by Lauren Sapala
For the longest time I had major problems doing revisions on my writing. It seemed so easy for everyone else. Why was it so hard for me? Of course, I also had trouble writing. I hardly ever experienced that state of “effortless flow” everyone talked about, in which the words just magically spewed out of me down onto the page. For years—a lot of years—I felt like something was wrong with me. I felt like I was a failure as a writer.
Then, I discovered something.
It wasn’t that there was something wrong with me, it was that the way I approached my writing was all wrong. Traditional writing wisdom set out a bunch of rules that didn’t help me, that I knew. But what I didn’t realize was that traditional writing wisdom had also implanted a mindset within me that was completely distorted, a skewed perspective that didn’t fit at all into my personal growth as an artist.
You see, for years and years, traditional writing wisdom had told me that I was in charge of the manuscript. That I was in control of everything. That the characters in my story were people I had made up, and now I was responsible for “making them” do this thing or that thing that had to be specifically engineered to move the story along. Traditional writing wisdom told me that good protagonists had certain qualities and good antagonists had others, that characters should be consistent and not contradict themselves. That a story had to follow a story arc or no one would get it.
Of course, it wasn’t all the fault of traditional writing wisdom. I was the one who chose to believe it.
But all along I questioned this information, if only in the back of my own mind. I have always read a huge amount of books, and I’ve always read widely. So, there were a few things I didn’t understand. If a story always had to follow a story arc so people could understand it, then how come Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize in Literature? And if protagonists and antagonists had to have certain qualities, then how did Dostoevsky’s Underground Man fit into that picture? And how was it that everyone said you should follow all of these rules when you were an aspiring writer, but once someone’s work was conventionally accepted as a masterpiece written by a “genius” they didn’t have to follow the rules anymore? Would I have to wait to be recognized as a genius before I could stop following all these silly rules? Would that be the point when I could just write like I wanted to and not worry about what other people thought?
I had a lot of questions, and no answers.
These questions nagged at me so much, and I got so discouraged trying to “do it the right way” that I finally gave up on all of it and started writing only for myself. I decided that no one would see my manuscripts so it wouldn’t matter how I wrote anyway.
And that’s when I set myself free.
As I wrote only for myself I discovered the magic in my work. I let my intuition blossom and followed it wherever it led me. I started relying on my own gut instinct, my own emotions, and the feelings in my own body to tell me the next thing to write and how it fit into the big vision for my work.
I started to work in response to the writing. I stopped trying to force it to be what I thought it should be.
This is the method that finally broke open the floodgates for me. Working in response to the story cracked open every previous belief I held about what a story is or how it’s supposed to go. It reconnected me to my heart center and showed me how to direct my creative energy through my intuitive soul, instead of my rational intellect, and out onto the page in the gushing, spewing fountains of words I had always dreamed of seeing. Yes, it was messy, and yes, I was filled with doubt every step of the way. But something about this new method of working in response to the creative force within me felt right like nothing ever had before.
The secret to learning how to work in response to the writing is to shift your belief systems so that you can embrace these simple truths:
Your characters are real people. Seriously. They are not made up pretend people that came out of your head. They are real people with real souls, and they are counting on you to honor and respect their individual worth and agendas.
Your story is a living, breathing being. It grows organically, like a plant. It already carries the seeds of DNA that will dictate what it is to become inside of it. You are not the one in charge. You are the gardener blessed with plants that might potentially grow if you take care of them.
You cannot force yourself to work harder or “sit your butt in the chair” and get it done on some sort of timetable that you get to enforce and whip yourself over if you fail to reach goals. Well, you probably can, but you’re never going to get the results you truly want. You’ll end up forcing the characters or the story to go in an unnatural direction due to your own impatience and the story will slowly fizzle and die, or you’ll complete it but it will feel flat.
And the truest true kernel of truth in all of these truth statements above is this one thing: It’s not about you. It’s about the story you were given to tell. The Universe gave it specifically to you because you are the only one with the tools to tell that specific story. So it’s time to drop all the other baggage.
Instead of forcing, the writer working in response lets go. Instead of pushing, the writer working in response waits and listens. Instead of conquering, the writer working in response submits to the story in order to receive it.
