Would you believe me if I told said you already know how to write a novel? You don’t need to read three stacks of books on the craft because there is no formula, there are no rules?
Can you trust yourself with a story to tell and the innate ability to tell it well?
Probably not. Just as you will believe you’re worthless if you hear it often enough from enough authority figures, you will internalize that message and believe it’s true, despite having already proven to your young self you can lift your head, roll over, crawl, walk, get others to smile if you tweak your little smile just right, get food in your mouth without poking out an eye, and dress yourself. We’re so confident in our abilities and value as little humans that by the time we’re two we start pitching fits when things don’t go our way. Our little toddler selves have already accomplished so much through our own efforts, we believe we’re powerful, all-knowing tiny creatures who can do, have, be anything, and God save the person who gets in our way.
It’s also around this time that we develop an insatiable curiosity, driving everyone around us crazy as we chant, “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”
If we’re lucky, we grow up with parents who read to us. Bingo! Another chance to drive grown-ups crazy. We have our favorite bedtime books, and we want them read to us over and over and over again. Our weary parents may buy us stacks of new books, hoping to ease their own boredom, but we know what we like and we like it every single night, all the way through to the end, despite knowing the ending by heart.
In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he says that readers only want one thing–to know what happens next. Children prove his point. Adults prove his point by watching the same movies over and over again, year after year. If we don’t watch the same movies over and over, we buy them for our video library, just in case we get the urge to watch them. Being stranded without a favorite classic movie on hand when, and if, that moment comes is worth the money we spend and the space we surrender for their place in our home.
Most of the classic books written for children and movies produced for adults were created before all the rules and regs of “good writing” flooded the shelves, telling people how books and movies should be written, including blurbs convincing the aspiring writer over and over and over again they needed the book because they didn’t know how to write a story.
Oh, really? Have you ever told a lie and gotten away with it? Then give yourself a cookie because you’re a natural born storyteller.
That’s what writing is, you know, telling fibs. You’re making up stuff, and if you want people to believe your lies, you’d better make them good or you’re busted. You’re in trouble in more ways than you can count.
And feeling we’re in trouble is the way most of us approach the mysterious craft of writing.
Get over it. You’re not in trouble. If you’ve ever told a lie or believed a lie, if you’ve ever grabbed a book from your parent’s hand and flung it aside as you’ve said, “I don’t like this book. Read me that other book again,” or felt a pleasant rumbly in your tumbly cruising the television and stumbled upon an old favorite movie, you know the stuff of good stories. You know a good story when it comes your way, you’re born with an innate ability to tell stories, and you know how to dress up a fib and keep it believable.
You just don’t trust yourself. You don’t believe you can do it because others have told you only they hold the secret. And you believe it because, by golly, you have written some really bad stuff in the past.
I happen to believe you’ve written garbage because you’re wrapped up, smothered, in years of rules and regs that have you so scared of your calling you can’t move. Imagine a dancer with ropes tied around their legs. Imagine a singer with a sock in their mouth.
Imagine you writing with abandon and telling the most convincing lie of your life. It’s gotta be a good one, remember, so you’re going to start with a reason for telling your lie, and that usually comes from some kind of conflict. You have to keep the person to whom you’re telling the lie tangled in your web of deception, so you keep it interesting, hold back certain elements until they make sense to you before shoveling them on your listener. You have to spin the lie in some sort of order that makes sense, gives motivation to all the people involved in your lie or you’re going to blow your cover. Every good lie has some drama, carries tension, and a strong voice of conviction. But wait, the best lies have some pacing to them. You can’t keep hitting the listener with one zinger after another without them getting suspicious. There has to be some elements of truth thrown in so they can connect your lie with their reality and make it seem believable. You’ve got to give your listener some resting points in an elaborate lie so they can take in your BS and have it settle into some kind of believable story.
If you’re a saintly adult who’s never told a lie, either examine the lies you’ve told yourself (those are the best), or the lies you told as a child. Fess up, you know you’ve done it.
They’re pretty good, aren’t they, those lies you’ve told. Your listener bought your story, so what real proof do you have that readers on the other side of the book won’t buy the lies you tell for their entertainment?
Every time you sit down to write, whether it be for NaNoWriMo or that blockbuster novel you’ve been working on for years, trust in your ability to tell memorable, memorizing, and convincing stories. Storytelling stems from one human communicating to another for the sake of survival. As mammals, we’re not so great. That’s why we have big brains. We have to figure out ways of compensating for our pathetic sense of small, lack of natural clothing, poor eyesight, and all those other things lions and tiger and bears have that we lack. And we have to tell other humans our tricks of the trade for survival in such a way as they’ll pay attention and remember the story. We’re hardwired for telling tales.
Some of us do it with language.
Keep telling those stories that are part of your DNA, each time taking another snip at the ropes around your imagination, each chapter finished another scratch at the layers of restrictions put on you through education that’s taught you writing and storytelling are skills that exist outside yourself, something you construct and learn over and over and over again until you’re tied up and stifled inside the blanket of education.
In Mark Twain’s notebook of ruminations, he scribbled, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson told the graduating Harvard School Of Divinity to forget everything they’d been taught in school and go out and experience life for themselves. If anything they’d been taught was true, they’d discover it for themselves.
Trust yourself. Let your feet leave the ground and fly towards your imagination, your innate ability to do what you’ve been called to do.