Cancellation of Story of the Storyteller Series

One week from today was meant to be the third post in my monthly Story of the Storyteller series. However it, and all future entries in that series are being cancelled. When I first started this blog I knew I would likely need to revisit and alter my posting-schedule before finding a comfortable cadence to settle into. These past few months I have very much enjoyed developing my Writer’s Toolkit and Show, Don’t Tell series, each I feel serves its own function while also supporting the other in a nice give-and-take collaboration. Story of the Storyteller, on the other hand, has always felt like the awkward odd-one-out. It doesn’t harmonize well with the two series’ rhythm, and so whenever it gets a new post it feels like a hiccup in the regular weekly flow. Furthermore, I have noticed that a once-a-month series is just too infrequent to build any momentum or continuity.

For these reasons, I will no longer be continuing the Story of the Storyteller series and I have removed it from the Schedule page of this site. I will leave the previous two posts, though, for anyone that found them helpful, and both of my other series will continue at their regularly scheduled intervals.

Thank you.

Getting Ideas

analysis blackboard board bubble
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Be it you’re trying to come up with an original concept for a new story, or you’re looking to devise a deliciously evil way for your villain to destroy a town of innocents, or you read your latest draft and feel like it’s just missing that je ne sais quoi, every writer faces those moments where you wish you could force inspiration with a snap of the fingers but the ideas simply aren’t coming. Or maybe you’re not having any trouble finding ideas, it’s just that none of them are any good, which is just as useless as having no ideas. If you once could seize that moment of golden inspiration you’d be happy to do the hard work of recording it, iterating on it, and slowly crafting it into a legible form. Because doing all of that is just busywork and you know you can do that through grit and time. But having an idea? Well that’s not really a labor you can control. Somehow an idea just pops in your head, seemingly effortlessly.

Well, if you’ve come looking for answers to these conundrums…I’m afraid you might be disappointed. I have no secret formula to guarantee the genesis of an original idea within any specific timeframe. I have no alchemy to conjure an idea of guaranteed quality either. Instead all I have to offer is ways to cultivate the environment where ideas, including quality ones, can and will happen… when they decide they’re good and ready to.

Unclench)

My first recommendation is to stop worrying so much. You can actively hamper your mind’s natural creative processes by being harsh with it. Negative reinforcement such as demanding, shouting, or threatening is known to provide less effective results with people, so why would it be any different with their minds? It wouldn’t be fair to walk up to another person and insist they give us an entirely original and amazing narrative on the spot, would it? So don’t do that to yourself! We fall into this mistake because we want to feel we are in control of our own creativity, which we want because we are afraid that we won’t be successful without some sort of intervention. So learn to let go of that fear. As I mentioned before, your mind has a natural creativity to it. It’s not something that you have to force, nor indeed can it be. The mind is designed to originate thought and imagination automatically, and will gladly do so, when it is relaxed and at peace. Trust in your miracle mind and just let it do its thing, it will not let you down.

Let it Stew)

One of the ways that miracle mind of yours is able to come up with its ideas has to do with how it brings different parts of the brain to work on the same problem. You are only consciously aware of the workings of one of those parts: the conscious mind (funny, that). You have an unconscious mind as well, though, and that part works on things without you even knowing about it. I am a software developer by profession, and constantly come across logical problems that I cannot solve after hours of intense, conscious focus, but then when I step away and decompress I find the solution pop up, seemingly without any effort. You’ve been thinking hard, your focus is strained, so step away and let the back of your mind take a turn germinating those ideas. The best part is you don’t have to feel guilty about taking a break because you really aren’t! Only your frontal lobes are, while the other sections are still dutifully firing away on all cylinders without you feeling the burn.

Freewriting)

“But I don’t actually feel burned out yet”, you might say. “I still feel like working and being productive.” Fair enough, here’s a way that you can get both your subconscious and conscious minds working in tandem, then. Pull out a pen and paper and just start freewriting. Try taking a group of characters and a situation from the story you’re working on and go from there. The one rule is, ignore the rest of the plot you have outlined, throw out any preconceptions about where things need to end up. Go ahead and kill your main hero off at the very start. Have your villain decide he doesn’t want to be bad anymore. Write something–anything–happening, and then write down the reactions and responses as they occur to you. You aren’t dictating events to your characters anymore, you’re experiencing those events with them. You’re getting a fresh perspective. And all the while that you’re doing this very active, direct, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thinking, your subconscious mind has taken over on that nagging problem you had from before. Don’t be surprised if you both stumble into some great new material and also have the solution to the previous problem pop into your mind. Just be prepared for a new problem: now having too many ideas to know what to do with!

Identify the Question)

Sometimes our mind throws up barriers to our progress because the subconscious has realized some problem that our conscious mind hasn’t caught up to yet. There’s a plot hole, a logical inconsistency, an unintended shift in tone, something you’ve planned in your story that just isn’t right. The subconscious puts up a barrier, but doesn’t know how to be more specific about what the trouble is. We feel the brakes coming down and assume that the something wrong is in the very next thing we were about to write and our tunnel vision might be looking at the completely wrong area as a result. So sometimes its helpful to backup, take in your work as a whole, and ask yourself: is this all what I really want it to be? I’ve often noticed my motivation for writing a story take a nosedive for no apparent reason, and only on closer examination realized that my subconscious was simply trying to call attention to a fundamental design choice it needed settled. Once remedied, the flow of thought returned naturally and I could continue as before.

Experience Something New)

Perhaps all of this advice has felt separate from your problem. Perhaps you aren’t trying to solve a specific plot point, perhaps your concern is more general: no story idea that you come up with seems good anymore. This might happen if you’ve already written a few stories and are realizing that each feels exactly the same. You want to do something different, but can’t think of anything that isn’t just another clone of your previous work. You might start to wonder if you even are capable of coming up with something original, or if this hamster-wheel is just the way your mind works. Well, kind of, yeah, it is. Your mind thinks in its own particular way, a way that is the product of your personality and experiences. When your experiences remain consistent, the mind is likely to produce the same results to the same requests. After all, your mind wants to automate every process that it can, like a robotic assembly line. And it’s hard to tell an automobile assembly line to start making pianos.

The solution to this is pretty simple, actually, you just need to experience something different. Meet new people, learn a new skill, learn a new instrument, read things that come from a foreign culture, travel to that foreign culture, if you’re into theater start following sports, if you’re into sports start going to the theater. Perhaps not every change is feasible, but you ought to be able to find some ways to push yourself away from what you’re comfortable with, and that will kickstart your mind into abandoning its preprogammed habits and starting to learn again. That, ultimately, is what we are trying to achieve here. It’s all too easy to get out of the habit of real, deep learning, but I find that that is the single greatest environment for sparking wonderful ideas. Not to mention, you’ll also be a more enriched human being, too, and thus have better things to say.

Getting On Top of the Put-Downs

I think most people have a dream to create something that’s never existed before. Maybe the hope is to publish an original novel, or to invent the next household technology, or to launch your own startup. Doesn’t matter if it’s by art, science, or business, the itch to craft something new seems to be part of our common heritage. I think to many of us creating is a way to reach for immortality, a way to leave a part of ourselves that will exist on this earth after we’ve gone.

I’ll bet each of you know what that creative yearning is for yourself. Whenever you’ve contemplated dedicating yourself to making it a reality you feel your heart stir inside and you can’t deny that call any longer. No matter the effort needed, the sacrifices required, the chasms that must be bridged, now is the time to trade wishes for will. You map your course, you take stock of the needed provisions, and with confidence you take those first daring steps into the journey!

…And then some kind soul sees it as their duty to tell you that you’re wasting your time, you will never achieve what you want, and that you’re just not that special.

“Oh wow, a college grad who made her first student film and now thinks she’s going to be the next Steven Spielberg. How original.”

“Just tell me you’re not quitting your day job for this. Right?”

“Wilbur, Orville, it’s like this: if man was going to fly, one of those countless (and smarter) inventors would have already achieved it. But they didn’t, they failed. And died… lolz.”

It can be incredibly disheartening and embarrassing. And as if the cynicism isn’t bad enough, it also turns out that the jerks have statistics on their side. If you think about it, most likely the thing you are trying to accomplish has been attempted, in some form, by many others and failed at by the vast majority of them. Because, you see, in order to achieve a rare accomplishment you have to do something, well, rare. By definition, your unique accomplishment is something most people won’t ever do. And don’t we usually we feel that we fall under that “most people” category?

As an example of the cold, hard numbers of reality, I refer you to William Dietrich’s post about what your odds of publishing a remotely successful book are (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-dietrich/the-writers-odds-of-succe_b_2806611.html). In short, the odds aren’t good. Only 2% of books ever sell more than 5000 copies…and that’s assuming you even managed to get published!

There, I gave it to you straight, but, fortunately, none of that matters. Now I’ll tell you why.

1)

Whenever someone is ridiculing you for your ambition, remember that they are not unbiased. Though they may say they are just trying to present you with “hard facts”, I’ve noticed that most of them betray an emotional desire to see you fail. I hear a lot less of

“Only 2% of books are remotely successful, so just know you have a 1 in 50 chance”

and a lot more of

“Only 2% of books are remotely successful, so you have no chance”.

They seem to speak with such confidence that you WILL fail as a guarantee, even though the “facts” don’t support such certainty. That’s not the math talking, that’s emotion.

