I have been reading Before I Fall. The protagonist is a mean girl. It turns out I like her. I like the gaps between the way she describes herself— funky, cool, having a good time— and what is probably true. The people who look at her, not in admiration, as she imagines, but disgust. The shiver of disgust she herself feels when her popular, slobbery boyfriend kisses her and leaves saliva all over her chin. The way she ignores all the clues that she is not who she thinks, and clings to the shiny version she prefers. Part of the reason I can forgive her is that she’s dead, which means she has already gotten the worst possible punishment. I don’t need to punish her, too. But also, I have hope—why start with somebody so awful unless change is coming? I keep reading to find out: when will she wake up to the truth about her former life? I learn that it’s not just character that holds my attention, but the promise of transformation. This young woman who, in spite of her flaws, makes poetic observations about the world around her— a watery sun spreading over the sky like spilled milk, the pin pricks of cold rain on the back of her hand. Maybe she can be saved.
My internal editor is a mean drunk. Catch her on a good day and she can be pretty helpful– a sharp mind, high standards. On a good day, she pushes my writing to a better place. But when she’s on a bender, she can destroy me, for no reason. Impatient with everything, incapable of hope. Punishing tiny missteps. Indifferent to signs of life. She hurls insults: why are you still writing? Why even bother to try? I’m thinking of bringing her to a twelve-step meeting. Teach her to take deep breaths, and be a little bit nicer to both of us.
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.