Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
I recently read George Michelsen Foy’s 2016 book Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human. It deals with physical navigation and how our approach to navigation has changed over time. On a deeper level, it’s a meditation on how we humans find our way in life and how our reliance on devices to tell us where to go might be affecting our mental and emotional well-being.
Years ago, I worked for a company that modeled its consulting services on a very simple diagram:
We made fun of the Point A – Point B diagram, but it was deceptively brilliant. The company’s mission could then be described as helping clients achieve three goals: 1) identify their current market position (A), 2) identify their desired market position (B), and, 3) figure out how to get from A to B.
That was essentially a process of navigation. Creativity is often a similar process. As I writer, I often think in terms of writing, but all creative endeavors require us to find our way in reaching a destination. Particularly when writing fiction, we guide characters (or they guide us!) to some endpoint. The end result, if we get it right, will be to guide readers on their own journey. To quote from Finding North:
“I’m aware, from writing and studying fiction, that stories tend to start with characters getting lost, often literally and always, if they have any gumption to them, emotionally. E. M. Forster once said that only two plotlines exist: somebody embarks on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. He was deliberately oversimplifying but a measure of truth resides in his aphorism and in the concept of voyage implied in both plots. Travel, with its burden of movement and having to find one’s way in a strange environment, is always implicit in narrative.”
There are two aspects to writing that I’m particularly thinking of. The first is working with an outline. Imagine the outline is a map and the actual writing process is the journey. Some writers work without an outline, preferring the spontaneity of creating the story as they write. Plenty of successful journeys have been completed without a map (or with faulty maps, which is an entirely different story). In life and in writing, I prefer to work with a map. Time spent studying the lay of the land before I set out is, for me, an important part of the journey.
The second is identifying Point A. There’s an old saying that we can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been. The corollary to that is that we also have to know where we are. Completing a story or character arc is impossible without first grounding our characters in their current situation. The old adage to “Start in the middle,” opening your story in the midst of some action, might make for a memorable beginning, but at some point we have to clarify our characters’ locale, including time, place, and life status.
My first novel, Moral Compass, is definitely one of the “characters getting lost” variety. It begins with a physical journey that sets up a fish-out-of-water situation. The characters become lost physically and emotionally and the novel is the story of how they find their way.
On the other hand, my novella for young readers, Buddy and Thomas, is more of a “stranger comes to town” story. The stranger is a stubborn beagle that noses its way into the life of the protagonist, who then has to navigate his way through a new way of life.
The nice thing about fiction, as in life, is that even as one story, or one journey, ends, we know we’re alive as long as there is another journey to take. Quoting again from Finding North:
“Stories also cement the logical connection between being lost and navigating: between not knowing our position and the necessity to figure out where we are in order to plan further movement. … It’s what causes us to explore and at the end of exploration sort out how to get back; only to realize that home is but respite, a fleeting second when all bearings and landmarks seem nailed down but which, in a fluid setting like history, the weather, or one’s own life, will never stay fixed for long.”
Maybe the creativity lesson is not just to consider how we map our work, but having the courage to create the work at all. Your creative work is your journey to make. No one else can make that trip, whether it’s a voyage of wild adventure or gentle contemplation. No other person would take the same route as you, or notice the same details as you along the way. It would be a shame not to share that with the world.