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