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.
Curiosity: why does the practice of writing send me into flight, one kind or another, either manic optimizing, or, when I cut off that escape route, narcolepsy– sitting trapped at my desk or in my chair, counting the words or the minutes, desperate for it to be over? I have been reading and hearing stories of writers who don’t wander off. They do the hard work. Trollope tied himself to his chair. Set and met word goals. Did not seek pleasure.
Perhaps my problem is taking discomfort as a sign of failure. Believing that writing should feel good. Which is not to say make your life grim, but if your goal is to feel good, you might have trouble writing. Developing a skill is frustrating, often disappointing— you measure yourself and come up short; your attention is bad and then, when you finally write, your writing is bad. You can’t get yourself to the table and then you get to the table and find it bare.
I want to develop greater tolerance for those disappointments. When I meet them, greet them, and keep working. For me the task of becoming a writer appears to be, first and foremost, the task of holding and directing my attention.