Carpenter or Architect? Writers, Which One Are You?
The premise of most “writing how-to” books is this: writers make up stories. Because they make up stories, writing one really comes down to selecting the right structure, tools and materials to build one. If you read enough of these how-to books, and apply what they preach, anyone can write, right? And even further, for those writers who are stuck, the idea that you can just find the right tool to get unstuck somewhere in these books turns into an endless search for a elusive solution.
What amazes me is that so few writing books stem from the premise that so many writers actually experience: we don’t make up our stories, our stories exist and emerge as themselves.
How many writers have felt that the story “comes alive, with a life of its own” and that “the characters seem to know what they want to say and do”, and that “writing is more like channeling”, etc. , etc. You’ve felt it, right? I certainly do. The idea that my brain has concocted the characters, their personalities, their backstories, their emotional fabric, their pain, their reactions to decisions I don’t even know they’re going to make yet, feels completely foreign to my experience and how I receive stories. Perhaps because the concept of “making something up” involves a conscious decision, i.e., “John’s eyes will be blue, not brown; he’ll be afraid of heights and have a fiery temper.”
If I want to know what John looks like, what he’s afraid of and how he reacts, I have to ask him, listen and watch.
I’m not saying that writers don’t have choices to make and don’t alter details to serve the story. We do. What I am saying is that there is no way I could fabricate a story from scratch. Maybe I’m just not clever enough. My experience is that Stories and Characters present themselves to me, I get glimpses and hints here and there of what is going to happen. But mostly I’m working blind and don’t know what happens until my characters do. Which means the snags I face are not structure, tools and materials, but issues of relationships, trust, intention and communication.
Those aren’t in the books.
I have to spend time with the characters to hear what they have to say, what they’re afraid to say. It’s a journey we travel together. They lead, I follow. They speak, I listen, write it down. If something’s not working, or if there’s a better way to present the emotional fabric of their story, we work it out, try different things. We run into spots where we’re not sure what comes next.
The answers aren’t in the books.
They’re in the writing.
In other words, “results and clarity come from engagement (taking action), not thought.”
And not from endless searches through the next promising writing how-to book. I find the next scene by physically typing on the keyboard as the scene unfolds. I spend time discussing with the characters what the next scene will be, but I don’t always know. The answers sometimes elude me for days, until in some odd, unexpected moment, there it is. But more often than not, I have to go back to the keyboard and just type. Let the characters lead, get in deep water, see how they get themselves out. It’s an organic process. It’s not in the books.
But what about outlining? Treatments? Plotting before you write? Doesn’t a story need to be planned ahead of time so you know where you’re going? You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, after all.
Mmm. All good points.
What is the purpose of a house? To have a structurally sound protective environment that remains in place and supports a human lifestyle, right?
What is the purpose of a story? To move the human heart to respond, to open, to feel something.
There is a place for craft and knowing how to use the tools of your trade.
But a writer is more an architect than a carpenter.
And where do architects get their ideas? From listening to the needs and desires of the one who will live in the house. Who lives in the houses of our Stories? (If you said, audience – you’re incorrect.)
Characters live in the houses of our stories.
If you want to be a carpenter-writer, then you’ll end up with a house that some other architect designed and has built before. If you want to be an architect-writer, then you’ll understand why the most important quality to have is the ability to listen deeply into the Storyworld and trust what one hears, feels and intuitively knows. You’ll design and build from there.
You’ll translate stories that pierce the human heart and move us.