"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." —J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Asking the Hard Questions

It all comes down to honesty. Being honest with yourself. Whether in writing or life in general, being truthful will do wonders for you, not to mention those around you.

Let's look at life first, since, of course writing is life :)
Rather than try to give some in depth explanation of how to be truthful, I'll give a couple examples:

1) Somebody irks you / cheats you / wears an ugly shirt to the office. You make a point of saying something to somebody else about it.
Why? Why do you need to say something? Ask yourself this question and be totally honest with the answer? Are you trying to get others to not like the person? Are you trying to make yourself look better? Are you jealous?
Just be honest.
(And no, mom, this didn't happen to me).

2) You get annoyed with your kids / spouse / dog and yell at them. (OK, maybe this one was me).
Why did you (I) yell? What is the true root of the problem? Is the minor misdemeanor they've committed so horrible, or are you upset about something else? Did you eat too much at dinner? Get a rejection letter? Feel like you do everything around the house and no one helps?
Dig deep for the reasons behind your anger and be honest about it. And nine times out of ten, you'll probably find it has nothing to do with the person suffering your wrath.

So switch topics, and let's move to writing. This one is not so much about the integrity of being a writer. It's more about objectivity. Tabitha was making souffle yesterday over on her blog and she mentioned objectivity.
I'll go a step farther and say 'be honest with yourself about your writing'.
Do you really have a plot?
Are your characters really not cliches?
Have you taken any advice given to you by critiquers and truly evaluated it?
Does the story really grab the reader by page 1?
Is there really conflict?
Is a scene really necessary or do you just like it?

The point is, ask yourself the questions. Ask them and really think about the answers.

When it comes to honestly, it's the forcing yourself to ask the questions and then forcing yourself to answer which will make the difference.

So when do you find being honest with yourself really helps? Any suggestions?


Tabitha said...

Great questions! And, yes, honesty is essential to good writing. Because if you can't honestly assess your work, you have no idea if you've written the replacement to your doormat, or the next bestseller. :)

I am a BIG advocate for honesty. I think objectivity is the tool that allows you access to honesty, to those hard questions. And it's a tool I use all the time. I don't want to wander through life thinking things are one way, when they're really the opposite. I need to know, honestly and truly, where I'm going, and where my actions are taking me. I also need to know if I'm making mistakes - so I can learn from them, and not repeat them.

I could go on, but I'm probably boring you... :) To sum it up, I am truly honest with myself all the time, or as often as is physically/mentally possible. But that's me, and it's an integral part of my personality. :)

Great post!! This should spark some lovely discussion. :)

PJ Hoover said...

I think wanting to be honest with yourself is the first step, Tabitha! And once I understood I'm the one who needs to ask the question, it's made things so much more clear in my life and writing. It's like I need to make a list of questions and go through them one by one and make sure I have a (good) answer for everything.
And, no, you are definitely not boring me!
Thanks for the comment!

beth said...

This reminded me of the Socrates "quote" that's been passed around on the internet:

In ancient Greece (469 - 399 BC) Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom. One day the great philosopher came upon an acquaintance who ran up to him excitedly and said, "Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?"

"Wait a moment," Socrates replied. "Before you tell me I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Triple Filter Test."

"Triple filter?"

"That's right," Socrates continued. "Before you talk to me about my student let's take a moment to filter what you're going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?"

"No," the man said, "actually I just heard about it and..."

"All right," said Socrates. "So you don't really know if it's true or not. Now let's try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?"

"No, on the contrary..."

"So," Socrates continued, "you want to tell me something bad about him, even though you're not certain it's true?" The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued. "You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter - the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?"

"No, not really"

"Well," concluded Socrates, "if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?"

The man was defeated and ashamed. This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.

PJ Hoover said...

I love this story, Beth! I've heard it before, but an altered version. It's so perfect! It always reminds me of the office gossip, running up to spread the bad news. And the ultimate question - why!
Thanks for sharing!

carla said...

just checking in....

PJ Hoover said...

I sent you an email, Carla! We need to playdate!

Anonymous said...

Some old writer said something similar a long tome ago.


Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!"


Angela said...

I am all about honesty (just ask people who I crit, muahahaaa). It does cause me problems in RL sometimes, I'll admit.

For me, honesty means doing a life check in. I look at the events in my life (arguements with the kids, worries about this or that and ask myself, 'Down the road, will you have a regret about this?' And that's sort of how I go about my life...if I do spot a regret (like not taking the kids out to a meal just me and then enough because I'm always thinking about what it will cost) I'll make a change.

This naturally fits into my writing life as well. I do look at each project as honestly as I can. Often I have to face the fat lady and realize that a project is over--that it would simply require too much work to make it publishable. It's hard to move on, but I have no regrets--each novel I write teaches me something about the craft and I become a stronger writer.

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks, Dad! He said it almost as well as I did. :)
But seriously, it's interesting how all these ideas have been around for ages.

Hey Angela, one question I always ask myself is "Is the reason I'm not doing something for/with the kids because I'm being lazy?" And if the answer is yes, then it's not a good enough answer, and I do it.
And I'm totally with you on each novel helping me improve. It's the best way to get better.


Sheryl said...

Honesty is obviously a good thing, especially in your/mine/our writing.

I find I need some distance to gain that honesty. When I first write something it's like a love affair. I'm willing to forgive it's short comings. But if I set it aside for a few days and come back to it. Then the flaws can appear.

It's a process.

TJ Brown said...

The questions are only good until the book is published. Then you have to stop asking yourself those questions because it's already published. It's time to let it fly the nest, not beat yourself up about what you could have done. Ha! That's what reviewers are for;-)

Concentrate on the manuscript in front of you:)

PJ Hoover said...

Distance is the best thing ever, Sheryl! And I totally get the love affair. I want to sleep with my drafts under my pillow at night, but a month later, they don't look so good anymore! Not that they can't be changed!

Totally true, Teri (wow - can you say alliteration?). Can't worry about the book(s) already out there. But we can learn from them.

Thanks for stopping by!

Marcia said...

I really like points 1 and 2. Especially 1, which for me has been an eye-opener within the last few years. Indeed, why do we have to say anything to anybody?

It's easiest for me to be honest about my writing after a cooling-off period. If I'm coming to it with pretty fresh eyes -- as fresh as they can be considering I wrote the thing -- I'll ask myself just about any hard question. If it hasn't been long enough, really persnickity honesty is harder.

I also like making a list of questions that I must answer. (Why is your book set in the past? Why the particular POV you've chosen, etc.)

PJ Hoover said...

I so agree, Marcia! And I love the list of questions idea. It would be interesting to make the list, ask the questions relatively soon after writing, and then ask them again after the cooling off period. That way I could learn to train myself to be more honest.
And yes, why do we have to say anything anyway?

Sheri said...

A lot of times, I think we THINK we are being honest with ourselves, but in truth, we are not. You need to kind of catch yourself unawares.

I will share something a little embarrassing that just happened to me...

I was coming off the beach to use the ladies room. There are two bathrooms in this hotel. They have the kind of lock on the door that when unlocked it says 'vacant.' But once you turn that lock it says 'occupied.' So I checked the locks and one said 'vacant.' I opened the door to find an older man standing with his back(thankfully) to the door. He was... well you know what he was doing. Anyway without thinking at all, I said, "Ooops sorry, You forgot to lock your door." At which time the next bathroom opened and I went inside. Once inside I heard what I had said to him in my mind... It was blameful... YOU forgot to lock YOUR door. A simple 'sorry' would have sufficed, but HONESTLY, I was instinctively worried about being blamed. I was upset with myself. I felt ashamed. But it caused me to take a deep look at myself and my gut reaction and to investigate the source of being afraid to be blamed for something that was accidental.

The moral of my story... it is the times when we are caught off guard that teaches us the most about ourselves...

PJ Hoover said...

Sheri, don't you love when you start to notice things like this that you do? I love it! It's the most important step to wanting to improve in life. Nobody is perfect, but recognizing stuff like this (like not phrasing something so small in a blaming way) is huge in importance!
Thanks so much for sharing.