“Lean into the Discomfort”

May 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve watched many TED Talks. It’s kind of an addiction with me, but a good one. TED Talks are always entertaining, enlightening, and educational.

Despite having watched hours of such talks, I somehow missed Dr. Brene Brown’s presentation. Fortunately, Sean Hood over at Genre Hacks (a great blog for screenwriters, by the way) posted it again back in March, and I finally got around to watching it today.

I really wish I’d watched it sooner.

I’m sharing it here because I agree with what Sean said about it:

I love this TED talk, both because I find it valuable in my personal life, but also because it offers insight into how to write complex characters.  Don’t just ask “What does my character want” or “What does my character need;” if you really want to write a three dimensional, complexl character, ask “What is my character ashamed of” and how does the story force him or her to confront it.

But I’m also sharing it because I think it speaks to a problem I have as a writer. Early in the talk, Dr. Brown says you have to “lean into the discomfort.” You could interpret that a million ways, but my immediate thought was that I, as a writer, can’t play it safe. I can’t back off following a story where it wants to go because it makes me (or my parents or my wife or my friends) uncomfortable. I have to lean into the discomfort and embrace it to truly find my voice and tell a unique story (or an old story in a unique way).

At one point in the talk, Dr. Brown says that courage is not the same as bravery. The word “courage,” she says, comes from the Latin word “cor,” which means heart. The original meaning of “courage,” she says, was to tell your story of who you are with your whole heart.

You have to do that still, today, as a writer. You have to tell your story–all of your stories–with a whole heart, with everything you’ve got, holding nothing back. Don’t worry that you’ll have nothing left for the next story; the well always refills itself. Don’t worry what your friends and family might think; you’ll find they are more accepting than you give them credit for.

And if they’re not, there are millions of readers out there who will be, who crave a story with heart and soul, written with tears and nervous sweat. Because that’s what makes a story great.

Full disclosure: it ain’t easy. I struggle with vulnerability constantly. That’s why I think Dr. Brown’s TED Talk is worth sharing, and why I’ll be picking up her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead when it comes out.

Another Bit of Inspiration

May 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

Combing through my old LiveJournal blog for things to share here, I came across this image. It comes from Steven Pressfield’s excellent book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.

I think this quote goes along well with my post on conquering fear.

I also found a post on my old LJ that also talks about fear and the writer. I wrote it in October of 2011, and completely forgot about it when I wrote the post from a few days ago. It’s interesting (to me, at least; your mileage may vary) to see how closely the LJ post parallels the post here. The LJ post is titled “The Worst Enemy”:

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath

A friend of mine posted that on Facebook this morning, and it sure does resonate with me right now. Especially that last sentence. More than anything, self-doubt is what keeps me away from the keyboard. Well, that and having a bajillion chores to do every day. But mostly, it’s the self-doubt.

You see, I know I can write pretty. I have no doubts about that. But being able to write well is only half the battle. Possibly less than half, but I’ll give myself a little credit and round up. The other half is being able to tell a good story, and that’s where self-doubt always nuts me. I get ideas for stories, and they seem fantastic in my head. When I start writing them, however, that niggling little gremlin starts telling me that it’s not creative enough or interesting enough or that it’s been done before, better.

At first, I usually ignore the gremlin and press on. But when you hear something often enough, you start to believe it–and that goddamn gremlin never shuts up. Pretty soon, the story starts to seem dull, the characters start to seem stereotypical and cardboard, and the enthusiasm quickly drains away. The gremlin wins, and smugly proclaims from his seat in the back of my brain, “I told you so.”

I’ve read countless articles and books about how to defeat the gremlin. I’ve even forced myself to finish things (the most common advice), ignoring the gremlin’s demoralizing chants. I’ve completed first drafts of four novels, rewritten two of them, and completed probably a dozen or so short stories. Even then, though, the gremlin wins.

“Oh, goody for you,” he says. “You finished it. But look, that ‘novel’ is only 50,000 words. It’ll need to be twice that length before a publisher will even look at it. And it’s deeply flawed. The characters aren’t interesting at all, and the story you thought was so clever? It’s really not. It’s rather trite, actually. Trite and predictable. I saw the ‘twist’ coming a mile away. Face it, it’s just more dreck. Go put it with the others in the closet, that’s a lad. You’re never going to make it as a writer, you know. You’ve wasted your time.”

Successful writers don’t let the gremlin stop them. They write, rewrite, rewrite some more, rewrite even more, and then send it around, collecting rejection after rejection until someone finally buys it and publishes it.

How they do it, I don’t know. Perhaps they’re just wired differently. My gremlin self-doubt kicks my ass every time.

