At the very beginning of this year, I took a six week writing workshop. In a year chock full of incredible experiences, it’s still one of my favorites. Not only because of the ideas and energy it unleashed, but because of the instructor, Lindsey. She was a fantastic teacher, and in the last couple months, we’ve been working together one on one, with her providing reader feedback on some different stories I’m crafting.
When we talk about the work, one thing I’m always asking about is voice and narration. Have you ever stared at a word so long, you can’t tell if you’re spelling it correctly anymore? That’s kind of how it is when you’re writing stories informed by your own personal experiences. You begin to wonder if you’re losing sight not only of what’s being told, but more importantly, how you’re telling it.
One thing she emphasized both in the workshop and in our consulting work is to talk about someone else’s writing not as if it’s the author telling the story, but the characters and/or the narrator. For example, I could write about what I ate for lunch that day, and in talking about it, she might say, “So here the narrator is showing us how much she enjoyed the sandwich, and she mentions the bench she’s eating it on, but we need more of a sense of place. Maybe the narrator can drop in details about what she sees as she’s eating; or how the bench feels, to establish where she is; what the weather is like; and what the scene feels like around her.”
Ok, so that’s kind of a lame example. But basically, talking about your stories in this way forces you to stop seeing yourself as whatever labels you’ve placed upon yourself—writer, struggling author, total imposter—and instead observe your characters (and/or narrator) much more closely.
Here’s are two better (real life) examples.
We were diving into notes on narration earlier this week, specifically about a true story from my childhood. At no point did she say to me, “So, when you were 9 in this part… ” or “In the section you write here about this thing…”
Instead, all questions were phrased in the form of, “When the girl is 9…” or “When the narrator is showing us this thing…” Framing questions in this way allowed us to dig deeper into the characters’ motivations. It astounded me how revealing it was to talk about the stories in this way. Lindsey asked why the narrator—not me—had chosen a specific adjective to describe something, and presto! All sorts of insights into that character and the circumstances at hand would open up, providing rich, meaty detail.
On my walk home from our session, I got to thinking about how applicable this is to our own lives, especially in this season of taking personal inventory of our goals, motivations, and limitations as we round out one year and embark on another. To be sure, the ability to take a (big) step back and observe ourselves objectively can be tough—I mean, it’s hard enough with fake characters, let alone in the lives we’re moving through in real time! But it’s an interesting exercise all the same.
“I want to spend more time reading,” for me, becomes “She vowed to spend more time reading.”
But why vowed? I can hear Lindsey asking. I answer:
“She’d become disenchanted with evenings spent on her phone, TV blaring in the background, the life around her a blur. There were other signs she might need to (literally) move on: One night, she felt a spring in the couch beneath her surrender with a tinny pop. The cushion sagged limply, defeated after countless nights of her body collapsing into the same spot.
The years sped past more quickly these days, and if she didn’t make a change, all she might have to show for it was severe eye strain and an irregular sleep schedule. She tried to remember the last time she felt truly inspired, or seen something that moved her to her core. Books had the power to do this, she knew—and immediately, an idea struck. She opened up her phone once more, and this time, it was easy to bypass Instagram. A few taps later, and she’d bought 8 real, hard cover books, and vowed to read each and every one in the new year.”
Okay, so maybe it’s a little over the top for the goal at hand! But in all seriousness, when I start to look more closely at my goals through the lens of where the character—or the narrator—is trying to take us, the impetus behind them is also crystalized. I don’t just want to read more because it seems like a good goal to set, or it’s a popular resolution, or whatever. I want to read more because I’m sick of this mind-numbing cycle that so easily takes over our evenings, and I want to spend my down time with something that stokes my imagination, inspires me, makes me feel good, and nourishes the soul. I find this type of clarity ensures I’ll stick to a plan, and commit to the things I know deep down will truly make me happy.
This isn’t about resolutions, much less advising you on the best way to keep them. But this time of year is always ripe for self-reflection, and for me at least, here was a really interesting way to do it. Narrate your own life to mine the deepest insights into who you are, where you are, what you want, and how you’re going to get there.
PS — Terrible puns aside, here’s wishing you a beautiful holiday season. I’ll be back before year’s end with a (what I’m sure will be a completely emotional) letter to 2018. Here’s last year’s if you want to check it out. Shit, a lot can happen in a year—especially when I look back on last year’s “heavyweight low!” Funny how things change. I can’t wait to reflect on our most recent trip around the sun.