By Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine Into Gold
The lament of the modern author, whose writing must now compete for purchase with every other book, from classics like the Iliad to the newest self-published odyssey, all of which will now be preserved digitally for all time: how do you add to that in any significant way?
The answer is to write the book that only you can write.
To uncover “your” material you must embrace the wonderful, formidable creation that is you. Here are some ways to accomplish that.
1. Journal. On the pages of your journal you are free to write about whatever crosses your mind. Note, over time, what tends to cross your mind. No one told you to write about this, it simply drifted to the surface. It is important to you. Look for common themes among your dreams, memories, and current concerns. You will learn something.
2. Make lists. This activity differs from journaling in that it is more focused. In her wonderful book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, choreographer Twyla Tharp says that when she choreographs a new piece she begins by walking into the studio, which is essentially the writer’s “blank page.” But while she is alone in the room, she is alone with her body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, and fears. Those could be great headings for lists. What does your body tell you? What are some of your favorite memories? We all have prejudices—what are yours?
3. Every now and then, let movies, shows, concerts and books surprise you. Don’t read about the experience at all; go with no expectations. My sons and I used to go to the cheap movie theater in town, no matter what was showing. We were constantly learning about what we liked, what we didn’t like, and why.
4. Put yourself in situations in which you fully expect to be uncomfortable. Much of the best writing is done through the perspective of an outsider—someone trying to figure out the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. Put yourself in that position afresh. Two years after my husband’s suicide, our new next-door neighbor killed himself. I felt compelled to support his young widow, but it was intimidating: in order to get to the funeral I had to cross through a line of bikers protecting the place. My neighbor had been one of their ranks. You could have picked me out in a heartbeat—I was the only woman without tattoos and a doo rag in the place. But it was a powerful, new experience. The bikes proceeded to the interment two-by-two, each biker wearing a black cloth pinned across the club insignia on their jackets—and I was surprised by my tears when my deceased neighbor’s bike took the lead, ridden by his best friend and wife. Witnessing it, I accessed a new little pocket of my humanity.
5. Try to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. It’s interesting what you learn about your own cultural suppositions when trying to span an even trickier gap. I think here of the way my Danish niece and I invented a non-verbal game by taking hands in the stairwell and going up and down the stairs in different rhythms. Or of the way my stepdaughter’s Hungarian husband met me for the first time, sitting in our living room so straight and formal in his wedding suit and little cap—not on the comfy couch, but on the hard piano bench, honoring me as stepmother by struggling to prove, with his broken English, that he was equal to this new role—and the way he had to turn away to hide his tears after I shared my approval of their union.
What other methods have you used to learn more about yourself?
Your best contribution to the world’s growing body of literature is to write a story born of your soul.
Discover it. Own it. Write it.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, which was released on January 28 and has already gone back for a second printing, and The Twelfth Hour (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Although a member of The Liars Club, she swears that everything in this bio is true.
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Wow, Kathryn, powerful post! I like number four best - hard to do, but when you think about your best writing, it usually comes from that same place. Am I brave enough to put myself there on purpose? We'll see - I'm going to try it!
Thanks for the suggestion!
Laura it's so funny—as I wrote the example for #4 for this post, I thought, Laura Drake would have been much more comfortable at this funeral than I would have been! LOL.
That is funny, Kathryn! I swear half of the daring things I do, I just bumble into - not on purpose! What people think is bravery is really a pratfall!
LOVE your last sentence. 🙂
Beautiful post, Kathryn. I'm with Laura...I love number four the best. I was especially moved by your description of "accessing a new little pocket of humanity". Lovely post from a lovely writer.
Aw, thanks Lori. With the demands of the modern writer so all-consuming, we have to remind ourselves to jump "off the page" and walk in the real world so that we have something to write about.
"... We have to remind ourselves to jump “off the page” and walk in the real world so that we have something to write about" <--- I LOVE this, Kathryn! Not just because of the demands on writers but also the fact that so many of us are troll introverts and would be much happier huddled at the back of the cave with our computers, creating people and worlds that we can control. Thank you for the reminder.
Haha—"troll introverts"—tell it like it is, Orly!
Your best contribution to the world's growing body of literature is to write a story born of your soul.
That is my blank and empty stage for today. Mine to discover through steps one and two.
At this "what is my genre" stage in my career, I have two words...
You're welcome Gloria. I wish you an exciting journey of discovery!
"The answer is to write the book that only you can write."
How true, Kathryn. With apology to the principle of causality, I'm glad I took your advice before you actually gave it. Thanks for this educational post.
...and may you reap many soul benefits for doing so!
Thank you, Kathryn. I already have. Writing the book that only I could write (to be self-published in a month or so) was a much needed catharsis, in that it allowed me to both process a major life trauma and help others in the process.
One book can change the course of history. Who's to say what two might accomplish?
This is a powerful list Kathryn, and in doing it to learn about ourselves can lead us to gain new understanding of others...which in turn leads us to better understand ourselves. So I see this as a continuing growth cycle. Another way to discover more about myself is to sit and write why I do the things I do - and what I hope to accomplish by doing it. Why do I get angry when my son does this? Why do I need to lose that 20 lbs.? Why do I avoid crowds? etc.etc. I often get insight I never had before that leads to realizations, and fodder for characters too :).
Why we do the things we do—a source of endless fascination, and as good a description for the need for story as any I've heard. Thanks for stopping by, Donna!
Great piece today, Kathryn. Plenty of good writing advice kicks around the blogosphere, but most simply serves as (necessary) reminder of what we already know. This post expresses some genuinely new thought, though. Well done.
"We all have prejudices—what are yours?" That's a brilliant way to approach a new project.
Oh, I like that, Eric! I'm writing that one down - that's got my thoughts doing at 5 am! Thank you!
Why thank you, Eric. Prejudices are exceptional material because they carry the veil of secrecy—no one ever wants to admit them.
Excellent post, Kathryn! I have heard Harlan Ellison (he said, shamelessly name-dropping, but it's true) say that when you write you are slicing off part of yourself and leaving it in the page. "Write from the soul" certainly echoes that. I think good stories will always attract an audience.
Ooh, James, I'm a fan of shameless eavesdropping, haha! Perhaps leaving your fingerprints on the keyboard is another way of saying it. I'm revising the climactic fight in my second novel right now and banging the keys so hard my bones hurt!
I keep thinking how does Kathryn keep coming up with these inspirational blogs that touch so many subjects? And yet you do and you hit the mark every time. I think as writers we often tell ourselves we are not new and cannot reinvent the wheel and we use it an excuse not to write or finish our projects. Thanks for not letting us get away with that!
Sharla I thought this series would be over about six posts ago but just when I think it's time to pack it in I have another idea or three. As long as the inspiration comes to me I will share it! And let's hope inspiration will unfold in the same way with our storytelling, right?
Kathryn, your response to Sharla made me chuckle. I still remember your reaction about starting these posts. And each one is absolutely brilliant!
Oh, this was such a beautiful post! I Tweeted it, of course, but will keep spreading word about this post.
I love your suggestions, and for me, I get back to myself when I go outside alone. I live in Montana and am almost always barefoot and in the dirt. With my feet literally grounded I can take deep breaths and think more peacefully. I like watching butterflies and bunnies flitter around my yard, but I've gone to Yellowstone Park several times lately for my son's science project, to watch wolves. And as scary as they are, they are also so fiercely graceful. I can't help but feel a bit terrified and, oddly, at peace as I watch them--from very far away.
Yes, love this idea Lani! To be with one's nature in nature--perfect.
'Fiercely graceful' - I so love that!
Great post. I've spent my life doing a 3, 4, and 5. I tweeted.
Hey Kathryn, I'm brand new to your site and am really glad I found it. I particularly liked #3 and #4. #3 because, like you, I really like to use movies, TV, and books as instruction on what world for me and what doesn't. I'd be lying if I said every time I'm sprawled on the couch in front of the flatscreen I'm really doing research, but oftentimes I do find myself analyzing just about every show I watch for the dialogue, the storyline, character development etc. I liked #4 just because it was so visual, so vivid and so personal. That short description took me right to the scene as if I were viewing it at a movie and it really moved me.
Anyway, enough already. Really great to meet you. I'll be back for sure.
[…] If that’s not enough to inspire you, try thinking of your work in relation to the literary canon. Kathryn Craft gives us 5 steps to discover our truest contribution to the literary canon. […]
Lovely post as always! I was left with the impression to reach out to others, no matter the age, cultural or language differences because we all have common connection grounds. We all have vulnerabilities. Thank you.