Stories are shaped like C’s

by Kristin on October 27, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

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.

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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

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  • http://twitter.com/danielbowmanjr Daniel Bowman Jr.

    Thanks for this, Kristin, and thank you so much for coming to Taylor.

    Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” We can teach students what we know so far, teach them to seek truth, and invite them to take risks alongside us, in a space where writing and risk-taking are deeply valued and connected with our identities. And down the road they won’t need us anymore, and there we are most honored, as were our teachers and mentors.

    It’s a wonderful thing.

    • http://twitter.com/kt_writes Kristin T.

      I love how you put this: “We can teach students what we know so far, teach them to seek truth, and
      invite them to take risks alongside us, in a space where writing and
      risk-taking are deeply valued and connected with our identities.” You are clearly a teacher, of the best kind. Thank you, again, for the invitation to share with you in that process.

  • Lesley

    Kristin, these are great observations on writing. I’ve tucked them away to inspire me when I’m down on the craft. :)

  • http://twitter.com/erinblueburke Erin Burke

    I love the thought of stories creating space rather than filling it. That is so true!

    • http://twitter.com/kt_writes Kristin T.

      Thanks! Now I need to figure out how to keep that in mind as I’m writing. I wonder if creating space is an intentional thing or a state of mind…

  • Margaret

    LOVE this–may we all find the truth of ourselves we are trying to discover as we write

    • http://twitter.com/kt_writes Kristin T.

      It really changes the whole purpose behind our writing life, doesn’t it? Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • http://twitter.com/LisaColonDelay Lisa Colón DeLay

    This is a fresh perspective to hear.
    There are a lot of recent manifesto-styles of writing that seems to fly in the face of this. Or mission statements. Sometimes I end up writing like I’m trying to connect all the dotting. I like your “open source” angle, girl!

    • http://twitter.com/kt_writes Kristin T.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the “big idea” concept that Phil Vischer shared about at STORY—how his life shifted in such important ways when he let go of a “big idea” as his goal, and instead became more like a jellyfish, willing to follow the currents. This approach to writing is sort of like that, don’t you think?

      • http://twitter.com/LisaColonDelay Lisa Colón DeLay

        Yes, I agree. Perhaps it extends to all we do creatively, but also how we see our hopes or apprehend our ambitions related to the writing realm. I got a lot out of his story. It was touching.

  • http://aloveaffairwithwords.blogspot.com Jenn

    I love this! What a great perspective on storytelling – one I haven’t thought about before now. Thanks for sharing.

    • kt_writes

      Thanks, Jenn! I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, either, but it was a much-needed paradigm shift.

  • themoderngal

    I love the idea of the story as a C! It’s why people experience stories differently — they bring something different to that space inside than the next person.

    • kt_writes

      Exactly! Why does it seem like we’re so much more open to that—I think we expect it—when it comes to visual art?

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