On Conflict and Writing (A Love Letter Reprise)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite newsletters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

 When first I started writing this letter, it was about a different topic (travel to be exact).  But as I tunneled further into it, I realized that what I really wanted to write about his week was conflict.

Ah, conflict.  It is the most important element of any piece of writing.  Conflict creates the underlying rhythm of all fiction, and non-fiction as well.  It is the thrumming baseline, the constant hum, the clothesline on which we hang all our writerly clothing.

Many of us are told, repeatedly, to add more conflict in our work. And yet we run from it, screaming, in life, right? Right? I know I do. I shrink from arguments, hate confrontation, abhor conflict in all its forms. I meditate and knit and weave and go to church to find inner peace, because I absolutely, positively, for real, hate conflict.

But there is one conflict that is basic to my life: every single moment of every single day the constant drumbeat in the back of my head is, I should be writing.  (Years ago I had a writing friend who set her screensaver to say, why aren’t you writing? I did that until I took to screaming what I thought were perfectly logical reasons I wasn’t writing at the computer.)  When I’m watching TV at night, I think that. When I’m performing the afore-mentioned relaxing crafts I’m thinking it. When I’m reading emails I’m thinking it.

I suspect that many of you feel the same way. Our time to write can be precious and fleeting in the press of other life demands and so we obsess about it when we can’t do it.  I suspect other creatives share this trait with us, that painters worry about painting, musicians about playing music, and son. In fact, I think it is this constant conflict, this constant pull, that separates creative people from non-creative types. Okay, truthfully, I think everyone is creative, some just don’t choose to express it.  But for the sake of brevity, we’ll just call them non-creative.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be one of them.  To not have this constant thing nipping at my heels, calling me to attention.   Peaceful and easy, I imagine. I wouldn’t have to work so hard at all that inner peace, right? And yet I’d be bored as all snot, too.  I can’t imagine what life would be like without the call to creativity and I really don’t want to find out.

I had this crazy idea as I’ve been writing this letter.  And it’s this: that writing pulls us out of our everyday lives, that it’s the impetus to pull us onto a creative path, the hero’s journey if you will.  I just pulled out one of my favorite writing books, The Writer’s Journey (1st ed.) by Christopher Vogler, vaguely recalling that he said something about this very topic. And indeed he does: “The Hero’s Journey and the Writer’s Journey are one and the same. Anyone setting out to write a story soon encounters all the tests, trials, ordeals, joys, and rewards of the Hero’s Journey…. Writing is an often perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one’s soul and bring back the Elixir of experience—a good story.”

So take heart, because all that conflict you’re experiencing about your writing makes you heroic, my friend.  And remember, all you really need to do is put the conflict on the page—instead of getting embroiled in it in life.

Leave a comment and tell me how you deal with the constant conflict of writing vs. not writing.  I’m in France, but I’ll do my best to respond!

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Creating Characters: Compassion and Conflict

I was quite taken with this post from Sandra Pawula on compassion when I read it last weekend. (I'm actually quite often taken with admiration for Sandra's posts.  If you haven't discovered her blog, go read it now.) Paper-pink-texture-64137-l

In the post, Sandra writes about how compassion is linked to boundless, deep love and then, and this is what really blew me away,  she defines love. "This is one truth I have come to know with certainty: When you love completely from the depth of your heart, your wish for another person’s happiness becomes greater than your own perceived needs, wants, and desires."

So, because anything I read or think about eventually gets connected to my writing, I started to think about how we authors feel deep compassion for our characters.  We fall in love with them, and want the best for them.  We want them to be happy.

But, then we have the other C word.  You know what I'm going to say: conflict.

The basis of all story is conflict (or tension, if you prefer).  In order to create a story, be it short story, memoir, or novel, there must be conflict.  And lots of it.  The more the better.

But we love our characters!  How can we show them the compassion they deserve (and in my mind, need if we're going to write them) and still create the conflict the story requires?

There's actually conflict in that there dilemma, which is a bit of a starting point.  And, I think for me it helps to remind myself that conflict is the crucible through which we deepen ourselves, our lives, and our capacity to love.  And if it's true for humans, it's true for the human characters about which we write.

In order to write multi-dimensional characters (and I just finished a novel with one-dimensional characters that ultimately disappointed me) we, their creators, must approach them with equal thought given to both conflict and compassion.

As always, I'm feeling my way through this topic as I write it, and the really juicy development of it will happen in the comments.  So, please chime in!  Do you feel compassion for your characters?  How do you bring yourself to torture them with conflict?

Photo by MeHere.

There’s Power in Conflict

I volunteer with an organization called Step It Up, which connects high school students with experts in their chosen careers, and offers advice and support around jobs.  Over the last couple of months, I've done a couple of writing workshops for them, with a co-leader who is a teacher.

The last two days we've been working with the kids on writing cover letters and thank yous.  Specifically, my task was to help them find ways to get stories into their cover letters (and job interviews) to make them come alive.

As my co-leader Christine and I planned how we would do this last week, I told her it was very simple.  That there was one thing that every single story from the beginning of time had in common.

"What is that?" she asked.

I'm sure all of you reading know the answer, so say it with me:

CONFLICT.

The bedrock, bottom-line, starting point of all story.  Conflict.  Stories don't exist without it.

And yet, my co-leader, an educated woman with a master's degree who had taken tons of English classes and participated on the debate team, had never heard this simple fact.  Which doesn't actually surprise me because I've run into plenty of grown-ups who haven't either.

The cool thing is that Christine went off and put her new knowledge into place.  Yesterday she stopped me after the workshop and said, "Thank you.  This whole story thing has totally blown my mind and changed the way I look at everything."

Turns out she had spent the weekend with a group of girlfriends, and every time it was her turn to talk or tell a story, she found herself rearranging it a bit mentally so that she started with a bit of conflict.  And now she's thinking about how she can put conflict into her cover letter stories and jazz them up.

Its the power of conflict, baby.  Use it whenever you can, in the stories you tell, the letters you write, the books you are committing to paper.   Your writing and your story telling will be richer and more compelling for it.  Put the conflict on the page and keep it out of your life, is my motto.

For the record, when I asked the teenagers in the workshops what the basic element of story was, most of them answered, "conflict."  So there's hope for future writers.

How do you develop conflict in your writing?

**If you want to know how to develop conflict in your book proposal, consider taking my book proposal teleclass.  It begins June 7th, and the early-bird pricing is still on.  Check it out here.