Okay, one more before New Year’s.
Here’s a list of writing tips from Terry McMillan. It’s all good (and it’s all opinion), but the one I like the most is number 4: ‘Try not to think of an idea for a good story. In fact, leave your brain out of it.’
Not so long ago, the idea of what I now know to be called ‘craft’ and ‘narrative convention’ I labeled as ‘formula’, and associated it with other terms like ‘lowest common denominator’, ‘uncreative’ and ‘lazy’. I figured that, since everybody was already telling the same damn stories over and over with slight variations as their only excuse against accusations of just blatantly copying everybody else’s ideas, what was the point in perpetuating this if I wanted new stories?
Dungeons and Dragons really did a number on me; I discovered the way that restrictions and requirements – especially arbitrary ones – actually engender creativity rather than hampering it, but the flipside of that is that you’re still being restricted. Yes, being forced to obey certain regulations also forces you to really think about how you can use what you’ve got to hand, but when those regulations are the same every single time?
I’m talking genre here mostly. Obviously there’s variation within genres, and there are sub-genres and such, but there are still some shared core principles, mostly in terms of archetypes and plots. The importance of archetypes and plots is the importance of getting your story sold, as far as I can gather, because archetypes and plots are arbitrary.
‘Leave your brain out of it’. What I think of when I read that is something like an anecdote. Something that isn’t actually a story at all, just a sequence of events that happened to you, or a train of thought, or even a momentary wondering that had never occurred to you before. I think of taking that idea and running it out as far as it will go and seeing where it snaps taut. Generally what happens after you put in that kind of effort is that you start thinking in terms of narrative convention anyway – how to change the emphasis and pacing slightly so that it feels more like the rise-and-fall progression of a three-act story, taking certain creative liberties with the events so that they end up resembling recognisable narratives you’ve come across before and feel universal to you – not because it makes it better, but because you can, you can take this information that seemed utterly devoid of narrative value and actually, with fairly minimal effort, turn it into something you’ve seen or read a million times before. You can take the specific and turn it into the universal, and the power to do that is very seductive.
It’s a post-production ethos, I feel. The idea of ‘thinking of a good idea for a story’ is one that I’m very familiar with; I spent a lot of time doing that between the ages of 16 and 20, and the ideas never came to me. Story comes to me in two forms: after the burst of ideas like a session of connect-the-dots, or already fully-formed. Mostly the first one, and there’s a fair amount of overlap there, but I don’t get to the point of having a story until I’ve started out with something that is not particularly story-esque to build on.
But then that’s still talking about convention. It’s just that it’s coming in after the fact. And I feel, nowadays particularly, how invested I’ve become in the value of sticking to convention, using those rules and regulations to springboard off to get myself going, because it’s effective at getting something done. And I don’t think trying to abandon convention altogether is going to really feel that satisfying.
But I miss the way I used to do things, where I would use my own personal archetypes and narratives, the ones that we all have that don’t seem to fit Jung’s or Campbell’s data. These are the specifics that feel universal to us: the specific hierarchy and roles of our family tribe, who plays foil to who, who did what really crazy thing way back when that had X impact on Y; the particular forging of every contract of friendship we have; the exact reasons for why that tree or that park or that day at the beach means so much to us. You can look at those kinds of things and cast the net wide over them, adopt them into some more general, generic category, but that actually changes what they mean. Generalities aren’t enough, and yet the whole point is that they feel universal, even though the reason they’re important is that you know they’re not, that they’re yours, that this enclosed ecosystem of lived experience is your entire resevoir of any experience, your mythology, your philosophy, your morals and fables and reason.
And surely that is worth telling stories about.
Because, of course, there is overlap. Your crazy cousin Wilhelm is actually very similar to many other people’s crazy cousins; your grandma has that really particular way of giving you advice that you know only you understand, but that it also turns out is a shared grandmotherly trait among many grandmothers. But that’s not how it feels. And that’s what I miss. That’s what convention loses: the particularity. I guess that’s what writers mean when they give advice like: ‘Write it like it’s the first time it’s ever been written’. Write it as though nobody else in the world has ever had this experience, because that’s how it feels.
It makes me think of how Stephenie Meyer refused to read any vampire literature while writing the Twilight saga, because she didn’t want it to influence her personal take on the mythos. I have far more than 99 pr0blems with that series, but I think I understand that decision of hers at least: she was writing something that was hers, a story that she wanted to tell – something particular to her. Looking at how the rest of the world does things does feel like it’ll swallow up what’s unique about your perspective and wash you out.
But that’s not how it works, thankfully. Not permanently anyway. Not if you just think back to your particulars every now and again. And in terms of marketing, it’s good to know that you’re not literally just writing the same thing as somebody else. I don’t think I’d ever condone refusing to read things that are similar to your own work, or at least plot summaries of published works just so you get an idea of what plots have been used, what specific gimmicks have already been capitalised on that you might not want to use as a main draw if somebody else already did. Or not. Maybe you do. Why should only one person have all the fun?
And that’s where it gets hard to reconcile the particulars of your own archetypes with the unavoidable similarities we all have to each other. The sometimes unbearable truth that we just aren’t that original. We all grow up in the context of others, of a culture, of shared values and narratives and conceptual frameworks. And sometimes it happens without you even trying to copy other people. It’s just that ingrained.
But yet, even with all of this similarity, there is still that particularity, the family sub-genre to wider society, the specific way one group of people interpret the rules – the way that little enclosed project takes the overarching genre conventions that we all have to abide by and puts their own twist on them, makes them work for their own purposes.
And more importantly – so what? So what if that nervous tic you have is the same nervous tic that several million other people also have? It’s still specific to you. It’s still part of your story. Why should you avoid acknowledging its centrality just because ‘somebody did it before me’? That’s being disingenuous.
So in the end, claiming originality in our stories is pretty disingenuous. In the end, we end up being conventional whether we want to or not.
But that’s what you think about afterwards, I think. That’s when it helps to tell your story. After you’re done getting your specifics out in writing, treating them with the respect they deserve as the unique facets of your life, your imagination, your narrative, as something from you that only you understand, after that. That’s when you starting thinking of being conventional. If you want.
And that’s the beauty of it. Perhaps we do end up being conventional regardless of our intentions, just because there’s only so much variation within any given set of rules. But that also means that our specific stories still carry a universal weight whether we want them to or not.
And, again – it’s fun playing with the rules.
It’s just nice to remember why I thought they were stupid. I only thought they were stupid because I thought that if I was going to use them, I had to put them first, and forgo anything of creative merit or the slightest bit of originality.
You don’t have to put convention first. It’s already there. So just do your own thing. Tell your own story, in all of its exact specificity. It’s all yours, and it’s also so many other people’s. There is no way to divide it. And really, that’s pretty beautiful.
Happy New Year’s Eve from New Zealand.