"There is nothing to say that hasn't been said before."
Terrence wrote this. For me, it has the peculiar standing of being at once the most terrifying and instantly calming statement ever made. Terrifying because it could not be more true and accompanies every blinking cursor I've ever encountered. Calming because he said it more than 22 centuries ago, in 2 BC. Millennia of content, art and invention since then have underscored two things: 1) that everything is derivative and 2) that we will never run out of layers.
We will never lack for new lenses.
A week ago, I gave a collection of students the assignment to go out into the world and find me a story. In the span of a single sentence Terence's fears were reborn on all of their faces. By Sunday, the slightly panicked emails started coming in. It's been fascinating because it's a panic I know well. One that I honestly felt before writing this post. More and more I'm realizing that the panic is rooted more in vastness than in emptiness. Nothing is uninteresting if you ask the right questions.
Small Talk is Not the Enemy
The world is full of coffee shop writers. You'll notice them immediately any a given location -- isolated, headphoned, and working sincerely to better their craft. It has struck me in recent years just how counter-productive this is to growth. Coffee shops, book stores, quiet corners, all of these feel like home to writers. They're safe. Welcoming. But they are also the conceptual equivalent to training for a marathon by going for a stroll. If you want your writing to extend beyond the personal journal, you've got to get uncomfortable.
You know what I think the writer's version of Calisthenics is? Small talk. It's awful, I know. But training is meant to be a struggle. You want to become skilled at finding a story? Go to a place where the stories are buried so deep you have to dig through a crust of formality to get to the core. Wear a suit. Bring business cards. And push yourself to find the stories amid the chatter.
My father used to challenge me to write about ordinary people. A social worker with decades in the field, he'd tell me how often ordinary people get looked over and how much there is to uncover. I spent a fair amount of time trying to find this classification of people to write about. I think, unknowingly, I was looking for pre-baked success stories. Ordinary people in extraordinary times. What I missed was that the real skill of good writers is understanding that even in ordinary times, people of all sorts, contain magnitudes.
"The story's not important. What's important is the way the world looks."- Frederick Barthelme, Brothers
The second challenge students face when finding a story is figuring out where to take it. It is a careful balance, because you can't force it. If the connections you draw are too obvious, the strings will appear, and the reader will unconsciously eject themselves from it. If you tell the reader the point, they'll never learn it. You want to lay out all the pieces in such a way that the reader discovers them as you did, on their own. (Something I'm doing a crummy job of in this post, by the way.)
This is really more about editing than writing itself. It's defined by the details you give versus those you hold back. In a 2013 article Chuck Palahnuik encouraged his readers to ban all "thought verbs." He wrote:
Thinking is abstract, Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
There's a responsibility here, a social contract. You are the link between the person whose story you're telling and the reader who will eventually consume it. One clumsy move or heavy-handed cliche, and you'll sell it short.
Once you find a story -- and you will -- get it all down. Record everything from the words spoken to the way the person looks saying them. Do research. Add context. Give a sense of scale. And then, after all the raw content has hit the page, step back, go for a walk and figure out what it's really about.
The irony in giving and grading writing assignments is that it implies mastery. It suggests, somewhat petulantly, that "I can do this, I just want to see if you can do it too." In truth, good writing needs to be built and maintained over time. I read recently about a writing professor who did each of her own assignments alongside her students. She had them grade her. She suffered the chagrin when they'd find grammatical errors or forced paragraphs in her work. I can't remember who it was now, but I admire her for it. We all need to be reminded to work at this. We all need to get out of the coffee shop sometimes and train.