Category Archives: writing
At what point in your life have you compared yourself with others?
What has made you say, “I will never be able to (sing, act, paint, write, run, kick, score, pitch, speak, draw, teach, etc.) like that? I might as well chuck in the towel now, because I’ll never be that good.”
It happens to writers often. We read a book or passage and think, “That is so well written. I could never have created something like that. Maybe I should just set down my pen (or laptop) right now.”
At the CanWrite conference in Toronto, Canada on the weekend, keynote speaker Alissa York addressed this issue. She said that comparing our fledgling writing projects to completed gems is like comparing an apple seed to an apple pie. If we spend our time drooling over someone else’s pie, we ignore our own seeds. Better to spend our time, she suggested, planting our own seeds in good soil, watering them, placing them in the sun, watching over them and nurturing them. Doing so allows our apple seeds to grow into mature trees that bear fruit with which to make our own version of a delicious pie.
And all the while we are helping our seeds to transform, we can also dig in and enjoy those other pies, instead of wasting time drooling over them.
I spent the weekend in Toronto, Canada at the Canadian Writers’ Summit. Hundreds of writers from across the country gathered at the Harbourfront Centre to share ideas, learn from each other and evolve as writers.
Are you surprised I chose to attend a session entitled “The Biology of Story”?
At the session, Amnon Buchbinder, associate professor of screenwriting at York University, talked about the “interactive documentary” he created to explore the idea of stories as living things.
Buchbinder’s documentary, found at www.biologyofstory.com, outlines three principles.
1. A story is a living thing
“A story will choose to be with you, but you have to choose to pick up the story.” —Nigaan James Sinclair
If you want to drive a writer crazy, ask them, “Where do you get your ideas?” You might hear something like “Out of the clear blue sky.” Perhaps it’s a matter of writers choosing to pick up the stories—those living beings—that come to them.
2. Living is a story thing.
“Listen and you will see your own story will speak to you.” —Jean Pierre Makosso
Do you drift aimlessly from one event to another in your life? Are you listening for what your story—living being that it is—has to tell you?
3. Not all narratives are stories.
“A real story is the possibility of restoring the world.” —Deena Metzger
Buchbinder writes: “We live in a world crowded with narratives. Many of them lack key properties of story. This accounts for the lifeless and/or destructive forms that some narratives take.”
Watch: Stories are about wholeness
Buchbinder’s documentary encourages us to pick up the stories that come to us, to listen for what our own stories have to say, and to work with those stories to restore the world.
I just sent you a story. Pick it up, listen, restore.
“. . . tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.” —from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
At my writing circle last week, our group discussed how fiction writers often draw on real life experiences for their work. In some cases, these writers try really hard to transfer the factual events into their fictional stories exactly as they happened. They assume that something that really happened will end up feeling more authentic than some fictionalized flight of fancy.
Memoir writers must stick to the facts, because their readers approach non-fiction books expecting truths. But fiction writers get to have more fun. Their readers come to fiction with a different mindset. When fiction readers pick up a book, they do so with the unspoken understanding: This writer is going to tell me a really good story. They want the story to be the best possible version of a set of circumstances. Reality usually isn’t the best possible version of events so, paradoxically, fiction stories that stick too closely to real events end up feeling oddly . . . out of sync. Fiction works better when a writer takes the seed of a real event and then plucks out the weak spots and makes the story about what should have happened.
Sometimes it’s helpful to look at life this way. Our past, the events and twists of fate that lead us to where we are today are the facts, and we can tell people exactly what happened. When we look to the future, we can say, “Well, that’s all well and good, but what should have happened is this . . . ”
We can aim for the best possible version of events.
“We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic.” —Susan Jeffers
Wouldn’t it be enlightening to gather statistics on how many people have given up on dreams because someone told them their aspirations were unrealistic? How many hockey players have hung up their skates because a coach told them the National Hockey League was a long-shot? How many entrepreneurs have stopped seeking investors after being told their ideas would never sell? How many writers have filed stories in drawers after reading dire statistics about the state of the publishing business? How many people have given up because they’ve been told that “NO” equals sensible, but “YES” equals dreamland.
More importantly, how many people equate failure with negativity?
Henry Ford didn’t see failure as negative. On a recent trip to Michigan, I took this picture during our visit to the Henry Ford Museum. (Side note: Please visit the museum, if you have the chance. It’s about much more than cars; it’s about life.)
“I would rather build a big plane and learn something, even if it didn’t fly, than to build a smaller one that worked perfectly and not learn anything.” —Henry Ford
Henry Ford would rather try something unrealistic and fail positively than try something realistic and succeed negatively.
Mind-twisting, isn’t it?
Sharpen those skates, dust off that business plan, pull the stories out of the drawer: Dreamland is a fun place to live, and failure is useful too.
How you answer that question might determine your level of success, according to Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck. Her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, looks at why some people achieve their potential while others do not.
Early in her academic career, Dweck studied why some children gave up in the face of failure and why others persevered and went on to overcome obstacles. She discovered that the difference lay in the child’s belief about why they had failed: Those who believed they failed because they lacked an inherent ability gave up, but those who believed they failed simply because they hadn’t tried hard enough became even more motivated to keep trying.
Dweck’s studies apply to education, sports, careers, hobbies and personal relationships, and there’s another layer to this too.
Some students didn’t want to be seen to fail. For them, looking smart was far more important than learning anything, so they only took part in activities in which they knew they would not fail. They avoided any experiences that would require them to stretch and grow. Other students didn’t worry about appearances and took risks because their failures gave them a chance to learn.
In other words, some people want to showcase abilities they believe to be inherent, and other people want to enhance abilities they believe they to be malleable.
The good news is, Dweck discovered that people could change their beliefs and enjoy the benefits. When they learned to embrace failure and keep trying, they improved performance.
There’s hope for all of us who have ever said, “I can’t do math to save my life,” or “I’m no artist.” Perhaps we just need a few more failures and a little more perseverance.
Read more in Standford Alumni
I love the book The Alchemist, and I find its author, Paulo Coelho, inspirational as a writer and a human being.
Many people don’t agree. I made a visit to the “1 star” section of the Goodreads reviews of The Alchemist and discovered myriad variations on the “What a load of tripe” theme.
Those readers didn’t fall in with the fabled story of a hero journey. They didn’t buy the life wisdoms like the one quoted above. After all, since when does everyone in the universe get what they want? And what about good people who end up suffering?
Coelho recently responded to those concerns with this:
“I realized that despite the fear and the bruises of life, one has to keep on fighting for one’s dream. As Borges said in his writings ‘there no other virtue than being brave’. And one has to understand that braveness is not the absence of fear but rather the strength to keep on going forward despite the fear.”
I think he means this: If you have the ability to complain about NOT getting what you want, then that means that you’re still breathing, and your story is not over yet. There’s still time.
Get busy. Work hard. Stop whining, because if you don’t, all you’ll get is more of the same. Fight past all those things you fear. Don’t let them paralyze you into inaction.
If you do, you might be amazed at the machinations of the universe.
Consider Paulo Coelho’s 25 Important Points. Read them here: http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2014/09/03/25-important-points/