One of the most overlooked, but also one of the most powerful kinds of journals you can write, is the Gratitude Journal. All too often we’ll journal out our problems and hopes for the future that we forget to take stock of what we currently have: The Present Moment.
It’s all we ever have and no matter how much loss we’ve suffered in the past and how much more we’ve got to gain in the future, so long as we’re simply breathing, we have a lot to be thankful for. Maybe you’re not where you want to be in life and maybe you’re suffering a crisis. The mere fact that you get to live and be given the opportunity to learn and grow from hardship should be appreciated.
It’s a strange concept, to be thankful for even hardship. But if you really think about it, without sadness and hardship, we would not have much appreciation for happiness and the good times in our lives. There’d be no contrast. And in the business of contrasting, instead of journaling out your problems all the time, take a moment to be grateful and acknowledge where you’re at.
“He who cannot be contented with what he has will not be contented with what he wants.” – Socrates
It was true over 2000 years ago and it’s still true to this day. Practicing gratitude can help reframe your mind toward abundance rather than always focusing on scarcity. We have evolved to focus on scarcity because human survival was much harder before than it is now, so we’ve still got a lot of leftover monkey brain residing within us. Not to say it’s entirely useless because starvation and poverty are real problems, but I think it’s safe to say that if you can afford the internet connection in order to read this post, there’s a high chance that you’re living a comfortable life, if not a luxurious one.
Yet that’s the problem, right?
We work so hard to get to the point of comfortability because being challenged is difficult, we just wanna laze around and watch Netflix or play video games all day because they’re the most fun and easiest things to do. But then we tend to grow stagnant when we live a little too comfortably. So just as we need challenges to help us grow, we also need ample rest so we have the energy to tackle the challenges of life.
It’s a balancing act that we will never perfect, but will definitely try our entire lives to employ. You want to be journaling your problems out for the catharsis and possible problem solving that can come with it. And you also want to be writing about the things you’ve achieved thus far and be grateful for what you have in life, even if it may seem very little.
Harkening back to the Socrates quote, sometimes we get so busy chasing things that we think will make us happy that we somehow forget how to just be happy. We think that next relationship, that new job, or that new toy is what’s gonna make us happy, and maybe we get one or all of those things and then it’s like “so what now?”
That’s the tricky thing with life.
It’s good to have goals to strive for so that each day you live is filled with some sense of purpose and direction. But as that old cliché goes, “life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s cliché because it’s true. If you’re not moving toward an aim you are then aimless and begin to feel the weight of existential dread falling upon you.
So you work, work, and work, and you finally achieve your goal, and then you’re confronted with a whole new problem: “what’s next?”
Achieving one goal only opens you up to having a whole new set of problems you did not think possible, and since you have much more life left to live, then the process repeats. Until the very end of your days there’s always gonna be one more mountain to climb because it’s just what we do as human beings. We inherently do not feel like we are or have enough and so we strive to fill ourselves with more and more experiences and possessions—all of which are not bad things in and of themselves, but none of them really mean anything unless we take the time to be grateful for them.
If you have nothing pertinent to journal about, no issues to solve, then take a moment to write a Gratitude Journal because we could all use a little respite here and there. Give thanks to the people you love, the art that you’ve consumed, and even thank yourself for showing up for your daily practice. Life is very short and we tend to go from one thing to the next in a heartbeat, so giving ourselves a moment to breathe and feel that heartbeat, even for just a fraction of eternity, we are reminded that it is Your Write to Live.
While I do think it’s important for us to contend with our shadow side and work out the worries of the day in a journal, we can’t always be digging that deep and getting that emotional because that could be very taxing. In fact, although I am a big proponent to expressing your darkest deepest feelings as earnestly as possible, there can be a point where it can be a bit excessive and you can become too identified with your problems as opposed to having them shed on the page.
To reverse that, we also need to learn how to write Progress Journals to keep track of our goals and ambitions. This can range from your progress in therapy, your progress in your novel, or anything else that you’re working on in life to give yourself a moment to take stock of your life thus far, especially when you feel stuck.
Even if you’re not feeling stuck, it’s even more beneficial to focus on your progress because if you’re not inhibited by any emotional weight holding you down, you can propel that much further in your goals by continuing to take stock anyway.
So why should you write a progress journal and how do you even do it?
What You Measure Grows
If you approach your life like it’s a game you start to notice just how much the quality of our lives are based on “high scores” in different aspects of our lives. How much money do we have in the bank? How many reps can we lift x amount of lbs of a dumbbell? How many words can we write a day?
It is important to jot down these numbers because then you could compare and contrast them throughout the weeks to see how you’re faring in a specific goal. So let’s take writing for instance. Say your goal is to write somewhere between 500-2000 words a day. If you have a word count tracker where you mark each date and total word count for that day, you can keep a tally of how well you do throughout the week.
(Keep your eyes peeled for a future post on Word Count Goals as I will share my own Word Count Tracker and how I use it.)
Some days you’ll be under par and some days you’ll be over par, and in a different section of your Word Count Tracker, you can even briefly mention how and why your word count was a certain way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that being under the word count is bad, rather maybe other things came up that day, and that is something you can mention in a Progress Journal
The whole point of a Progress Journal is to have an open, honest, and earnest conversation with yourself about how far you’ve come in the project, and what you have left to do. It even doubles as a perfect pre-writing warm up exercise because you get yourself thinking about your novel at the bird’s eye view rather than being honed in on the story at ground level. Sometimes it helps to get that broader perspective before you pan the camera down to where the novel focuses.
