Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.
I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.
Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.
I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.
Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.
Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.
But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?
Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.
I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.
First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.
One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.
If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.
No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.
When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.
Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.
A Real-Life Example)
Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.
When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.
Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.
The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.
By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.
Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.
Kara lifted the doll and cupped its face between her hands with intense earnestness. “Tico, the light locket is the most important thing forever,” she proclaimed with grave severity, adding a scowl and a nod to really drive the point home.
Tico’s painted eyes flickered and came to life as he awoke to a world that was a chubby little face framed in dark curls. He adopted her scowl and nodded in return. “Most important” he echoed, the tiny little bells on the ends of his jester’s hat tinkling softly.
“Good,” she approved of his understanding. Then, feeling the plot needed to be thickened, she added “we have to keep it safe with us no matter what happens.”
“Oh,” he said thoughtfully. “Is someone trying to take it, then?”
She seemed surprised by the question, and a look of worry passed over her face at the thought. “I don’t know, we’d better go check.” Tucking him under her arm she rushed out the door and down a hallway.
“Oh my,” he exclaimed, trying to make sense of the rapid changes in sensation he was experiencing.
“Don’t worry,” she told him.
She rounded another corner, sprinted to another room, and finally skidded to a halt. “Look, we’re here now.”
“A mountain,” she breathed in awe, and even as she said it he realized it was so obvious that it embarrassed him to have had to ask.
“What’s a mountain?”
“Up now, quick!” and without another word she flung him through the air in a long arc. With a flop he landed on top of a cabinet.
“Oh, so this is a mountain,” he said, feeling the cheap, grainy wood.
“Yes. Now you have to watch while I look for the locket.”
Tico was realizing that these high places had a tendency to make one very nervous, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl, so he pushed that nervousness from his mind and dutifully looked about in every direction. Seeing nothing he turned and called down to the girl “What am I watching for?”
“You have to watch for the Gleer!” she hissed back ominously.
“The Gleer?” he repeated, feeling a little tremble of fear. “What’s that?”
“A big, big monster.”
“Oh, I think we should go.”
“But you have to find the locket first!”
“I thought you were looking for the locket.”
“No, now I’m watching you and you have to find it.”
“Oh. Okay… is this it?” he held aloft a lost penny.
“Ummmm…” she cocked her head thoughtfully before enthusiastically declaring “Sure!”
“Oh good. Now get me down from here.”
“You have to jump, I’ll catch you.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good plan.”
“It’s good. You have to jump, then you’ll be down.”
“It doesn’t sound like a good plan for me.”
“It’s good. I’ll catch you.”
He flailed out his little arms and tumbled over the edge, turning round and round as he fell until he hit her hands and bounced off onto the ground. “You said you’d catch me!” he wailed.
“And then I put you on the ground.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re okay now.”
“At least we got the locket.”
“Yes, very good,” she praised him. “Now you hold it and don’t ever lose it.”
Tico nodded solemnly, but before he could utter another word they were interrupted by a horrible sound; it was approaching them from the floor below with raised and sharp tones, ones that sounded like fear mistaken for anger. Something about it pierced the two of them straight to their cores.
“Ohhhh!” Tico trembled. “Is that the Gleer?!”
Kara didn’t answer, instead flashing her eyes at him and urging “Come on!” She pulled him close to her bosom and rushed back to her room, closing the door behind. She threw Tico onto her bed and he lay there panting for a bit before thinking to make sure he hadn’t lost the locket in his fright. It was still there and he tucked it safely behind a seam in his breast, then he closed his eyes and just rested from all the excitement.
The door was opening and Kara returned holding a large something in her arms.
“Oh, hello,” Tico said, dropping the pencil he had been trying to balance on his little palm. He started towards her but then paused in wonderment of what she was carrying. “What’s that?”
“A present, I guess,” Kara said offhandedly.
“No, what is it,” Tico asked again, approaching the thing cautiously and craning his neck to look around its side.
“A rabbit. Mommy gave me this, just like when she gave me you.”
“Mommy gave me?” Tico repeated very slowly, not understanding the words in the slightest.
“Never mind, I forget you don’t remember things.”
