Writing requires three layers of mastery.
First, a writer must learn to master stories.
People may think in stories, talk in stories, read and watch and hear stories all day long, but life itself, the thing about which we are always telling stories, has no beginning, middle, or end. Life doesn’t see protagonists or antagonists, doesn’t value one experience over the other. In fact, life doesn’t even recognize adjectives and adverbs: it’s made of nothing but nouns and verbs.
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And yet the writer must learn to look at life, at the great teaming, streaming, swarm of things and thoughts and people and creatures and pull from it a fraction of what he or she sees and string the most interesting characters and ideas and events together in the most compelling way he or she can. The writer knows the stories are illusions in a way, and yet these inventions, brief as they are, have the capacity to remind us of the whole of life. There is no formula for how best to do this. Instead, the writer must spend his or her days asking and asking and asking this question: What is so interesting about what interests me? The answer is a story.
Next, a writer must master what we call craft.
Writers translate life, a three-dimensional and five-sensory experience, into nothing but words, which are themselves nothing but thoughts. Every other art form directly engages at least one of our five senses. Writers don’t get sound, or motion, or touch, or color, or shape. The writer must be interested in this unique translation, must be willing to leave his or her body behind for a time, leave behind the unshakable limitations of time and space for the limitless, formless silence of the imagination.
Once in their imagination, the writer must ask, “How can I describe what I see in my mind’s eye so that someone else can see it with their mind’s eye? And how can I describe it so that it also reminds us of how it feels to be alive, to walk and talk and think and feel? How do I create a living, breathing, hoping, dreaming, virtual reality out of just words?” There is no formula for this either. There is only the practice and the practice and the practice of it, whose greatest reward remains the mysterious knowledge that the imagination stands as the purest portal for true human connection.
Finally, the writer must seek emotional mastery.
Of the three, this is often the hardest and always the most important. Without some emotional mastery, all our mastery of stories and craft are useless to us. Unlike the powerful questions stories and craft ask of us, emotional mastery requires learning how to banish one persistent, unanswerable question: What’s the point?
The question takes many forms. What’s the point of telling a story if no one else will be interested in it, or if it is never published, or if it is published but is quickly forgotten? What’s the point of writing if I never make much money, or never receive the recognition I deserve? What’s the point of any of this if my bones will wind up in the same place as those who never wrote, my words dissolved into the same void of time as those who never spoke?
Having asked this question often enough in all its variations, I know its weight and tidal pull into despair. As a young man, I imagined that writing would answer it for me, that somehow through fame, or success, or simply managing to create something I found as beautiful and moving as the stories and poems that moved me, I would be delivered to some holy place free from the nameless suffering of that unanswered question. For all my unhappiness then, I remained convinced such a place, such a circumstance, existed. Life simply could not be the meaningless Hell it sometimes appeared. In fact, I could easily imagine life beyond the fires of despair, could imagine it as if I’d been there once and was only trying to find my way back.
Because, of course, I had been there. In fact, I went there often. The moment I found an idea I liked, and the moment I went to my desk and asked myself, “What’s so interesting about that idea? And how can I write it so another person might see what’s so interesting about it?” I was back where I belonged, where I had actually been born. Gone was that horrible question. It hadn’t been answered, it simply wasn’t being asked, and in its absence were the possibilities its shadow had obscured.
It took me many years of travelling in and out of Hell to understand which paths led where. I am still learning, because in my travels, in my search for new stories, I continue to find new paths, and some take me where I want to go and some do not. No matter. Sometimes you have a travel a bit to learn, though maybe just a step or two before you feel the heat, and so you turn around, and so you’re headed home.
Learn more in William Kenower's online course: Fearless Writing — How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence