Write What You Love

I had the great fortune of attending a talk on authenticity and creativity in Apalachicola, FL last week. The talk was given by Joe Paquet, a wonderfully gifted painter and a really inspiring theorist on the arts.

David

David

At one point, Joe recounted a visit to Florence. Lots of his friends were excited to hear about his reaction, as an artist, to Michelangelo’s statue of David, which of course we all must see when we visit Florence (I did as well, many years ago now).

But as he was on his way to see the statue, Joe passed some later works by Michelangelo, the four “Unfinished Slaves.” These works made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle, he said.

On he continued, though, to David, who, if you haven’t seen him, is perfection itself. As Joe noted, “There are even cuticles on his fingernails!”

David was incredible. Perfect.

Two of Michelangelo's Unfinished Slaves

Two of Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves

Still, though, Joe kept returning to those slaves. These were the works he wanted to stare at, to connect with, these statues that weren’t even finished. Prisoners in stone.

Why?

In Joe’s own words:

“The statue of David is the work of a young man trying to prove he was the best. The Unfinished Slaves are the work of an older man just trying to show the world what he loved.” – Joe Paquet, Apalachicola, FL (May 2016)

I’m not the first writer to talk about writing what you love (or as Chuck Wendig refers to it, WWYL).

So yes, it’s been done. And done again.

And yet. I think maybe I have a few points of my own.

Chuck is right. The old adage in writing is “Write What You Know.” I’ve never really been a subscriber to this. My earlier work involved quite a bit of research into cultures and events and laws that I didn’t know a ton about. If I was fascinated enough by a subject to research it and write about it, the theory went, that same fascination and wonder would be transferred on to the reader.

Sure, maybe. That can probably happen. Just as writing what you know can deliver a work full of authenticity to the reader.

And, listen. Fascination is great. Authenticity is wonderful.

Love is better. Love is always better.

Here’s the other thing. Love leads to fascination, to authenticity.

The most recent manuscript I’ve written is me writing what I love. Comic books. Baseball. A period of my youth I remember well, a time I really connect with still. I don’t know if it cracked any codes – I hope it did – but man did I enjoy the process.

Scratch that. I loved it.

Cracking the code is something we writers sometimes talk about. What’s the magic elixir that creates those mega hits, those books or movies – the stories – that great swaths of people enjoy, that, gosh, it seems like everyone connects with on some level?

I could list them out, but you already know what they are. Because you’re one of the somebodys who connected with them.

They’re the works that make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle, the ones you couldn’t look away from.

A lot of times, they come from a writer showing the world what he / she loves, is passionate about, can’t stop thinking about. They allow that writer to, in some way large or small, convey those feelings along to the reader. To create that connection. To bristle those hairs.

Does this mean writing what you know isn’t also writing what you love? Of course not. But it doesn’t guarantee it, either. You may know a great deal about some subject you don’t love. Or maybe…you did love it at one time, but no longer. You may even feel compelled to write about this subject, simply because you know so much about it.

I encourage you to consider first, though, whether you love it.

Because if you care about cracking the code, I believe you’ll only do it through WWYL.

There’s more to say about writing what you love, and authenticity, and where the magic happens, but I’ll save all that for another post.

Meanwhile, go forth and WWYL, people.

I promise magic will happen.

Possibly only in your own head, but hey, still magic, right?

Maybe even the best kind.

 

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Flash Fiction as Emotional Photography

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I was eating seafood gumbo in Apalachicola, FL, alone in a restaurant that sat on a busy (for Apalach, anyway) corner, where 98W streams through town and turns left.

This restaurant has big picture windows, and if you’re sitting facing the corner, you can see the traffic clearly. I watched as a truck hauling cypress lumber passed by, turning the restaurant’s corner. It was distinct because when you drive from Atlanta to Apalach, you usually follow route 65S, which cuts through Apalachicola National Forest, and all that cypress is unmistakable.

A few minutes later, another identical truck passed by. Then another. And another.

