Note: This week is the last Dear Writer set of the year. I’ll be back on Saturday for the paid letter and then I’m taking a week off for the holidays… sort of, I have a book coming out, loads to do… and I’ll return to the regular grind on January 5. See you then!
THE INSPIRATION: You get what you pay for
“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”
—Tahir Shah, Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams
I’m working on a story right now in which the basic premise of the world-building is that meaning is the currency of the universe, which I personally believe to be true. Stories, of course, are delivery mechanisms for meaning. So when I saw this quote I felt an instant affinity to it. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m planning on it.
THE FAT ORANGE CAT: Money, money, money, money
In your writing, work in an odd form of currency. Use anything other than dollars and coins. It can be something of sentimental value to your main character, or something an entire fantasy world uses to represent value. Or maybe you’re writing about how it all works in a world with no currency, just barter. Whatever. Pick a thing, assign it value it doesn’t inherently have, and play with it a bit. Have fun.
The “Get Your Stuff” link will bring you to an item I selected specifically to accompany this post, but you do not have to buy that thing in order to support me. Just keep popping through Amazon and buy the stuff you were going to buy anyway.
THE TROPE: MacGuffin
The MacGuffin is probably one of my favorite tropes. It’s the single ingredient to which you just add water and boom—you’ve got conflict.
Narrative conflict is what happens when your protagonist wants something, and your antagonist wants a mutually exclusive thing, and only one can win. They’re locked in this epic zero-sum battle, and the escalations in that battle define the story structure.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard to figure out what one wants that’s mutually exclusive with what the other wants, and you can spend quite some time trying to work it so that you’ve got a true zero sum.
Or… you can just add a MacGuffin. One thing, they both want it, only one can have it—instant narrative conflict. Think the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark; the infinity stone in Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, in a love triangle, the person in the middle is the MacGuffin… providing everyone involved is monogamous and possessive and no one is open to new and exciting ways to love and be loved.
Hey, no judgement. I’m a monogamist. I’m just saying…
The point is, a MacGuffin is an easy way to get that conflict in so you can get to your storytelling, and there’s no shame in using it. It works.
THE QUESTION: Good enough
“Am I good enough to be a writer?”
I’m taking my inspiration for this week’s question from an article by author, editor and writing coach Mathina Calliope, which she wrote as a guest blog for Jane Friedman, a writer whose knowledge of The Business is pretty damn great. I recommend.
Anyway, the guest blog Calliope wrote was about the one question writers ask that she can never answer, and that question is, “Am I good enough?” Calliope says it’s an unanswerable question, and elaborates on her point:
“Good enough” implies there’s a benchmark of writerly skill. Learn these techniques, practice this structural approach, master those literary devices. As if there were a bar out there somewhere, and your inherent talent plus practice puts you either above it or below it.
Don’t I wish.
It’s funny, because while I agree with Calliope’s reasoning and she says a lot of smart things in the blog—I recommend the read—I think this is the easiest question in the world to answer.
The answer is yes.
Am I good enough to keep writing?
Am I good enough to show it to people?
Am I good enough to—?
I don’t care how you were going to end that sentence, I’m going to interrupt you now with an emphatic, Yes.
If good enough is the question, my answer is yes followed up with a request that you stop, immediately, right now, this minute, ever spending another moment of your life wondering if you’re good enough because a) yes, you are, and b) oh my god it doesn’t matter.
It is not your damn job to be good.
It’s your job to write.
And here’s the real shit-kicking truth: You will never, ever, ever, no matter how much you work or how hard you try, be good enough for some people.
Some people are always going to hate what you do and think you’re terrible at doing it.
No. Matter. What.
And you know what? You’re not writing for them. You’re writing for the ones who love you. The rest can go eat hay.
So stop asking that question and write. Write for you, write for the ones who love what you do and let go of good enough because it just doesn’t mean anything.
Trust me on that. If you trust me on anything, please trust me on that.
THE PRACTICAL: That which doesn’t kill us…
I’m not sure why I spent the first full weekend in a very long time that I had completely off sinking deep into a warm tub of sociopaths but… that’s exactly what I did.
First was the podcast, “Dirty John,” a story about a sociopath who got a hold of a divorced mom with two daughters.
I followed that up by watching “The Shrink Next Door,” Apple TV’s take on a podcast I’d listened to the last time I dipped my toe into Sociopath Lake, last summer. “The Shrink Next Door” was a lot easier for me to take, and I really enjoyed Will Farrell and Paul Rudd in their roles but honestly… Kathryn Hahn once again stole an entire show for me. I really want a show that’s nothing but Phyllis. Please and thank you.
But anyway. Back to Sociopathy Beach…
I’d been told by a lot of people never to listen to “Dirty John” because it shares a fair bit of DNA with my own story. On the one hand, those people were absolutely right, it was a little close to home, sans the level of violence, and I thank them for keeping me away from it for this long.
But on the other hand?
I absolutely needed to listen to it.
Because one of the most magical things stories do is heal, and we access that healing by engaging with the stories that mirror our own. When our own stories have horror in them, that’s a really difficult thing to do, and it must be done carefully and with a qualified therapist on speed dial. That’s part of the reason why therapy works, isn’t it? Because you tell your story, over and over, and as you tell it, you work with the narrative—what it means—and eventually, all your trauma becomes just that: A story.
This is why stories are goddamn magic. “Dirty John” and “The Shrink Next Door” are based on true events, but they are also stories… the recounting of a series of events. Whether the story is total fiction or based on things that really happened is irrelevant to their power; the power is in the telling of the story, and in the receiving of the story. In that recounting of the series of events, we decide what matters and what doesn’t, what we need to pay attention to, and what we can skim over. That editorial process hones a series of events down into something that means something, and that meaning, the narrative, once we get there, heals us.
So that is why, I think, on this rare two-days-off-in-a-row, I dove head first into the deep end of the pool of ’paths. It’s why we tell stories, fictional and otherwise. It’s why stories are so goddamn powerful, and it’s why we keep coming back to them, as writers and readers, over and over again.
They give us meaning, and that meaning heals us.
Pretty cool, huh?