What my writing coach taught me about my story
Today, I met with John Harman. John is my writing coach. I first spoke to John about writing a book. At the time I figured that, if I was going to write a blog post every day I should write something with a theme that could be published as a book.
So I asked John to give me some feedback about my writing. It was brutal. John made it clear that what I was writing was Mickey Mouse stuff that you could read in any number of blogs. He said that I failed to articulate a new or unique perspective and that much of my writing was little more than an instruction manual.
His feedback hurt. I lost my what writing mojo I had. Since then I’ve struggled to write anything. More to the point I’ve struggled to write anything worth reading. But through it all I knew that John was onto something. I new that his advice and suggestion was on point. I decided to go back for more.
So today we met at the cafe in the State Library. Our discussion started where his feedback had left off. My writing is bland and lacks a sense of struggle. It was more of the same.
"Peter," he said, "if you’re going to write a book you’ve got to have a story that’s worth telling. It sounds to me like you don’t have a story."
I nodded in agreement.
"You’re right, John, I don’t have much of a story. I’ve never played AFL, never run a Fortune 500 company and I’ve never climbed Mount Everest. I’m just an ordinary guy. But I want to write and I want to write something that people enjoy reading."
"The truth is," I explained, "I don’t care if I don’t write a book, but I am going to write 365 posts this year. And I want that to mean something."
"Ok," he said, "but you’ve got to find a way to tap into your struggle. It’s the struggle and the transformation that comes from the struggle that makes for a compelling story. That’s what you need to find."
We talked some more. It led us to my blog post about shark culling. I was proud of that post because of the discussion it created and the number of times that it was shared. John was not so impressed.
"Look, Peter, it was an alright piece, but it provided no new insight. You framed the debate about shark versus human life well but that’s something that’s been done to death. There’s heaps of articles about the ethics of shark culling that have taken a similar path."
"In the end, you claimed that shark culling is a political stunt, but you didn’t reveal the struggle that lead you to that conclusion. What did you have to give up, what did you lose forever to get to that point? How has taking that point of view changed you? There’s none of that in your post. It’s what’s needed if you want your writing to engage an audience."
The penny was beginning to drop. I wasn’t done resisting, though.
"But John, won’t talking about my story all the time be self indulgent? I don’t want to make this all about me."
He thought for a moment, then responded.
"For a start Peter, you don’t have to make every story about you. It can be about others but it still needs to have those elements of struggle and a chrysalis that becomes something beautiful."
"But don’t forget that a good story isn’t about you, it’s about your struggle. It’s about the things you got wrong, the mistakes you made and the obstacles you overcame to get you to this moment in time. Most people wouldn’t consider that to be self indulgent."
The penny dropped with a thud.
He was right. For my writing to be more engaging it needs to have more struggle and more “what’s next.” But most important it needs me to be honest about my mistakes, about my doubts and about my fears.
And that takes courage.