“I remember the light locket!” Tico threw out his chest proudly.
“The light locket,” Tico repeated, a little hurt that she didn’t recall. “I got it on the mountain.”
“Oh right, that was a long time ago.”
“Ah…is long time yesterday or tomorrow? I get mixed up on those.”
Kara just shook her head, she had tried explaining time to Tico before but it just wasn’t in his nature to understand.
“So what do we do now?” he gestured to the rabbit.
She turned the large stuffed creature to face her and sat down on the bed next to Tico with a light frown. “He looks a little suspicious.”
She smiled at him. “Well, I guess his eyes are a little bit. See how they’re all crossways?”
“Yes, I had been about to point that out… Does he have a name?”
“Well of course he does… He’s Barty.”
At that Barty’s glassy eyes flashed with life and he looked the two of them over curiously. “Hello there,” he said smoothly.
“Hello Barty,” Kara said. She glanced around trying to think of a game for them to play. “Did you want to help us find the secret book?”
“Sure, that sounds like fun!” Barty nodded enthusiastically.
“What is the secret book?” Tico asked.
“Well, obviously a book full of secrets” Barty answered before Kara could, which Tico found a bit presumptuous, or at least he would have if he knew that word. “And it tells us all the things hidden in the world.”
Kara stood up quickly. “Well first we have to go to the dark cave where the book is kept.”
“What about him?” Tico cautioned, pointing to Barty. “He looks ‘spicious, remember?”
“Hmm, good point. How do we know you’re on our side Barty?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? And I’m not actually bad, you know, just a little mischievous,” he grinned broadly. “But I can always just be mischievous for you, and that could be quite useful.”
Tico looked to Kara and she grinned approvingly. Kara knew more than him, so that was enough to put his fears to rest.
With that settled, Kara scooped Tico and Barty up in her arms and strode out of the room. “Now off to the cave. Be sure to pack your flashlights because it is very dark in there.”
“Is the cave where we were stuck and got in trouble?”
“No, Tico, that was the car trunk.”
“Oh, let’s not go there again.”
“No, we won’t.”
“Excuse me, you two,” Barty chimed in, “but I haven’t got any flashlight.”
“I have one!” Tico said proudly. “I keep it here in my pocket.”
“Well if ever I get a flashlight and pocket I’ll be sure to keep them together.”
“Tico, when did you get a flashlight?” Kara asked skeptically.
“I…well maybe I didn’t. Oh no, it was just a string.”
“Oh well, I guess we’ll do it without flashlights then.”
“Perhaps our next adventure could be to find some flashlights,” Barty suggested.
“Good idea,” Kara nodded as she pulled a sliding door open and entered a closet. “Well we’re here now, but the book is hidden on that ledge up high.”
“The things we want are always up high,” Tico observed glumly.
“Maybe Barty can get it for us this time? I’m sure he could hop all the way up!”
Barty looked sheepishly back at them. “Well, you would think so, being a rabbit and all, but you see they didn’t actually make me with any knees.”
“Do I have knees?” Tico wondered aloud.
“Oh dear,” he muttered, realizing this meant he would be the one doing the climbing.
“It’s okay, if you fall I can catch you on my belly,” Barty offered. “They did at least give me a big, poofy one of those.”
While Tico would never admit it to Kara, Barty’s belly did appear to be a safer catcher than her hands, so he nodded and began his ascent to the ledge. It didn’t take long for him to reach the top, he had had lots of practice in this sort of thing from before. The next bit of finding things, though, was the part he wasn’t so good at. He found it required knowing what things were.
“Is this the book?” he held an item aloft.
“No. That’s a flashlight.”
“Oh, I’ll put it back then.”
“No! We may need that later,” Barty interjected.
“Oh right. Here you go.”
“…Oof! Perhaps my tummy isn’t as soft as I thought.”
“Never mind, Tico,” Kara hissed. “Find the book.”
“Well what does it look like?”
“Kind of like a journal.”
“What does that look like?”
“Oh that’s it right there! Your hand is on it… No, your left one… That’s not your left… Yes, there! Throw it down.”
Tico tried to throw the book, but he forgot to let go and so he came tumbling down with it and landed on Barty’s belly in a not-so-poofy way.
