Photo by TooFarNorth
I was preparing a talk for the creative writing students at Taylor University, and everything I wanted to say seemed to contradict the next thing I wanted to say.
When you write in the memoir style, it is very much about you, but it also has to be about everyone—about universal truths.
A sense of audience is critical when you write, but don’t let your perceived audience dictate what you write.
It’s important to know what the red thread of your story is, but it’s also healthy to see the writing process as means to uncovering the heart of the matter.
The more you write, the easier it will become in some ways, but the harder it should become in others.
If there was one thing I could conclude without contradiction, it seemed to be this: Writing may be hard, but talking about writing is even harder. And over-thinking it is sure to suck all the spontaneity and beauty and pulsing life out of it—that much is clear.
When I finally stood in front of the students, this is what it boiled down to: how important it is to write like someone who isn’t sure about everything.
I told them to not set out with a clear sense of purpose or too many goals, but to trust and follow the story, letting it do the work it needs to do.
I suggested that although writers love to find exactly the right word that says exactly the right thing, perhaps we should see words as more fluid. Perhaps we need to let go of this idea we have about words—that they are clearly definable and, when put together in certain ways, carry a singular, solid meaning. Maybe stories should be approached more like paintings: colors, images, and shapes that are open to the viewer’s own story, experiences, and mood. Rather than writing as one making a statement—”This is what this means”—we should try framing our stories in a question: “What does this mean to you?”
In other words, maybe stories—even true stories—aren’t about filling a space, but creating a space. Maybe by writing them, what we are doing is creating a cozy, shady structure that invites people in, to gather together and share. The writer James Calvin Schaap imagines those structures as being like the letter C:
All stories are shaped like C’s—that is, they leave a certain empty space into which the reader brings his or her own perceptions. That gap is the place where we discover truth ourselves, rather than having it revealed to us.
Perhaps that’s what teaching should look like, too. After all, there’s only so much someone can tell us—even someone who is thoughtful and wise. My hope is that my stories—and the words I shared in the Taylor creative writing classes—create inviting and safe spaces where people can explore and discover their own truths. There’s a lot of freedom in that, for the writer as well as the reader.
Many thanks to Daniel Bowman, who invited me to speak to his classes at Taylor and shared the Schaap quote with me. If you haven’t read any of Dan’s poetry before, you should! And you should follow him on Twitter, too: @danielbowmanjr