This past week was spent exploring a new story. The hardest part for me isn’t plot, it’s finding the emotional challenge for the character. It’s not usually this hard, but this new story is loosely based on things I’ve experienced in my own life. After taking workshops at The Landmark Forum, I realize that I’ve avoided looking at what I’ve had to sacrifice in my own life to succeed, so it’s hard for me to connect to my character. Being a writer always requires a level of emotional honesty, and I struggle with this more than I’ve ever cared to admit before. I hit a real crossroads about writing, and saw that if I wanted to continue writing my own stuff, I would have to face the music, and dance.
So, why does understanding yourself even matter if you’re writing about someone else? Why do we writers have to answer one big question about our main characters to make our stories soar? And that question is: What does he/she have to sacrifice to win? What does that even mean? And what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that we love stories that help us understand something about ourselves. That’s why certain stories become “classics,” and become part of our communal experience, and others are instantly forgotten. To write a memorable story requires that we first look at our own experience, to see what we have actually been through and then extrapolate it out into a story about someone else.
The great writer and coach, Ellen Sandler’s suggestion that you identify which of the Seven Deadly Sins is the one you have personally committed and use that as a basis for storytelling is brilliant, and yet so simple. By limiting your choices, the answer allows you to create a theme that allows you to frame the sacrifice the main character must make in terms of lust, greed, gluttony etc.
Then, if you allow those “sins” to become specific, your stories take on a central core that’s easy to expand on. So, if the “sin” is lust, you might find yourself working with a character like Nola Darling in the 1986 Spike Lee film, She’s Gotta Have it, which was also made into a 30-minute series for Netflix.
Nola is a woman who has relationships with several people at the same time, and avoids making a choice of which one she wants to commit to. This is a problem that many people have, and so whatever the specific details are, the emotional challenge of whether or not to commit becomes the center of both the film, and each episode of the series.
The Landmark Forum encourages you to be brutally honest with yourself, and to put the past into the past so as not have it be the basis for an unhappy future. You do this by revisiting it in a non-judgmental way and accepting whatever happened without trying to change it. It sounds as hard as it is! This is good advice for real life, and also for any writer who wants to transform their work.
To accomplish this goal of acceptance for myself, I’m writing a series of short pieces under the topic heading of “Occasions.” I keep a running list of memories and ideas. When I get up, I write for 15 minutes, and try to find a beginning, middle and end for one of the items on my list. I’ve committed to doing this for a month, and will share my results.
If you decide to try a project like this, please share with me!
Here’s to your successful writing,
Professor Marilyn Horowitz