You Do Not Write the Story. The Story Writes You.
Why is learning how to write so hard?
If you want to be a writer, there are countless MFA programs, online courses, and more advice than one person could ever read on the internet. There are a bajillion writing guides on Amazon. And if you jump around on social media for even two minutes to see what writers are up to, you will quickly find more how-to guides, tips, tricks, hacks, and everything else an aspiring writer could ever want or need.
So, with all this information available, why is learning how to write still so hard?
When there are that many solutions around a topic, but the people are still ceaselessly thirsty for more, it seems likely that the solutions offered aren’t really quenching the thirst.
I’m always asking myself that question above, too. Why is learning how to write so hard? And — while we’re at it — why are all the other parts of writing so hard? Why is finishing a novel so hard? Why is believing in your story so hard? Why is all of it SO DAMN HARD?
I rarely stumble across the answers to these questions, but this week, I think I might have found a very important clue.
I just finished a phenomenal book called The Way of the Human Being, by Calvin Luther Martin. The Way of the Human Being is a study of the differences between Native American philosophy/spirituality and Western (“white man”) philosophy/spirituality. Martin is a professor who lived with various Native American groups, and also taught Native American philosophy in college programs and prison education programs. This book knocked my socks off, and no matter what you think of the rest of this blog post, if you are a writer or artist, I highly recommend you get a copy ASAP.
Anyway, onto the good stuff.
Martin says that Native Americans recognize that every story has its own life force, its own independent spirit. This spirit or soul (which also exists in all people, animals, plants, lakes, and mountains) is called inua or yua. A story’s yua is a gift to the world, and the storyteller participates with the story in the conversation of the gift.
Viewing the creation of a story this way, we can see how the storyteller becomes creator, mother, midwife, gardener, and harvester of the story’s gifts. The storyteller must listen and wait, and open themselves to the life force of the story when it comes. The storyteller does not control the story, instead, she allows it to move through her and be born into the world. Her dialogue with the story is deeply personal, and profoundly intimate.
This kind of mindset could not be further away from what you normally find in today’s online writing culture.
According to the mainstream thinking on “how to be a writer” you need to have a plan. You need an outline and notes, and you need to follow a structure. If a character isn’t growing enough or changing enough, then you need to force them in that direction. If your plot doesn’t have enough action or suspense, then you need to insert more. You need outside input, constantly. Your beta readers and your writing group should have significant influence over your story. And always, always, you should be writing that dazzling first page that will bring you everything you ever wanted — an agent, a publisher, new readers, success.
What I just outlined above is very much the Western view of things. Just about everything in the world is an object to be controlled, by us, and stories are no exception.
But…if the Western method of “how to bring a story into being” worked for writers — actually worked — then would we really have this explosion of advice and checklists and tips and tricks around the topic of writing?
Something tells me this Western method actually doesn’t work that well for a lot of writers out there.
What if we adopted the mindset and spiritual approach of the Native Americans when it came to story? What if we concentrated on being the storyteller instead of doing things to push the story along? What if we put our energy into the work of dreaming and receiving, instead of planning and forcing?
This is the approach I’ve now been using in my own writing for the past five years, and I’ve seen results that surpassed anything I could have imagined. Characters come to me now, I don’t have to go chasing them. They tell me everything I need to know about the story I need to write — even if much of it is in fragments, or sounds confusing to me at first, or shows up in symbols. The story I’ve been gifted to tell operates on its own time schedule, not mine.
And I’ve never had this much fun writing before, ever in my life.
If you’ve always felt the yua, the life force, in your stories but never had the words to verbalize your feelings before, I strongly urge you to check out Martin’s The Way of the Human Being. And if you’ve always been curious about letting your characters take the reins, but you don’t know how to get started, just sit and talk to them. Ask them what they want to do and withhold all judgment. Record your story as you see it happening in your mind’s eye, and drop all the baggage around what you think it “should look like” or “should be.”
As Martin says, when you are able to “see the life in something,” that something will begin to take on a life of its own.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.