I had several fantastic teachers when I was doing my post-graduate studies. They all taught different subjects (writing for screen, writing fiction, writing for press, and photography), but they shared a theme, whether they knew it or not. And that was: ‘own’ your idea. Find your way into the story or narrative, because everyone approaches different topics with a different lens, and it’s up to you to find yours.
The point being that you won’t be able to sustain the creative process if you’re not interested in the angle you’re taking or the story you’re telling.
Even with collaborative texts, where others have assisted in the research, or are perhaps a client driving the big picture – and I have worked on many of these – it’s still down to the writer to finish the text, to get the idea across, select and arrange the information in a way that tells an absorbing story. And this can’t be done unless there is a spark to set the flame roaring. A central question. A special angle, perhaps, that interests you, the writer, as a person.
Writing takes a lot of thinking, and I have learned that if people want your brain on a job, or your input for a collaboration, you need to be clear in your own mind that you can find a way in to the story. I know; I’ve tried to write without having been able to find a ‘spark’, and it sucked. It resulted in a lot of frustrating hours, and a not very convincing story at the end of it all. The client was okay with it in the end, but I think he knew I wasn’t ‘buying my own story’, so to speak. It was not a good experience for me.
This is why I think it’s OK to say ‘no’ to some jobs or collaborations.
(Aside from which, if you put something out there with your name on it and it’s a hunk of junk, you can’t point to it and say, ‘look what I did… now hire me’. You’ll be shoving it in the virtual bottom drawer and hoping nobody discovers it.)
‘But what if you have to put food on the table and buy the kids’ schoolbooks?’ I hear you ask. Well, sometimes you have to just do the job. That’s life. But if you are in a position where you could take it or leave it, just be aware that financial incentives or ‘sparks’ only work up to a point.
[Take a look at Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on The Surprising Science of Motivation for more on this. Essentially, he says ‘rewards narrow our focus and restrict possibilities’. Fine for mechanical tasks but not tasks that involve even basic cognitive skill. Definitely not great for writing, which requires a warp core of cognitive engagement.]
I’ve heard people say, in business contexts, that finding a new recruit or a team member is all about the ‘fit’.
Fiction writers especially, take note: This goes for writing too. If you and your story idea don’t ‘fit’, it’s time to find another one.
Which doesn’t mean you can’t come back to it later when you have grown, or had different life experiences. (I’ve done this, too, and I sometimes find interesting angles I hadn’t thought of before, or noticed a particular theme I hadn’t perhaps intended in the original writing.)
If you think I’m warming up to saying, “And so, dear reader, I must now announce that I’m going to stop writing Charlotte and come back to it in a few years” … you’re dead wrong! I know what my spark is. And I know my way into Charlotte’s story.
But I’m not going to share it.
Maybe next week I’ll tell you why.