The other day in one of the Facebook groups I inhabit, someone asked, “Which one of these stories would you want to read first?” and he went through detailed descriptions of four ideas.
I didn’t even read the descriptions. This was a no-brainer.
Write the one that excites you the most, I said. Don’t worry about whether anyone will read it, not yet. The reader will recognize the passion in your storytelling and glom onto it.
Ray Bradbury said, “Write what you love, and love what you write.” J.K. Rowling tells the story of how editors at publishing house said no one was interested in reading long books about wizards in training at a magical private school. Turns out millions of Harry Potter readers are extremely interested, because they caught the fire in Rowling’s storytelling.
I have had limited success in getting that kind of response, but the first story readers reacted strongly to was, of all things, a short story about a guy appearing in front of a bored city council committee to explain why he won’t cut his lawn and lets wildflowers grow instead. An essay was once written about a song I wrote, about waking up one cold January morning with an itch to write a folk song and the self-doubts I encountered along the way. Those descriptions don’t tell the love I had for the stories, and the love was the connection. Write what you love, and you will love what you write.
“The key word is love,” Bradbury continued. “You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
There comes a time when, in the middle of creating, the above-mentioned self-doubt rears its head. You falter. You wonder what makes you think anyone would want to read this. Heck, you wonder what made you think you wanted to write it. The first-date excitement of meeting a new love fades a bit and you wonder if it was real. But if you’re writing what you love, you have the ammo you need to fight through the doubt. Those are the moments you need to remember that love in its purest form is not an emotion, it’s a decision. You had good reasons to decide you loved this person, this idea, these characters — and that helps you stay through thick and thin, for better or for worse. You stood at the muse’s altar and vowed to love this piece of artwork into existence, and in those dark moments when the self-doubt makes the flame flicker, that love will carry the day.
The reader can tell the difference between a work the artist phoned in and a work of love. The best stories are not the ones where the writer obediently followed a formula; they’re the ones where the writer loved the story so much that the words blew straight onto the page from wherever it is that words come from. Maybe he was trying to follow the formula, but at some moment the words seized him and love poured out instead of equations.
When I decided to write again about this topic, “Write what you love,” the last thing I wrote the night before was a short list of what I love — my recently departed dog Willow, old comic books, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, movies, music in general — thinking perhaps I might latch onto one or more and literally write what I love, to generate an example. The list was the first thing I saw when I sat down to write, and this post is what I started writing, fueled by the emotions and thoughts that I have written passionately in the past. What do you love? What makes you tick? What makes your heart race? What makes your mind go boom? Write about those things.
My long-ago editor Tom Booker (I miss him) said a key to writing a news story is “Who GAS?” Who Gives A Shit about the story? Why should anyone care? In asking the question you find out why you, the writer, care, what parts of the story struck you as most important, and that’s where you start the telling. Now, editors assign stories, so you’re not always in love with what the editor told you to write — but don’t tell me you can’t tell when the story grabbed the reporter by the imagination and set her loose, and when the story bored him to tears but the editor made him write it anyway.
It’s the same when you give yourself the assignment. Who GAS? Make me care. The job is easier if you GAS first.
What do you love? What story do you love so much you have to write it down? What makes your soul leap with delight? (Oh, you dark souls, maybe you love demons and murder stories and things that creep in the night places of our hearts, and you should write the darkness, too, if you love those things.) Write about that. Show your love. Make me care.
[And worry about selling it when it’s finished. On that note, you can find “Wildflower Man” in my book How to Play a Blue Guitar, and the lyrics to “Wanting to Live Forever” are in Full: Rockets, Bells & Poetry.]