I think the reason most writers get a perverse chuckle out of that last idea is because, as humans, we are hard-wired to have a complicated relationship with truth. We crave, we need it, sometimes we even want it. But like those green beans I was supposed to eat when I was four and instead shrewdly dropped under my brother’s chair, we also exercise an incredible amount of creativity in avoiding the truth—and then denying we’re avoiding it.
This is exactly why stories are such a sneaky and effective way of sharing truths. We mesmerize readers with entertaining fictions until they don’t even realize we’re doing that mom trick of sneaking the greens into the strawberry smoothie.
But actually it goes deeper than that. After all, it’s not like getting “writer” stamped on our foreheads has somehow magically made us wiser and more truthful than all those poor schmoes who only know how to read stories. The real magic is that sometimes, when we’re writing, we don’t even know we’re getting past our own defenses to by “lying” our way to truths we otherwise do our best to ignore.
These are the good kind of lies. These are the lies we writers get to be proud of telling.
But there are other kinds of lies. These are the lies writers believe and which we, like every other person on the planet, cling to out of some misguided sense of self-preservation.
And they’re holding us back.
The Lie You Believe vs. the Truth You Need
Good stories are faithful reflections of reality. So it shouldn’t have surprised me (although it kinda did) that in learning how to recognize the powerful patterns in good character arcs, I also started seeing those patterns in my own life.
Character arcs are built around the relationship between a thematic Truth and an opposing Lie believed by certain of the characters.
In a Positive Change Arc, the character starts out clinging to a Lie (without, of course, acknowledging it is a Lie) because she believes this Lie protects or provides for her. It is only over the course of the story that she begins to realize this Lie is, in fact, holding her back. The journey to accepting and living the Truth is never easy (otherwise, she wouldn’t have fought against it so hard), but it is always a necessary step toward empowerment, freedom, and health.
In most Negative Change Arcs, the character resists the Truth (aka, refuses to eat the green beans) and as a result of his crippling reliance on the Lie ends up in a worse place, morally and/or physically, than that in which he started (aka, frames little brother for not eating the beans and grows up with the rickets or something).
The one exception is the negative arc I call the Disillusionment Arc. In all respects, the Disillusionment Arc is just like the Positive Change Arc, except the Truth the character finally learns to accept is not an immediately positive Truth. In a Positive Change Arc, she might learn “the world is shaped by love,” while in a Disillusionment Arc, she might have to face the equally potent reality that “the world is shaped by violence.” It’s important to realize the Disillusionment Arc is just as viable and important as the Positive Change Arc, since avoiding negative Truths is ultimately just as unhealthy and self-defeating as avoiding positive ones.
And, finally, in a Flat Arc, the protagonist already understands and accepts the story’s central thematic Truth. Thanks to his personal maturity and wisdom in this area (which, presumably, is the result of previous Positive Change Arcs in his life), he is able to use that Truth to help others around him overcome their own Lies.
In real life, we all experience every single one of these arcs. Unlike a book, in which one central arc defines the protagonist, our lives are a complex, ever-shifting evolution from arc to arc to arc—and, often, multiple arcs at the same time. Whatever our personal hang-ups, I think we all instinctively understand we need to be moving toward Truth. We struggle through Positive Change Arcs toward liberation. We get stuck—hopefully, only temporarily—in Negative Change Arcs. We grieve over our Disillusionment Arcs. And when we’ve emerged victoriously, we stand upon our mountaintops of hard-fought Truth and walk confidently through Flat Arcs that allow us to encourage positive change in the world around us.
5 Lies Writers Believe
We all share in the journey of overcoming the Lies we believe, unhitching them from the emotional baggage that motivates them, and moving toward the often scary but always peace-giving and life-affirming Truths. And yet each journey is deeply unique and intimate to each person.
Although we won’t all face the same Lies, there are many, many Lies so prevalent that most of us can relate to them. These begin with the big life Lies that are rooted in primal desires for love, safety, and validation—and the instinctive, if ultimately counterproductive, survival mechanisms we enact defensively out of fear that we won’t get them.
These Lies are heavy. It can take years, perhaps even lifetimes, for us to peel back the many layers of Lies before we get down to their cores. But along the way, there are many “smaller” Lies, which although (arguably) easier to overcome are just as potentially damaging. Here are five lies writers believe that I hear all the time—all of which I believed in at one point before fighting through to better Truths.
Lies Writers Believe #1: Being a Writer Should Be Easy
Entry Truth: It Ain’t Easy.
