The magicians of the writing world love to tell us again and again to write what we know, to know our audience, even to know which genre—or which section of the bookstore our as-yet-unwritten book will be shelved in.
Blah, blah, blah.
Too many books are being churned out with oh-so-predictable plots and characters, template novels. Even self-development books begin to all look alike. When the market begins to dictate art, is our society in decline? Most likely.
When I was a kid, I read straight through the series books like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and progressed to the light doctor/nurse romances. By the time I was in sixth grade I was bored with predictable plots. When I was in seventh grade we moved in with the high schoolers and some astute (perhaps slightly neurotic) librarian responded to my request for something new to read with a book titled Eva. I don’t even recall the author but it was a holocaust story that blew my doors off. Suddenly I was tossed into the middle of history, politics, religious issues, the angst of an era, the pain of a people. I hated that book and loved the way it turned my consciousness upside down. Whoever wrote Eva was definitely not writing to a formula.
Most of us begin writing to sort our life itself, to probe its great mysteries. We write to a burning question, we write because of our need to know. We write toward what we don’t know. That these burning questions sometimes sprout character and plot is just part of the mystery. We go with that.
Once I was working on a novel set in the southwest a thousand years ago in a canyon pueblo. In the middle of the opening chapters a small lizard walked up to my main character and introduced himself as Sulee, of the ancient lizard clan. Wow, I wasn’t expecting that. I know of no talking lizards as wise and verbal as my little messenger. He was not in my outline (not that I care to work from an outline anyway). Sulee had many things to say about how human beings have lost connection with the earth ways. A burning question in my life has been what we need to do to feel the energy and spirit of the earth again.
I like to write what I don’t know. And, unfortunately, I really don’t know what section some of my books will be shelved in but, frankly, I don’t care. For me writing is a discovery process, one filled with surprises and large moments that suddenly deepen my experience as a human being. I hope my readers will be willing to take the journey with me. I like to wriggle my way toward the great mystery itself and play there awhile. The book I’m currently working on is about the ancient race of Stone People. In the story Silver, a human girl, falls in love with Josia, one of the Stone Family and together they work a miracle. It is a romance. I think.
Something important is lost when we are no longer following the trails and paths of our own hungry spirits and are working from hungry pocketbooks instead. I am not an advocate of “poor artist” and understand the need for marketing as well as the next writer. But many books written only with what we know or that are aimed directly at a specific genre lack spirit and depth. They lack dimension.
Perhaps it would be a good thing for writers to occasionally build a bonfire in the backyard and drag out all those craft and marketing books and how-to magazines and toss them on the flames and watch them burn, baby, burn. Then we should turn our backs to the light and the heat and wander into the cold, dark night, stand beneath a dim silver moon and ask, “Why am I here?”
What is that burning question that is fueled by passion, elusive with the answer, so taunting it keeps you up at night? What is that great mystery that has touched you in private places? Write to that question and see what characters walk out of the woods wearing the mystery as their garments. I assure you, these characters we will care about. These characters will force us as readers to drop what we are doing and go on the journey with them.
Poor Sulee. He took over my story so much so that I had to drop the original book and write his story instead. I am calling the draft, Sulee—A Lizard’s Tale. I think you would like this little guy. He has both wit and wisdom, and the scene where he thinks his best friend, Twig, has died, well, heartbreaking.
Of course craft. Of course market know-how. Of course know of what you write. But not at the expense of the great mystery—writing into what you don’t know. That, my friends, is art.