For those of you who are very attached to being in control, feeling certain about what lies ahead, and who need security before you can take the next step, working in response is going to feel different and uncomfortable, and possibly scary. It will ask for every bit of trust you can manage. It will also get better the more you work with it.
So put down the word count goals, the outlines, and all the hundreds of writing rules you’ve collected. Let yourself sit and daydream. Take a long walk with no end destination in mind and talk to your characters like the real people they are. Ask them directly what they do next or how you should write their stories, and determine to honor their wishes.
Open, submit, and receive. You will be astounded by the creative magic that comes through you.
Guest post contributed by Lauren Sapala. Lauren is a writing coach who specializes in personal growth and artistic development for introverted intuitive writers. She is the author of The INFJ Writer and currently blogs on writing, creativity and personality theory at www.laurensapala.com. She lives in San Francisco.
Reblogged this on Cynthia Hilston – Author & Blogger.
Lauren, this is beautiful advice. I especially like this: “Your characters….are counting on you to honor and respect their individual worth and agendas.” I get hung up bad on what happens next. “How do I know?” I often think to myself. I’m going to try this out, thanks much!
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Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.
I am so inspired by this piece. I am always wondering if I am writing “right”. Yet when I do it from my heart, I always love the outcome. There is such freedom in writing as if no one will ever read it.
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Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
I like several of the points she made especially about treating the characters as real people.
You and I believed and did a lot of the same things, Lauren, and it can really stifle creativity. Sometimes, the best voice a writer can listen to is her inner voice. Thanks for the post. Pinned & shared. 🙂
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I needed to read this right at this time. Thanks SO much for this. I used to write as you describe and advise, and got caught up in the rules and mechanics, and I’ve nearly lost my will to write. I do best with stream of consciousness writing. And I’m going to stick with that. I will be re-blogging this on my blog, dotluvs2write.com. Thanks again!
Your characters are real people if you allow them to be. As you noted, in the beginning they feel like simply characters you have created rather than allowing them to become real. Its a difficult process and allowing them to develop is not as easy as some would have us think.
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Wow! This is a different and better point of view of writing. Thank you so much!
Reblogged this on Tomorrow Beckons and commented:
I’ve always suspected that my characters are real. Thanks for this helpful advice!
I think you are spot on here! Thanks for this! Am re-posting.
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Very inspiring and liberating, thank you.
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Greetings to you Lauren,
When I first started writing, my father said to me, “At some point, your characters will take on a life of their own.” Writing in response blends in perfectly to that–once that happened, my writing just took off. Fiction or nonfiction (but especially fiction), at the end of the day, when it’s written from your heart, that’s what counts. Thank you for this post.
Reblogged this on Viv Drewa – The Owl Lady.
So true. Unless you first connect with your characters no one else will!👍
Reblogged this on Where Genres Collide.
Lauren, this is stunning! I will try it! Thank you for writing this.
I have to admit I’ve been wanting to keep the control for myself. I haven’t been writing in response and, instead, have been assuming the story will respond to my writing it. Letting go of the control is going to be excruciatingly hard for me, but after reading your post here, I know I must do it.
I am among those who do believe that I am in control of everything. That the characters in my story are people I had made up, and it takes writer’s skill to seem they are real people. Yes, I am responsible for “making them” do this thing or that thing that had to be specifically engineered to move the story along, but I am also responsible in showing their logical motivations or emotions leading to doing that thing. The characters are not their own people. They are the ones who have roles to fulfil in making the story come true. But it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t sound natural, logical, etc. And everything is in the writer’s skill, inspiration and research. Plenty of research.
Lauren, thank you for this timely post. It is the rule book which keeps me from my own book and your post is a huge relief to read. For some time I have been just writing and sometimes never rereading because it felt like wasted time, daydreaming. I wasn’t following the order and the story in my head, which I loved, never seemed like the story I put on the page. I am slowly getting to the place where I trust the writer in me. Where I work in the manner that allows me to write or if the day calls for it to read someone else’s words and today they were yours. Thank you, this can indeed be a game changer. Thanks for the inspiration. Keep on listening and writing!
Reblogged this on Author Steve Boseley – Half a Loaf of Fiction.
A wonderful post Lauren, you get your point across with unquestionable clarity. I particularly liked your point that the story is a living, breathing entity with a soul, and that you must respect your characters and their stories as those of real people.