If anything in your life is more important than writing—anything at all—you should walk away now while you still can. Forewarned is forearmed.
For those who cannot or will not walk away, you need only remember this.
Writing is life. Breathe deeply of it.
— Terry Brooks, “Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life
A friend disagreed with me once about the blessings of art in contrast to the curses of the artist. It is a fascinating subject indeed. And those who are not a slave to the muses have difficulty understanding the yoke the artist wears around their neck.
Art is the most beautiful burden, and that does not necessarily make it a bad thing.
In a conversation with my wonderful editor on if writing my second book will be easier than the first, I replied that, for a writer, ease is the enemy. Ease is the sign that you have stopped; ease is the sign that you have become comfortable with your writing ability, and that—well--that is a most dangerous position to be. If you ever believe that writing is “easy,” you must know that you are simply fooling yourself:
Danger! Danger! You must turn back!
Side note: This is an amazing book. You should read it!
So how do these two topics amalgamate? How does the burden of writing keep us from the dangers of ease?
Burden is the sign of growth; hardship is the sign of progress. Triumph over burden means that your passion is true, and true passion is the crux of good Art.
So, let me broaden the words of the great master above me...
“[Art] is life. Breathe deeply of it.”
Enjoyed this post? Found it helpful? Leave me a comment! :)
“In the cave you fear to enter lies the treasure that you seek.”
- Joseph Campbell
There is a deepness and unsung clarity to this quote. Over the past few weeks, I have been reading Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” and it is odd just how much this single book has caused me to grow as a writer and overall as a storyteller.
I have always been a lover of stories; I have always believed in their power. They move us, teach us, and cause us to grow. Stories are inherently and inextricably human, and you probably couldn’t imagine your life without them.
So what makes a story “human”? And just what does it mean for a story to be “human”?
When you read a tale of heroism or extravagance, you might read this and think “How am I anything like this hero? They’re so larger than life!” And if I told you that these heroes are not so different from you or me, would you believe me? Would you believe me if I said that these heroes and heroines are all a part of the same archetype—the same human spirit and psyche?
Photo by William F. Burk
I must admit that, as a writer, I do.
Stories are things that have the power to transcend the contrived boundaries between humanity and yet, deep within them, they hold the keys to our very essence. All peoples, when moved by a tale, will weep at its beauty.
The above quote is a favorite of mine, simply because it captures the message of Campbell’s book so well, and I think it's so wise because often times we don't strive for the things we desire because we're afraid of failure. In a sense, our lives aren't so different from that of the hero who journeys into the cursed cave to find his sacred treasure. No. The heroes of myth and legend, in many ways, are not so different from us everyday people. While we will indeed never journey to obtain the Golden Fleece or wrestle the wild man Enkidu, we still have two things that the heroes of ancient tales possess: We have the fear of the unknown and the proclivity for courage.
Indeed the unknown faces us, its visage abysmal and grim. We know that our desires lie within, but darkness is daunting, isn’t it? But with only a little courage does the hero solve the riddle, escape the trap, slay the beast. When one’s virtue supersedes their self-preservation, that is true courage.
So, then, how are you like the heroes of ancient myth? Easily put, you are kin in that all humans struggle, and all humans possess desires, loves, romances. The heroes of ancient times may seem so alienated from the common day, but the truth is that they are not. The protagonists of these age old epics are merely hyperbolic archetypes of what it means to be human.
Go, bravely into the cave, for there is thunder within you.
How the Finding of the "Treasure"
What is our "Hero's Journey"?
And I would also like to believe that I have encountered something much more profound.
The Journey is all around us, an omnipresent force which moves the gears of the clock of destiny to chime to the time of the hero to begin again and be born anew. But the bell tolls for all, not just Theseus, and humanity’s destiny (and the destiny of the individual) resides in their unique keenness to hear the chimes of the seemingly supernatural, all-encompassing, subconscious forces of the world and mind.
So how then is the common man akin to the man of myth?
The answer is rather simple, and the answer is this: you have the ability to choose. Think about your choices every day, for the clock is constantly ticking, awaiting to chime its beckon for one to be summoned to the destiny of their life. Or perhaps it merely chimes to the destiny of one’s day, one’s singular hour. Destiny is a fickle mistress in that, though she is a commander of paths, she lays in bed with the autonomy of Free Will.
So, watch your life. You may be surprised to find that your “Hero’s Journey” lies everywhere. No matter how large. No matter how small. Listen well, for the bells of adventure beckon merely for those who hear.
The Writer as a Strategist
“How, Will?” You must ask. “How is telling a story anything akin to two players moving chess pieces vindictively across the rows and files of the chessboard?”
Sit with me here and imagine. Have you ever been writing an arc, a chapter, or a scene and stopped to think: “Why isn’t this working? Why am I not moving towards my desired goal?” And thus the writer, whether they know it or not, sits at the board, ogling the pieces before them, pondering as to why their decisions up until this point are not working, when in a sudden in a whirlwind of epiphany, they think “Of course! If I do this, then it will work!”
