Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Career in Writing? How to choose?

Bird in flightA student recently asked my advice on choosing her degree for the forthcoming year at college. She was at a crossroads and had to decide between a degree in screenwriting and something else.

It is always a challenge to advise students about which course of study to follow. There are so many variables – personal circumstances, talent, earning potential of a career, desire and love for it, all delicately and dynamically poised on the scales of local and world economics, politics, fads and fashions.

There is a huge responsibility riding on the purveyor of such advice. Does the student sacrifice preference for security? Does she follow her heart rather than her mind? In the context of the current economic climate, who’s to say, anyway?

I remember asking a similar question of a professor of literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg many years ago. He was a rather eloquent man with a quiet manner about him. He thought about my question for a moment before responding, (and here I paraphrase):

We are either engineers of the world’s body, or engineers of the world’s soul.

The first sort prefers solving external problems. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, such people generally love working with numbers, managing external goals, keeping great physical structures functional and erect. They are scientist, civil engineers, accountants, and the like.

The second group is more inward looking, curious about its motives and the motives of others. They constantly try to make sense of their lives by experiencing the events in them as factual stories – by creating a running documentary of their lives. They are avid readers, often have an almost obsessive desire to explore the meaning of words; they tend to perceive the world through metaphor and idiom, draw on stories to understand the world and themselves. Such people make good lawyers, psychologists, priests, social workers, and, of course, writers.

As I walked away from the professor’s office to mull over his advice, I couldn’t help thinking about the exceptions, about the mixing of categories. Arthur C. Clark, for example, was a scientist and a writer. Stanley Kubrick was a gifted filmmaker with a strong scientific zeal that informed his work. There are many others.

As I continued to think about things it became clear to me that passion for one’s field is important, and although the professor’s separate categories may be helpful, they are also porous, allowing for an exchange of material.

In the end, my decision to study literature, and later, filmmaking, was based on one overriding factor. Inspiration – I enrolled for the courses that inspired me.

Perhaps the student might consider doing the same.

Summary

Choose the field that inspires you.

The Hero’s Journey

Barb wire against sunsetI have often said that one of the joys of being a teacher of creative writing is that it affords me the opportunity to reflect critically upon my craft during the day and implement the insight this affords my own writing later.

Interestingly, moments of deeper inspiration tend to well up during the execution of the lecture rather than its preparation.

It was during such a lecture on character arcs that it occurred to me that one prevailing weakness in student work – failing to make the hero’s actions feel authentic – lay in students not having synchronised their hero’s outer and inner journeys.

To put it simply, their heroes acted too wisely or competently at specific points in the story. The action did not reflect the hero’s current state of knowledge, skill, and moral fortitude. Their inner and other lives were out of sync.

It stands to reason that if the character arc, in a classical tale, describes the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge (by which I mean moral and skill-based knowledge) through trail and error, then the quality of the hero’s actions must needs be weak in the beginning of the story and become effective only at the end. A hero therefore, can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the villain, taking the high moral ground, too early. She is simply not equipped enough for it yet.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t free himself of his guilt until he recognises the truth about his past granted to him during the cyclone.

One way to add to verisimilitude to your hero’s actions, then, is to sync up her inner journey (her decision-making process), to her outer journey (the execution of her actions in her world); to have her earn success through a series of hard knocks where lessons, both moral and physical, are learnt. This will not only synchronise the two primal layers of the story, but it will help grant your protagonist a strong measure of authenticity too.

Summary

Synchronise your hero’s inner and outer journeys to help authenticate her actions.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.