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The Heart of Writing

There are only so many stories, told in so many ways, found in all the world. But don't be discouraged, my friends.

Have you ever heard of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by author Joseph Campbell? It is a wonderful compilation of Campbell's research and commentary on psychology, the Hero's Journey, the structuring of stories, and more. (An aside: If you have never read or even heard to his book, I suggest you take a look. I read somewhere once that reading this book is a prerequisite to working with Pixar.) The very first paragraph suggests that there is a connection between all stories, no matter the location, time, or teller. It reads,

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

As writers we are constantly trying to look for the next big thing to write about, wracking our brains for something newly imagined and never before seen. You want something never before penned in history, something so beyond the spheres of human experience that it is beyond compare.

I applaud you for your attempts at ingenuity, but be wary of going down that path too far. There are already stories waiting inside of you, and if you don’t capture them and put them to paper, they may disappear. So, rather than sitting around waiting for a completely new, never-before-seen concept or plot to pop into your brain, look within to some of the already wonderful ideas floating about.

I say this not to dissuade you from being creative and thinking “outside the box”, but I know from personal experience that you can get trapped in this state of mind, thinking that nothing you’re imagining is good enough. When it comes down to it, writing is not merely to be entertaining. In fact, it’s far from that. Ask yourself: why do I read?

The answer for me is simple: I read to escape. I read to be enlightened and uplifted, and to relate to something that is otherwise far beyond my physical reach. But to get to the heart of the matter, I indulge in reading to find the human experience.

Noam Chomsky, an American linguist, philosopher and author, once commented on the human condition, saying,

It is quite possible--overwhelmingly probable, one might guess--that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.

I agree with his statement, mostly because I love reading/writing and did not altogether enjoy my intro to psychology class. Do you agree? Do you believe the human experience plays a big role in writing, to the point that we can learn much from reading and writing ourselves?

If you find yourself in disagreement to this quote, I would ask yourself this question again: why do I read?

If you can agree (for the most part) that writing is about finding that link to the human experience, then it may not be so hard to follow my initial advice. Don’t get bogged down by this idea that every story you create needs to be completely new, with no ties, relations, or similarities to other stories in existence. As mentioned before, we read and write to feel that human experience. We write to leave our own unique imprint in the world of literature, and to add to this growing well of knowledge that is the human experience.

Listen well to this quote from author, Oliver Sacks. He said,

If we wish to know about a man, we ask 'what is his story--his real, inmost story?'--for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us--through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives--we are each of us unique.

Is this not the perfect way to look at our own writing? We know that we all have similar life experiences, and yet each of us carries a very unique story within us, one that is all our own. If you can put this into your own writing, then you will find success. Not only that, but I highly recommend incorporating your own experiences into your writing, as it will ring true with your audience. Even if you're writing a story based several thousand years in the future on some random planet, your writing will prove genuine and endearing to those reading.

You want your writing to be raw, real, and inspiring. Using and reusing ideas is fine, as long as you are attempting to give it a new twist or to give your own insights into the human experience. You may feel too limited or too inexperienced to write something profound, but Joseph Campbell suggests that everyone has that potential for greatness. He said:

The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization.

This quote can be applied to many things, and so it is most true in writing. You must trust that you have the ability to break beyond your boundaries and find something beautiful and worth writing about. Use your own experiences, seek out old stories for inspiration, and add a dash of something new.

Everyone can enjoy a well-written piece of literature, but what strikes us at the core is much beyond that; it is when a story gives us something to relate to, gives us something to hope for and gives us a journey we’ll never forget. That is the heart of writing.

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