step outside

[They mean well, the two advisors to the young writer. Sitting at the next table, I can’t help but overhear what they say to her. “With time – and age – you will discover more of yourself. Look at your family. Study your DNA. This is where you’ll find the things to influence and bolster your writing.” I am not one to judge their qualifications at sharing advice, nor was I privy to the entire conversation. I was tuning them out with a book, my iPod, and my own thoughts. But I did hear this bit and while no one asked me my opinion on the matter, I couldn’t help but jot it down.]

Step away from yourself and tell a story of someone else. Do you think Sinclair Lewis was Elmer Gantry? Was Margaret Mitchell Scarlett O’Hara? Perhaps there was a touch of Twain in Tom and Huck, but surely they stand on their own, apart from their creator.

We are saturated with the “true” tales of poor souls – known and unknown. Everyone feels his memoir is captivating, her life story something worth sharing. But truth be told, the vast and overwhelming majority of us live lives that when put to paper are really quite boring, quite mundane. Even those filled with psychological angst, the journey to hell and back, addiction, victimization, inconceivable and horrid circumstances, survival, fame, fortune and over-the-top eccentricities… too often there is really nothing in them worth cluttering the pages of books and shelves of bookstores. Save it for a private journal, a therapist, or a good friend. Spare the world one more story already told.

Work out your life, for sure, but when putting pen to paper give your audience something else. Give us truly interesting characters; characters all the more interesting because we don’t know them. We don’t recognize them in our daily lives. Introduce these people to us. Tell us stories about their lives. What often makes the “Great American Novel” so great is its novelty, its newness. Strive for that.

[“Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism) believed that all this evasive self-obsession was the result of a narcissistic culture that had two simultaneous effects. It drove people further into themselves, and it created an inner emptiness by exalting the self and cutting it off from reality. Such isolated self-scrutiny, packed with psychiatric clichés, made people so self-conscious that they felt as though they were performing their existence rather than living it. … What Lasch could not have foreseen was the effect commerce and the technology of the Internet would have on the way people present their inner lives in public. … People don’t want their privacy invaded. They now want other people, as many people as possible, to watch them as they carefully craft their privacy into a marketable, public style.” ~ Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Lee Siegel (p. 49-50). This happened to be the book I was reading at the nearby table. Maybe it was a little influential in my advice.]

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