I don't know about you, but I don't like to advertise my mess. I tend my wounds in private and try not to whine too much. My garage is a little bit insane, my junk drawer is...eclectic, and I keep both firmly closed against prying eyes the majority of the time. But when it comes to writing, my mess is where the magic happens.
When I talk about "my mess," I'm obviously talking about more than my garage.
All of that is my real mess. It's what informs my writing voice and shines light into the shadowy corners of my characters' hearts.
Leaning into my mess and throwing open the doors of my own dark corners turned out to be my quickest hack to writing better stories. Bringing honesty and authenticity to my own life deepened my writing voice.
The best description I heard for "writing voice" as a new writer was from Rebecca Forster:
"Imagine you are sitting across the table from your best friend, telling them about something that happened to you. The way you tell them that story is your writing voice. It is unique to you. No one else would tell your friend that same story in that exact way."
Your writing voice comes from your world view, your humor, your family, your friendships. Your writing voice comes from the lessons you've learned and the wisdom those lessons brought you.
In essence, your writing voice gets honed by understanding your mess.
If any of you read my post last month, Are Writers Born, or Are Writers Made?, you'll know I believe that many writers carry around some decent internal wounds. Perhaps we've healed them, or perhaps we're still a work in progress, but all that sometimes-painful life experience is what has given you that beautiful unique voice you bring to your writing.
All of this reminds me of a refrigerator magnet I used to have:
I heard the quote at the top during an interview with Tony Robbins and Dean Graziosi. Dean said, "Your Mess is Your Message" when he was talking about skills you'd learned in your own life that you could teach others. The applications to writing fascinated me.
It's our job as writers to create something from nothing. But what we're really doing is creating something out of a piece of ourselves.
Getting back to the title of this post, the reason why tuning into our mess is such a great writing hack is that it allows us to find our story's theme more quickly. Some people even have the same theme in almost every book.
For example, here are some common themes from authors I know:
Further reading: 10 Common Book Themes
My critique partners all know that one of my biggest pet peeves about my own work is my super-sneaky theme. It pops up every-damn-where, whether I'm planning for it or not.
I'll be writing away, thinking I'm writing a reconciliation-between-two-sisters story, when in reality I'm writing about the shame that prevented the reconciliation.
Or I'm happily scribbling about young love and then a plot twist will hit that causes one or both characters to feel shame, and it will keep the young lovers apart until they've worked through it.
One story was a humor-filled tale about the challenges of caregiving for older parents, but of course, it was really about shame. The caregiver had shame because she had a desperate yen to travel and see the world instead of being stuck at home, caring for Mom. Mom had shame because, for the first time in her life, she was putting her own needs before her child's.
See? Sneaky. I'll think I'm writing about some other Big Universal Idea, and all of a sudden I'll realize I'm writing about shame. Again. It doesn't seem to matter if the story is hilarious, sad, happy or sexy - shame will be lurking in the weeds somewhere.
Many children of divorce grow up feeling shame. I'm not remotely special there. But I'm a writer and, since shame was my mess to work through, now it's my message the majority of the time (whether I planned on it or not).
But what if I did plan for it? What if I started writing TO the theme that I know will be there anyway?
Let's use the example of that caregiving mother-daughter duo I mentioned above. What if the mother felt so much shame and guilt over her health because she hadn't taken care of herself and now she was terribly ill. And what if that mom decided the solution was to take on the role of matchmaker to "make it up" to her daughter? What if that mother decided she was going to find her cranky sleep-deprived daughter a man.
When I did that, the whole book opened up. The conflict went sky-high. The changes ratcheted up the humor and punched up the pathos. All I did was lean into my sneaky little theme, and into my own experience with my own mess.
Consider the theme(s) on your last several stories. Are they the same down in their underbelly, or very very different? Do you write to theme, or figure it out in the end? Do you have a favorite theme you love to read about?
I'd love to hear what came up when you did this exercise. Please share it with me down in the comments!
* * * * * *
By day, Jenny Hansen provides LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
All photos created by Jenny Hansen in Canva.
Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved