(About a 5 minute read)
Earlier today, Alice Gristle put up an original, intelligent, and insightful post on her blog about the relationship between a writer and his or her story. In it, she notes that, when we write a story:
We’re tempted, every one of us, to somehow include ourselves in the story. To make that gibe at the politician we hate, to get our comeuppance on the girl who slighted us in junior high, to put a little salve on our hearts after that smarting breakup.
She notes, however:
Your story is more important than you. You will die and be wormfood, a lump of bones, a smear of ash. Well, your story might be, too – but it might not. Alone of you two, it has the chance to live, to stay aloft on the hours of history, in order to live and teach hundreds of years in the future.
The strong implication is that, for a story to live on past us, we must “get out of the way”. That is, we must put aside our natural tendency to insert too much of our own views, concerns, behaviors, and personalities into the story, least we distract from it and thus weaken it.
I think Alice’s point is true. In reading a story nothing seems so out of place to me as a character who suddenly decides without any justification or explanation to do something wholly uncharacteristic of him or her. The story might be about her struggle to rise to the top of a corporation when suddenly she’s condemning capitalism from the viewpoint of an impoverished author. To say that is “distracting” is to understate the problem. It’s even more confusing – even perhaps alienating.
But beyond that, I believe there is an even more interesting reason to get out of the way of the stories we write. Or, for that matter, of nearly any project we undertake.
It seems to me that one of the challenges of being human is that our own psychological self — our “I” or “me”, as we usually call it — is like an attractive vine that, however, runs riot and takes over everything if and when it is mindlessly left unattended. We need it — not just for decorative purposes — but to get by on a day-to-day basis. But “too much” of it is dangerous in so many ways.
The unhappiest people I’ve known have been people with little, if anything at all, to discipline themselves. Or, as it is often put, they have nothing in their lives that they feel is “greater than them”. Typically, they become acutely hedonistic, seeking happiness in pleasures alone. Which, I believe, is self-confounding because fleeting pleasures create cravings for ever more of them, cravings that can never be wholly satisfied.
What those people need is a discipline or two. Something they can get into that not only gives them a reason or purpose in life, but that also trims back or contains the vine of their psychological self — allowing their lives to be about something more than me, me, me.
Just about anything that one can think of as greater then oneself will do that — at least in part. It need not be writing — although writing is a good discipline, in my experience. It can, however, be virtually anything. Many parents find raising their children disciplines their selves. A job that one is passionate about can do the same thing. As can a sport that one participates in.
In traditional Native American cultures, young warriors were often encouraged by their elders to see their role as primarily that of a protector of the people — something that disciplined their natural aggressiveness.
Most fire fighters are familiar with an ancient saying, “Never fight fire from ego”. Quite simply, it means you should never allow your self-image or self-identity to dominate how you tackle a fire, such as by rushing into a burning building in an effort to be the hero of the hour. Instead, you should be dominated by the objective needs and requirements of the situation.
But even seemingly unrelated things can help to discipline the self. I used to be in the habit of buying a used introductory textbook to logic about once a year in order to review and maintain my skills at logical reasoning — mostly because I noticed you tend to lose such skills, like you tend to lose math skills, unless you periodically review them.
But I noticed that a side effect of making an effort to reason logically was that it helped to discipline my psychological self. Logic is something I see as greater than me. I often wish something made sense when it does not. Although imperfect, logic helps me to weed out those wishes before they become delusions.
I believe most of us need more than one discipline in life if we are to be as happy as we can be. Typically, one alone won’t cover all the bases. But a combination of a few generally does that.
The trick is not to allow the discipline to itself become the vine of the self. That can be hard to do. If we’re a good writer, for instance, is is quite easy to think of ourselves as somehow superior to the medium of word. When that happens, the medium of word is no longer something we see as “greater than ourselves”, and can no longer serve to discipline us.
That happens to a number of popular writers. Tom Clancy, for instance, became so popular that his editors were daunted to reign him in — and his later novels definitely show that.
Alice, in her post, advises us to, “Write with such abandon that you become annihilated in the furnace of your story, burnt with fire so powerful that even the cinders of your being are vanished.” Whether one chooses as a discipline writing or something else, her advice is brilliant. The more passionate we are about something greater than us, the more that something can serve to discipline our psychological selves.