Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Expression vs. Experience

by Deren Hansen

Why do we write?

Because we have something to say, ideas to share, and emotions to express. Because we need to be heard.

Why do we read?

Is it because we want to hear what someone else has to say?

Or listen to the ideas they want to share?

Or feel the emotions they want to express?

Well, not exactly. That is, most of us wouldn't put those things at the top of the list of reasons why we read.

As writers, one of the best ways to find stories is to, "mind the gap." In the real world, friction arises where things meet. In the world of stories, conflict arises where differing expectations meet.

Did you notice the gap, or potential for conflict, here between writers and readers?

And how, in our stories, do we resolve the problem created by a gap?

Someone must bridge the gap. One or both of the parties must adjust their expectations until they're in-line with the realities of the situation.

I suppose there are writers of such celebrity that people do, truly, want to hear what they have to say simply because they say it. That's not me, and I'm willing to bet it's not you. So given that there's a gap between one writer and many readers, who needs to change?

Fundamentally that advice to stop worrying about expressing yourself as a writer and focus on delivering compelling experiences to your readers is as fundamental as Dale Carnegie's advice to talk in terms of the other person's interest. Your readers only care about what's in it for them.

Editor Victoria Mixon expressed the difference between expression and experience in a post on the Write to Done blog: 
Writing fiction isn’t expressing yourself, it’s creating an experience for your reader. 
And yet we all write because we love it. Right? I’m not sitting here at my desk thinking about you. I’m actually sitting here thinking about me, about the fact that I know something important and I want you to get a kick out of learning it from me. Which leads me inevitably to admit that the reader is the only one in this relationship who counts. I might very well have something you need, but if you don’t want it I’ve done all this work for nothing. Not only that, but you’re not here just for what I know, you’re here for the experience of learning it, and even more than that you’re here for the indescribable magic that happens when you find yourself sandwiched between what you’re learning and how you feel about learning it. That’s the magic that changes a reader’s life. And the writer’s job is working that magic.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.


Scott said...

Sometimes, I think, we read and write for the same reason: for the entertainment of a good story, whether it comes from a page or our own head. There are plenty of other reasons, as you mentioned, but sometimes it just comes down to that. Writing is an awful lot of work to get to a story, but if it doesn't entertain me, it won't entertain you.

Julie Daines said...

As a reader, I also believe it all comes down to a good story. How many times have we read a book where the execution is lacking or the writing is lousy, but because the story is so compelling, we read on and love it anyway? It happens all the time. A good story that is also well-written, now that is a gem indeed!

Paul West said...

I agree the story needs to be compelling or it won't be read, but how many of us can set ourselves aside and just write a compelling story. There's got to be a little of us, our thoughts, our desires, our opinions, etc., in every story we write.

I started writing with a goal in mind - to express my opinions and morals. I soon found, however, that as Daren has expressed, if I expect to be read, the story must come first and be compelling. But I still can't see how I cannot express my opinions and morals as I write. It's what I am and what makes my writing mine and not someone else's.

Scott said...

Agreed. There are only so many stories, but they become more interesting because of the writer's personality and the issues that he or she adds to the story.

I started writing a lot back in Jr. High because I had trouble finding books I liked during the transition from kid books to more grown up stories, so I made up my own stories. I think I still write because I like to entertain myself with the stories. But my writing group can tell you that certain themes show up in just about everything I write. We talked about this recently.

Expressing those ideas has never been my (conscious, at least) reason for writing, but they are, I hope, an asset to my stories.

Deren Hansen said...

Writing is clearly about expression. Voice, that elusive magic, is intimately tied to who you are.

Given those inescapable facts, the dichotomous question I asked in the title is really about your primary purpose in writing: what is it you think you'll accomplish with your literary undertaking?

The eye-opener for me was that if it's all about you, you'll have a hard time finding and keeping an audience. If it's about your readers and something they might enjoy, then it's a very different (and far more enjoyable) ball game.

Scott said...

My hope is that if I write something that entertains me, it will entertain others as well. If I have any higher goal, I guess it's to help turn boys on to reading in that mg/tween/ya age group when boys don't like reading, by giving them something they enjoy. But I really don't think about that while I'm writing. I just want to have fun with a new story.