Part 7 In a New Weekly Column With Advice for Conservative Creative Writers

This is me telling you not to listen to me. At least, not to listen to me all the time.

My writing resume consists of a fair number of published stories, a couple of unpublished novels, and a lot of work in building writing community, almost entirely in the relatively new conservative and libertarian arena. I’m not James Patterson (and I don’t want to be!)

However, I’ve been a student of writing and literature my whole life, long enough to know that while writers agree on the basic Aristotelian storytelling elements (plot arcs, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, etc.) they disagree to a greater or lesser extent about nearly everything else. Rudyard Kipling wrote “In the Neolithic Age” to address this. (Go read it; it’s wonderful.) His main point is that we storytellers fight over the right way to tell a story, when there IS no right way to tell a story.

In fact, there are as many ways to tell stories as there are storytellers – which is to say, there are as many ways to tell stories as there are human beings. We are all storytellers. We are all different, and we all think differently. And every story has some value, whether we like it or not.

Last week, Scott Smith wrote a wonderful piece about using an antihero in his conservative-themed story in direct response to my earlier post about creating epic heroes. Now, I don’t care for antiheroes, and I said so. That does NOT mean antiheroes have no value. They are a critical element in tragedy, and they add necessary seasoning to plenty of other classical genres. Heck, Trickster, arguably the first hero, is often an antihero. And heroes change over time and through cultures – there is a world of difference between Achilles, Beowulf, and King Arthur.

Does that mean my post on heroes was wrong? No. Does it mean Scott’s post on antiheroes was wrong? Absolutely not. This is not a black/white issue. All ways can be valid. It all depends on the story you are telling.

According to Kipling, there are nine-and-sixty ways of writing tribal lays, or stories; I would argue the number is closer to infinite. Your way to write the story is the correct way for you. Everything else, and I mean everything, is only suggestion. Make the changes that make your story better, and discard the rest.

Never, ever follow all the writing advice anyone gives you. Instead, look at it critically, and seek out opposing opinions. In chapter 10 of the book Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, the author found that the points she addressed when teaching a university writing class were directly contradicted by Chekhov stories. She told one student that his story was flawed because two characters had  similar names; the next day, she read a Chekhov story featured characters with identical names, and it worked. She told another student that her short story featured too many points of view; lo, Chekhov did the same. She taught that you could not write a story in which the narrator or point-of-view character dies, and Chekhov writes from a dying sailor’s point of view – and continues from the point of view of his dead body.

There are no black and white answers. Not one.

Writing classes aren’t designed to turn you into master writers. They are to learn the “right way” to tell a story. When you break a rule and it works – that does not make you a lawbreaker or even a rebel. It means you are starting to master the material, and that means you are starting to move past the need for writing classes.

So write conservative fiction featuring classic heroes – until you don’t. Use the classic Aristotelian plot structure of beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement – until you don’t. Adhere to the rules when you start to write. But when you start to feel confident – and then your story or heroes decide to break the rules – take off the training wheels and go with it. You may fail. That’s okay. Failure – and learning from failure – is the biggest and most important part of real education.

******

That was kind of a short topic, so here’s another quick one: write what scares the bejesus out of you.

I’m not talking about ghosts and zombies and vampires, or alien invasions, or illegal alien invasions, or nuclear war. All those things have their place in stories. I’m talking about what REALLY scares you:

That maybe you don’t love your children – really love them.

That maybe your parents don’t really love you.

That maybe you are pretending your way through life.

That maybe those old tragedies that shaped you as a child still rub raw places on the life you live today.

Suffering, rejection, and guilt are the classic roots of all fears. Part of the reason contemporary literature seems so shallow – and Russian classic literature seems so deep – is the relative amount of suffering in their respective storytellers. Russians have really suffered over time. They have been enslaved, first to a serf system and then to a communist one. They have survived pogroms and starvation, war and harsh winters. They cannot deny their suffering. It is with them every day, even if only in memory.

