The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Literary Autolysis

Wow. A ton of people came to the blog yesterday, and not one misinterpreted what I said about race. I am so happy I'm tap-dancing. Thank you, everyone...
Whew! Busy busy. Just heard back from a movie company I pitched to, and they seem to like what Tananarive and I said about their idea. More on this as it develops…
I was talking recently about the application of the Hero’s Journey to the process of what might be called Literary Autolysis—using our writing to eat our ego. Yum. The second step is Rejection of the Challenge. Now, we reject a challenge because of Fear, and any worthy challenge is gonna scare us. Why? Well, this relates to the proper choice of Hero and Challenge. The challenge must be large enough, weighty enough, to push the hero to the edge, to “empty him out” so to speak. The ego always defines us as something different from what we actually are. Therefore, the properly chosen challenge will either make a character rise to the occasion (“Die Hard”) and surpass the ego identity, or will deflate the false self concept (“Glengerry, Glen Ross”) and throw the character into painful confrontation with reality. No sane person would voluntarily choose either one.

So, if you’ve done your work right…the result is fear. Now, then…how to choose your fear properly…

Simple. Look into your own life. Look at the times when you grew the most, especially when you experienced major fear just before jumping through the hoop. If it felt like mortal terror, you’re on the right path. This is especially true if, after it was all over, you felt “larger” or “clearer.” And if afterward, you look back and laugh at the absurdity of your fear, you are dead bang on target. Fear is the favorite tool our egos use to keep us from growing and changing and…(wait for it!) killing our ego-shells. Never underestimate the power of an illusion.

When you have a list of three to five times that this has happened to you, choose the biggest and scariest. Now…if you can devise a story taking a character through a similar experience, you have a perfect opportunity to use your fiction writing to expand your sense of Self. What I absolutely love is to write stories that will force me to grow as a human being, stories I am afraid to tackle, that will force me into confrontation with an aspect of my ego that is uncomfortable. Keeps you honest and on the edge.

Get together with your writing group or partner, and let a little honesty into the room. Talk about this stuff. Come up with some good examples…

And then get to work!
A letter from a young man I met recently:

Hello. My name is C., and I am a 16 year old who happened to be inspired by your discussion of awakening. Just like all people before me, I have been spending the last 16 years wanting to know not only who I am but also what and who it is that exists around me. I have wondered about much more things than I have learned and in many ways, I see you as a possible teacher. I do not mean to be too blunt, doing things such as hunting you down and following your every move, I mostly only want to discuss with you things that I have noticed as bumps or abnormally smooth parts on my road.

My first question of our hopeful relationship is pertaining to something of my childhood. To put it in front of the bush, my best friend died when I was six. Everybody at my previous school understood this as a part of who I was. My new high school which I have been attending for two years is full of people who have no idea. It is not exactly that I have side stepped questions and direct listeners, it is mostly that no one has been interested enough in my past to ask (let alone know to ask). The question is should I tell my friends straight out at the right time simply for the sake of personal depth and understanding, or should I wait for the impossible inquiry that will lead to my telling? I think that of the two, you would pick the first option but I am wondering if there is a better option still.

Anyway, I hope this is not just a taxing time-consuming thing for you and that neither of us become misunderstood.

In the hopes of disillusionment,

My answer:


"My best friend died when I was six" is a load to carry--only offer it to someone who has volunteered to carry such a load. I did--I gave you permission to get in touch. Someone offering you friendship does--friendship has reciprocal obligations. If you ever have a class assignment asking you to tell a group about "my most meaningful experience" or some such, that is also a possibility. But in reality, this is your weight, part of what will help you become the man you will some day be. We all must deal with loss, and there is no good time for it. None at all. To lose a loved one is to stare into the abyss. To do this without losing balance is a good trick, and intelligence doesn't help, my young friend. Seek to balance yourself in your external aspects, and you'll begin to sense how to maintain that internal, "spiritual" balance. Seek a physical discipline (yoga, martial arts, etc.) something you can push yourself with your whole life. Commit to knowing your heart, using external relationships as a mirror. Develop your intellect--but don't be limited by it. Being smart is as much of a trap as being stupid--if you let yourself be attached to it.

My blog over at is a great place for these conversations. If you are serious, I'm sure we can find ways to interact.

Balance, C. It's the only thing that is safe to be obsessive about.


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