Living the Dream

No one, no matter how happy, fails to look over the fence at greener grass. That is the human condition: to wish for something we are not. The desire to become someone else, even if only temporarily, is one of the main reasons people tell stories. All of those characters are, thankfully, not you.

That motive conflicts with another main reason to write: self-regard. You have to think that you have something special—the ability to write, if nothing else—that sets you apart from the hoi polloi. So if you’re going to write about the human condition, all the interesting stuff that’s happened to you sounds like a good lode to mine.

I would venture to say that most writers are better off striving for wish fulfillment rather than self-exploration. It is true that having a rough life makes for interesting stories, but how many people really have it rough? I’ll go beyond that and ask another question: how many people who have endured hardships have the talent or the perseverance to write about them in a way that inflames the reader?

That question strikes at the heart of the matter. Writing about yourself is like writing in a journal. You try to capture past incidents in words, however imperfectly. Because the material chimes inside of you, causing deep feelings associated with remembrance, you don’t realize as clearly how it would impact someone else. It is a shortcut, in other words.

Longing to inhabit another’s shoes takes more effort. You have to draw up defining characteristics: who is that person like? You have to keep asking yourself how the person will react in a given situation. What would he say to that? Would he respond at all? You walk around during the day, after the writing session, thinking about what you have written. And at a more advanced stage, the character starts telling you what he wants.

Where are your personal feelings in this construct? They’re inside everything the character does. You’re still the same egotistic maniac. Yet you are pouring those drives into an ideal, someone larger than yourself. That being may be just outsized enough to capture the reader’s interest.

Exercise: If you have a character that is largely autobiographical, you might use two guidelines to judge how effective she is. First, are her plot events progressing in an arc that is intrinsic to the circle you’re completing inside the book? Put another way, are you sticking in stuff just because it happened to you? Second, are her feelings interesting, or are they as mundane as you, gazing over the fence, are?

“If a poem is each time new, then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster.”
—A. R. Ammons

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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