Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer -and What To Do About It - Part 9
Reaching escape velocity means finding a fuel powerful enough to blast us out of the grip of a gravitational field and into free space.
In the 1963 comedy film The Mouse on the Moon, characters from the fictional European duchy of Grand Fenwick discover that their only export, wine, is adaptable as a highly effective rocket fuel which they then use to become the first nation to land upon the Moon. The wine is so powerful that it isn’t necessary to punch through the atmosphere and gravitational field of the Earth by reaching escape velocity: the moon rocket ‘chugs’ up into space at a leisurely pace, essentially drifting out of orbit and on its lunar adventure with little difficulty.
Unfortunately, this does not reflect what normally awaits a writer when he or she decides to make serious changes to the lifestyle which is preventing full-time writing. One has to find something which is strong enough to overpower the circumstances holding one back.
The truth is that you probably have some inkling of what this is already, because if you are reading this you must be at least at the second or third level of our imaginary ‘ladder’ towards freedom as a writer. The dissatisfaction you feel with your current circumstances is exactly what reveals your position.
Earlier, I asked you to try to scribble down in some form what you wanted to say as a writer. It didn’t have to be in the form of coherent sentences; notes would do. It didn’t even have to be completely comprehensible - it just had to be a beginning.
If you felt that this was not adequate or you were completely unable to do this, here’s a different approach.
List out everything that you enjoy doing or that you love. This can range from physical activities to food, to travel experiences, to certain relationships - basically anything positive in your life.
Next, list those things which place the above under threat.
If you love nature, what gets in your way; if you love your family, what places them at risk; if you love certain activities, what cuts across them. One for one, list the risks, threats, dangers, hazards, lack of opportunities or any kind of barrier or obstacle that might get between you and the things you love.
What’s happening here is that you are creating a vacuum: a gap, or hole, or emptiness or loss or risk of loss. You already feel the edges this vacuum - it's what makes life uncomfortable for you when you want to be a full-time writer.
That vacuum has the power to pull you out from within you a message, a communication, something that you want to tell the world. It might be to do with self, or loss of self; with love or loss of love; with power or loss of power. It might be to do with any number of things, expressed in your own words. Whatever it is, it will probably be close to what you want to communicate with your writing as a whole.
‘But wait,’ I hear some voices cry. ‘I just want to entertain people - I don’t want to convey some deep theme or anything. What happened to writing to just entertain?’
That’s fair enough. By all means, pursue that if you wish, there’s nothing wrong with that. But 'entertainment' alone as a goal is not likely to fire up a powerful enough engine to enable you to change your lifestyle so that you can write full-time. It just doesn’t have the horsepower. The result? You’ll go on operating at the second or third level of this ladder, writing when you can carve out a few minutes or perhaps a few hours, and getting some work done. Many writers operate like this and get books finished and even published.
But I’m talking about getting rid of the enemies of Lack of Time and its companion Procrastination forever. If you share that aim, you’ll need stronger fuel. And anyway, even the most 'entertaining' of writers often have undercurrents of deeper themes and material. Look at the comedic works of Spike Milligan: his autobiographical comedy Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall is hilariously entertaining, but contains bleak meditations on the horror of war too.
The deeper the theme, the stronger the fuel.
But here we also run into an oddity: of the many, many master authors whose work I have examined over the years, there are hardly any with an ‘original message’. It might seem counter-intuitive or even blasphemous to claim this, but almost every great writer is saying much the same kind of thing.
Just pick up any classic novel that you choose. It’s possible to predict without much risk of error that its central theme is along the lines of ‘Pride comes before a fall’. In other words, in any story, be it fantasy, science fiction, literary novel, Western, comedy, romance, mystery and so on, or any kind of combination of these sub-genres, the underlying theme will at least partly be based on the principle that Pride - i.e. an over-inflated view of Self - leads to the inevitable downfall of its proponent.
That might strike you as odd. You might rush to disagree. Perhaps you were thinking that great authors - or perhaps even every author - had something entirely original to say, theme-wise. Perhaps you were inadvertently striving to find a unique and original theme for yourself, something that no one else had ever tackled in quite the same way, something so poetically different and vibrant that it would make your reputation as a writer forever.
But the fact is that, probably, what you have to say is not going to be all that different from what most great writers are saying. And that is that it is wrong to overinflate the Self, and that the winning way forward is for the protagonist to sacrifice that idea and assume a place in a wider scenario. Or something
along those lines, obviously with some slight variations.
That applies to almost every work of fiction from A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Homer’s Odyssey, to just about every Victorian novel you can think of, to modern-day blockbusters like the Marvel movies.
Does that strike you as strange?
It should also come as a relief.
You don’t have to find a unique theme. What you do have to find is a unique voice - a way of saying what everyone else is saying (more or less) but with a ‘twang’ or flavour or wavelength all your own.
How do you find that unique wavelength?