Saturday, March 28, 2015

Write What YOUR SOUL Knows

What does it mean, “Write what you know”? I come from an Italian-French family. I worked in a fish market in RI for a Mormon minister fisherman. I lived in the servants quarters of the Marble House in Newport. I have worked in Hollywood for twenty years. I have a family member who is an alcoholic. Does that oft-used exhortation to writers mean that I can only write characters whose lives dovetail with mine?  Wouldn't it be like saying that a doctor can only cure cancer if he first had cancer?

The expression, "Write what you know," first means, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. "Write What You Know" refers to the part of the writer's task that precedes the actual writing. On this level, editors and producers have a right to bemoan those writers who literally aren't filling their place at the table. The writer’s job is to do the research. It is to fill out a new world, or to add fresh details to a world we thought we knew so that we now see it in depth. 

Research is always doable. It helps me to set a script in Newport, RI because I have already done the research by my life experience. But part of the crafting of a screenplay is to enter into new worlds through research and make them tangible for the reader/viewer. Don’t set a script in a scuba diving school near the Great Barrier Reef unless you have done your research in the kind of people who become divers, intricacies of scuba gear, diving education approaches, ways divers die, how cool the underwater thing is, Australians, and the Great Barrier Reef. So, the first sense of "Write what you know" is WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE COME TO KNOW ABOUT.

But editors and producers and readers mean more than this too. "Write what you know" is an appeal for you to basically write what your soul knows. I was tempted to say “heart” here, particularly because it sounds warmer and fuzzier to say, “Write What Your Heart Knows,” but I mean more than just your emotions. Animals have emotions. Your soul, in the classical sense, is where your intellect, will and desires reside. Your soul is the place where your essential humanity is. Write from that place. It is where you brood from – as opposed to just reason. It’s where you dream from. It’s where you suffer from. It’s where you feel remorse from. It is where you choose from. It is where you love from. It is where you pray from. If you write from that place, then you are speaking soul to soul with your reader. And hence, what you produce will transcend mere demographics.  

A great writer doen't write to “young adults” but to “young souls.” Not to aging Boomers, but to weathered souls.  Not to children but to “baby human souls.” Speak to their fundamental condition not to their particular situation. What is it they yearn for? If you write to kids as if they are yearning mainly for the newest skinny jeans, or the latest iPod, you are dehumanizing them and they will disdain you. Rightly so. These are not truly the things for which a human soul yearns.  They are the manifestation of that deeper yearning.

You speak to human souls through beauty. Using words to achieve wholeness, harmony and radiance is the primary task of the writer. We have to remind ourselves over and over, with Dostoevsky, that it is beauty that will save the world. Not cleverness. Not cuteness. Not the mere witness to social justice. 

The philosopher Etienne Gilson says that beauty is in more than just wholeness, harmony and radiance. He says there is also style, originality and universality. Style has to do with talent. Originality has to do with a new thought. Universality has to do with the fact that it speaks to thoughtful people beyond their time or culture. Don’t write a jealous character until you have something unique to say about jealousy. Or at least, a fresh way of showing us how it looks when it is asking for the salt shaker at dinner. Don’t write about the power of art. Write about the way the purple paint feels on the fingers of the three year old as she smears it with wonder across the new white carpet in the living room. Don’t write about heartbreak until you have something profound to say about heartbreak. Or at least, how it looks on Joe’s seven year old face the first time his best friend, Mike, opts to throw the ball to Matt the fourth grader instead of Joe.

If there is anything that is clear, it’s that writing is more than any other art form, an attempt to communicate in an articulate way. The sole color on the pallet of the writer is words. Great writing moves immediately from being a rambling monologue, and becomes a dialogue with the reader’s heart and mind. The pictures you create with your words get matched to the reader’s memory and imagination, and he or she begins to edit and highlight and fill-out what you offer from his or her own experience. This happens more or less according to whatever level of history the reader brings to your work. When your experience connects with the viewer's experience they feel a wave of delight - part of which is the sudden comfort of knowing they aren't alone. But this can't happen unless you are really recreating what your sol has learned first.

Great writing is basically just great communication, great communication means you are speaking to the receiver’s humanity, not to their particular moment. Flannery O’Connor was great because she mastered the art of writing from the inside of her readers. She was very conscious of human psychology and the dynamic process that a reader goes on in a story. She wasn’t thinking about writing for Southerners, or for academics, or even for Christians or unbelievers. She was writing to any one who was engaged in the activity of dodging moments of grace. Basically all of us.  Write about the way you dodge your moments of grace.  That will have an authority that will speak to the reader soul to soul and make your work fascinating and healing for them.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this. Its fantastic advice for would be storytellers (me.) I look forward to following your blog.