I also want to thank those of you who attended my mystery-writing workshop this past Saturday afternoon at Vroman's Bookstore. As always, I was struck by the thoughtful, perceptive questions the attendees asked. Really made it a great experience.
And,of course, I'll keep you posted about the next one...
As some of you may know, I'll be presenting a FREE WRITING WORKSHOP at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena next Saturday, April 17, at 3 PM. It's called "Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries."
In anticipation of that event, here's a link to an article of the same title that I did a few years back for The Writer's Store newsletter. Whether you're interested in classic whodunnits, crime thrillers or police procedurals, I hope you'll find it helpful.
It's a growth industry--the hundreds of books, tapes and videos available on the craft of writing; the multitudes of conferences, seminars and workshops (some of which I've taught myself over the years); the teachers and coaches and gurus promising to reveal the secrets of the "can't-miss" premise, the "never-fails" plot structure, the "you-can't-help-but-love-'em" lead characters.
But in the cacophony of instruction and inspiration competing for the writer's ear, it seems to me a quote from Ray Bradbury emerges from the din. "There is only one type of story in the world--your story."
In all the writing classes I've ever taught, it was always the first quote I put on the blackboard. And now, as a therapist, the essence of that quote is what underlies my support for creative patients struggling to write out of the depths of their own particular truths, no matter how painful or contradictory.
I recall an incident, years ago, when I was Screenwriter-In-Residence at San Francisco State University. I was working with a group of young writers-to-be, one of whom had just read a scene from his script, a political thriller, to the rest of the class. Unfortunately, the scene--in which the hero is trapped by bad guys in a dingy back alley--was flat and uninvolving, though the writer clearly had talent. Moreover, the writing itself seemed tentative...careful, somehow.
I asked the writer what would happen if, instead of his hero, he himself were the guy trapped in that alley.
"You mean, if that were me?" He suddenly became quite animated, as he described the sequence of scary, funny incidents that would befall him. A scene that was unique and particular to a very specific sort of individual--a guy like himself. A human being.
"But this guy's gotta be a hero," he said afterwards. "Like in the movies."
"He is," I replied. "Your hero."
The problem with this student's scene was his attempt to portray what a hero "should" be like. The writing seemed tentative as a result of the tension within him caused by the effort to exclude his own feelings, doubts, and impulses, as though they were inappropriate for a movie hero.
The irony--and the point of Bradbury's quote--is that all writing is autobiographical. Even the student's attempt to write a hero "like in the movies" revealed an aspect of his autobiography, namely, his belief about how a hero needed to behave.
Like it or not, our writing reveals who we are. The story doesn't matter. The genre doesn't matter. Even if you're writing a pirate movie, taking place two hundred years ago, your autobiography informs that script: your own attitude toward heroics, vague memories of some pirate movie you saw as a kid, your fantasies about the "freedom of the seas" or whatever. Even your concern about whether or not your pirate movie is commercial is part of your experience writing it.
On the plus side, it's one of the paradoxes of writing that the more particular and personal a detail in character or story, the more powerfully its impact generalizes out to the audience.
(The specifics of Rocky Balboa's life in the first Rocky film were shared by few in the audience, I'm sure, but everyone understood what he meant by "going the distance." Nor did the reader of Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes have to grow up in the slums of Dublin to relate to that family's struggle with poverty. Nor did the viewers of the recent film The Blind Side need to have had any life experiences similar to those of the young black athlete to identify with the yearning for someone to appear who believes in you, even when you don't.)
I repeat: All writing is autobiographical. The more you can accept and acknowledge this, the greater the extent to which you can mine your own feelings and experiences to give shape and texture to your work.
Of course, to write from this place, the core of who we are, is damned hard. Often the results are just painful, ambiguous, unformed. Maybe there's something wrong with me, the writer thinks. Maybe I'm not enough...
That's why writing seminars and workshops flourish; why "how-to" books on writing are perennial sellers. Intentionally or not, they validate our belief in some "key" or technique that ensures success; some thing outside of ourselves that we need to learn, or to become.
And, yes, every writer needs to learn story construction, needs to develop craft. But the most important thing a writer needs is the awareness that he or she is enough. That one's feelings, enthusiasms, regrets, hopes, doubts, yearnings, loves and hates are in fact, the raw materials of one's writing talent.
"There is only one type of story in the world--your story." Which means only you can tell it, no matter what form--thriller, romantic comedy, sci-fi adventure--it takes.
It reminds me of another quote I like, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a pretty fair writer himself. He said, "To believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone--that is genius."
Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT, formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter; etc.), is now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles. Palumbo specializes in helping new and established screenwriters, directors, and novelists address creative issues, as well as those involving mid-life and career transition.
Dennis' widely-praised column, "The Writer's Life," appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. His work helping writers has been profiled in Premiere magazine, Variety, GQ, the Los Angeles Times and other periodicals, as well as on CNN. He presents workshops and lectures on creativity throughout the U.S. and Europe.