17 February 2010

Soul Mining

A comment from my last spurred some further thought.

I grew up with the idea that writing is essentially personal, that it should speak to you and come from deep inside, and no amount of technique could ever produce something more beautiful than what's really coming from the depth of your experience. Writing workshops here [France] encourage people to express their deeper thoughts rather than learn about technique, to the point that sometimes, you learn very little indeed in the way of technique and craft... What do you think of this?


I think studying craft and technique are important, obviously, but... but. Solid craft will only take you so far if you have no idea what you're trying to say. I find this comment interesting because I've found the opposite to be true here in the States, especially for genre fiction.

There are obvious ramifications of writing from your soul, much less examining it at length. But really, we are all writing from our souls. I think it's impossible to avoid. Whether it's an accident or on purpose separates the wheat from the chaff among writers, and every writer will benefit from taking a good hard look at why they write what they do.

I think it's an oft neglected topic, soul mining, in craft discussions. I do know one writer who tackles it on her blog, Alexandra Sokoloff, who refers to it by way of themes. She says each writer only has a few themes, which they revisit over and over, and she recommends we make a list of favorite books and films and search out their similarities in a first step to discovering personal themes.

Two of my favorite films are THE BOONDOCK SAINTS and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. After making my list, I realized I tend to explore religion and violence pretty often. Some thought and research led me to the theory of just war, or the more specific Latin: jus ad bellum and jus in bello. More thought led me to label one of my personal themes Religiously Motivated Hatred.

I'm not saying that every story you write must be intensely personal, but I think most of what we write is somewhat personal whether we realize it or not. For instance: the last story I sold has a definite theme of jus in bello. But I had never heard of jus in bello when I wrote the story five years ago.

Me, I sometimes wish that I was told a bit less about feeling and a bit more about business, as I tend to write stories that mean a lot to me, and not nearly as much to everyone else. Perhaps it is only a question of balance?

Themes and how they touch us (writers and our readers) are the art of writing, and the art is the foundation of what we do. But in my experience, obviously different than the commenter's, theme is often treated like an absent father who drops his kid fancy gifts every birthday. Everyone knows it's an essential part of our suite of skills, but we don't much like to talk about it, especially since we spend so much time shielding ourselves with our fiction. Much safer to focus on craft - the necessary, yet less fascinating part of our suite of skills. In this way I think we sometimes approach writing backwards. Rather than starting with what moves us, we focus on craft, on mechanics. I think anyone can learn to write well. But what's debatable is whether we can learn to have something to say. At any rate, I think your approach in France is a solid one.

I've found a lot of avoidance when it comes to the business side of things, rooted in the fear of rejection. Why do we fear rejection? Because when we submit our work, we're basically flinging our souls at the marketplace.


I don't mean to make light of your request for more business and craft advice, but really, information is abundant on the Internet. I recommend really any agent blog; Nathan Bransford is my current favorite. But I do think we run the risk of worrying overmuch about things we can't control at the expense of our art, of forsaking our personal themes for fads. That's the definition of selling out, and selling out actually doesn't work very long, if at all. That's why I'm advocating deeper exploration for art's sake. Not at the expense of craft and business, but to provide a necessary foundation for those areas of study.

My most successful stories so far have been some in which I constricted my writing somewhat, in directions I am not normally inclined to take. I'd be interested to know your opinion!

My point with the previous example? Five years ago, I was unconsciously writing the theme of Religiously Motivated Hatred. I still do. The difference? Since then, my meta-cognition required me to laser-focus on it. My writing tightened. I had to leave some of my indulgences behind. They say there are no new stories; I say there are no new themes. Religiously motivated hatred, especially through the eyes of an anti-hero, is a heavily explored theme. That forces me to find fresh approaches, risks, and new directions. Many writers do that unconsciously. I'd argue that serious writers are conscious, and conscientious, about their stories. Good writing is highly controlled communication, and to control it, you have to understand what you're trying to say, what makes your art sing to you.

24 comments:

lesleylsmith said...

I agree with Cecile that writing is personal and does come from deep inside BUT that is exactly the part you can't teach, right?
You can only teach craft and technique. Utilizing your special you-ness, whether you call it your soul or your themes, would be hard to teach, wouldn't it?
As for Editor Betsy's comments where did you get to study craft and technique in genre fiction? That sounds fun. :)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I disagree that you can't teach or guide someone to understanding where their art comes from. I think there are methods to discovering what you want to write and why. It might lean close to psychology, but there you go.

I'd love to take a class like that!!

David E. Hughes said...

Interesting post. I have mixed feelings, however, about the message. The messages you get about writing and how to write really depend on where you are getting them from. When I got my undergraduate degree in English, I was so awash in "theme" and "meaning" that it became difficult for me to write (let along write things that people would want to read). While I agree that theme and understanding our passions can be important steps to good writing, then can also be fall-off places for writers block or lack of production. This is an area where writers have to tread very carefully.

Cécile said...

Dear Betsy and everyone,

Thanks for those comments! It's really interesting for me to confront all those approaches, since after all, the approach to writing in my country is rather dogmatic... Also thanks for the note about writing advice on the web, in fact I was not even aware of it. I'll go have a look!

I think you have a point when you write that it might be essential to try and analyze what it is that you are really trying to say. In fact, I do believe that it is possible to analyze where your preferred themes come from. But I also believe that it is useful to ask yourself whether the theme you were just about to write about is really worth it. Religiously motivated hatred, for instance, is still a fecund and relevant theme. Writing a whole story with a central point like "it's really appalling how restricted personal liberties were 100 years ago, don't you think?" might be a bit more dubious, even if it is truly appealing to you...

I have known a lot of "autistic" writers, who only wrote about their barely disguised childhood traumas. While this also might be productive, learning in a story that someone was raped is not enough (I assume everybody already understand that it is a horrible experience, so there should be a bit more to the story that merely stressing that point). Those writers were not really open to comments as they thought that their work was sacred, since it used a theme that was dear to them, and they blamed the French publishing system for their lack of success (sometimes even before trying to get published). This is one of the reason why I think writers here tend to overemphasise the personal side of writing.

But judging by your post, maybe we could say than the French and the Engligh/American people might have things to learn from each other!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

It sounds like it. I think Dave makes a good point, too, that you can't concentrate on theme to the exclusion of craft and mechanics and business. But I do think that theme, or High Concept, or whatever you like to call it, is the main thing that sells books. In my experience, out here in the real world where folks are learning writing by the seat of their pants, they tend to just assume their theme and how they express it will be good enough, while frankly, most of them seem pretty average and overdone. You can have the prettiest writing in the world, but if you have nothing to say, it does you no good at all.

Plenty of writers are precious about their writing here, too, Cécile. That must be a worldwide phenomenon.

jjdebenedictis said...

This is a really great post, Betsy. Thanks for it, and thanks Cecile for asking the question!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Thx. :)

Linda Rader said...

I agree with you that we each have our own themes and they repeat in our work. Honesty, of truth telling, is one of mine. It's an important personal theme and it appears without my effort in each of my stories.

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