When I started my Master of fine arts degree, I wanted badly to be a professional writer. No, a professional artist. A professional artistic writer.
The problem was that “I want to be a professional artistic writer” is a vague sentence, a hazy notion. Hence it led to hazy planning, hazy writing. Thus to hazy, ordinary stories.
Let’s shoot some adrenaline into that sentence. Get the “to be” verb construction the hell out of there.
I want to write professionally and artistically.
Okay, a little better. But Papa Hemingway has taught us to hate adverbs, so we must soldier on… minimally.
So what exactly does it mean to write “professionally and artistically”? Well, professional suggests I’d like to make a living, sell my work. “Artistically” indicates I want to produce writing of high quality.
Apply it to the sentence.
I want to write quality material and get paid to do it.
Okay, and who is paying for this?
Don’t be VAGUE.
Okay, people who have the same experiences I do. Disaffected evangelicals who are lonely because there isn’t quality writing out there about that experience.
Apply it to the sentence.
I want to write quality material for disaffected evangelicals who don’t yet have stories about this experience.
Did you see what happened as I made the language specific? Suddenly, the possibilities shrunk and shrunk–behind my desire to be something, there was a more powerful desire to do something good for a specific group of people.
This was how I found my audience.
Let me tell you, it is much more freeing to write for just a few people, as opposed to writing for the whole wide world.
In the creative work itself, let’s apply it to the difficult issue of setting.
I used to write stories with no clear place in mind. These stories took place in a sort of gray, indefinite stage, where people entered, emoted in figurative language, and then walked off. Or stormed off. Or stormed angrily off. If they went outside and were angry, I made it dark and rainy. If they were at a point of resolution, I made it sunny.
If you have no specific world for your story, then you’ll almost invariably be trapped in your characters’ interior. Why? Because there’s no where else to go!
The most radical change in my writing came when I constrained my setting as much as possible through radical specificity. I would no longer set my stories in rooms–I would instead set them in Florida in 1999 at the height of the market bubble, when new construction was constant, during those really wet summers, at that little deli where Mom mysteriously took me and said she had something to tell me.
It was so much easier to write that world. Characters could act anxious and fall apart mentally and I could capture it. I just had to envision the world, then write what I saw.
We start big and vague, I think, because it’s safe to hide behind vagaries. Asking if you have something of value to “say to the world,” is much less scary than asking if you have something of value to say to Joe Down the Street, or whoever you’re hoping to move.
It’s scary to think about writing with a specific world and audience in mind. It’s easier to write for the universe then for Joe, because the universe doesn’t care, and Joe might, which means Joe might reject you.
“No, no, no, that’s not how I experienced it.”
Worse: “Oh this is. Interesting.”
It’s easier to dream vague too. You can always push vague dreams back up into the stratosphere if they’re not working out down here on earth.
Listen, dust off that old story, dust off that old dream. Give it the scrutiny of radical specificity. Just by changing “Virginia” to “Lynchburg, Virginia,” to “Liberty University in Lynchburg” has completely altered the focus and interest of my writing.
It also puts me on the hook. People might love it, but they might hate it, too.
But at least they won’t call it “interesting.”