We all do it. We perpetuate these myths, and often they can be good advice and even good teaching tools, yet just as often these five catch phrases can create stumbling blocks. They aren’t right for everyone in every situation.
Know Your Characters’ Motivation
This is the myth that started me thinking about writing this post. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with knowing your character’s motivation when writing a scene. In fact, it’s one piece of advice I give in the chapter on character in my textbook, A Writer’s Craft. It’s just that this advice often leads to the assumption that writers always have to psychoanalyze our characters. Sometimes you don’t have to understand why your character does what she does. It may be enough to know what and how she does it, and let yourself and your readers wonder why. Writers are keen observers. We watch what people do and how they act. We often wonder about what motivates people, but we don’t have to have all the right answers. Our characters don’t have to figure out all of their foibles and be perfect humans by the end of our stories. Sometimes the motivation is a mystery for the writer, the character, and the reader, but the mystery is precisely what is intriguing. I haven’t stopped handing out this advice, in other words, but I do it with the reservation that there are some things we just can’t know.
Write What You Know
Here’s another valuable piece of advice that I’d like to reexamine. It’s true that it can be easier and more comfortable to write what you already know. You are on more certain ground and are less likely to make mistakes that would lose the trust of your readers. But it can also be exciting to write about places you’ve never been or subjects that you are only just learning about. This can provide a level of mystery and exploration for the writer that can drive a piece of writing in ways and directions that writing about familiar terrain can never reach. So I prefer to rephrase this as “Know What You Write.” This may mean you know it already or it may mean that you need to do significant research, and probably this means experiential research — going out and doing the things you’re writing about or digging deep into the study of the subject you want to write about. Surface knowledge is rarely enough. You need to live and breathe what you write until it does become what you know. By the time you are finished writing, “Write What You Know” makes sense, in other words, but in the beginning, it could be that you decide to write about an unknown subject in order to explore it thoroughly and intimately in the process of writing.
Show Don’t Tell
This is one myth that I firmly believe — most of the time. I’m an advocate of the image, and I’m always trying to get student writers to show me more. But even as I do that, I am always a little uncomfortable treating it as a rule of law. There are plenty of times in writing that we do want to tell. A poem may have no images and still be a poem if it has form or if it experiments with language. A story may begin with a scene or it may begin with narration. I’ve known a few stories (and have even written one or two) that relied primarily on narration with very little scene. The flow of language in a prose paragraph can be just as inviting as an image, and the thought behind a story is sometimes best placed in the foreground. So I want images, sometimes I even demand them, but I also want to acknowledge the times and forms where showing might take a back seat to telling.
Write From Your Muse
We all want to be inspired. We all want to find the subjects or the material that make us eager to write. We long for the moments when writing comes natural and feels like it’s hardly any work at all. But we also can waste a lot of time and energy waiting for the muse to arrive or being frustrated that the writing feels more like a slog through the mud than a sprint to the finish. When inspiration becomes an unattainable muse, then we may feel like we aren’t writers or that we have writer’s block when the muse doesn’t show up very often. When we instead acknowledge that the inspired moment is the rare anomaly, or that inspiration comes more often when we put in the work than when we wait for it to happen, then we are moving down the path of the professional writer. Writing without purpose, not knowing if the work you are doing will be productive or not, but doing it anyway because it is writing: that’s the hard part. But writing for the sake of writing, trying out an idea even if you’re not sure if it’s ‘inspired,’ is often what’s needed to get you to the inspired moment you long to have. Without the first stumbling five lines or ten pages, the poem or story may never get started. Once you have a sense of where you’re going with a piece, you’re more likely to feel inspired about it, but getting there takes courage, dedication, or just pure obstinance. Worshipping a muse can make it seem unattainable; bringing it down to earth and thinking of writing as a process that sometimes takes effort can also make it seem more manageable.
Write Every Day
This is probably the best advice I’ve given, yet it is also advice that I’m rarely able to follow. To not sound like a hypocrite, the practical advice might be: write regularly and often, and try to do it more and more often. The problem with the advice to write every day is that we feel like a failure when we don’t. And who is able to really keep this up all the time? There may be periods when you can write every single day (or 5-6 days a week) and there may be periods where writing a few times a week is a struggle. We have to learn to live our lives and still call ourselves writers, yet we also need to strive for good writing habits. The more regular your writing time is, the more likely you’ll be ready and able to write when it arrives. But professors have different daily schedules, so I often have some days when its easier to work in writing and other days when it’s more of a challenge. If I can write three days a week and find ways to work in some writing when I can on the other days, that’s pretty good. If I can build in some writing retreats or extended periods where I focus on nothing but writing, that’s even better. But the reality of most days is that writing competes with so many other obligations that maintaining a daily writing time is a challenge. Finding ways to cope with a challenging schedule and to keep the writing going helps, but sometimes it is also good to acknowledge that life happens and the goal of writing every day can be unattainable. Rather than beating ourselves up for failing at that goal, isn’t it much more productive to try to do the best we can to write as often and as regularly as possible?
These were the five myths I came up with when I sat down to write on this topic. There are probably more. What myths do you struggle with in your writing?