The scene reminded me of a corner I pass almost every day at home here in North Georgia. If you get stopped at the light at this particular intersection, you’re almost guaranteed to see a chicken truck pass by on route 20. It always strikes me, because it’s kind of sad, watching those pent up chickens transported into town. We know their fates.

That juxtaposition – the chicken trucks in Georgia, the cypress trucks in Florida – sparked an emotion in me that I knew would lead to a story. I’ve been writing flash fiction a while now, and it’s starting to become easier to recognize that ignition, the feeling I’m on the verge of a new story.

Things usually happen quickly after that. The characters come into view – there was a woman who had worked as a waitress in Georgia, watching those chicken trucks out her window, and something – a guy, probably – made her move to Apalach, where her life hadn’t changed as much as she’d hoped. She was still a waitress, and she was still watching trucks pass by her window. The only thing that had changed was what the trucks were carrying, and where they were going, while her life, to her eyes, remained rooted in place.

It would’ve been a great story (if I do say so myself), but here’s the thing.

I didn’t write it.

Here’s the other thing.

I’ll never write it.

See, I didn’t write it because I had made a commitment to myself to use my writing time on this particular work-cation to finish a revision of my work-in-progress, a middle grade adventure novel I’m really in love with. I didn’t have time to write flash fiction at that particular moment, not if I wanted to keep my promise to myself.

So write it now! I hear some of you crying out. Or sometime later, anyway.

Nope.

The thing is, even though I remember the basic plot and, even to some extent, the fundamental emotional core of the story – why I thought it would make a good piece in the first place – the particular emotions I felt at that moment, emotions that had a certain color, a certain light and texture in my head, my heart and my soul, those are gone. They left me when I stood up from that restaurant and paid the bill, as those cypress trucks sped on to wherever they were heading.

I discovered this week that’s one of the secrets to flash fiction – one of mine, anyway – the emotional connection to the work has to be there. People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever figured out why my flash fiction seems to work so well, and until now, I haven’t really been able to answer.

But now I think I understand better. A little better, anyway.

It’s that emotional connection, and a lot of times – most of the time – it’s sort of fleeting. It’s like a photograph. Do you ever have a moment where the light is just right, a subject is in the perfect spot, and you know it’s going to make a great picture? But maybe you fumble with your camera, or you forgot it in the hotel room, or whatever, and you promise you’ll come back, but by the time you do, the sun has set or the sky is a different color or the horse is no longer standing there, the boat is out to sea now, and heck you can take the photo anyway, but it’ll never be quite the same thing as it was in that moment you missed?

That’s flash fiction, for me at least. It’s emotional photography, and I either write the story when I’m still experiencing that exuberant feeling, or I don’t. I say exuberant, even if the emotion is one of melancholy, because it’s having the feeling that’s thrilling. For me, out of strong feelings and emotions come truth.

And I think, too, that’s the answer to what makes very short stories work or not. A good flash fiction piece, a great piece of music, a fantastic painting – most of them are doing the same thing. They’re capturing the universal in the particular. Particular details – lyrics, words, imagery – can evoke a universal connection between creator and consumer.

We’ve all experienced the sadness of cleaning up after a loved one’s death (The Union Bank Times), or struggled with disrespect in our work life (Sometimes It Goes Down the Wrong Way), or thought about moving somewhere else before realizing how much we’d miss our friends (Winter Ball).

Good stories remind of us of these universal experiences by establishing a firm emotional connection with you, the reader, listener or viewer. I believe they can only do this (or maybe, best do this) if the creator, the artist, felt that emotional connection him or herself at the time of the production of the work.

apalach bayThis shouldn’t be seen as a loss, that I didn’t write that particular story. That’s the great thing about emotions. We’re having them all the time, because we’re human, and that’s what we do. I may never feel the exact spark that might’ve ignited that particular story, in the same way the color of the sunset may never be exactly like it was that evening ten years ago, or twenty, but I will have other emotions, and there will be other sunsets.

The key is being able and willing to let the one you missed go, and to be open and receptive to the next one you see. Because, then, all you have to do is write it down.