Talking with my fellow writing teacher, Jason Webster, (We are at next weeks Moniack Mhor course in Scotland) we both latched on to the advice to writers given by writer Barry Lopez: Read. Get away from the familiar, find out what you truly believe.
I just checked this as my memory had rewritten ‘get away from the familiar to ‘get away from the usual’. I think that adds something- you could go to China to get away from the familiar, but you could still take the usual approach. I quibble, and anyway, the far more important item on the list is: find out what you truly believe.
This takes some unpacking. If the quest to find out what you truly believe is not sincere, is rushed, then the result will be worse than not even trying. To find out what you truly believe has little to do with grand beliefs and more to do with small things. You start by asking what you believe about fish and chips or beach holidays or clouds before working your way up to larger issues. Why? Because a sincere attempt at finding out what you truly believe needs precise language, and the language of big belief is saggy and misused beyond…belief. Once you have got the hang of finding out what you truly believe on the smaller things you might try sidling up to the bigger issues. You might find you only need to circle them. Perhaps you can find a few beliefs you can fly like the long curving tail of a kite doing loop the loops up above…or perhaps not. When the right language is lacking you have to rely on the right time and right place to indicate what you mean. Just pointing is enough on such occasions. Meaning you need to build a lot of context before you can begin to say what your true belief is.
I’ve been writing for myself and others since I was sixteen- a long time - and it took me AGES to work out a) I had to be sincere about what I believed and not clever, flip, or acceptable and b) my most seemingly unacceptable beliefs turned out to be my ‘best’ material.
Which is what it’s all about. When we fake it up the people who like us forgive us. It’s like seeing a relative at Christmas acting in charades. The world, however, is harsher. But when we are accurate and truthful in saying what we believe the world pays a different kind of attention.
So there is a worldly ‘incentive’ to be truthful too.
Nassim Taleb has originated the idea of being anti-fragile, that is, being able to take knocks and learn from them, improve. Being robust and unchanging is not so good. You stay standing, but like even the toughest rock you’ll eventually be eroded. To be fragile is worst of all. You just fold up and give up. Writers in their pursuit of finding out what they truly believe must be anti-fragile.
Which takes resilience and sincerity. Resilient enough to keep getting back up and sincere enough- from time to time- to take a good hard look at themselves and say what is, and is not, working. Not in the middle of a project- too dangerous- but before beginning a new one, before rushing in and repeating old mistakes.
If you want to hear more on this sign up for the course at Moniack Mhor- http://www.moniackmhor.org.uk/courses/non-fiction-robert-twigger-jason-webster-guest-todd-mcewan/