Here’s the thing, being human isn’t easy. We are human and we are animal—savage and tender, mindful and thoughtless, loving and cruel, base and divine—and then toss our heart and spirit into the mix and try telling our story. Wait, shhhh, hear that existential scream?
Yup, understanding the complexities of human nature is an ongoing challenge. If you have any desire to try, and if you are a writer, painter, musician, actor, creative seeker of any stripe, you are a storyteller and you are on the journey toward transformation and this is a gift.
When it comes to story, transformation is simply the journey to a greater understanding.
We writers catch our stories on paper so we can touch others, yes. But before that, we write to figure something out. We write to ask “Why?” and to come up with at least one truthful answer, one “Here’s why.”
Aim for the Universal
When we capture a story that lives and breathes and reaches out to touch others we are thrilled. When we find our way to the final paragraph on the final page, our heart fills with both pain and sorrow because we know we’ve written our truth—and that’s the only truth we can write. That is poignant because being human means we are filled with conflicts, ambiguities, and paradoxes. We aim for the universal by searing our stories to their essence, to their truth.
Writing in the Dark
Here’s the other thing. Most of the time we’re writing in the dark—or at best in twilight—and we may only have a glimmer of what we’re getting at even as words flow onto pages. We write to figure something out, to make our way to a truth of what it means to be human (even if we’re writing about androids or prairie dog colonies). We don’t know what we don’t know. But we must ask ourselves to remain curious.
Use Your Fears
There is no formula for story. There are no absolute rules. That’s not to say we write blindly. We don’t. When my stories are just beginning to take shape, I’m dancing between experiential free writes from each primary character’s viewpoint and filling in the scenes that I know/discover are essential to my story. I use my fears and manias and joys and cravings as my way into my story. Hello, who in my story is struggling with terror today? Oh, you, too? There’s solitude in the process and there is company. There’s wildness to the process and there’s also an elegant order.
Glimmer of Dilemma
As my characters’ backstories and actions, desires and needs, push the story to grow and deepen beyond my initial idea, I begin to catch a glimmer of the dilemma at the heart of the story. I keep writing and the light keeps sparking (match after match, scene by scene). Eventually, I’m able to see in full sun what this story is about and how it centers on a human dilemma. A dilemma between want and need—a struggle that each character in the story will share in some way.
If we are very determined, very dedicated to doing our best work, and if we are lucky—we may hear that existential scream turn to a universal sigh, just for one amazing instant.