“Well done!” Kara exclaimed, picking the book-journal up and looking it over. Barty and Tico shook hands and were about to congratulate each other when Kara suddenly cocked her head and peered around the corner. “Wait!” she hissed. “I see something coming.”
Tico swallowed cotton. Of late it seemed that each of their quests was becoming more and more dangerous than the last, somehow always ending in a terrible chase. It amazed him that Kara could always laugh at the reckless peril that would ensue, and Tico admired that she could be so brave. He certainly was not. Indeed, if it weren’t for his great love for her, he didn’t think he would have had the courage to face these terrors again.
“Is it the Gleer?” Tico quavered. The Gleer had ever remained the most ominous foe they had faced, even now much of it was shrouded in complete mystery.
“It’s his dogs,” Kara called. “Which means he won’t be far behind!”
Tico had already started running the opposite direction, but he was slow and therefore grateful when she snatched him up alongside of Barty and the book, sprinting them away from the room. From his perch against Kara’s shoulder Tico allowed himself a peek behind them and saw a wave of pitch-black dogs contracting and then ferociously leaping after them.
“Ohhh, they’re getting closer…” he moaned.
“Do we have anything to throw at them?” Barty asked from the other shoulder, trying to be helpful.
“We have the book, but we can’t give that up,” Kara said resolutely, rounding a corner and bolting down the hall.
“And the flashlight,” Tico added, watching as the dogs swung around the corner on long arms like monkeys, then shifted back to their terrible bounding.
“We need that for later!” Barty protested. “Besides, it’s much too small to do any good.”
“Not if you turn it on!” Kara shouted. “They’re dark-dogs, the light will block them. Do it!”
Once Kara gave an order there was never any more arguing, so Barty turned the flashlight on and threw it behind Kara’s heels. His aim was true and the beam cut across the entire length of the hall. The dogs in front tried screeching to a halt, but the ones behind collided with them and pushed them forwards into the beam. Whatever dogs touched the light instantly turned into a dog-shaped cloud of dust that hung in the air for a moment and then tumbled to the ground. As the dust began to fall, dense and thick, the beam of light was blocked and broken in places, allowing a few of the next wave of dogs to slip by.
“They’re still coming!” Tico announced.
“Don’t worry, we’re almost to our room,” Kara replied with grim determination. She threw out her hand, reaching for her doorknob as the frontmost dogs began nipping at her ankles. The tension was too much for Tico and he covered his eyes as he heard snarls, champing teeth, then the swinging of a door, and finally a great slam of it shutting. He realized he had been holding his breath and he allowed himself a gasp of relief. Nothing evil could enter their bedroom, that was the rule.
Kara panted, catching her breath too, and Barty slid down to the floor where he plopped down in exhaustion. Tico felt a need for something peaceful, so he leapt up onto the bed and from there to the window sill, staring out at the world on the other side.
“Did you want to play a game together?” Barty asked as he approached Tico by the window.
“It’s more fun with Kara.”
“Well Kara’s been gone a long while.”
“Will she be back soon then?”
“I don’t know. Tico why do you always assume I know these things?” Barty sighed, placing a paw on his old friend’s shoulder.
“You know a lot of things.”
“I know more things than you, but I don’t really understand more. Does that make sense? No, of course not. Never mind, Tico, it doesn’t matter.”
They both turned at the sound of the doorknob turning. From the very start the two of them knew something was wrong. Where Kara usually would bound into the room and whisk them into her loving arms she instead entered slowly, as if in a daze. Without even acknowledging the stuffed toys she hovered over to her bed and lowered herself onto it, eyes shining and out-of-focus. Then she crumpled into a small ball and began sobbing uncontrollably.
Tico looked to Barty, but it was clear he had no answers to give. Never had they seen Kara this way and it seemed wrong to break the silence of her grief. Kara turned onto her side and they saw tears running down her cheeks, her mouth agape but no sound emerging as her whole body shook. By instinct Tico slid down from the window sill and hurried over to the bed. He squeezed himself between her arm and body and gave her a close embrace. Barty followed after and leaned his head against her arm.
Kara gave a shuddering breath and pulled Tico tight. He had been held and hugged by her many times, but he had never felt her like this. There was a fear and a desperate need in her embrace that frightened him. Her squeeze was becoming unbearably tight now and her nails were starting to dig in him painfully.
Tico gasped and felt a tension mounting so strongly it seemed tangible, like a crescendoing bass or a smothering vapor. He half thought he saw the eyes of the Gleer illuminating in the dark corner of the room as a mouth of needles began opening wide.
The Gleer emerged with a look of hatred washed over its face and its claw-like hands vised on their sides as it drew them towards its maw.
Tico’s eyes snapped open and he was staring Kara in the face. There were still marks scorched down her cheeks, but for now the tears had ceased falling. Where before her face had been in agony it now held a simple sadness, sadness at the very sight of her friends. Tico thought he must say something, but as he opened his mouth she sat upright and raised herself to her feet, gently picking her two stuffed toys up by their arms. They dangled loosely from her grip as she shuffled out of the room, and the two of them twisted to look at one another. As Tico saw his own fright reflected in his friend he realized that Barty truly didn’t understand any better than he did.
They had reached their destination and here Kara raised them to look them in the eyes one last time, with that same pained expression. Was it regret? “Kara, I am…” Tico began, but was interrupted as she abruptly dropped the two of them into the garbage and closed the lid firmly. “…scared” he finished.
As I said in my post on Monday, there is a common tendency to love a story when you first conceive of it, later become embarrassed by how poor it is, and later again realize that you still are in love with its initial ideas, you just need to find a better way to express them. This story about a girl and her toy jester was one I first came up with eight years ago, though it looked quite different then. In that version the girl lives in London during World War Two, and is playing with her jester doll for a little bit when an air raid siren goes off. Her parents come rushing in to take her to a bunker, and in their haste she loses her grip on the doll. He tries to chase after them but can’t keep up. The bomb hits and knocks the jester to his feet, after which he finds himself in a world transformed, one full of the rubble and decimation that had once been their home town. Through it all he has no understanding of the death and destruction on display, he is so innocent and ignorant that bodies and broken homes are mere vague abstractions to him. When at last he finds his girl lying and never waking the reality of the situation begins to slowly set in. He curls up in her arms and just lays there to await forever.
Certainly it was a very dreary story, I find it interesting that I thought of it in the same year as another, far more lighthearted story of a young girl: Caterpillars. As I’ve looked at this original version I’ve found that it just seems a bit over-the-top. Sometimes when things are too tragic they seem less so simply because they go beyond comprehension. And yet I found myself still fascinated with the idea of a toy that not only behaved like a child, but that literally represented that child’s innocence, and then experienced the loss of such things.
As I asked myself what was a better way to depict those ideas, I realized that the doll should never gain any sort of understanding. The doll is ignorance, and while people themselves may change ignorance does not. And that unchanging nature of the doll but changing nature of the girl led to the notion that there needed to be a parting of the ways between the two of them, a sort of “where I’m going you can’t follow. Literally can’t by your very nature.” I did feel that the imagery of death was still important for the story, for I view the childhood loss of innocence as a form of death in that something is lost which will never be regained in this life. With that idea I realized the obvious parallel of the death of innocence in a girl coinciding with her learning the concept of death through the loss of a parent. At last I knew how to write this story.
And so now you have the story of the story. I do like this version a great deal more than the previous one, I feel that a lot more thoughtful introspection went into it this time around instead of just trying to cram sad things in for the sake of being sad. I don’t know if in the long run I’ll end up being totally satisfied with the story as it is now, or if I’ll feel there is still something left uncaptured. As I read over it now I have to admit that the work was rushed to meet today’s deadline and I think that shows.
At this point it is nearly time to conclude the series of dream/imagination-themed stories we’ve been exploring for the last month, but before doing so I want to talk a little bit about how I’ve tried to use each of these more ethereal titles to put a different kind of subject in focus. These stories have, in turn, prioritized the reader, the character, the community, and the abstract. I’ll discuss these in greater detail in my post on Monday, and then finish with one last meditative story that prioritizes the world. I’ll see you then.