Being good, being great, and a slight overdose on writing process geekery

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking and talking with folks about writing and process. Earlier this week I had a write-in with a friend of mine who’s working on a non-fiction book. We talked about the differences between our markets, where we’re at in our writing careers, rules for our different genres and subgenres. Then this weekend I got together with some friends of mine to do the 48 Hour Film Project and wound up spending all of Friday night on a hotel room floor with friends fleshing out a borderline ridiculous idea into a 4-7 minute thriller/suspense movie script.

Since I got home today after helping with the shoot, my brain’s been still picking at those conversations. The primary of which is the advice I kept seeing over and over again when I was starting out writing again: Writer’s write. 

I remembered how much I used to hate that fucking phrase.

It seemed like just about the dumbest piece of advice to give someone who’s trying to figure out how to do it. Why give someone a frustrating tautology? So you’re saying that to become a writer, you must write. But if you can’t figure out how to start, how can you ever become one? It’s like advertising an entry level job that requires five years of work experience.

(warning: POV switch into second person ahead)*

You get advice like that, you either give up right there, or say, “Fuck it. I can figure this out on my own.” You keep doing it just because you’re pigheaded. So you try writing. But then you look at what you wrote and you look at the kind of stuff you like to read (that whole Ira Glass “having good taste” thing applies here), and you see that it’s not the same. It’s not even fucking close. You want to give up because there is SUCH A VAST OCEAN OF SUCK between you and where you want to be. But you do it again anyway. Could be the pigheaded thing again. Or maybe when you were reading through your stuff, you saw a glimmer of something you might like. It was ill-developed and badly executed, but it’s still there. So you write something else, trying to make that glimmer a little brighter better next time – closer to the thing in your head. It could have been a moment with one of your characters, or a nice turn of phrase. Maybe there was a cool plot thing that tickled you in a funny way when you were writing it and tickled you in the same funny way when you reread it. And the next time you write, that thing gets a little clearer and more deliberate. You wash rinse and repeat, polishing those little bits of good stuff that get into the giant messes that are your stories.

Then you start reading advice from other folks on how to fix the stuff that’s not getting better. Maybe it’s problems with your characters. Or plots. Prose. Setting. Pacing. When you start watching movies and TV shows, or reading books or graphic novels, you start paying closer attention to what other people are doing with those same elements so you can learn how stuff works, particularly stuff you like. Then you start seeing what kind of stuff gets done a lot. You start seeing patterns. You consume so much media that you get bored seeing the same pattern, but delighted when someone breaks it. You start getting excited about ways YOU could break those same rules or even other rules. Because we’re always delighted when someone shows us something new and unexpected. 

And now you start seeing the wisdom under that stupid, frustrating advice you got when you started out: about how writers write. You can see all of the things “write” encompasses: writers write characters; writers write plots; writers write prose. You can go down even further: writers write tragic characters; writers write space opera plots; writers write floridly worded Victorian Eldrich Horrors. There are so many god damn elements that go into writing anything, you can run down into these finer points forever. You can get into arguments with people about word choices and syntax and the different emotional effects those can have on the reader. You can write sociological or anthropological theses about why the Hero’s Journey appears in so many narratives from all over the world. And you buy those books. And you read them. And you can’t stop telling your friends about them. You can even go as far as to write a really long essay about how you felt after reading a blog post another writer wrote about the influence another writer had on him.

Then you stall out and can’t figure out why you’re not selling anything. Because now you’re a writer (because you write), but you want to be a Writer (somehow there is a difference in your mind, and for some reason that difference involves money [yes, this was the rule I gave myself before I could capitalize that damn W {and I’ll tell you what, I STILL feel weird when I do it}]). You want to do to others what books and movies and TV shows and comics did to you.

So you look again at the second-most abstract and silly piece of writing advice that’s out there: write what you know.

You say, “Fuck you, Writer-Type-Person! I learned your damn words!” because you’re frustrated and exhausted because you’ve put so much damn time into it.

You hear people say that to publish, you can’t just be a good writer, but a great one.

You start looking at the stuff you think is just good, and the stuff you think is great. You try to tease apart the differences, and you start seeing that those differences lie largely in you. The good stuff might follow all the rules and satisfy you intellectually, but the great stuff shakes you. Maybe even changes the way you see things about yourself or about the world around you. 

You see it’s because those great writers are writing about YOU. That tiny moment of anxiety between the glass falling off the counter and it hitting the floor – the regret in it, the moment of solace that the glass is still whole for a few more milliseconds, the flash of the memory of the day you bought those glasses at Bed Bath and Beyond because you’d broken one too many during arguments with your boyfriend and then you had to wash (by hand) the same three glasses over and over again and you’re just fucking tired of it because you’ve been doing it for eight months now and now, and look, you’ve just broken one of the ones you just bought to try and take that anxiety away because it means you’re one dustpan full of glass closer to that being that person again who waits eight months to buy more glasses at Bed Bath and Beyond. And that writer managed to capture all of that moment in the way the character’s eyes traced the patterns the broken glass made on the floor.

So you write about you. Who you are. Why you are the way you are, because chances are it’s the same reason why other people are the way they are too. That’s the whole reason those story patterns work.

Everyone wants to know who they are – to see themselves how others see them. Because inside we’re all chaotic whirlpools of seemingly disconnected and random stuff. There’s good stuff and evil stuff. Beautiful stuff and ugly stuff. The hate and the apathy and the misery that we struggle constantly against, so we might keep feeling love and passion and joy. We want to be not plagued with these tiny, constant internal battles because we’re never sure what side is winning, and we’re so god damn exhausted sometimes.

It makes us scared to open up to other people because we worry that the more someone knows us, the more of that struggle they start seeing. Who isn’t afraid of someone seeing them at their meanest? Or their pettiest? Occasionally, though, you find someone else that is cracking in the same ways that you are. You see that same struggle in them. So maybe you let them see that in you. 

Great writers, artists, musicians, performers: all of them explore their own fractures and show other folks what they found.

When you start exploring other people’s fracture lines, you find out you can live a thousand lives in them, maybe even try to prepare yourself for damage you can see coming up in your own life, because if you push deep down into one, you can see which ways the fractures run and trace those back to the points of impact. Maybe you even eventually hope to see how all the break patterns fit together.

*Yes, I see what I did there. 

I’ve spent the last few months in introspection overdrive trying to get my brain back to the point where I can spend a Saturday night writing a blog post about this kind of stuff rather than clutching the remote close to my chest for fear of the stuff that’s been going on inside of my head. 

So please excuse the typos. I think I’m gonna risk a little bit of scotch.

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