Tag Archives: writing

Make it new


“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes

We’ve all been there. We want to create something groundbreaking, something new and fresh. And we imagine that to do so we must start from scratch and create something never seen before. Forget genre! Forget tropes! Let’s make something truly original.

Problem is, it’s impossible to create something no one has ever seen before. Everyone gets their ideas from someone else. Stephen King learned from H.P. Lovecraft, who imitated Edgar Alan Poe, who got one of his best ideas (“The Raven”) from Charles Dickens. And so on. The work of every writer has a lineage, born out of a tradition. Step one in mastering the craft of writing, then, is to learn that tradition and make it your own.

What we call tradition is a set of conventions handed down — and embraced — because they work. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller put it, “A ‘tradition’ is just an innovation that’s been peer-reviewed. One that replicates, generation after generation.”

The reason these conventions work for us is because they are based on who we are. Carl Jung observed recurring personality types that he referred to as archetypal figures, which include: mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, and the hero. Jung rejected the blank slate theory of human psychological development, knowing that evolutionary pressures formed our bodies and personalities.

As beings with a long-established nature, we find ourselves confronting situations that are also long-established and recurring. Jung described these archetypal events as birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, and the union of opposites.

Underlying the superficial changes we experience is a timeless reality that repeatedly manifests itself in a set number of ways. That’s why there are only so many possible plots.

Joseph Campbell, who wrote “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” used the term “monomyth” to describe the hero’s journey, a plot that appears all over the world. All cultures, he wrote, create their own traditions, including their own stories to express their experience with the unchanging reality behind human existence.

And that’s what we want to do. Tradition is not an obstacle to creativity, but a springboard. When we interpret our experience in the light of tradition, we reveal to our readers, and ourselves, the mystic union of the past and present. In the words of T. S. Eliot, we must uncover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” That endeavor, says Eliot, is “the occupation of the saint.”

The challenge, as Ezra Pound put it, is to “Make it new.” Somehow, we must honestly recognize, and then relate, our insights, our pain, our love, our hate, to the timeless truth of the human condition. That’s the vital component that keeps the tradition alive — us.

Quote of the day

“I find the short story much more intriguing because it encompasses, in a moment, everything that went before and supposes everything that will follow. It gives the reader the opportunity to exercise his or her chops in solving the mystery. It freezes up a moment in time, it freezes your imagination of a concept in a moment in time, and the short story has always seemed to be to me far more difficult and adroit and flexible than the novel. There are many great novels, and yet I see people writing trilogies and quatrologies and even five and six and eight volumes in a series, and I think, ‘Are they not re-chewing their cud?’ So I try to hit the gong the first time.” Harlan Ellison

Quote of the day

Jack London

“I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.” Jack London

(This reminded me of my post “Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Good Liar?“)

A Writer’s Guide to Understanding People

Understanding People

There’s always worthwhile reading over at K.M. Weiland’s writing blog, but her latest post is a real find. In it, she argues that the key to creating and describing believable characters is to understand what makes real people tick. And the first step in understanding others is to understand oneself.

That path begins by coming to grips with what Weiland calls recognizing and examining the “four corners” of one’s personality, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components that define us. I agree that the physical should come first. Writing can be a cerebral activity, but language, the medium of writing, is grounded in the body. In fact, the science of Embodied Cognition tells us that all language is metaphor, and the building blocks of metaphor are physical sensations. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners reveal that when we read about a physical action, we activate the same areas of our brains as when we actually perform those actions.

Awareness and sensitivity enable us to detect vital details, and physical activity, especially activity spiced with a little danger, sharpens our powers of perception.

Weiland also outlines a lifelong path of study that includes literature, drama, history, and philosophy as a program for enhancing our understanding of human motivation. But she also argues that the very act of writing offers the best means of learning about ourselves, which in turn opens us to better comprehending others. Yes — writing and learning create a continuous feedback loop. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Do you have what it takes to be a good liar?

In other words, are you a good writer? *

Now, don’t feel insulted. Fact is, both accomplished writers and liars have the ability to recognize and accommodate other people’s point of view. If you aren’t sensitive to how others perceive your message, you can’t tell a believable story.

The above video illustrates how to determine a person’s lying ability in just a few seconds. (Hint: Have someone you trust watch the video and give YOU the test.)

And of course, there are the finer points of storytelling and lying to consider as well, such as knowing how to stimulate your audience’s imagination with just the right details that give your tale the appearance of reality. Achieving verisimilitude, like any other skill, takes practice.

There’s also a psychological element at work here. Both liars and writers enjoy being the center of attention. (Although you could argue that writers, who are introverts wrestling with extroverted cravings, really want an admiring audience kept at a safe distance.)

After all, the ability to lie is at the heart of what we do. Writers strive to craft an attractive and entertaining untruth. Isn’t that the definition of fiction? As Stephen King put it, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” The goal of fiction is to lure and enchant your audience so you can impart the larger meanings and deeper truths that originally inspired you to take up the challenge.

* Full disclosure: My wife gave me this test. Yeah, I passed.

Quote of the day

“As a fiction writer, the act had an immediate, recognizable weight to it; the imagined reality Jay had created in the act felt like the embodiment of good fiction writing. I began to consider the connections between the two crafts of magic and fiction writing, wondering what might be gleaned about the process of creating living fictions. The suspension of disbelief required by both reader and audience member. The inherent tension between believability and deception. The materialization of something where there once was nothing.” – Gabriel Urza