(Part one of this essay involved the more superficial reasons of “why to write.” In this next part, I will attempt to dig even deeper into the reasoning behind our creative impulses and how to harness them for your art.)
In the first part we looked at how to take events and actions and scenes from your own life and see the story value in them. But how do we even come up with such things in the first place? As I wrote in the last part, ultimately this decision will have to come from your own heart, just as our life experiences don't match up very well. But in a way, isn’t that exactly the point? You ought to be able to describe your dreams and desires much better than I could, and are the only one who can view deep into the well of ideas within yourself. So how do we access this part of ourselves: the one that seems a mystery even to us, the observer of our internal life? To briefly return to the more superficial part of all this, it needs to be a clear signal from your subconscious that can also be turned into a good yarn. Returning to my first novel, Our Senior Year, the signals from my subconscious were the feelings I was experiencing during that year of my life. But I wouldn’t have had anything without a proper story. Therefore I had to add other aspects to the story, either by repurposing other things that happened in my high school days or even making stuff up. You can do the same thing - just hone in on a strong memory from your life. What were you feeling at that time? Can it be expressed through the written word? If so, get that part down first, and then see what’s missing. This can be done in myriad other ways, but I’ve found that if you harness a good idea from your life first, it can lead to the rest.
For as Picasso supposedly said, “art is the lie that lets us see the truth.” At the end of the day this is what you should hope to accomplish with your art: creating an excellent lie that lets the world see your inner truth. This could be the simple truth about growing up in a small town, dealing with its high school residents, and your religious family, as it was for me. Or it could deal with your own set of specific circumstances. Remember, this is your best asset. Nobody has lived your life before, and nobody will since. Draw from the most volatile of your own experiences to get the best results. I’m not saying any of this will be easy, of course. Putting your own personal pain and misery on paper for the world to see isn’t a smooth prospect even for the best of us. I anguished over what people from my hometown and family would think before I published that first book. But I don’t worry about that anymore, because I created a falsity that told a truth about myself and the universe of a small town. As long as you are being true to yourself and your story, you shouldn’t give a damn in the world what anyone else thinks about it. (Ok, you’ll have to care about what some people think, like your editor, but that’s a ways down the road.)
If that doesn’t work, you can go more abstract or less. A simple look around you may suffice. Can you tell a story about the people you see near you, or your apartment, or your home, or your neighborhood? Or if you want to go more granular, consider your deepest held beliefs and principles, and try to puzzle out why they exist. If you think this country is messed up and going adrift from the intent of its founders, try to gauge why you feel that way. Is it because our democracy is failing? Is it because people are apathetic? Write an essay corralling your feelings that may be of use in a larger story. If you have feelings for another but you are ashamed or afraid of them for whatever reason, try to figure out how they are holding you back and put it into words of your own choosing. We are getting more in the territory of dealing with the overall picture of life here, but any writer worth their salt can tell you this is the center of the “why write” question.
“Write what you know” is a platitude worthy of being ignored if you think you can, but there is a reason it has stuck around for this long. And that’s because it works. It works because it’s so simple. What do you know? Think about the thousands of answers to that question, any one of which could lead you down a rabbit hole into a story idea you didn’t even think was hanging out among the inner recesses of your subconscious. Or maybe it’s sitting right there in the open, waiting for you to understand how well you know it. This could be your feelings for another person, the way you view your occupation through the prism of the current society, or how you deal with setbacks and advances in your own life. The point is, only you know how you’re going to react to these things, and therefore only you will know where the story lies. And if it’s not in that particular thought, move on to the next one until you find it.
This second part of the essay is rambling into esoteric territory, so I’m going to leave the topic alone for now. I hope that you have found a bit of guidance into the “why” of writing through these posts, but if you didn’t please know that what works for one writer won’t always work for another. At the end of the day all I can hope to accomplish is helping others locate what I have found within myself that allows me to press forward with my writing. The “why” for me is easy: I have found what I’m meant to do with my life, and now comes the hard part of refining it and trying to find a modicum of success. But in order to figure out that big “why” we must first locate the initial “why:” why we sit down to pour our hearts and thoughts out onto the page in the first place. Once you discern that within yourself, you’ll be ready to start creating stories.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.