Karmic Writing: Doing Becomes
We write stories for as many different reasons as there are people who write. Some people write as personal therapy. Some write to set the world straight. Some write to heal others, and some to heal wounds from their childhoods. We have stories that instruct, deny, teach, explore, justify, and warn. We have stories that do all these things at once. Yet, aspiring writers still ask these perennial questions:
- How do I become a writer?
- Where do I start a story?
- What should I write?
In order, the truest answers I know are:
- By writing.
- With the writing.
- And whatever you write.
You may have chuckled in humorous agreement after you read the questions and their answers. You may have become a bit angry and resentful at my apparently useless and flippant answer. You may have just skimmed forward to get to the bits you think you need.
Please don’t laugh, resent, or skim.
The questions are legitimate.
The answers are true.
We have all asked them, and we have all had to answer them for ourselves and others.
Let’s look at them one at a time.
How do I become a writer?
The word “writer” is the agentive nominalized form of the infinitive verb “to write.” In the strictest sense, a person who writes is a writer. If that’s as far as we take the answer, the writers were justified in their little chuckle. The haters were justified in their little moment of resentment. The skimmers were justified in moving on.
However, I want to bring a bit of karma into the concept of becoming a writer. Some writers are born into families where professional writing parents read stories to them in the womb, where the family played endless word games for fun, where no TV was allowed, where a giant dictionary lived in the living room, and where telling stories to one another was a form of entertainment every night after dinner. From families like that, writers emerge into academic and commercial circles carrying the burden of “talent.” Those writers are not kidding at all when they say things like “Just tell the story,” “I know if it sounds right,” and “the characters just do what they are going to do.” For those rare and highly talented people who were genetically predisposed to solid language skills and then internalized the patterns of success in language and story at very early ages, “Just write,” is a true, complete, and self-sufficient answer to the question.
I wasn’t born into one of those families. Most people weren’t. Sure, we all have some degree of the magical thing called talent, but talent is just the degree to which you were genetically predisposed to then trained to early life fluency in language and story. Luckily, many successful writers had little or no talent when they came to the craft. They compensated by working hard. It turns out that behaving like a writer creates writers.
That’s what I mean by karma. One definition of karma is that every choice we make turns us into a person who has made that choice. Having chosen, we benefit from all the pleasures and pains that go with that choice. If we choose to drive on the wrong side of the road, we gain the freedom and joy that comes with being unconstrained by law. We might even live through the experience. We might also experience the accident and death that can come with having made that choice. Either way, we create ourselves into the person who experiences the result.
By writing, we become writers. Showing up every morning at the keyboard causes our bodies and minds to adapt to the task of writing. By attending seminars, classes, and conferences, we train body and mind to become sensitive to the patterns of success in behavior and technique that make a writer a writer.
A person who says, “I am a writer,” but doesn’t touch the keys is the same person not writing today that they were yesterday. A person who says nothing but does sit down at their desk and reads, studies, and practices the craft becomes a writer. Mind and body adapt to what we do. Writers write. Writing makes writers.
Where do I start a story?
The entry point to any story can be any moment in the story. By entry point, I mean the first text on the page. I do not mean the opening line. As you would guess from what has come before in this little essay, it means that writers write in order to figure out what they are going to write.
Since the first shaman spit pigment onto a cave wall, writers have been struggling with blank stone, clay, or page. I can’t count how many different methods of beginning I have studied over the years, and all of them have been correct. I will say that my all-time favorite came from Meg Chittenden, who taught the Carlo Rossi Method of plotting, but that’s another story and not really mine to tell. Here are a few non-Carlo Rossi entry points along with an example of each:
- Start with A Theme: e.g.: Developing listening skills creates understanding, deeper respect for others, and greater success in family and life.
- A Social Issue: Prejudice against intelligence
- Personal, Emotional Issue: Unrequited love
- Trauma: Limitations in relationships because of early life sibling abuse
- Random Topics: A dirty coffee mug, a newspaper article about hauling ice from glaciers in Canada to L.A. as a water supply, and a Country Western Song. (This starting point actually became my sold short story “Running Water for L.A.”)
- Idea in The Shower: What would it be like to be a spider living in the sewer?
- Image or Images: My reflected house on a dew drop on the rust-damaged petal of a blue rose.
- A fast Scene: Just wrote five pages as fast as I could. Now, is there anything in there to work with?
- The Beginning: Her first day at Garver Road Middle School was triumphant and terrible in equal parts.
- Someplace in The Middle: By the time Gordon arrived at the farm, the dogs had eaten most of the flesh from Millicent’s corpse.
- The Climax: She held the flame of the sword close enough to his head to singe the hair of his beard and raise acrid smoke. When he closed his battered eye to avoid the flame, she said, “For my sister and my village.”
- The Final Moment: Susurrate waves tickled his toes and tugged at the beach sand, washing away his foundations and forcing him to shift his footing from time to time. The Corrilla’s black flag disappeared over the horizon. The breath he’d been holding slipped past his lips in a long sigh before he turned toward home, his wife, and their new child.
Any one of these could become the entry point for a story. Any one can provide the spark that allows the writer to begin asking the questions that define context, present a problem for solution, and result in answers that drive the project forward toward completion.
What would it be like to be a spider in a sewer? Replace spider with rat and watch the film Flushed Away. Go back to spider, and ask what makes the spider worth following in the sewer? She loves her children—deep fried with vinegar and salt. Nothing in the sewer can satisfy her hunger. Why does that matter? Because she is the only spider of her kind in the sewer and the other sewer spiders shun her for her culinary peculiarities. So what? She can solve murder mysteries in the sewer, and that will bring her back to the bathroom where she meets her grown children but no longer only sees them as food. So, the sewer is a metaphor for her exploration of the shadow self and her resentment that her children are a part of herself she wants to recover by eating them, and the murders force her to recognize the deeper value of every life and the interconnectedness of each life to all….
The above example of uncensored, question-driven brainstorming would not end with the ellipsis. It would go on and on until enough silliness and non-silliness appeared on the page to allow the writer to begin to see a story worth telling.
The point is that writers start by starting. Any start is a start provided we keep going.
What should I write?
Did you read the bit about the spider? Did you shake your head and think, “Oh, for the love of…”? Now, go back and look at the list of starting places. Which one is the one we should pick as the story we want to write?
Exactly. Any of them. All of them. Just pick. The one that you picked is the right one. Don’t pick. Start a different way. Toss a coin and write about the glimmer of it spinning in the sunlight. Travel to a festival and write about carnies. Write about not being able to write. However you start is the right way to start. Whatever shows up in your writing is the right thing to write about. Later, you can do the work of turning it into a story.
One of the most disturbing phrases I hear from writers at conferences and in seminars is, “My story is about…” Compare that opening phrase to “This story is about…” Writing a lot of stories allows writers to learn faster, understand story more deeply, and discover which stories, themes, concepts, and issues are most powerful for them. Additionally, writing a lot of stories results in, well, a lot of stories. More stories provides a broader range for possible sales and reduces the worry surrounding any one story.
Let’s change the question just a little bit. Instead of asking “What should I write,” ask, “What the hell did I just write?” The answer will often be, “Huh. Well, I’ll be damned. That was fun.”
As one of the mottos of the Literary Non-Profit WordCrafters says, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” To become a writer, write. To start a story, write. To figure out what to write about, write. The shaman who spit pigment over their hand on the cave wall didn’t get it right the first time. They choked on ashes, ochre, and dust. They practiced. They experimented. They figured it out. The doing creates the doer. The doer does in order to create.