So why is that pessimist so emotionally invested in your failure? In most cases it’s because he was hurt. In some way or another he once had his own dreams crushed and he wants to pass on the favor. When someone fails at their goal, it’s human nature to look for something to blame. He feels like he has two options: blame himself or blame some vague uncontrollable facet of the outside world, we’ll call it “the system”. Blaming “the system” is obviously easier, it deflects shame, it is nebulous and therefore resists introspection, and it allows him to nurture his hurt with self-pity. But then, if “the system” was the one that let him down then, to be consistent, it’s also got to let everybody else down, including you. If you were able to succeed, then you would be rebutting his condemnation of “the system”, and as a corollary putting the blame back onto him.

But let’s not go too far in demonizing the pessimist. Because, after all, the most vocal pessimist is probably the one we carry inside, the one that remembers how we had our hopes dashed once before and is just trying to protect us from facing that pain again. It is misguided, but it is understandable.

2)

Perhaps the statistics as a whole won’t change, but they can change for you individually. Right now there are 491 athletes in the NBA (rpiratings.com/NBA.php) and over 325.7 million citizens in the United States. That means if you were to select a random individual in the US, you would have a 1 in 663,340 chance of choosing an NBA athlete. Now, does that mean that next year I and the top college player each have the same 1 in 663,340 chance of being drafted into the NBA?… Sadly, no. Of course not. Mine are far less and his are far greater. The two of us simply belong to different pools of likelihood.

So perhaps the pessimist is correct that most people never achieve their dream. But at that point he is speaking about the grouping of “the masses”. In my experience, people in this category will massively fail because the vast majority of them will not ever try, or else they will quit after not trying very hard. Now if you’re willing to dedicate some time each day to consistently progress towards your lofty goal, then you’re already placing yourself ahead of the masses and the odds of the masses no longer apply to you.

Consider J. K. Rowling. When she was born she would have appeared to just be one of “the masses” as well. We would have given her extremely miniscule odds of ever publishing a story, same as everyone else. Then she wrote little stories continually throughout her young life. Then she thought of a solid idea for a novel and developed an outline for it. Then she created a first draft. Then she worked hours upon hours and completed a quality manuscript. Then she got up the nerve to submit her idea to one book publisher after another until she got the answer she was looking for. At each step she’s been separating herself more and more from “the masses” and drastically improving her odds of success. At this point, getting a story published is probably more likely than not, it’s just the next logical step for her. In fact every step in the sequence was logical and well within the bounds of probability given all that preceded it.

So sure, maybe the odds of you achieving your dream aren’t that great right now. But the odds for you to develop a plan to day-by-day make steady work towards that goal? Those are chances you can definitely work with. And then executing on that plan from day-to-day? That’s totally plausible, too. And with every added effort, the percents on your ultimate dream are sliding a little more in your favor.

3)

Finally, don’t give up on your ambition, but do make sure you have a healthy one. By this what I mean is don’t make your dreams and happiness dependent on the whims of others. We do this a lot. We say “I can’t live with myself if she doesn’t love me back,” or “I’m so worried that they’re saying something bad behind my back”, or “I hate it when you do someone a favor and they don’t even thank you.” We try to curry favor from teachers and fish for compliments from peers. And while we may not say it, I think most of us find ourselves imagining how our self worth would improve if we ever became famous.

This is all very common, but like I said, it’s not healthy. We often get into these mindsets because somewhere along our path we stopped viewing ourselves as enough. We became dependent on others to validate us and tell us that we’re good. Aside from the emotional damage this can cause, it’s also a setting ourselves up to fail in our endeavors. Remember how I said the vast majority of people will quit on their dream? Well, having as your motivation that you want to create something so others will respect/praise/accept you is one of the most fickle and sure-to-burn-out motivations that there is. You’re setting yourself up for a vicious cycle of disappointment and shallow commitments that go nowhere.

So yes, it’s fine to want to create something, to want to make it the best you possibly can, to make it something this world has never seen before. But do it for yourself. Your odds of selling millions of copies and signing movie deals will always be too small to fathom, but your odds of writing a book that you yourself are proud of? Not bad at all.

If you’ll allow me a moment of personal pride, consider this blog post. It’s chances of ever being read by hundreds of thousands of eyes are deplorable. If that was my driving motivation I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the post because the math just doesn’t add up. But you know what? That’s not my driving motivation. I just wanted to take some of the thoughts and feelings inside of me, formulate them into a coherent package, put them somewhere that I could easily recall them, and share them with people I care for. And my odds of success? Well, it’s already accomplished, isn’t it? And I feel good and satisfied. I feel like I’m enough.

But that’s plenty about me and my creation, go and make something for you now.