(I’m copying the venerable Justine Musk with this outline format.)
In the past year, I’ve told three friends that they were sitting on gold, because they have stories so compelling, so original—and with a three-act structure to boot—that anyone would want to read them. My friends just need to type!
Will they listen to me? I don’t know.
Maybe writing’s not the priority now. Perhaps they don’t trust me because I speak in hyperbole and am prone to exclamation (!).
(In fact, one of the reasons I love writing is that I can manage my effusiveness in a way that I can’t in real life, due to my elastic face and crazy expressions.)
This is me:
But the point is that I’m right, my friends are sitting on gold, and it’s easy for me to see this in others, and so I wondered: how could I see this in myself?
I’ve given up on so many ideas, thinking they weren’t worthy—and as a result I’ve created paralysis.
I’m not even failing! Worse, I’m not even starting!
My favorite books are the ones that feel like I’m catching up with my closest friend after a long time apart over a margarita.
Note I did not say my most interesting friend.
Closeness is key because, with a close friend, you understand her choices. Why she wants what she wants, and goes after the “thing” the way the way she does. Because you care about her, you root for her journey—even if you’re like, wow that guy is kind of a chump but I guess he makes her feel grounded and happy, so, OK.
A good story, I think, enables your brain to sync up with the narrator’s, to really get inside his head. You don’t have to like the narrator, but you have to understand him.
It’s the choices that matter—not the plot points. Otherwise, we’d all just re-read our US History textbooks.
(Unless of course, you’re trying to write Gone Girl, which is a genius novel and I have no idea how she did that. But I enjoy many books that aren’t such a thrill ride, so my point is, we don’t all have to be Gillian Flynn.)
My friend Kimmi is a super-talented writer, and a few years ago she told me that there’s no one you couldn’t love if only you knew their story.
She’d seen the quote on another friend’s email signature, but I attribute it to Kimmi because she’s a kind listener and ekes the truth out of people. It’s what I imagine her life philosophy to be, and it’s become one of mine.
Fans of Geometry’s transitive property might see where I’m going with this, but:
* A good book feels like it’s told by a friend
* You could be friends with anyone if you only knew their story
* Ergo: everyone has a Big Story inside them
Is this over-simplistic?
Am I saying that everyone has a Good Story To Tell?
Sadly, I’m not saying everyone has the skills, right now, to execute on the idea, but I’m sure they have an idea. This is for those of us who reject ourselves before we start.
If you buy into Joseph Campbell (and I do), he says the stories we love can be boiled down to just a few simple universal arcs. There’s one “monomyth” and everything else is derivative.
Let’s look at a few stories I’ve enjoyed in the past few years:
The Devil Wears Prada is about feeling undervalued
Eat, Pray, Love is about getting the courage to live the life you want
Wild is about moving on after the loss of a loved one
When I think about friends’ stories that are so compelling, it’s usually a tale they’re telling to many people, because they’re in the middle of processing it. (I think my friends and I talk to process as much as to share.)
The compelling stories are the ones that prompt questions about their motives and their choices and their reactions.
And then what did you do?
How did you feel about that?
How did you respond when she said that?
It’s not necessarily the amazing trip to Argentina or the incredible sucking failure to do X.
But it could be.
The Story is the one that makes people interrupt to constantly understand our motives and our thinking. It could be as simple as meeting up with an ex.
Almost certainly we need to spiff up our tale by raising the stakes, extending the suspense, and throwing in a B story, but the metaphorical marble is probably right there, waiting for us to carve out the statue.
Here is another idea to find writerly gold: Patterns are intriguing, hard to spot in your own life, and difficult to call out. But worth spotting.
Date a psychologist once? So what. Date three psychologists? Interesting. What’s going on there? Once is an accident; twice is a coincidence, and third time is … you tell us.
In comedy this is called The Rule of Threes.
In writing, this could be your theme.
Sometimes I don’t ask my friends about the patterns, but I want to. Patterns can be too painful to delve into. What they reveal.
Again, I’m not saying the pattern is what you write—I’m saying the pattern, much like the story you find yourself telling to close friends—is what could grab you enough to start writing.
And more importantly, to keep going.
I will leave you with these wise words from Phillip Roth, which I read in a book by Roz Morris:
Over the years what you develop is a tolerance for your own crudeness. Stay with your crap and it will get better, and come back every day and keep going.