Sandra Scofield is the speaker for our audio workshop Writing from Premise and the author of seven novels. A Chance To See Egypt received the 1996 Best Fiction Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. An earlier novel, Beyond Deserving, was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award.
WRITER, KNOW THYSELF
I assume you aren’t starting from scratch. You’ve got lots of false starts and some stories or poems, maybe pages you hoped would begin a novel. You don’t know what to do now.
Do two exercises that will focus your thinking on your vision. After all, you are your best resource; your work will come out of your experience and your view of the world.
Do you know what your experience and your view of the world are? Do you know what they mean?
Start with an autobiography. It doesn’t have to read like a book. Start with a "map" of significant emotional events in your life, or list stories that you tell or are told about your family. Look for a pattern. What is the "tone" of these events? Write about your life; write a response to that life. First, you’ll get a lot of "stuff" out of the way. Second, you’ll face the core of your emotional life. And third, you’ll see the ways your life is unique.
Next, write a credo. This is a statement, or a list of statements, about your vision. You might start by choosing a writer you love and trying to spell out common threads running through that writer’s work. For many years I was deeply attached to Thomas Hardy, whose work is fatalistic, bleak and punishing. Is it surprising that my first novel had a similar vision? Over time, I realized I believed that if people are productive and good to one another, a small happiness is possible. (Sound like Chekhov?) My work began to shift.
Defining a vision is a lifetime effort.
Ask yourself what you believe about love, family, children, work, government, justice, friendship, loyalty, etc. What values matter most to you? What upsets or frightens or angers you? These things show up in your work. You want your readers to share your vision, and to do that, you have to build emotional content that stirs them.
Writing out your credo, a statement of your vision, helps you to focus the intellectual content of your work. It serves as a tool for evaluating your work. It gives you ideas. It makes you know your Self better. It identifies themes and ideas for your writing.
Neither the autobiography nor the credo is ever truly "complete." I rewrite both once a year. When I begin the revision stage of a novel, I write a new credo specifically focused on the issues in that work. I am always surprised, and writing the credo always helps me focus.
Know thyself. What else is ever truly yours?