Did you ever hear that saying, “The only constant is change”? It’s one of my faves because it explains why there is no “perfect.” How could there be, when in five minutes things will change, and then what’s “perfect” now will be so five minutes ago.
Stories give us a leg up on the future by allowing us to imagine how we’d handle those changes before we get there. Or make that, before they catch up with us, often from behind, when we least expect them. We need that inside, advance info, because change is hard.
But here’s what sometimes comes as a surprise: it’s not just bad change that’s hard, all change is hard. Even good change. Because change means we’re not only venturing into the unknown, but leaving a familiar part of ourselves behind. After all, it’s just as hard to leave home to get married as it is to leave home to get divorced. Actually, getting married can be harder, because you don’t expect it to be hard, so when things do go even a little bit wrong, it comes as a shock. And getting divorced? It’s often the best thing that ever happened (read: it sure was for me).
I’m thinking about this now because I’m in the midst of making a small change – I’m going to add a new giveaway to my website in a week or so. It’s an in-depth look at story from a reader’s point of view called: “A Reader’s Manifesto: 14 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has for Every Story.”
I knew I needed to add something new to my website, but I kept thinking I’d do it tomorrow, or when I’m really rested, or when Mercury comes out of retrograde. You know, basically a week from never.
So, like in every story ever told, something had to force my hand. It did. I’m writing up the Reader’s Manifesto now because it’s part of a talk I’m giving next week at the Wild, Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference in Chicago, and so I kind of have to nail it down -- otherwise I’ll get up in front of 100 people and spend an hour desperately making shadow puppets and doing balloon tricks (or would if I knew how).
Anyway, I was just about finished with the first draft when something happened that made me realize a critical entry was missing from my Reader’s Manifesto.
Here’s what happened: Jennie Nash and I were in the midst of the last live Q&A for our beta class of The Story Genius Writing Workshop. The Q&As are my favorite part of the class -- there’s nothing I love more than talking with writers about their work, because I always learn something new. That’s what happened when one writer began talking about a fear that had held her back during the class as she worked to dig deep into her story. It was the fear, as she put it, of “ugly writing.” She didn’t mean writing about harsh, painful things. She meant not writing beautifully. That is: not honing, polishing, and presenting everything right out of the starting gate in luscious prose.
A bunch of other writers chimed in, saying that they had the same experience, and it had almost stopped them cold, because it made them feel as if they were bad writers.
It was one of those great, unifying, deeply freeing, “Me, too, I thought I was the only one!” moments.
This one has a happy ending, because here’s the very reassuring truth: while there’s nothing wrong with beautiful writing, in the beginning of the process you can’t focus on it. After all, how can you write beautifully when you don’t know what, exactly, you’re writing about? That would be like hunting for diamonds by keeping an eagle eye out for exquisitely cut, honed, and highly polished sparkly gems. Sheesh, talk about missing the point! After all, diamonds in the rough look like big clunky hunks of rock. In other words, they’re ugly when compared with the kind of diamond you see gleaming in a jewelry store window.
But here’s the thing: there’s actually a strange, hypnotic beauty in the raw material, it just takes a trained eye to see it. Same with the “ugly writing” these writers were worried about.
My Reader’s Manifesto is about what readers are hardwired to crave or expect in every story they read. And guess what? Beautiful writing is not on the list.
And that, my friends, is what I had to add to the list. Or rather, ask writers to subtract. Because it’s not something we’re wired to crave. Turns out, the brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than we’ve been lead to believe.
So, why do we believe that it is?
Because while our love for story is innate -- no one had to teach you how to enjoy a story, the same way no one had to teach you how to love chocolate -- writing, on the other hand, is taught. And from kindergarten on, that teaching tends to focuses primarily on words.
Love of language is an expression we often hear. But what does that mean, really? After all, language, in and of itself, is empty -- it’s just a bunch of sounds. Rather, language is a vessel, a conduit – for meaning, for story. Story first, beautiful writing, later. Otherwise, it’s like mistaking the wrapping paper for the present.
This isn’t to say readers don’t like beautiful writing – they do. But it is not what has us enthralled when we’re reading. It’s the story those words are giving voice to that gives those words their power.
So, my advice? It’s time to stop trying to get a gold star from your seventh grade English teacher (or maybe that was just me) for writing the world’s most beautiful, “perfect” sentence. Writing pretty comes last. Writing a story comes first. Otherwise, it’s like trying to frost a cake you haven’t baked yet.
Embrace your ugly writing – as long as it is in the service of your story. Which brings us right back to the subject at hand: change.
It’s hard to change the way you approach writing. It’s hard to shake misbeliefs that have been instilled since kindergarten -- especially since that shaming little voice that whispers, “You think that sentence is good? Seriously?” can be relentless. Silencing it, even for a moment, can take several rolls of mental duct tape. But it’s worth it!