Just like that, the writer is no longer merely a spinner of ideas or characters, but a strategist of the storytelling art. As the same way a grandmaster moves his pieces to his designs, the writer places their characters to create certain effects. The characters dance upon the board—upon the plot in a magnificent play to move toward the end goal.
The writer desires the checkmate, or, the end of the story.
But how do they do this with so much against them? And who, then, is their opponent?
The opponent of the writer remains one object, be it the the World, the Psyche, the Self. The writer fights against the mind, in a glorious duel to uncover the World within.
And so, for every brilliant move, there is an equal counter-force. This, is the exact way that the story is like the chess match. The writer concocts his plot by moving their pieces to the common goal of finality, just as the grandmaster moves their pieces to the common goal of checkmate.
How does this—how should this—change our mentalities as writers?
Well, it’s rather simple. If we think more about the utility of our characters, we will see more about their quality to the plot and why they are important. Likewise, if we think of the plot less a series of events and more a strategy, it gives us the ability to take away the intimidation that it sometimes presents. After all, it is merely the concoction that results from our strategic decisions along the writer’s journey—the writer’s game. And lastly, if we think of our end goal as checkmate, it implies one thing particularly.
It implies that we must be aware of the goal (the ending) and thus it gives us a goal to play our pieces in favor of.
I have been thinking about this analogy much lately, and I believe it is a strange one, yet equally refreshing. And though the World, the Psyche, and the Self strike against us, we must know that the strategy is in our hands, and, as long as we can play our way to victory, the art is eternally free.
The Light of Fantasy
Illuminating the Magic Mirror
That is the only way that a man could wrap his head around it.
This is not for no reason, however; it is not out of spite, nor of a sinister machination of the author. Within a fantasy story, there is a conscious and unconscious desire to confront the horrors of the world. Through fantasy, a reader (and the writer) is able to confront the despicable and the evil.
THE WRITING MIND:
THE THREE TOOLS OF THE WRITER
That is, I realized just how many people shared my goal and just how many people had story ideas exactly like I did.
Mankind is a creature intrinsically drawn to stories; stories exist in our everyday lives, our every moment. Actually, take this time to imagine a world without them. Yeah, sure, no one could write a book, but also, you could never talk about your day, either. You could never tell someone about a time when you were younger, or about a great grandfather that they will never meet. And, of course, you could never hear Karen complain about how she had to speak to the manager at McDonald’s. We as humans have the art of telling a tale bred into our souls, and life without them would be quite difficult (and perhaps unfathomable).
One of my favorite quotes, by William Faulkner, will do well here, I believe:
“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”
A writer indeed has those three tools: observation, experience, and imagination.
You must train yourself to be observant to little things. The world around us is begging to be seen in a different way; it is begging to be found as it is, and not as it is merely seen. Likewise, I read books all the time where a writer explains something so small in such a brilliant way. That's the Writer's Observation at work.
Experience is a bit more concrete. Experience is known, where observation is acquired. You can inherently write about what you know and have lived through, mainly because you are the only one who wields that perspective, and you are the only one who wields in that particular way.
Imagination is the strange one, mainly because it's abstract. Imagination is a mixture of wit and creativity. It's the place where a writer becomes an artist and twists things to his liking. In the hands of imagination, the universe is but a tool of the mind; it is but the hammer that collides onto the red-hot metal as the writer forms it into something brand new——some foreign mutation of what it once was.
None of these three are promised and sometimes they are merely given. All around us, there are things for us to say and things for us to hear. We must simply know when to speak and when to listen.
On Fantasy, the Escapist,
and Plato's Cave
The very rise of the fantasy genre sprouts from despair. For my example, consider Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Published in 1939, the classic tale of the adventure of Bilbo Baggins came onto shelves during the eve of what would quite considerably be the largest war known to humanity. More so, the story arrived merely two decades after what was, at the time, the greatest war the world had ever known. The world faced depression; the world stared into the mirror and perceived their own mortality.
And thus, people wished to find a way out——to another world, another time.
Along this vein of thought, the fantasy genre is comparable to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. Imagine a person whom, throughout the entirety of his life, faced the back wall of a cave. And, as Plato puts it, there is a light that shines into the cave from the mouth, illuminating the back wall. People walk by the cave on the outside, casting shadows upon the wall for our prisoner to see. And, he sees nothing but these shadows. Given the only experience and knowledge he has perceived throughout his life, he would believe that these shadows are the “real” world and would not know that they are, in fact, merely the shadows of something else.
In certain aspects, fantasy stories follow this idea.
