question for a writer that I have seen.

#14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

What a great question. Readers don’t read because of the “what.” They read because of the “why.” Doing the exercise as part of my novel revisions process is proving to be revelatory.

The what and how of my novel can be found in the external plot points and milestones, but the heart of the story that will keep a reader engaged can be found in the answer to question #14, because that answer is about what I believe in and what I stand for.

I can tell you that my novel is about a surviving twin who has never been able to accept that her sister committed suicide and this sets her upon a quest to find out the truth about what happened; or I can tell you that my story is about how grief is an advocate of change and growth when you embrace it, because when you walk through grief, it becomes a healing grace. I like the second answer best, even though the first answer is true too.

Now while many story coaches may tell me “no,” a story has to be about something that happens, I am starting to view that stance as only partially correct. Yes, a good plot does prevent you from writing just a rambling narrative. But it is the “why” of the story that will be remembered by the reader more than the what and how. What I remember about Toni Morrison’s “God Help The Child,” is less the milestones of plot and more the feeling tone of a woman who is trying to untangle the wounds of her past with a heroic determination that leads to her transformation.

Here is what I am learning: A plot is the external events of a story. The emotional arc gives us the internal events of the story. To have a full, rich, compelling read, a writer must find a way to wed the why of the story with the what and how of story. As I pondered question #14–“why,” I found myself wishing that I would have known to do this before I started my novel, but interestingly, the answer was still within me. Now that I am clear on it, I know that it is coloring my revisions, inviting me to a deeper dive than if I had not answered the question at all.

As I wrote down my answers as to why THIS story, I noticed the power and passion behind the statements that I was making. This was not just answering a question about my story, this was laying out what I believe about life. Readers want to know the why. Even though the exact words may not make it to the page, the why will be revealed in the emotional logic of the story. The passion birthed from the question is the quality of emotion that I want to capture on the page. Here are a few of the things that I wrote down:

  • I am compelled to tell stories about women who rise above inner and outer adversity, because they courageously answer a higher calling within themselves to stand in the light of their truth.
  • My heart is touched and moved by women who learn to believe in themselves; by women who are determined to create and live a new vision for themselves in spite of and because of adversity.
  • I believe that women are not victims, but heroines in their own story; that women do not need to be saved or rescued. Their strength and courage are innate.
  • I believe in transformation.
  • I want my story to be an inspiration to women who believe in second chances.

That’s some good stuff to know about a story. It’s some good stuff to know about yourself. A lot of writers look upon words as being their artistic tool. But cranking out sixty-thousand words is just a jumping off point. A writer’s tools are emotion. It’s the emotion and passion that you are able to put on a page that will make a reader care about your characters and the story that they are living through.

I will never write another short story or novel without first contemplating this question: Why must I tell THIS story?

How about you? Do you think that this is a good question to ask before you begin writing your next work of fiction? Hit me up in the comments section and let me know.

Here is the link to Pixar’s 22 rules:

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZHlzYXJ0Lm9yZ3xtcmVsbGlzfGd4OjFjNDNkMThjY2Q1MmIyNTE

 

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Emotional Balancing Act and Other Musings on What’s Positive and What’s Not

iStock_000016138662XSmallThere are a lot of people and things about this life that are rasty—politicians and banks are my two personal favorites. I want to know what is going on in my world, my country and my community, still, I can’t take a steady diet of news feed. It makes me feel as though we have all gone mad. I cannot ignore these things either. Somewhere in the spongy corridors of my little brain, I have hope and vision. How can we possibly reach solutions to the challenges of our world if we are unaware, or worse, conveniently apathetic about the work of making the world a better place? I have met people who tell me that they never watch the news because they only want to accentuate the positive in their lives. What is positive about deliberately hiding your head in the sand?

I am not certain if “making the world a better place” is something that we are taught or if it’s something that rises up from within us. I don’t remember learning, or even making a decision about trying to leave the world better than I found it—it was just sort-of, kind-of, always with me and one day I woke up to it. Maybe it was the prayer that I was afraid of that acted as the alarm clock– the one where you ask: “please show me Your will and Your way,” and then hope that Greater will is something you actually want to do.

How are we in any position at all to determine or judge what is positive and what is negative in our emotional life or the life of humanity? We bandy about these words as if we knew what they imply– and the truth is, we often don’t. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, said, “when a thing happens, you don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” I return to this quote again and again, because of its compassionate reach and reminder. We have all met someone who gets fired from a job and feels devastated. Then a year later they might say something like “getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me.” When a thing happens, we don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

A week ago I was telling a friend about this pocketful of grief that I had recently pulled out of an old pair of jeans. She listened empathically and then said to me in her well-intended way: “just don’t think about it.” On the one hand, not focusing on something painful is sage advice. On the other, if we don’t face the fears and pain in front of us, how will we deepen in understanding and compassion? While true that turning grief over in one’s hand, examining its edges is what some would call a real buzz kill, looking at how that particular grief arose when it did, often allows the space to forgive, give over, and move ahead without the pain of limiting and un-resolved baggage. So initially such a discovery appeared not to be such a “positive” thing, yet ultimately became a lesson  that brought both resolve and liberation from the hard pebble of something past that had been stuck in your shoe.

Now, back to the news. When I read about our corrupt banking system or hunger in our own county, I am angry. That anger in turn informs a kind of activism to make a change for the better. So, is anger really a negative emotion, or like “fight or flight,” does it hold a deeper message if we are willing to acknowledge it and explore the opportunity underlying the whoosh of feeling?

For me, the emotional life is meant to be fluid and it’s meant to be full. It’s when we get stuck on any emotion that we falter and slide into unintended consequence. I cannot go through life only feeling its losses; yet by feeling life’s losses and being true to that process, compassion and tenderness grow. I cannot go through life in a constant state of joy, not if it means ignoring the ache of my heart that aligns itself with  the needs of the poor, the sick, or the hungry. I am suspect of those who claim to have “reached” a state where joy is static by some force of will—the “I will be happy no matter what” mentality that excludes anyone grappling with the state of the human condition.

There are various self-help gurus in our world who pontificate that they have no investment in, or need for emotion. It seems a terrible affect, fraught with wasted opportunity if you eschew having your heart-broken open in order that you might better serve the world and leave it a better place. The emotional life of humankind is a complex and interesting journey, meant to inform the fullness of the life experience.

In the end I would be more sad if I hadn’t let life move me to great heights and great depths of all feeling; more sad if my heart had gone through life unscathed because I had never watched the news, never had a negative emotion and never opened myself in compassion and caring because of, and in spite of those things. It is the jagged edges of life that I find most interesting and delightful, the horrible beautiful journey of becoming a human being. For me, part of making the world a better place is living life fully.  One more time, with feeling …as the acting coach used to say.