12. Think about what is “emotionally important”, especially in terms of story design, and let is suffuse throughout (John Gardner’s ‘Letter to Joanna Higgins’)
This is a piece of advice I’ve sat with, sort of uncomfortably, for the last few weeks now. As I spend time thinking and writing my story, I find myself able to weave events neatly into what seems to be a cohesive plot. We’re following a startup as it finds success, and ultimately sees that success undo itself.
As the plot comes, I find myself asking, in more pensive and reflective moments—why am I writing this? What is it about this story that I want to write?
And that to me is what Gardner is talking about here: what’s emotionally important in the story. Not what’s important to the plot: the rising, the falling, the climax, the acts, etc….But why is this story important and what is pushing and prodding at the very heart of it? What keeps it alive aside from just its words?
So I’ve written down ideas on this very item, trying to heed this advice like I’m working to heed the others. And what I’ve found in this self-searching is what follows.
First, I think that the story comes from two places of my own: curiosity about the space of tech and startups (less emotional) and fear. Fear of Success and fear of Fame. These are things I see as threats to people. We are not made to be famous and you can see the rich and famous often struggle with what life has given them: even when from the outside it seems like they have it all.
So fame is there; the loss of anonymity. The pressure to be “on” all the time. That frightens me deeply. But success is also there; and that has less of a tangible set of fears for me. I think success scares me—and by that extension, it will either scare my characters or provide them with a situation in which they enter with bravado and are scorched by the power of it—because it changes the game not on your own terms. If you’re not ready for it (and that’s the fear) it means entering into a hallway you didn’t know existed. That leads to places you do not know, to use the metaphor.
But it means that expectations change. It moves the goal line to being “more” successful and, perhaps most importantly to the book, it challenges the basis of some personal and platonic relationships you have. People see you differently. You see yourself differently (unless you’re very careful about it all).
And THAT is what I want to explore. What is happening to these people as they gain success? As they hit goals, grow their company, get investment, have more people flock to them. Will they buy into what they thought it meant before they were successful?
There’s a scene in the Pearl Jam documentary (PJ20) that I come back to. As the band finds themselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of worldwide fame, guitarist Mike McCready starts suffering from substance addiction. Looking back on it, his comment is, “I was buying into the myth.” I interpret that as buying into the mythology of being a famous rockstar. Partying, drugs, alcohol, etc…He thought that’s what you were supposed to do.
And so my characters have a bit of that too. They too see the “myth” of being a successful startup. Will they buy into the myth? Will they disappear down the hallway forever?
So what’s emotionally important is how we (they) handle change—the kind of change that it’s easy to convince yourself (themselves) that you (they) want. But maybe you don’t really want it. Who’s to know until that hallway appears?