“People want biography. People want memoir. They want you to tell them that the story you’re telling them is true. The thing I’m telling you is true, but it did not always happen to me.”
– DOROTHY ALLISON
It’s conventional wisdom that all true artists abhor convention and what’s expected. They’re too creative for that.
Unsurprisingly, l I have something of an unconventional idea about that. I think if you stop to think about it, few of us are interested in pure creativity. As readers we aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point of that? But does that mean we’re actually looking to write what’s conventional and unoriginal? No. But I think it does mean that most of the working out of a paragraph, a scene, a chapter should involve what’s expected.
Or put another way, the story should follow from what you’ve clearly set your reader up to expect.
As an acquisitions editor, I know this is a hidden key to book proposals that sell. If the writer has figured out how to deliver what the readers of that type of book expect, we’ll be much more likely to sell that book. And the secret to figuring that out is knowing the best books and how they met expectations and delivered.
What’s great about realizing this is you can start to see that good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling. And you will begin to see exactly how an author not only follows their story, they build it intentionally using many of the same materials everyone uses. Using these traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue and strong verbs—the elements create a flow that’s clearly particular, but in a deeper way makes for an expected path for telling that story.
As an example, if you listen to a familiar piece of music, a popular song from a different musician or conductor will have interpretation differences according to their style. Yet what’s more significant—and what’s so often missed by amateurs—is that if you know the song, the remarkable thing is that a pro allows you to almost predict every single note and even much of the timing, volume and expression of those notes throughout the song. There will be surprises—and arguably there should always be some big ones. The interpretation will absolutely have uniquenesses. But hear how that musician worked and worked to provide the expected experience and ensure every note of that song was perfectly placed. That it completely conforms to your expectations to a remarkable degree is the biggest way you know that musician commands your attention.
What’s different about music and writing here is less important than what’s the same. And what’s different about any performance is actually less remarkable than what’s the same. With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but it’s only because it was built on the conventional foundation of a near-robotic perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.
I think all art is the same in this way. Sculptors, painters, dancers, singers, woodworkers, trapeze artists—I defy you to find one example of a professional artist who doesn’t display some practiced conventionality in their work. It’s true and it will remain true for years to come: most creative work probably has far more of what’s expected than what’s truly creative.
And what’s important about this is that it means every writer must first learn what’s expected and learn to deliver it to be successful. Writing books is different from playing music in many ways, and not least of all in that we don’t often perform other people’s stories. But if it’s true there are only a handful of archetypal storylines, and I believe it is, then maybe we are offering only interpretations, much more than we tend to think.
Naturally, the creativity and special qualities you bring to your work are inevitable. But when you wonder what you should focus on in any given day, for my money, my advice would be to aim for the conventional and not some unhinged creative ideal. Learn to abide by tradition, to live and die by it. Because that’s where you’ll come to distinguish yourself from the masses who still believe being a writer is about something other than cataloguing words and types of people and fashioning your favorite ones into these familiar jars for observation.
It’s not freedom to care what others think about your work—how boring or unique or conventional or creative it is. Who cares? The truth is, in discipline is freedom.
The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer. – Flannery O’Connor
For the unadorned higher purpose, and within the prescribed tracks of this very traditional course,