There’s a lot I like about writing. It’s creatively satisfying, it allows me to play day long games of “What if?” and call it being “productive.” Writing lets me pretend I’m someone else so I can try on different viewpoints and new ways of living: Christmas on Mars is nothing like back on Earth! I even enjoy the challenge of mastering a craft that on many days seems hopelessly beyond my reach. And it’s good for me! Study after study after study shows how good writing is for my brain, keeping it healthy and flexible well into old age (assuming, of course, that all my other writerly bad habits don’t destroy me first).
But another thing I like about writing – and one that doesn’t get discussed so much – is that it is a powerful tool for personal development. Writing teaches me lessons about perseverance and problem solving, about tolerance and interpersonal relationships. In short, it makes me a better person.
Case in point: A few days ago I was thinking about the novel I’m currently working on and found myself getting overwhelmed by the number of themes and scenes I’m developing. Although I have an outline in place, I don’t have all the details sorted yet and holding the whole story in my head felt like an impossible task. I was trying to eat the watermelon in one bite.
Of course the only way to write a novel is word by word, beat by beat, scene by scene. If I can just remember that, then the process of writing a novel shrinks to but one small task: writing a sentence.
I quickly realized that this is not just true of writing – it’s true of many, many things in life. So often I avoid doing certain things because they are BIG and OVERWHELMING and I’m tired and would rather troll for free images on Flickr. But actually there are no big tasks, only small ones:
My daughter plays in the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and during her rehearsals I usually pass the time at a cafe, downing cappuccinos and writing. I was there last Saturday, sipping my coffee drink and munching on my gluten-free, low-carb snack bar (holy crap I sound like a Yuppie) thinking about how to add more pain and conflict to a character’s life.
No, I’m not a sadist, I just saw that the short story I was working on wasn’t as compelling as it could be. The general rule in fiction is that every story must have at least one character and that character must be in conflict. Or to put it another way, storytelling describes what someone wants and how they get it (or don’t). The more obstacles and conflicts, the more squeaky bum angst, the more compelling the reading.
But as I sat there in my very distressed Windsor bow back chair, I wondered why all fiction demands conflict. Why couldn’t fiction just be a bunch of things that happen? Are real human lives full of conflict and drama? Well, yes. And no. It occurred to me that what stories need is not conflict per se, but rather a sense of progression, of overcoming some obstacle to reach a new goal. It’s that sense of progress that makes us turn the page, and gives the story a point.
John Gardner liked to use the term “profluence”. It’s a writing-geek word that refers a story’s flow. When a story has profluence, readers feel that the narrative is leading somewhere, and so they keep turning the pages. The feeling of achieving something is deeply satisfying.
Conversely, when a story doesn’t have profluence, when one scene doesn’t seem to connect to the next, when events feel random and the character just a bystander, readers are likely to close the book and say something nasty on Twitter.
All fine and well. So my story needed more profluence. But as I sat on that hard wooden chair, now succumbing to gluteal myalgia, I began to ponder whether profluence, so critical in fiction, isn’t also critical in life? I mean, we all have desires – it’s part of the human condition – but aren’t we happiest when we’re clear about our desires and are taking action to realize them? In fiction, a reader must understand what a character wants, either in the moment or in life. But how often do I really know what I want from life?
On January 3rd, just as I had mostly recovered from the holidays, a friend posted an article to Facebook. I admit to ignoring most things that people post (partly because FB is an excuse to procrastinate, and partly because there are soccer scores to check) but this particular story caught my eye: “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I guess a title like that pretty much defies you not to click on it, and click I did.
The article opens by challenging you to name five impressive things about yourself. “Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts).” From there the article goes on to argue that our value as human beings is defined not just by what we do but, specifically, by what we can do for others. Any inherent qualities we might have (I love my children) are meaningless and irrelevant. The author drives his point home by linking to a harrowing, expletive spangled scene from the film Glengarry Glenn Ross, in which Alec Baldwin tells his staff of realtors that they as people, their personalities and their personal lives, don’t count for shit. The only thing that makes them valuable is their ability to close a deal.
On first reading, I thought, yeah, this has a lot of truth in it. Of course others will value us by what we can do for them. No man is an island, and who would want to be? But the more I thought about the piece, especially the Alec Baldwin bit, the more something about it bothered me. No man is an island, and yet if I were to follow the logic of the article, I would focus on doing for others but only in as far as it directly serves me. My happiness and value are defined by what I produce, which in the case of Glengarry Glenn Ross is an ability to buy an $80,000 car and a $20,000 watch.
I joined the 21st Century a few months ago and bought a smart phone. No it wasn’t peer pressure, or my Bejeweled Blitz addiction, or even a yearning to snap photos of my every meal (guess what THIS will look like in 24 hours?). I bought the phone so I could organize my life. With two hyperactive kids and a wife just starting a PhD program, I realized that the time I need to write, work, attend literary functions, hang out with my cronies, and be a somewhat functioning husband and father was about to be seriously curtailed. Coordinating schedules would be essential.
And for the first little while, the phone was pretty cool. I could access my calendars, check the Arsenal scores, the weather, the time in Vladivostok and, best of all, text the important people in my life. It was cool, it was fun, it was liberating. But then, somehow, it became annoying. Incredibly annoying.
I’ve known for ages that I am a natural introvert – as opposed to those sad posers who just want people to think they spend their waking hours brooding over life’s mysteries when in fact they’re simply pondering Jack Harkness’s bizarrely perfect teeth… Er, what was I on about? oh right. Introversion. I like space and quiet and people who tell me straight up what they’re thinking.
None of those things are compatible with texting.