10.02.2018

Letting Go

Expression in any art form depends on a combination of factors, among them talent and freedom from social norms. The first is more important, of course, because anyone can become a fall-down drunk. Yet time after time I encounter manuscripts in which the storytelling is fine, but the characters’ thoughts feel a little same-same, the insights are focused on the plot, and the overall story arc isn’t as exciting as promised. Because writing is such a sprawling enterprise, it is hard to define why such impressions creep up on the reader. The impact of the writing, though, is clear enough: the reader doesn’t want to read another book by that author.

On a regular basis we hear about some new scandalous act perpetrated by a Hollywood actor, and we scratch our heads, wondering why somebody would do something so stupid. Yet we don’t connect that with our society’s reverence for the down-and-out genius. The fact is that those actors lacked self-control long before they had the money to splash the headlines.

Writers tend to be very private people. Why else would they squirrel themselves away in a book-lined room for hours? That’s not normal. So, you see, already they are displaying aberrant behavior. The problem for most of them is that they don’t unlink their minds from the quotidian flow of everyday life. Even in solitude they are still bound by a desire to fit in when they leave that room.

A good friend once made an observation that has rung like a bell throughout the years. When I was a penniless writer, he said: “John, you’ll never be great, because you can’t let go.” He meant that I wasn’t willing to go out and make a fool of myself, and that’s what was needed to break through my self-imposed limits.

I am not advocating that writers become a plague upon society. I just am pointing out that a reason that you may be dissatisfied with your writing stems from the blockage on ideas that you impose upon yourself. Clarity comes from obstacles removed, as any guru could tell you. Once you are willing to become unhinged, you are able to view society from the outside. Then you can bring back to the reader what you’ve found.

Exercise: The next time you sit down to write, break free of what you have been doing. If you have been writing in the safe third-person voice, change to the more naked first-person. If you have been penning skillful repartee, have one of your characters bring down her fist and splinter the table. Rather than a character living comfortably on unknown funds, have him wonder where he is going to scrape up his next meal. Go beyond yourself. When you focus on narrating what you wouldn’t dare try, you’re crossing the boundary into exciting fiction.

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”
—Andre Gide

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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