Likewise, our ancestors suffered through war and epidemic disease, the very real threat of death in childbed, poverty, miserable summers and freezing winters – deadly to people without central HVAC systems – starvation, intellectual starvation, living on the edge of survival, lack of freedom.

There was real, tangible suffering, and it was clearly understood. The amelioration of that suffering took the front seat in your life, or you and your children died.

Today, “suffering” for Westerners tends to be so silly it’s referred to with a meme: first world problems. Car broke down. Solar flares are interfering with smooth downloads. The coffee shop was out of almond milk. Five minutes late to class. Cracked my smartphone screen. I forgot to leave a tip and I feel bad about that. I regret having sex on the first date.

In the grand scheme of possible catastrophes from skin cancer to the Yosemite volcano erupting, these are trivial issues.

Because it is part of the human condition to suffer genuine tribulations, some people react by seeking out personal suffering as entertainment – edgy lifestyles, substance abuse, creating drama in your life, extreme sports. Danger makes us feel alive.

Most people don’t do these things. Instead, they allow their fears to be subsumed in politics (polarity much?) or entertainment. In releasing their emotions safely by watching a horror movie or tweeting nasty things at a political enemy, they feel better. It is probably about the same relief of tension our ancestors felt after outrunning or outsmarting a saber-tooth tiger (or more likely outrunning the slowest member of the tribe).

However, when you subsume your fears, you are hiding them, not healing them. A good writer can’t afford to hide his own emotion from himself. It makes for shallow writing. Our ancestors couldn’t hide their fears from themselves; they struggled with them on a daily basis. That’s why their writing was, in general, deeper and more philosophical than today’s writing.

So how do you uncover that emotion you’re hiding? How do you figure out what you’re really scared of, instead of whatever is covering it up? One good way is by using the Five Whys method.

So you’re afraid of zombies. Why?

Because they can’t be killed.

So what? They’re imaginary; you know that. Why does that frighten you?

Because they can kill me.

So can tigers and sharks. Why do zombies in particular – even though they are imaginary – frighten you?

Because they are dead things, and horrifying.

Why does that scare you?

Because it reminds me I’m going to die one day.

But zombies aren’t exactly dead – they died, but came back.

Yeah, as soulless eating machines that devour the people they love. I would come back that way too, uncontrollably attacking the people I loved in life. That’s more terrifying than dying.

There you get to the core of it, or a core at least. You really fear not being in control, and that lack of control harming the very loved ones you are supposed to protect or nurture. THIS is a fear you can write to. (Not coincidentally, it’s also the exact same fear that might drive the motivations of a Second Amendment advocate. Maybe that’s why the classic way to dispose of a zombie is shotgun to the head – double-tap.)

Don’t ignore your fears. Explore them. Understand them. Use them to energize your writing. And if what you’re writing really, really scares you, especially if it’s not a horror story – then you are on target.

 

*You can use the Five Whys technique answering as your protagonist too, exploring what scares him and also what motivates him.

** The zombies question could just as easily end up at “I fear and distrust my neighbors” – but I suspect the lack of control/harm loved ones answer is more common among conservatives and possibly libertarians. It’s a worldview difference.

 

Practice: Try the Five Whys on your favorite protagonist. If possible, use it to get to the root of something you don’t understand about him or her.

Now try the Five Whys on your own fears. Explore how your new understanding of yourself can inform your writing.

Resources: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose – great book for learning how to use literature as a touchstone for your own writing practice.

In the Neolithic Age” by Rudyard Kipling. Read it. Read it again. Read the background information linked at the bottom of the page. Go back and read the poem again. It’s short. It’s worth the time.

If you fear writing (not uncommon among writers) – try Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg. This collection of bite-sized essays on writing followed by short exercises is great for breaking up writers block and helping you overcome, if not eliminate, the fear of writing.

***

Previous installments in the series:

Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance