In Literature as in Life, and Vice Versa
Yesterday I was talking with a fellow writing coach who specializes in memoir, and she mentioned being caught off guard the first time a client said, “Wow, this is like therapy!” It shook her up – as it did me when I first heard that phrase, especially since it was a novelist who said it to me. I’d been asking him probing questions about his protagonist’s past, and it hadn’t occurred to me that in answering them, he was probing his own past, too. But the minute I thought about it, it made perfect sense.
Over the years since then, I’ve heard the phrase said many, many times, because it’s true. Writing – whether a memoir or a novel -- is a lot like therapy. In a good way.
You dig deep into your characters to figure out what they really want, what holds them back, and what matters to them. Which, of course, is often very different than what it seems like on the surface. And in digging into your characters, you’re actually digging deep into yourself, and how you see the world. As Joan Didion so famously said, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
In searching for the misbelief that guides their protagonists, writers often discover their own misbeliefs. And – this is the best part – by recognizing the “why” behind their own misbelief, they often gain insight into how to overcome it. It’s thrilling!
I was thinking about that when I had dinner with my sister last night, who is a therapist. She was talking about how with most of her clients, it’s about finding that place in childhood when life forced them to embrace a belief that, even though it wasn’t true (like: every time someone is nice to me, they want something) it saved them from a very difficult situation. As she said, “In that early situation it was adaptive – it’s what allowed them to survive – but because it’s actually a very damaging belief, soon after that it became maladaptive, and began to undermine them.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” I said, way too loud. That’s exactly the same with story! That’s just what I teach – how to find your protagonist’s misbelief, and trace it back to its inception (what I call their Origin Story), and then how to trace it forward as it takes root, becoming the foundation of the inner logic that drives them.
Those misbeliefs don’t make our protagonists – or us – dopes, idiots or evil. Back in the day when they first bloomed, they made us smart. They allowed us to adapt to what the world so unceremoniously threw at us, and thus survive. And so it’s only logical that that hard-won info – our misbelief – then became a seminal part of the lens through which we evaluated everything that came after.
That’s what makes writers so powerful. Story is the reader’s lens into the “why” behind the protagonist’s actions – story takes us to the real reasons why we do what we do.
Author Julian Barnes sums it up nicely: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”
And as writers, our job is to dig up what “why.” And speaking of digging, that brings us back to the question I posed last week: What do we writers who know that it’s story first, plot second – that is, who go back in order to go forward -- call ourselves?
Your response was amazing -- I got so many really great suggestions, both via email, and on the Story Genius Facebook Page (a private group for writers who have taken the course – come join us!), that there are way too many to list here. Let’s take a look at some of them:
Chris P. suggested: “Pathblazers? Plantsers? Plantlers? Stormblowers? Storywhisperers?” All good, although I’m not sure exactly what Stormblowers refers to, but I so like the sound of it!
Caroline Ann suggested: “Story Intuitors, as we seek what is instinctively in our
readers' brains as to what they find satisfying in a story.”
And Angela suggested: “Story Quester.” Or – simple and elegant – Quester.
Chris C. came up with “Miners, because we’re always digging for the precious kernel that is THE story.” Which echoed the thoughts of Story Genius Workshop alumni Nancy, who said, “I couldn't come up with a good word, but I do have several images in my mind about Story Genius method that might be useful. A dusty, flashlight-helmeted coal miner. An archaeologist digging up a hidden civilization. A gardener planting seeds and then caring for them as they grow. Hope there's some thought-provoking seed for you here.”
They’re all such evocative images for what we do: Dig deep beneath the surface “what” in order to unearth what the reader’s wired to come for: the revelatory “why.”
In the same potent vein Kate suggested: “Generators. It has "Gen" (from Genius), the power of electricity behind it, and the ability to turn on all the lights...”
And Tania said: “Excavators? Because we're always digging....??”
Writers already familiar with Story Genius suggested one of my favorites: Pingers – because you’re always pinging back and forth from the present to the past and back again, gathering inside new info that gets down to what really drives your characters. But if you’re not familiar with Story Genius, it just sounds . . . odd. Pinging? Isn’t that the disturbing engine sound that makes you think you better get the car into the shop pronto?
Call it pinging, and everyone will ask, um, why? And that leads us to what I think may be the winner:
Rachel’s suggestion: “Whysers.” True, at first it sounded a bit like whiner or geyser. So over the course of a lively conversation on Facebook, a “t” was added and it became Why-sters.
Rebecca said: “Wow! So many good ideas. I like seekers, planters, explorers, but my favorite is Why-sters (catchy and unique).”
And then Joanne chimed in with: “I like Why-sters too. Why is at the root of it all. And it's wise. Why not?”
Indeed, why not?