Category Archives: Writing

The Stoic Writer

Writer

I have to share this article from Medium, one of the great writing resources on the Internet. While not targeted specifically at writers, this list of Stoic principles for regaining control of one’s life and time is pure gold for us scribbling souls. The article, 9 Stoic Practices That Will Help You Thrive In The Madness Of Modernity, quotes famous Stoic thinkers and provides examples of how these insights from ancient times can benefit us.

You’ll want to read the whole thing, but here are some outstanding selections:

1. Develop An Internal Locus Of Control

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” — Epictetus

Much of what happens in life is not within our control. The Stoics recognised this undeniable truth, and focused instead on what they could do.

Born a slave, it would seem that Epictetus had no reason to believe he could control anything. He was permanently crippled from a broken leg given to him by his master. Epictetus would live and die in poverty.

But that wasn’t what Epictetus thought. He would say that even while his property and even his body was not within his control, his opinions, desires, and aversions still remained his. That was something that he owned.

You can find dozens of articles stressing that your characters must have agency, that is, the ability to evaluate, decide, and act, but step one for any writer is to develop and exercise their own agency. You want to write, but darn it, there are bills to pay, friends who want you to watch the big game, and those new cat videos on You Tube are so funny! Who’re you fooling? It’s not external things stopping you from writing – it’s you.

Interesting characters with agency affect their own story. As writers, we must take an active role in writing the stories of our lives.

3. Don’t Outsource Your Happiness

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” — Marcus Aurelius

Much of what we do stems from our primal need to be liked and accepted by others. Disapproval from our social group had serious repercussions in the past. It would have likely meant exile and eventually death in the wilderness.

That’s still true to some extent today. But how much time and effort do we spend trying to win the approval of others? What is it costing us?

Your PC dings, you check your email, and there it is – another rejection. Yes, it’s a let down. We all know how scary it is to hit that submit button. But a rejection is no excuse for self-pity. First of all, editors reject pieces for all sorts of reasons. Your piece may be similar to a submission they’ve already selected, it may be the wrong length, it may be a fantastic piece of writing whose tone doesn’t fit with the editor’s current theme. Or mood. Or whatever.

More important, it’s self-defeating to put your pride as a writer in the heads of strangers. Yes, we want others to read and appreciate what we’ve put so much of our hearts and time into. But we must accept the fact that not everyone will embrace every piece.

6. Consolidate Your Thoughts In Writing

“No man was ever wise by chance” — Seneca

Of the many things we can do daily, none are as important as looking inward. The act of self-reflection forces us to question ourselves and examine our own assumptions of the world. It’s how the answers to some of the world’s biggest questions have surfaced.

Modern life is abuzz with distractions. There are dazzling time-wasters and cleverly packaged temptations that can quickly lead you astray. Taking the time to gather and organize your thoughts by writing them down is not easy, but the very act of writing forces you to focus and think clearly. That’s the way to find our true selves within the modern whirlpool. Our passion to write is our path to liberation.

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Storytelling: It’s about Going Primal

We’ve talked about the paleo diet and lifestyle before, but here’s a great post on the vital role paleo plays in the stories we enjoy reading. The post, by author E J Randolph, appears at Jami Gold’s blog, one of the best writing resources on the web. Check it out:

The evolutionary imperative at the level of our genes is to “eat, survive, and procreate.” Our brains evolved to solve the obstacles to these goals, and the same basic brain functioning operates today in every sphere of our lives—including writing. … For a story to ensnare our attention though, we need a big problem to solve. We are interested in how others solve problems in different situations. We may need that knowledge. It is imperative we remember or are told which berries are poisonous, which plants are edible, where the best places to hunt are.

We are riveted by big problems. The bigger the problem, the better the story.

Absolutely! As James Bell counsels, every effective story has to be about death. It doesn’t have to be about physical death; a protag can grab and hold our attention if he’s confronting other forms of death, such as professional death, or the death of a relationship. (Of course, since making a living and personal relationships are vital to one’s survival, those struggles indirectly involve physical death.)

Our goal is to craft a story that enchants readers with beauty and emotion. Evocative details that trigger the senses as well as believable, interesting characters are important, but most important is a realistic threat the protag must face. Pull those elements together, and you’ve created a story that slush pile editors and readers will love.

It’s not about you

Richard Pryor

Photo of Richard Pryor by Alan Light

Last week’s Quote of the Day by George Bernard Shaw got me to thinking about the dark forces behind the creative process. I believe every artist tries to work out unresolved issues in their lives through their art. Tom Petty, Robin Williams, David Sedaris, and Stephen King, just to name a few, sought redemption from childhood pain in their work. Would the sparks between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have been so believable had Margaret Mitchell not been abandoned by her first husband? I doubt it.

And yet, the best artists don’t just shake their fists at a cruel, unjust world; they create something that breathes and moves. Their pain drives them to create art that inspires people. The focus of great art is not the author but the audience.

Stand-up comic Tiffany Haddish learned this lesson from none other than Richard Pryor when she was performing at the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp:

I was on the stage telling jokes and he says, “Stop! Stop! What are you doing?” I said, “I’m telling a joke,” and he says, “No, you’re not!” He said, “Look, people don’t come to comedy shows because they want to hear about your problems, or politics or religion. They come to have fun, so when you’re on stage, you need to be having fun. If you’re having fun, the audience is having fun.” And then as I got older I started realizing, “Oh man, I’m trying to do this in everything in life because once I started having fun onstage, you know, people were nice to me. People were kind; it was easier to move forward.”

As George Bernard Shaw advised, “Be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Tiffany Haddish was lucky enough to learn this from one of the comic greats. The same lesson applies to writers.

Famous Literary Battles: Flannery O’Connor versus Charles Bukowski

Here’s a battle every writer faces: What do you do when you can’t find your muse? We’ve all been stuck when the words just won’t come. What to do? Even when we consult the experts, we can’t get a definitive answer. Here are two extreme approaches to the problem, each from an accomplished author. First, let’s hear from one of the greatest voices in Southern literature, and one of my favorites, Flannery O’Connor:

Flannery O'Connor

“I must do do do and yet there is the brick wall that I must kick over stone by stone. It is I who has built the wall and I who must tear it down. I must force my loose mind into its overalls and get going.” – Flannery O’Connor

Then there’s this from poet, novelist, and literary bad boy Charles Bukowski:

Bukowski

“You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more.” – Charles Bukowski

So – when you’re hit with a bad case of writer’s block, should you damn the torpedoes and do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, or do you wait for inspiration?

Bukowski felt that a writer shouldn’t ruin a perfectly good piece of paper with overworked, forced attempts at self-expression, advising instead to let the psychic pressure build within until the words “come bursting out of you.” On the other hand, farm owner Flannery O’Connor saw writing like any other chore, which required rolling up one’s sleeves and wading into the task and not quitting until it was done.

I think the real lesson here is that writing, like any other artistic endeavor, is a craft and calling defying all formulas. Effective personal expression demands a personal approach, and discovering your own requires dedication and effort and plenty of wrong moves. As for myself, I can go for agonizing weeks researching and plotting and outlining before I dare put down the first word. Even then, it takes a while until I gain insights into characterization, setting, and crucial plot points. Then, gradually, momentum builds, and, when it works, I’m absorbed in a half-formed world that slowly reveals what I must do to help finish it.

Bottom line? Until the writing lifestyle helps you discover your own particular approach, remember the counsel of author Elissa Schappell: “The muse only shows up when you put your ass in the chair.”