I think I’m going to name him Plath.

(In case you’re wondering, Plath the Gremlin still  hasn’t shut up.)

Neil Gaiman’s Advice for Young (and Old) Writers (and Artists)

May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

You’ve probably seen this already. Few people make a splash like Neil Gaiman, or are better at self promotion. I’m mainly putting this here so I can find it easily the next time I need a kick in the pants, but in the off chance you haven’t watched this, do so. You won’t be disappointed.

Now go and make good art.

Joe Hill’s Simplest Rule for Writing

May 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Pro Tip from Joe Hill, author of Heart-Shaped Box and others:

My simplest rule for myself as a writer is: if I’m not having fun with a scene, I rewrite it until I am. If I can’t make it fun, it goes.

How do you deal with problematic scenes? Leave a comment and let me know!

The Bully in Your Brain

May 27, 2012 § 7 Comments

A writer is the worst kind of bully.

Not because we bully fictional characters. No, writers bully real, living people.

Bullies suck. I was bullied in high school, just like most nerds. The guys that bullied me thought it hilarious to gang up on a sickly, weird-looking, 98-pound geek and terrorize him every chance they got. I guess it made those teenage boys feel like big men, beating me down like that.

But even they weren’t as bad as writers.

See, they could only torture me for a few minutes a day. In study hall, or after school, or in the locker room after gym class, they found five or ten minutes to push me around and make me feel worthless. The rest of the day, however, I was free of them.

Writers, however–well, they’re a lot worse. Writers bully themselves, and they do it all day, every day.

You’re probably doing it right now. Maybe you came to this blog trying to get away from the bully in your brain. You sat down to write, and suddenly that thug inside your head started tearing you down, beating you up, saying things like, “Who do you think you are, Steve King? You ain’t no Steve King. Steve King writes good stories. Your stories suck. You suck.”

It’s the age-old game of “Why Are You Hitting Yourself?” that bullies love to play, with the twist that you really are hitting yourself.

That’s right, writers are the worst bullies because they bully themselves, and they do it constantly. There is no escape from the goon that lives in our head, feeding on our insecurities.

Why do we tell ourselves we can’t do it when we should be the Little Engine That Could? Why are we our own worst bully?

In a word, fear.

They say all bullies are afraid, deep down. It’s definitely true of writers. We’re afraid our work isn’t good enough. We’re afraid it’ll be rejected if we send it out. We’re afraid that the beautiful, funny, sad, epic story we have in our head will turn out to be ugly, dumb, boring, and pathetic if we actually write it down.

Everyone knows President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” You may not know the full quote, however, so I’d like to share it with you.

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR was talking about a nation struggling to cope with the Great Depression, but he could have easily have been talking about writing. Our fears really boil down into one great, big fear. The Fear. And the Fear is that we just. Aren’t. Good enough.

On that, I call bullshit.

The bookstore shelves are full of writers who are no damn good. Terrible books make the bestseller lists every month. Rotten books. Pure garbage. So why are those writers good enough and we fear we’re not?

Because those writers mastered the Fear.

Those writers put their butts in the chair and start typing. They have somehow ignored the thug in their head, or told him to shut up, or kicked him in the nuts. They mastered the Fear not only long enough to finish a book, but also to rewrite the book as many times as it needed, and to send it out to agents and editors. They mastered the Fear even when rejection after rejection fed into everything the thug had been telling them. And finally, through sheer force of will, they got that crappy, sucktastic book published.

That’s how it’s done.

And I’ll tell you a secret: even the great writers know the Fear. They, too, mastered it. They locked the bully up, and they don’t listen to his taunts…much.

Author Maureen McHugh, who wrote the fantastic book China Mountain Zhang, was the first writer I ever interviewed for Writer’s Digest Books. I wrote a profile of her for the 1993 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and when I spoke with her, she delivered what I consider to be the first great writing epiphany I ever had. I opened the article with it, in fact:

“Writing is a skill, like basketball,” Maureen F. McHugh says, “not a body of information, like biology.”

Her point is that you don’t become a good writer by studying writing; you do it by actually writing. You write a lot, you write anything, and you write every day.

Now, almost 20 years later, I realize that a more apt skill to compare it to would be driving. When you first learn to drive, there’s the overwhelming fear that you’ll never be able to do it. I never thought I’d be as cool and as adept behind the wheel as my dad was, and yet after I began driving every day, I got better and better. And now it’s second nature.

All I had to do was get over the Fear, and that’s all we have to do to finish our novels and get them published.

So stop hitting yourself, throw a gag on the bully in your brain, and start writing.

You’re good enough. You might even be great.

Got a tip for mastering The Fear? Leave a comment and let me know!

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