Ultimate Truth: Writing Is a High-Level Skill Set.
Many would-be writers enter storytelling through the door marked “Fun.” Just as many of these would-be writers exit right back out through the same door.
Writing—I mean really writing—is a deeply complex art form. Doing it well requires from its author the ability to master such widely ranging subjects as philosophy and even psychology (because what else is story theory?), dramatic structure, a thousand different prose techniques, and not least of all David McCullough’s art of “thinking clearly.”
Accepting that writing should be challenging eliminates our ability to defend our inherent human laziness and dares us to become more than we ever dreamed we could.
Lies Writers Believe #2: Being a Writer Is Too Hard
Entry Truth: Writing Is Not for Lazy People.
Ultimate Truth: Writing Is Rewarding and Important Exactly Because It Is Hard.
Other writers (or sometimes the same writers) stick around to lament the high bar of storytelling’s difficulty level. We want writing stories to be as fun, easy, and instantly gratifying as reading or watching them. But it’s not, never has been, never will be. Oh yes, it’s fun—it’s rewarding—it’s sublimely empowering and enlightening.
But I say thank God that’s not all it is. Thank God writing isn’t a fun little game we can master in an afternoon. Indeed, the very worth of stories is found in all the things that make them tricky to write. It is the difficulty inherent in every new book we write that gives each of us the precious and irreplaceable gifts of growth.
Lies Writers Believe #3: You Need Someone to Show You How to Be a Writer
Entry Truth: No, You Don’t.
Ultimate Truth: Learning From Others Is a Self-Motivated Process Completely Different From Expecting Others to Magically Transfer to You Their Knowledge and Experience.
Sometimes people ask me, “Can you help me be a writer?”
This is a tricky one to answer. It’s one of those “yes and no” scenarios. Can I share with you what I’ve learned from my own experiences as a writer, just as others have shared with me in their turn? Yes.
But can I give you the keys to the kingdom? No. I can only show you where the door is. Writing is ultimately a journey of self-growth. No one can take that journey for you. No one can hold your hand along the way. And they certainly can’t give you a piggy-back ride. We can cheer you on from the sidelines, but that’s it.
All the information and encouragement in the world won’t give you the secret formula to being a writer. You have to eat that information, digest it, and transform it into your own personal brand of creative energy. You won’t understand story structure until you make it yours. You won’t find a comfortable writing process until you create your own. And you won’t write worthwhile stories unless you’re writing your stories, up from the deepest depths of yourself.
Lies Writers Believe #4: You Don’t Have Anything Worth Saying and/or Will Never Say It Well Enough
Entry Truth: If You Believe That, Stop Writing Right Now.
Ultimate Truth: You Are Alive, Therefore Your Experience Is Valuable; You Are Writing About Your Experience, Therefore You Believe You Have Something Worth Saying; You Are Persevering, Therefore You Will Learn to Say It Better.
This Lie is a masquerade. Writers don’t actually believe they have nothing to say. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be saying it. Rather, what they believe is that they need the validation of the others to put the stamp of approval on what they’re saying.
There is a certain measure of practical truth to this. After all, if you want to be published, you’re going to need someone’s approval somewhere along the way.
But instead of falling into the slough of self-pity (a sure sign you’re in denial about a Lie of some kind), acknowledge these two truths:
1. On a personal level, you need no one’s validation. Recognize your own inherent self-worth and by extension the worth of your writing.
2. If you recognize the practical need for someone else’s validation at some point in your journey toward a specific end goal (e.g., publication), then realize that whining and feeling sorry for yourself will not help you make the necessary changes to gain that validation.
Lies Writers Believe #5: Where You Are Today Defines Your Success
Entry Truth: Your Journey Isn’t Over.
Ultimate Truth: You Can’t Judge Your Story’s Ending by Its First and Second Acts.
At any given moment in your life, it is so easy to look up, look around, realize you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be, and start feeling like an unmitigated failure.
But your story isn’t over.
Just take a look at whatever fix your characters find themselves stuck in at this very moment in your work-in-progress. Doesn’t look too good for them either, does it? But you, as their author, know their story isn’t over. They’re not even close to the ending yet; they will not be judged by the mistakes they’re making in the middle.
And neither should you judge yourself. Keep writing, keep living.
With a dedication to overcoming your Lies and pursuing your Truths, you can trust the story of your own life will roll to an ending better than you can even imagine right now.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think are some lies writers believe that hold them back? Tell me in the comments!