I want to forget about past books, destroy old short stories, and hang my head in shame over screenplays. This does not mean I think the work is bad, far from it. It’s just I am always a different writer in a different “place” when I look back at past work, and that old writer who slaved over those chapters or scenes… well… he ain’t in this house anymore, and the new tenant isn’t into it.
In my last writing editorial (“Leave Home“), I discussed some of the pluses and minuses around most writers being introverts. The dangerous fact for writers is introverts like to be in a rut.
A rut is safe.
There are no surprises in a rut.
And for a writer that means genres, characters, scenes, plots, dialogue, expressions, and even favorite words may find their way again and again into “new” works. These ruts are like a warm blanket on a cold winter evening, why would you want to go get out from underneath all that security? (And if you are lucky enough to make actual money off your writing, it makes it that much more difficult.)
Some might find offense in my saying all this, but frankly, the answer to that question in my opinion is the difference between being just a writer and being an author.
See, great writing does not happen out of happenstance. God doesn’t hand out New York Times Bestsellers on stone tablets. You have to work for it, build up your skills. You need to earn the great creations. You need something to drive you forward, consuming you. You need to get unsatisfied with where you are right now, because for many in the arts, happiness and satisfaction can lead towards… nowhere.
Here are three questions to start you on your path to successful depression:
1. What are you reading right now?
2: What are you writing right now?
3: What are you learning right now?
Why those three questions? Well, if you are happy with your answers, chances are you have closed off the possibility for something new coming in. If you feel like you have opportunity to improve on all three, that means you are moving forward in your writing growth (and you can probably stop reading now, feel free to check out some of my other writing articles on my blog).
For me, as a reader/writer, I want to read everything. I want to know what is going on in this artform I love. Not to brag there is not a classic I haven’t checked out and I am a better writer for reading a lot… not a particularly big revelation I know. But so many writers like to stick to a specific genre or some favorite writers and they lose the possibility. Again, it’s being stagnant. There is no growth going on there.
I’m not alone on this. You will never read in an author’s biography a variation on this type of sentence: “He/She hated to read books.” No, no, no, no far from it.
Like musicians listening to music, authors love to read. Heck, authors review other writers’ work all the time (Dorothy Parker now is more well known for her scathing reviews than her short stories). They even twitter about it. Yes, authors can be entertained by others; still, some do it just for research and understanding (Seriously, I have a hard time enjoying fiction by other authors. One of the sad outcomes of my research into writing), and some even do it more evilly to see what the competition is doing.
I’m not the only author to argue that an artist needs to find opportunities for growth. And the fact is the writers we point to as the greats, did not play it safe no matter how we want to remember them.
- Yes, Jane Austen had the theme of love in each of her work, but Persuasion is not like Sense and Sensibilities. And Mansford Park is definitely not Emma. The writing voice is different in each book and each of her heroines are different as well. She was an author evolving, and there are no sequels there. Not a single one… Sadly, all of the sequels came after her untimely and early death. I bet she is thrilled (sarcasm).
- When everyone thinks of Mark Twain they think of the Mississippi. But he also wrote The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Heck, he even wrote a novella in the style of old English about the Shakespearian question. You want to see a writer experimenting with his voice and story- pick up his complete collection of short stories. It is almost mindblowing.
Those are only two examples and I could go on and on (And on a side note, Mark Twain famously hated the writing of Jane Austen. Go figure.).
What am I trying to say? So you like to write zombie novels, for example. Challenge yourself from book to book, try to find different ways to tell your story, present your characters. I’m not saying the world needs less zombie books… Okay, maybe I will say that in another editorial, but I am not saying it here.
For me, I like to think of reading as an exercise. See, the brain is a fascinating muscle, especially around creativity. And reading anything is like a pushup. The funny thing is what I takeaway from a reading is never what I expect, and I take something away (subconsciously or consciously) with every book I read. It’s like how you go to the beach and sand gets everywhere and days later you will still find sand someplace. That is reading for a writing brain.
I can also say that I have perfected this reading skill to help my own work. Let me explain- I talk quite a bit on this site about my most recent novel A Jane Austen Daydream which I am trying to find an agent or publisher for. Well, to find a voice for the work (somewhere between Jane Austen and my own) and incorporate her creations, language, style into the work I read her work alot. Alot, alot. This was more than highlighting, I was taking things in, learning every step away.
or how about this- biographies have been one for me of the best influences on creating characters and realistic plots. Fantasy books help me to open my mind. Young adult literature helps me tap into my most simple emotions and “own” experiences from my childhood. Literary classics help me understand the complexity of plots (our plots rarely step up to what many of the classics do in interweaving storylines- See George Eliot).
I don’t remember who said this originally, it might be an author or a filmmaker (many have taken credit for it), but stories are not completed, they are abandoned. There is a moment when a creator just has to say, “That’s it, I am drained. There is nothing left to give.” Sometimes I compare writing to giving blood. You know that woozy feeling you get after you finish giving blood? Many writers have that same kind of uneasiness when they have to finally step away.
This is all related to being unhappy, wanting something more. Each work is a step towards the next… and the next… What is at the end of the trail I can’t say, but if you continue to challenge yourself, grow, you will know you are moving forward in your skills and ability, and your readers will know it too.
So drop the arrogance and the assumption that you can’t be influenced or inspired… and be influenced and inspired.