After re-reading Chuck Wendig’s excellent post about “caring less” I happened to find myself sitting across from my mother, a calzone between us. Both of us being writers, the subject of Writing (note the capital W) came up, and much to my surprise I started spewing forth a litany of ideas that even I didn’t know I had.
We’d been talking about Dan Brown and my mom said (I’m paraphrasing, I was high on ricotta) he had “such a scam going on.”
“What do you mean, scam?” I asked.
“Well maybe not scam. Formulaic, I think.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?”
And this is where I went all mouth diarheea. This romantic notion of the writing, sitting with quill and paper, suffering over every word, every phrase – that needs to die. It was nice propaganda for turn-of-the-century writers and those wanderlust seekers of truth in the sixties, but writing is not an elitist pursuit. Writing is work and the idea that only the “true Scotsman” gets to be a writer is rubbish.
Sure, we may all have dreams of prancing around 1920s Paris after midnight and drinking ourselves into a beautiful, brilliant scribbling stupor, but those beings had just lived through the bloodiest war the world had ever seen and, forgive me, but they had a right to be a little in awe of themselves, not just for having talent, but having an actual life.
We’d all like to trade barbs at the Algonquin Rountable, slinging back Side Cars and sarcasm until the sharpness of our wit tears at the fabric of the universe. But we’re not all that quick and really, we only know what happened by people writing about it later, when they thought of the perfect comeback line, like you did that night walking out of the bar when you slapped your head and said “no YOU took the cake, sweetie, and ATE it too!”
We frown at the idea that there can be a formula to stories, that the character arc, the driving plot, the overall theme, that these things can have similar feels across all story lines. We act as if the three-act structure or the beat sheet are things that bad writers use to distract the wannabes while the real writers sit here in the coffee shop, that is DEFINITELY not Starbucks and work out the last act to our so ironic script that describes the hidden meaning of life, love and the pursuit of another latte. (I call is “Barista Bound” and it has seven acts… so far).
But there’s nothing wrong with a beginning, a middle and a sastifying end. There’s a reason every shiny, gooey Pixar movie is oddly satisfying, it’s the formula. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl turns out to be a small rogue planet from the Dibble Galaxy, and they all live happily ever after. We, collectively, find kinship in the flow of a story. Even when we can’t see where it’s going to go, we have a familiar sense of the kind of roads up ahead. It’s driving through a strange city at night and realizing it follows a similar grid pattern to your hometown. Different enough to be a new experience (and the gyros are amazing at that little place on 4th) but familiar enough to not get lost.
Joseph Campbell would have just been another sweaty sociologist struggling to get a date with his latest grad student if the human race didn’t respond to stories, stories from far continents so similar in framing and arc, that I’m really starting to rethink my theory that Australia was settled by an alien race. (Love you).
There’s no one path to your story or any story. Experiment, if you must, break all the rules, if you dare. But don’t tell anyone else that their story isn’t real. Even if the path you take in telling your story is well worn, they are your footfalls on the jungle carpet and where one veered left, you may veer right and end up somewhere completely new (or falling off a sudden cliff – jungles are full of sudden cliffs, I hear.) Go charging into the jungle scattering lizards and badgers in your wake, as Sir Chuck says, care less, write more. Stop daydreaming, stop trying to be a “real writer” and start doing.
I still want to be Dorothy Parker though.