The writer creates a world, yet he can only make sense of it with what he knows and what he can fathom. One cannot write about something they do not cognitively perceive; creativity is only useful when it surfaces, not when it is dormant. So, then, the writer of fantasy, though crafty, must in some way or another cast shadows upon the wall for their reader (the chained man) to believe. This form of writing is, at its root, a type of trickery. It is a ploy by the hands of the writer, the Puller of Strings, to fool the reader into believing in the shadows: To make them care about non-existent characters, in non-existent places, doing non-existent things. With the reader always carefully in mind, the writer must piece together a mosaic of life and imagination, a collision of the real and the unreal. And therefore, as writers, we must watch the wall of the cave from the mouth, carefully observing the shadows that the world creates——and we must mold them to our liking.
The Eternal Cafe:
At the Table of the World
This coffee shop experience is comparable to the endeavor of the writer. The journey of the writer takes place when one enters the “Eternal Cafe.”
The Eternal Cafe, however, is not a place one can reach on foot or by car. The Eternal Cafe is a state of mind. It is the mentality of the writer as he attempts to transcribe the words of the World. He enters the Cafe, and around him are people. They are but faceless phantoms, mixtures, entering and exiting the ethereal terminal. These phantoms will not speak unless the writer speaks first, but their faces appear, ever there, in his peripherals.
They all have a story to tell——but he lacks the time to tell them all.
The baristas work behind the bar, and the writer talks to them. As they converse, they tell the writer a story:
They give him a hint.
These ghosts——these spirits——are what we call “characters.”
They embody us. They embody others. They embody themes.
They are the creations of our mind, molded from the World around us.
And that is what the writer has done, for the Eternal Cafe is but the sentience of the writer; it is his vigilance——his watchful eye. He is aware and catches the spirits as they go by; he is unaware and bumps into them. Some take hold and become people he knows quite well (if not completely), and some disappear——lost between the chasms of his mind, swept away by the muses.
The Eternal Cafe has only one table. One seat: The writer’s inevitable destination.
He sits at the table.
Beside him, is the Self: his heart, mind, soul, spirit. And, sitting lazily in front of him is the World——not the World as he sees it, but rather the World as it truly is. The conversation he has with this entity (whether we call it God or the Universe or whichever) is the essence of all true writing.
It is the purest form a writer can embody.
The Eternal Cafe has a plethora of entrances, each with a myriad of signs pointing us toward its doors. The World is ever before us; the phantoms ever walk our minds. We, as writers, must learn to perceive these things. For the single table beckons us, and the World has much to say.
Thoughts from Starbucks:
On the purpose of Language, the Story, and My experience with a Beta-reader
Language has one function: Communication.
All language is designed to do this one thing.
I remember my Intro to Composition 2 class during my second semester of college. The professor began his class by writing the word “SIGN” in big, bold, letters on the board. At the age I was, I was not prepared for the simplicity in which this word would begin to imply, and it was not until much later that the lecture would “click.”
He said: “A word, is a sign.”
It is such a bare——such a plain definition of the concept, yet it is the greatest definition I have yet to encounter. It is because words are signs.
A word represents a concept: Abstract or concrete, moving or stationary, true or false.
This applies to the story, as well. A story, at its most basic——most cellular level——is a variety of words which, when placed in particular combination, convey an idea. This idea, in terms of stories, creates the illusion of the world, or a world.
The writer of fiction, then, is alike the magician; the storyteller is an illusionist and a weaver of words. The job of the storyteller is to combine these words into the right order to make the reader (or listener) care about non-existent people, in a non-existent reality, doing non-existent things.
On my way home from the coffee shop, I considered this; I considered how these things could make me a better writer, then, I thought about my beta-reader.
Having a beta-reader has been, for me, the ultimate example of the importance of using words to create the illusion mentioned above——and using words correctly. The thing is this: I never realized just how blind I was——just how little I knew about writing the story——just how blind I was because I knew the story in its entirety.
So, what do I mean?
I mean that I know what I mean. I know the story; I know what the story is supposed to say. My reader, on the other hand, does not. This, then, means that the reader only knows the story through the information I give her. There have been many times when my beta-reader has come back and said something like “So [CHARACTER] is really...” or “So [THIS] is [THAT]?”
Conversely, these times fill my pulse with anxiety as I think “Oh no! What have I done to make her think that?”
What the reader thinks about your story, whether true or false, is not their fault. They only understand what has been communicated to them; they only comprehend the ideas that the writer’s words have conveyed to them.
I have learned, through many semi-anxiety-attacks as a writer, just how crucial it is to watch my words. When I edit, I ask myself “Does that word mean ___?” and “What am I trying to convey? What am I trying to tell the reader?”
Through my experiences with the beta-reader, I am learning to be a bit more discerning with my diction.
That said, I am glad that writing is, like all arts, an incremental process. I am merely learning and have far to go. That is my contemplation for the week, and I can say is this: Next time you edit, watch your words and say, “What idea am I trying to convey?” :)
William F. Burk
Award-winning author of fantasy, flash fiction, and poetry. Author of "The Heart of Hearts," a debut fantasy novel. Always writing, forever and ever.