Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl of the Storygrid universe have been doing a more useful job than pretty much anyone else in the world for the past three years. The job? Teaching us that story is vital, is a learnable (improvable) craft, and underpins whatever other skills you are bringing to your quest to write.
It’s not wholly new information and the main gurus are still McKee and Vogler. What’s great though is the podcast format. It’s no longer just a book of theory – although everyone needs to study that too – the brilliance of the resource is that it can be a constant backdrop, always reinforcing the most important and most basic factors that underpin any “story that works” or writing that someone else wants to read.
A couple of things I’ve just listened to really hit home about the shift to amateur writing from amateurish writing.
An interview with Steven Pressfield based on his book No one wants to read your shit, had a wonderful encapsulation of what motivates wrongly in the amateur’s will to deliver their stuff. I can’t find a transcript, but from memory (it’s either #35 or #36) there is a grave and true fact to learn. He tells us that a common motive to write is for a person to feel that they hate everything inside them (even subconsciously) and that with all that poison they think “if I could just become a great writer ten everything would be okay.”
That’s obviously not a great motivation to be clinging through as you go through the storm. He then tells us a better motivation: if you’ve enjoyed a story, and you’ve felt the power of words, and then that makes you think, “I want to help someone else feel that way”, then that’s the kind of motivation that can genuinely help you.
No surprise, then, that, in the world of story, sacrificing self-interest to be motivated by the common good is the way to get your writer’s journey heading along the right arc.
The same shiver of recognition came for me in #95 (no transcript available but audio still live) where Shawn Coyne is talking about the redemption plot and about human experience. He’s on the money completely here. He says something like, those who’ve got “novels” in drawers, or heaps of writing they’re unhappy with, often haven’t actually created stories at all. Their work has no scenes, no global genre and no character motivation. This writing is in fact an exploration of self. No problem in itself, and that’s why we first take up the creative act. It becomes a problem if what you want is to write a story that works and that others would be pleased to read.
I’m sure this is familiar to anyone who’s wanted to put words down in solid form. We put characters up for examination, versions of ourselves or of some tiny element in ourselves that we’ve problematised, and we walk them about, have them bump into a problem or two, have them stand and ponder the meaning of their lives then leave them, happy or sad, in the drawer, convinced that what we’re being is writers. For Shawn Coyne – and you have to agree if you want to get anywhere with this painful business – the real move comes when you stop doing ONLY that (no problem that you spend your life elucidating character motivations and draw on your own thoughts and feelings). How quickly, I guess, can you leave that stage behind and how quickly can you get thinking deeply about what writing is and how it works best. The extreme end of this message is that Story drives everything – if you want someone to be engaged then you need narrative momentum. You can’t just linger on scenes in your mind and write descriptions of beauty or pain.
The last segment I’m taking the liberty of passing on does have a transcript – here’s a snippet. It comes in a conversation about writer’s block. That’s a whole other thing, but what Shawn Coyne says, as he thinks through what blocks a writer, is also a useful general comment on writing as an amateur. It’s too easy to buy into the myth that writing comes through a mystic gift, a voice that reveals itself not through hard work but through its own urgent requirement to be heard. Shawn attacks the belief that is all too easy – that there’s always a god-given talent inside those who are destined to become writers.
You can make this belief sound ridiculous but it’s reinforced throughout the whole of society, even through story itself. While the true hero’s journey is the discovery through pain and changing awareness of that special talent that can help his people, the audience revels in a romantic notion that the gift is there in special people – the hero has something uniquely powerful in him/her. If we fall into that trap – that its a gift and not a hard-won prize – then what follows is the failure to strive and the hope that writing will just come. Hence the block. But also, and more importantly, putting paid to this myth will help the hopeful beginner become a more experienced amateur who’s in with a chance of getting a story to reach and uplift another.
[0:20:35.6] Tim Grahl : All right. Okay, let’s do this one. What do you recommend writers do about writer’s block?
[0:20:42.0] Shawn Coyne: Writer’s block has a couple of components to it. The most obvious component is the resistance to deep thinking. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and one of my favorite books over the last 10 years, if now my lifetime, and I think we talked about this last week, was Thinking Fast and Slow.
[0:21:08.4] TG: Yeah. We talked about it a couple of times. Yeah.
[0:21:11.5] SC: Yeah. It’s changed my life, because deep thinking requires a lot of energy and it requires a lot of self-examination that is difficult. It’s not exactly enjoyable when you’re trying to solve a difficult problem. It’s much more difficult even in higher math skills. [note – I thought he said “more difficult than” in the cast]
Deep thinking, there’s a great resistance to it, and I think that’s a major part of writer’s block, because we have been told since we were young that there are certain magical people who are born with talent, and the talent will drive their work. Meaning they just have a particular gift to doing something. They might be a tennis prodigy or a musical prodigy and they’re just able to sit down on a piano and bang out beautiful music. I don’t ever think that that is never been true. I don’t think that was true for Mozart. I don’t think that was true for Beethoven. I think those guys had a proclivity, a love, a passionate, an internal desire to be great musicians. They weren’t born out of the shell with the ability to play the piano in an incredible level. I just don’t believe it. I think they built that quality at a young age, yes, but they weren’t born with that level of proficiency.
Because we’re sold these [sic] bill of goods that some people have writing talent and they were born with it, and when they sit down they a bang out paragraph after paragraph of prose that might not be perfect, but it’s editable. I think that’s a fallacy. I think people who have certain passion to write all face writer’s block. They all face this not wanting to go deep, not wanting to self-examine, because writing is about asking yourself, “What do I think about this? If this happened, what do I think would happen next?”
So the message – there’s no easy way. This is a patient, hard-working journey. But a rewarding one.
I’ve quoted the above with no permission whatsoever but in homage and, I hope, in the spirit of the project – here’s Tim Grahl’s standard appeal from the show in case someone reads this who hasn’t yet signed up and listened.
“For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
“If you’d like to reach out to us or submit a question for a future Q&A episode, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.”