I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
I have been thinking a lot about branching out creatively speaking. 2010 was a year of experimentation in different genres of fiction for me. Today I came across the above quote from The Bell Jar and it summed up that last year perfectly for me…it also gives me a clue to what 2011 may hold.
Have you noticed that most authors tend to stick to one genre? Does that mean they have not explored writing in others or did they just know instinctively which genre they would be good in? This question has been in the back of my mind for a while now when it comes to my own forays into the world of fiction writing.
One of the most common pieces of advice that seems to run through the world of fiction writers is “to write what you know”. This can sometimes not seem like much of an answer. In fact I would argue that I have always found this piece of advice very frustrating and vague.
Then there is the other common vein of thought especially in the last few years: write for the masses for instance if the big craze of the moment is vampires then vampires is what you should write. This is another theory of advice that I do not agree with.
So what do I think?
I think that a person should go ahead and experiment with different genres before coming to a final decision. If you have never written fantasy, for example, how do you know you will not excel in it? The answer is that you won’t know until you try. Life is ultimately a thing of change…without change there can be no growth. Although life can be lived without challenges, challenges are needed to strengthen you. In just the same way, this can be applied to your writing.
This brings me back to my introduction quotation. I am definitely enjoying branching out and trying new figs in a matter of speaking but ultimately I think that all the branching out can and must lead you to a theme genre where you find your niche. So I am not saying branch out and experiment so much that all the ripe figs fall off the tree leaving you with no fruit. I am saying that if you are truly tuned in to your muse, the branching out will strengthen your writing by creatively stretching those muscles but that it will also lead you to your main fruit.
How do you know which fig is the right fig for you?
Well although I would love to be your guru and give you the exact symbols and signs that you will have to know which is the right branch and the right fig for you, I am not going to tell you that. I will tell you how I am finding out which is the right branch and the right fig for me. I use the word “finding” because I am still working on it. I have not got all the answers yet. I am glad I don’t because I am the type of person that when something stops being a challenge for me, I tend to grow bored very quickly and move onto the next. This is still a challenging concept for me. This is how I know that I am moving in the right direction along my tree of life and writing.
The answer is simple and complex all at once. Like the most important answers to the big questions usually are. The simplest way that I can sum this up is that it is a gut-feeling. It is similar to that first moment when you fall in love. That feeling deep in the centre of you that is surging with turmoiled emotions that first uplift you and then make you feel sick with nausea simultaneously. It is that moment when things start falling into place in a way that seems improbable and surreal. It is when you are so close to the subject/genre that it pulls at your gut and that you feel you can write one moment and the next that you dare not try. It is the moment when you feel naked and vulnerable on the page, like someone has shone a flash-light into your deepest thoughts and emotions. It is the moment when you start living your story and you start being in your character’s heads. You are not just writing about them but you are writing from within their thoughts looking out at the world and the story they find themselves in. All of a sudden you are no longer just the narrator but you have become an integral part of this story. It is the moment when you realise nobody else could tell this story because this story is a reflection of you – the artist not just the writer. It is the moment when to write this story becomes unbearably intense and you almost want to give up. This is the moment when I know that I am on the right branch and about to pick the right fig. I know that this fig will come off easily. I know that this fig will not be too ripe or not ready yet, it will be perfect for me. But to know that I have had to climb out on to other branches first and try other figs.
So my final piece of “wisdom” I leave you with brings me to my Word of 2011:
You don’t know what possibilities are available until you try them out. The key phrase here is POSSIBILITY, not decision and not choice. You do not have to stick to every possibility. The way you reach your perfect fig might be a different pathway from the way I would choose mine. Just like your parents always told you how you would know you were in love: You just will. It will just feel different. It will be consuming, intense and gut-wrenching but it will just click in your thoughts and your emotions.
So if you have not had that feeling yet, if you have settled and compromised; I urge you to get back out on those branches and try some other figs. It is better to have tried and failed then to settle and compromise on what is safe. Go against the grain. Challenge yourself and your own concepts of who you are and what type of writer you are. Don’t let other people tell you what you feel and how you should write. Just like someone cannot tell you when to love someone or something, only you can know which genre is “write” for you.
Until then…I leave you with my favourite quotation for the year:
Dwell in POSSIBILITY…it could lead you to the most interesting branches.
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