Trying Too Hard

There’s a saying in business that everybody loves to buy, but nobody wants to be sold.

That’s a problem in artistic endeavors as well, one that I’ve been guilty of myself. It’s what happens when we try to write for someone other than ourselves. When we write to impress. When we find ourselves trying too hard.

I recently heard an interview with the legendary Alan Arkin where he talked about teaching acting workshops. The first exercise he puts his students through goes something like this…

He gets them all together in a circle and they have to pretend to toss a ball around to one another. The only instruction—and he’s adamant about holding them to this—is to not be creative. Just toss the ball. As the exercise progresses, he’ll announce that the ball has changed. It may turn into a basketball, a golf ball, a woven basket, a piece of rope, a small animal, whatever. Over time, the students get into a zone just pretending to toss the ever-changing, imaginary object around the circle. When it’s over, he asks them, “What happened?” As they deconstruct the exercise, the natural conclusion is that they were creative in spite of themselves, even in the face of instructions to the contrary. The creativity on display was a natural resource. It came from who they really are. There was nothing “special” going on, nothing forced.

I’ve done similar improv exercises in music classes with similar results. And every writer I know experiences this same thing from time to time.

The magic happens when we get out of our own way.

Turn that on its head and it’s why we’re naturally turned off by any writing that is pushing some kind of an agenda. Frankly, it’s why most Christian fiction is not that much fun to read. It’s trying too hard. Trying to get some message across. Trying not to offend. Trying to prove something. The story feels contrived and the reader feels manipulated. The art falls victim to all that trying.

This works the other way too. Miley Cyrus has become a national punchline because whatever artistic merit she possesses has been eclipsed by her pathetic attempts to impress people she doesn’t know and that don’t know her.

We want to read stories about people. We want to care. We want to explore together and discover a story’s natural truth and inherent beauty. We naturally crave stories that surprise us, but feel completely inevitable.

When we write to impress a person or some group of unseen people we start to pull punches. We play safe. We’re not fair to the story. And thus, we end up shortchanging our readers in the process, not to mention our characters and the story itself.

We become the literary version of the stereotypical “Friendly Freddy” used car salesman. We try to sell our stories instead of telling them.

Stephen King talks about writing first drafts with “the door closed.” This simple admonition is pretty profound. With the door closed (heck, have your imaginary self triple-bolt it and move a giant gun safe in front of it!), you can write with abandon, write from your soul, write without worry or shame or fear or guilt. And that’s where the good stuff comes from, the stuff worth reading, worth remembering, worth the time invested by both writer and reader.

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