Yesterday I read an essay by a woman who got divorced after only fifteen months of marriage and kept her husband’s name. I thought the essay might teach me something about life, or loss, or identity, but it turned out to be more like watching somebody pick their nose on a subway platform. Still, I kept reading, hungry for details– who was the affair with? Somebody he knew from childhood? What needy, clingy character traits of hers finally drove him away? By the end, I felt a little bit creepy, like a rubbernecker, slowing down to watch a car accident on the side of the road. I was embarrassed for the writer, who mistook self-revelation for art, and ashamed of myself for not looking away. I am left with this idea: I will read almost anything, because I’m voraciously curious about the human experience. But the best writing transcends that experience, and helps me become more humane.
Save the Cat seemed like an incredibly fresh approach to story development when I first started reading it. Blake Snyder describes a writing sequence close to the one I practice and teach: idea to premise to character to beats. But somewhere in the discussion of premise and character he slipped into a discussion of genre, and started saying things like: it doesn’t matter how old you are, make every story about a teenager, because that’s the only movie that can make money. The advice, possibly true, incensed me. I refuse to be converted. If all we’re doing is pitching ad copy to restless teenagers, why bother writing at all? And how to explain “Still Alice” or “Love is Strange”? Blake Snyder cares passionately about commercial success, but it’s not the only victory, or the best victory, and it may not be the victory we mean to seek. In addition to developing our craft, we need to develop our intention: understand why we are writing and then commit fearlessly to that goal. The world may not reward us financially, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be rewarded, or that the story doesn’t matter.
Stephen King uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the creative process: he shows up every day to write, but he lets the “boys in the basement” do the heavy creative lifting. The boys solve the hard problems—characters who won’t behave, endings that don’t resolve. He trusts those guys, doesn’t worry too much when he loses a story thread, confident that if he walks away, they will fix it. Meanwhile he’s making dinner, or playing the guitar, or sleeping. You can tell from the way he talks about writing that it’s true—his deep unconscious, the mysterious place where ideas spring up, is populated by sturdy guys with huge biceps who hammer away, all the time. They sit down together at the end of the day and drink beer, don’t get their feelings hurt and don’t hold grudges. I liked that idea so much I tried it on—I could really use a reliable team to help me with my writing. Possibly because I’m a woman, I discovered I couldn’t convince a work crew, or even a convivial poker game, to take up residence in my imagination. But it got me thinking. If I don’t have boys down there, hammering away at my stories, what do I have? Birds, maybe? At first that idea seemed disappointing—birds aren’t very strong. In fact, boys sometimes make slingshots and fire rocks at them, for sport. But they do build astonishing nests. They find things, too, stuff that you can’t imagine, and would never expect– an old gym sock, woven delicately into something that looks like a long-looped Dr. Seuss shopping bag. Maybe I do have birds. Fragile, flighty, skittish, slightly mysterious to me. I have to leave them crumbs, and be patient. Too much noise sends them scattering.