How many times as authors have we heard this advice - from mentors, from our peers, from books written about craft?
But what does that mean, really?
It certainly doesn't mean, "write what you know."
The definition is still a bit murky, but after this evening's keynote address by the brilliant playwright Daniel MacIvor, I'm a little more clear on the concept.
And a whole lot more inspired.
Daniel MacIvor was in Calgary, AB Saturday night as part of Playworks Ink, a four-day conference for seasoned and emerging theatre professionals.
I am not a playwright, a director, a dramaturge (heck, before tonight I had no idea what that even was), nor a theatre technician, and I am most certainly NOT an actor. Admittedly, I was privileged to hear Daniel's mind blowing speech because I work for Theatre Alberta, one of the co-hosts of this amazing bi-annual conference.
The theme of Daniel's talk centred on truth - the ability to create something authentic from an environment that is fundamentally artificial, make belief.
He was talking about theatre. But, in my opinion, many of the concepts apply to fiction, as well.
As with theatre professionals, novelists are tasked with a challenge. We construct worlds and create pretend characters, spend hours, months, years in this imagined place of make belief in the hope of creating something genuine.
The false is clear.
But what is truth?
As Daniel points out, the authenticity is much harder to explain. But we KNOW it when we see it - or more specifically for authors, when we write it or read it.
It is not about standing on a rooftop to shout, "I am awesome." (Except while in Genius Mode, but that shouting should still be done from the safety of your sound-proof office.) The "I want to be famous/approved" attitude, as Daniel says, will get you to the laptop, but it will not sustain you. "Ego is excellent fuel. But it is a shitty engine."
And ego-based theatre - or writing - will be observed and perhaps appreciated. But never satisfying. Readers may be amused, but not stirred. Entertained, but not moved.
For this, you must be able to answer a fundamental question. Why?
Why should readers care?
The answer should be because you believe - whether thriller, romance, or Pulitzer Prize winning literary fiction - that it is a story that must be told.
Even if it is never *gasp* published.
So how do we get there, to this place of authenticity? Here's some theatre-inspired tips from Daniel MacIvor, with a bit of a fiction twist.
1. Avoid boosterism. Keep the bar high. And encourage your peers to do the same. Critisize without judgement; trust instinct not taste.
2. Enough is not enough. Strive for excellence, and always push to get better. One of my mentors always said, "Don't get caught learning to write in public." I love that, because it reminds me that I should never stop learning, and to always put my best work forward.
3. The audience/reader is enough. If only one person reads your book, that reader should be the most important person in the world at that moment.
4. The show does not have to go on. Yes, you've invested the time, spent hours on creating worlds and characters and situations...but if it's not working, if the "truth" is somehow absent...how authentic can you expect the end product to be? Often this will lead back to the question of WHY. Which will also bring you back to the truth.
I still can't define authenticity - and it's been a long couple of days where I've been unsuccessful at string more than a couple of coherent sentences together. But I DO know genuine when I read it. My favorite authors - from Roald Dahl and Chelsea Cain to Nora Roberts and Melissa Marr (and the thousands inbetween) - write from a place of truth. I believe their stories had to get out - even if I was the only one who ever read them.
NaNo Update: No words today, authentic or otherwise. But to be fair, I had a plot breakthrough, and after listening to Daniel MacIvor, was completely inspired. And well...this blog should count, right? Playworks ends Sunday afternoon, and then I'm off for a week to write...a lot of make belief I hope will someday be a genuine thriller.
The Book In My Bag Today: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern