You Are What You Write

When I teach, I often ask the question, “What’s at stake for you in this story?”  I’m not alone; it’s a common question in the world of writing.  Students are puzzled by it, however, and usually ask me to explain.

Really I’m looking for the intersection between the writer’s heart and the words on the page.  How does this subject terrify you, compel you, wrap its sweaty hands around your longing and jerk you into unexplored territory?  When a story nags, it always shares some fundamental passion with the writer.  It always taunts the writer with the promise of discoveries that cannot be made in any other way.  How does this project set you on edge?  What’s the rabbit hole you’ve been skirting?  Your writing will take you down.

For people who keep journals and new writers, writing is a natural extension of the self.  We don’t recognize any separation between the passion thumping in our chests and those black marks on paper.  The more we write and the more we learn the craft of writing, we find that our work isn’t us; it is a creation, it’s separate from us.  This is a good thing.  Only as we gain mastery over language and our ideas do we learn to craft our writing, shaping it to interact with audiences beyond our control.  We need a healthy detachment from our work for it to stand on its own two legs.

That said, I’m beginning to realize (through my own writing and my coaching of others) how easily we lose our initial, passionate, full-throttle, full-stakes relationship with writing.  Concern for how our work will satisfy an audience sucks the life out of our creative energy.  We forget our stake.

Recently I found this passage in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing:

The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story.  What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed?  Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator.  (43)

Oh, yes!  We don’t want our writing to flirt with our life, we don’t want casual dating, we want head-over-heels love leading to a life-long marriage.  So the question, “What’s at stake?” isn’t strong enough.  “How does your life depend on this piece of writing?” is more apt.  Answer that question and you’ve got it made.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

What’s At Stake?

Perhaps the most important question for every creative writer to ask—and definitely the hardest question to answer—is “What’s at stake for me?”  For writing to work well, the writer must care deeply.

On the surface this question seems simplistic; our care is instinctive, compelling, and unspoken.  In practice, the journey through revision is an excavation of the author’s stake, digging below external reasons (“I want to help others; I want to be published”), below the outer story (“I want to explore this memory, character, or idea”), to some subconscious, undercurrent of longing.  Our stake is always found in our emotional relationship to the subject matter.  Without some connection to our content, we might convey the content to a reader but we’ve no reason to explore it.  And passionate exploration is what makes writing great.

What’s in question?  What are you risking?  What of your heart have you invested?  A writer’s stake in a project is a fiery furnace that fuels the steam engine and makes it move.  When I ask writers, “What’s at stake?” they frequently have no idea.  The writing process is their heartfelt search for that single burning coal.  Sometimes writers have an answer that changes with time and revision, a sign that their work is gaining dimension.  Sometimes writers continue to learn about their stake long after the project is done.  Only when writers have a definitive, unchanging answer do I grow concerned for their work.

I believe every project is an attempt to give words to an inarticulate relationship between the author’s heart and his or her subject matter.  Our struggles naming this relationship are understandable:  It changes by virtue of being written.      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew