Saturday, July 30, 2011

The writer's guide to not settling.

There are hundreds of blogs and how-to-write books and classes and courses and workshops all peddling a million and one ways to become a better writer. I've see them all, from worthless throw away nonsense like 'show, don't tell' to the helpful suggestions that really do improve one's technical ability to produce words.

But sometimes it's not enough.

There are also hundreds of journals, magazines and books featuring amazingly well crafted stories that, despite their technical prowess, are disingenuous or don't resonate or are instantly forgettable. The worst of these stories are from writers transparently producing what they think is expected of them. But even the best, most competent, even acclaimed stories, can still feel sterile, like a perfect Stepford Wife in literary form, feeding you what you wanted to hear, but all he while not truly being alive.

For many readers and writers it's good enough. Others, myself included, expect more. That 'more' is often credited to the intangible cliche of 'be yourself' that gets peddled with all the other writing advice that can drown aspiring writers. But what does that even mean? It should be easy, right, because who else would you be? Or what if who you are is a faker and a sell-out, then isn't that simply who you are?

I don't have answers, particularly to the last one, as that seems fair enough logic. If you're the kind of writer who wants to sell-out to make a buck, then that's perhaps just who you are, and I can't say I'm not jealous. I want to pretend there are many more people than not who will see through the act, but we all know that's not true. Pandering has become a way to success for many, and I don't blame you if that's who you want to be, the path you wish to take.

For those of us who struggle with questions of who we are, who we want to be, and how to embody that in their fiction, I hope to offer some answers. The first answer, and probably most right, is that I have no answers. What can I possibly know about you or how you work? You'll have to figure it out for yourself. How's that for an unhelpful, pseudo answer?

I've found the real trouble with people (and writers are people too, sometimes) isn't understanding who they are, but accepting it. So what I can do is share the best advice I've heard in this regard. Of all the amazing writing advice and lessons I've learned from Alan Heathcock, both from his classes and reading his book, I've found his best insights often has less to do with the technical aspects of writing fiction, and more to do with the writer, as can be demonstrated from this interview at the Fictionaut blog:

What’s the best advice you ever got?

Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to look fearlessly inward, to take yourself seriously, you will stop imitating others and will become original.

(click the link to read the full interview, which, as always, is awesome)

Find the courage to take yourself seriously. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Strive to become the best possible version of yourself. These are the kinds of things Alan Heathcock has said that stuck with me, and the sort of writing advice (among a lot of great technical stuff) that has helped me the most as a writer (and also produced the most head scratching and blank stares, at times, as young writers expect to finally have the mysteries of 'show, don't tell' revealed to them. Thankfully, I already did that for you all in this blog post).

The writing world is spilling over with advice on technique, and the competence of writers is arguably at an all time high. But this sort of 'be yourself' advice seems to be exactly what's needed. So much of the fiction I read these days, both professional and amateur, displays writers who are competent, but simply don't seem to know who they are or what stories they want to tell. And the writing suffers because of it. Even when masterfully produced, stories can end up feeling like something is missing, a risk not taken, passion not conveyed, a writer themselves seeming momentarily disinterested, perhaps thinking about that story they were truly compelled to write, but instead kept working on this one because they thought people would like it more, or be more willing to buy it.

I guess I'm lucky in this regard because I can't help being myself. Even despite myself, which is often how it feels in regards to being a writer, and it's something I struggle with constantly. Everywhere you turn these days you're not only being told your work isn't good enough, but that YOU aren't good enough. We live in a society that props up the writer as much as the writing, where our judgments are informed as much by a performer's sympathetic story as by the actual performance, where who you're perceived to be often seems more important than who you really are. It's hard to not at least try to be the kind of 'who' you think is expected and wanted, that will be liked.

So, what can you do? Well, you can fake it 'til you make it (a catchphrase that I cringe at seeing gain legitimacy in self-help circles). Or, you can find the courage to be yourself. And it not only takes courage to look within and be honest with yourself, but it also takes courage to be yourself as a writer in an industry where that won't always be rewarded.

And, yes, it does seem to create a paradox since being yourself may be good advice to becoming a better writer, but perhaps terrible advice to becoming a success (in our society in general, whether as a writer or otherwise). In the end, I think a writer has to decide how, not just if, they want to succeed, and define, for themselves, what it means to be a success. Do you want to succeed by writing stories you're proud of because they're paying your bills, or do you want to succeed by writing stories you're proud of because they demonstrate the truest, best possible version of yourself?

Like I said, for me the decision was easy as I can't help but be myself, despite myself, even when I know putting on a mask and pretending I'm someone else would be the smarter career move. I think my fear stems from a brilliant line in one of my favorite T-Bone Burnett songs "Over You": what started as a mask becomes a face.

If you try to delay being yourself in lieu of an act, what you are is a person who puts off being yourself in lieu of an act. It seems simple, and perhaps to some harmless, but is it? People rationalize it's worth it, and I often hear the advice to just pretend I belong until I do, to do whatever is expected to get my foot in the door. And then... and then, what? And then you'll get to be yourself? And then you think you'll be accepted if you do? And even if you are accepted, to me, who you are will always include having compromising yourself.

If you write what you think others want to read, hoping some day you'll get to then write what you want to write, what's true to yourself, you risk the mask you wear becoming your face. The only thing anyone will ever want to see. The only version of 'you' that others will ever accept. Is that worth the risk to you personally?

Is it even the best thing for you professionally? To delay writing what you want to write, the stories that compel you to write, that are hopefully great because they're stories only you can tell. Not some version of you that waits to be yourself, but stories that can only come from you, from the real you. From the you that found the courage to be yourself. From the you that didn't look beyond yourself for validation or definitions of success. From the you that decided to take yourself--not some compromised, alternate version of yourself--but your real self seriously. Is it worth not starting, right now, to write the stories that allow you, through your writing, to become the best possible version of yourself.

To me, it's not worth not being yourself. And look around. There are hundreds of writers doing what's expected of them, writing what they hope will sell, what they're told will be liked, what they're told will be good. Stories that are competent and technically sound, but often little more than what the hundreds of these other writers are also writing. These writers aren't themselves anymore, each wearing another's face as a mask; all ending up wearing the same, collective mask.

And then there's you. Are you going to hide in the crowd? Take comfort in meeting the expectations set by those that manage little more than to live in expectation? Are you going to don the same mask as all the others, the mask they want you to wear, the mask they expect you to wear, the mask they threaten and demand and insist you wear--or else!--knowing anyone different, any unique voice that rises above the writhing, mediocre masses, is a threat. Because each lone voice is an affirmation there is something better to be had, something better to be. Are you going to succumb to the safety of conformity, the security in being just like everyone else, or will you put on a brave face and find the courage to be yourself?


  1. Curious, but have you read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand? It's just that what you described reminds me EXACTLY how Keating's character-arc goes. He goes along being what others want him to be, never himself, and winds up miserable for it.

    And I always thought this was one of the bigger issues in American society, also the source of a lot of stress. There use to be journeys young adults would go on that took them far and away from home so that they could find themselves. The solitude and depending on one's self that made you realize what your strengths and weaknesses are, and how to best utilize them. It would be sort of nice if our society brought that back (college sorta comes close, but not quite), instead of all this babying.

    Oh, and thanks for the links. I shall check those out.

  2. The Fountainhead sucks. I enjoyed your post, especially the link to Al's interview. ha.