Are You Growing as a Writer? (Here’s the Only Way to Tell)
Do you want to grow as a writer?
I know you do, simply because you are a writer. I know because you are here reading this post, either because you subscribe to this blog and others like it as a way to mainline writing knowledge on a regular basis, or because you stumbled onto this post in a search through the jungles of the Internet for the answer to one of the many, many writing questions that press down upon us all.
Many of those questions (and the available answers) are craft-based. How to write a story? How to write a good story? How to craft convincing plots, characters, theme, dialogue, narrative, action, romance, mystery, you name it? We seek to further our growth as writers in part to abate the misery of our own inadequacies in the face of such a complex art form, and in part because we are as fascinated by the patterns and techniques of story as we are the stories themselves.
I don’t believe this type of craft-focused growth ever finds an end, but it does, after a time, create a relative mastery. So what then? Where does the trueand deep growth come from then?
Storytelling as an Exploration of the “Shadow”
A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I talked about four levels in our climb up the writing mountain. In it, I talked about how I felt I had reached the stage, in my own journey, where “I knew what I knew.” I wrote the post with a certain amount of satisfaction, of course. But deep in my heart, I also wrote it with more than a little fear and trembling—because what came next? Was writing just going to be easy and fun and a total breeze from that point on? Was it all downhill from there?
Of course not. My storytelling instincts were honed well enough for me to feelthe foreshadowing. Hello, False Victory. Hello, Third Plot Point. (And if you know story structure, you know what that means.)
What I found beyond that plateau was a total paradigm shift in my relationship to my creativity. It is still ongoing, and even now I do not yet have a clear view of the next mountain. I have always believed mastery is the unconscious made conscious—to the point where the conscious understanding eventually reintegrates with the unconscious as “knowing instinct.” I now believe that is what lies beyond the stage of “knowing what you know.”
Basically, it feels like unlearning everything you learned. For me, I sense it means moving into a creative process that is less obsessively ordered. (I’m still not sure where I’m going next, so I hesitate to speak of it in concrete terms, but I have this sneaking feeling that I, who have identified all my life as an obsessive outliner, might be headed into the terrifying wilderness of pantsing.) More to the point, this is all bringing home to me more clearly than ever that any growth that occurs in the creative process is not merely about mastering skill, but also, and more pertinently, about our growth as human beings.
In these last few years, it has become less and less of a serendipitous surprise to me to realize that most of my greatest creative insights are arising not from books about writing, but from books about humans. One standout example is a tiny volume I picked up about the psychological theory of the “shadow” (basically, everything we store in the unconscious). The book turned out to be written by (who else?) a poet. In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, poet Robert Bly referenced a quote from medieval philosopher Jakob Böhme, which although speaking about people readingbooks is, I think, even more aptly put to people writing books:
Böhme has a note before one of his books, in which he asks the reader not to go farther and read the book unless he is willing to make practical changes as a result of the reading. Otherwise, Böhme says, reading the book will be bad for him, dangerous.
This brings me back to my original question. How do we know if we are growing as writers—if we are really growing? I daresay it is far less about how well we are crafting our plot structures and our sentences, and much more about whether what we are writing is true enough and powerful enough to affect our own perceptions of life and our approaches to living it.
Bly pointed out:
The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as [Wallace Stevens’s]:
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries
he must from then on live differently. A change in his life has to come as a response to the change in his language…. [Rilke] was always ready to change his way of living at a moment’s notice if the art told him to.
Beware Your Own Ruts, Formulae, and “Knowledge”
The willingness to be impacted by our own art will manifest differently for each writer (and for each thing written). Sometimes it will mean enacting tremendous personal paradigm shifts. Sometimes it will require lifestyle changes. Sometimes the changes are smaller: just the willingness to seebeauty in details we have previously overlooked. Sometimes the changes are ineffable, more a prayer than a crusade. And sometimes the changes have to do with the art itself.
