What’s at Stake?

Whenever I begin to work with a writer on his or her project, I always ask two questions.  The first is “Why are you writing this?”  The answers I get are often similar—“Because I learned things from my experience I want to share with others”; “Because it’s good therapy”; “Because the world needs to hear this story;” “Because I feel compelled.” With any one piece of writing there exist a dozen motivations for writing, and I want to hear the surface explanation—the story the writer tells him- or herself when facing the blank page.

But this first response, while honest and important, is never deep enough to sustain someone through the long effort of writing.  Nor is it particularly helpful.  As a writing coach, I look for the reasons behind the stated reason, the emerging inner story, because that’s where passion and fear and drive reside.  I look for motivation powerful enough for the long haul and rich enough to make the effort worthwhile.  So the second question I ask is “What’s at stake for you?”  I want to know what the author is seeking in the material, where his or her heart is on the line, and what depends on this story’s unfolding.  In other words, I’m less interested in the author’s relationship to the product or the product’s relationship to the audience than the author’s relationship to the subject matter and level of engagement in the process.

Answers to the “What’s at stake?” question are far more interesting.  “I can’t stop grieving my mother’s death, and I hope writing will help me.”  “I’m curious about how interdependent people are and want to learn how communities work.”  “My life feels so fragmented.  Is it possible to find unity in all my memories?”  When we explore our personal stake in our material, we fuel the engine that will pull us through the writing journey and our reader through the reading journey.  We turn our face away from the audience and look directly and the stuff of our story, where we can engage it in intimate conversation.  An author’s personal stake in a story determines the story’s honesty, be it told in fiction or nonfiction.  There’s a direct link between why we write and what we write.

When my editor at Skinner House asked if I would write a guide to writing spiritual memoir, I initially said no.  I’d taught spiritual memoir writing for years; I had oodles of lecture notes, writing exercises, and literary examples stored on my computer; I knew the subject and could easily have compiled my thoughts into a book.  But the project seemed boring.  Who would want to spend a year putting together already thought-out thoughts?  There was nothing for me to discover.  I had no stake in the project.  Eventually a question emerged:  How is writing a spiritual practice?  While Writing the Sacred Journey doesn’t address this question until the final chapter, I pondered it with every page.  The exploration helped motivate me.

As I work on longer projects, I ask myself the “What’s at stake?” question repeatedly.  My answers change with each draft—they grow cleaner and more pointed—and they help guide my revision.  Yesterday, after working on my novel for five years, after finding an agent to represent it, and after receiving my first round of rejections from editors, I asked yet again what my personal stake is in this story.  And I came up with an entirely new and surprising answer.  The new insight helps me clarify the novel’s focus, even though my character’s circumstances are entirely different from my own.  I now know a bit better what problem I’m trying to solve through writing, and this guides my revision.

Any story we put our heart into will kick up layers of memory and emotion.  Revising becomes this lovely, on-going dialogue between the story’s life and our own.  Pretty amazing!

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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