For me, I’m finding it means I cannot create in the ways I used to. I mean, I can. To a certain degree, I have mastered my art. But I begin to realize that in becoming master, I now risk becoming tyrant. Nineteenth-century French literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve cautions us:
There exists in most men a poet who died young, whom the man survived.
I don’t wish to outlive my inner poet. But that is what I risk if I am unwilling to learn the lesson my creativity would teach me and to keep growing. I have worked so hard to consciously understand my craft—to mitigate those miserable moments when the story isn’t working and I have no idea why. And yet the next step seems to be putting back on the blindfold, trusting my Muse to take my hand and lead me straight back into the misty realms of unconscious creativity.
If this sounds a little hazy and unformed, it is! None of this discounts all the learning and growth that has come before. The formulae, patterns, techniques, practices, guidelines, and structure of the craft are vital. Consciousness and understanding are important in art as in life. I am not saying writers shouldn’t be learning all this stuff. If you feel you don’t yet understand plot structure, for the love of anyone who will read your story, please learn it. But the moment structuring gets to be a rut, realize it’s time to keep growing.
Every single day at the page should be a gut-check. But don’t worry. If you don’t check in, your gut willeventually tell you what’s going on anyway. As literary agent Donald Maass shares in the closing of The Fire in Fiction:
How do the events of your story make your point? Do you even have a point? I believe that you do. How do I know? Because I know that you are not a person lacking principles and void of passion. That isn’t possible. You are, after all, writing fiction. That is not an activity taken up by those without a heart.
If you start to feel you are writing the same story over and over, it’s likely because you didn’t allow the story you just finished to change you. Maass goes on with the challenge:
Some bemoan the decline of reading and lament the sad state of contemporary fiction. Are they right? Sometimes I wonder…. [A trend of contemporary novels] is to make characters of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle or to borrow their creations. What has happened to us? Have we lost confidence in our own imaginations? Are we afraid of portraying grand characters and big events? Do we identify only with victims? Is the story of our age no more than a tale of survival?
Perhaps. Contemporary fiction reflects who we are. And who are you? How do you see our human condition? Where have you been that the rest of us should go? … Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what’s in your burning heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.
Storytelling as the Art of Changing
the World Yourself
More than any other form of writing, storytelling is dreaming out loud. It is an exploration of our inner selves, our true selves, conscious and unconscious, sun and shadow. It tells us things we do not know (or at least that we do not know that we know). In so many ways, true creativity—true art—is an act of revelation. This is true of great masterpieces, but it is just as true of small scribblings that never see the light of day.
Last year, I shared some of my ponderings about the ego-driven nature of most fiction. I recognize that a great part of the struggle in my own soul over this new direction I feel my creativity taking is that I’m going to have to return to writing things with no thought for publication. I’m going to have to release the ego’s need for confirmation and remember the inherent worth in the act of creation for creation’s sake. In her fantastically inspiring classic If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland reminds us:
If I wrote something true and good that nobody cared to read, it would do me a great deal of good.
I think we forget that sometimes. To a large extent, we write either because we want to do it well enough to be published (for any variety of reasons), or we do it because we have this seemingly admirable desire to have a positive effect on our world. But if we create something and it does neither of those things—is that creation somehow worthless?
Perhaps. The answer depends entirely on what and why and how we have created it. If, however, we ourselves are changed by act of creating something, anything, even something sloppy and silly—then by that act we have changed the world. And if we have not been changed by our own creation, then have we really done anything after all, no matter how popular the story is?
Ueland also says:
…writing is not a performance but a generosity.
I do not believe she was speaking of the “generosity” of giving people one more story to read or watch. She was speaking of the generosity of writing something with deep honesty, passion, and personal truth just for the sake of writing it.
So once again, we return to my original question: How can you know if you are growing as a writer?
There are many ways. There is the ability to compare your most recent story with the previous story and to know the recent one is more technically sound. Then there is the ability to know what you know—to truly and consciously understand what is required to create a solid story and to fix its problems.
But there is also the growth of you as an individual. There is the growth that comes simply because you wrote a story and now, in any number of possible ways, you are a different person.