So keep track of your scores for everything in your life and write entries about how and why you were able to achieve so much or so little in the day. If you score low, it’s not about blaming external circumstances for getting in the way of your goals, rather it’s taking accountability over how you allowed external circumstances for getting in the way of your goals.
I get that a lot of us lead busy lives, but if writing truly is our lifestyle as we believe it is here at Your Write to Live, then we should always make the time to write. Much like anything else in life, it’s not that we don’t have time for certain things, rather we don’t make time for them unless we find them all that more important above everything else. And when it comes to self care and mental health, they damn well better be more important above everything else or everything else begins to fall apart if we’re not well taken care of.
But I digress!
The Progress Journal Manual
My Progress Journals before every writing session were always recapping what I’ve written the day before, or the session before if I have more than one that day, and meditating on what I have left yet to write. Sometimes I’d be focused on shifting my mindset toward being positive, and if I had that inherently intact for a day, then the fun begins where I’ve focused a lot on working out my ideas. This same approach can apply to other things too aside from writing. Even something like weight lifting or any other form of exercise you want to do on a daily basis, you can reflect on what kinds of thoughts and feelings arise as you’ve approached your goal for that day.
Sticking to the example of writing, though—since this is Your Write to Live, not Your Write to…Lift?—you could just as easily write about your perceived Writer’s Block. Doing so is what made me come up with the Shadow Journal in the first place, actually. I would get so deep into my head about why I have all this resistance toward doing something I know that I love, but can’t bring myself to do. It was no longer about the book itself, but myself, and how I have to contend with my own shadow almost every time only to realize that after each session, I come out stronger and smarter than I ever thought possible.
While it is best that you know how to regulate your own motivation for writing, there is no shame in asking for help and that’s why I’m happy to announce that I will be offering Writing Coaching services later in the year so I can help other writers cultivate healthy writing habits of their own that suit them, as well as provide a sounding board for their ideas.
Whether you can’t afford writing coaching services or simply want to do it alone, though, Progress Journaling is the next best alternative to keeping yourself in check and bouncing your ideas around to see if they are sound. You can even join writing forums online or a critique group in person, but I believe that the less people there are and the more intimate the experience is, the more value you can get from reflecting on your progress.
So if you’ve got a grip on the whole mental and emotional aspect of writing, then you get to have a whole lot of fun simply writing about your ideas for your current chapter. Progress Journaling is also a less structured way of outlining, though outlining chapter and GMC graphs are still important, and can lend you more freedom to write and retract some of your ideas as you write them.
Often times you will find yourself writing about a particular idea and realizing it sounds dumb out loud or doesn’t even getting used in the end anyway. Which then makes room for the good ideas you’ve been waiting for, and that’s the thing about ideas which I’ll write about next week: the fact that generating ideas is a muscle you need to exercise. The more you do it, the better you get at them.
One of the most useful journaling methods that have helped me is loosely based on Internal Family Systems. It’s the concept that within every individual is a plethora of different personalities all warring for dominance over their directing mind. You might be thinking about people with split personality disorder and how you would be so far removed from them, but actually what they suffer from is a very drastic disintegration of the self.
For those of us fortunate enough to not be clinically diagnosed with that mental illness, we still contain a variety of competing personalities within ourselves, which would explain why our thoughts and emotions are so complex. There are different versions of ourselves living within us that comprise of our entire being as a whole. It doesn’t make you crazy or anything, just human.
Due to varying factors such as culture, upbringing, and social circles, we all internalize different thoughts and opinions from our environment and all these ideas become a huge part of our personalities. Some ideas are stronger than others, while some are strong enough to contend with each other, and the goal of Internal Family Systems style journaling is to integrate these personalities, not disperse them.
I talk a lot about contending with your shadow on here and this is a more detailed and nuanced form of that. There are parts of you that you might be ashamed or even afraid of, and perhaps it is your resistance to their existence that creates their persistence.
(I totally didn’t mean to rhyme, I’ll try not to do that all the time 😉
What you resist persists, though. According to Freud’s theory of repression, the more we stuff down things in our psyche, the stronger they actually become in trying to take the center stage of our minds. This is possibly how split personality disorder can occur aside from the unfortunate randomness of neurological development in the brain.
So instead of trying to completely cast out certain parts of yourself, you befriend them and finds ways to make them work in your favour. Most especially if they run counter to another personality of yours that seems to be its complete opposite. In actuality, these two warring personalities are two sides of the same coin, and sometimes one side wins over the other causing discord within our lives.
By allowing these varying parts of ourselves to have an open dialogue with each other, our directing mind can have a better time at getting a clearer picture of who is saying what, and why they are saying it. Imagine your consciousness as the director of a play and all these different aspects of your personality as individual actors who you need to assign roles to. Then as the playwright, give them their lines and let them put a play on for you to get a better grasp of yourself.
What I am about to teach you is definitely useful in understanding yourself better through Therapeutic Journaling, but also your fiction, and you’ll start to see how and why as you read along. I’ll even go into further details afterwards, but without further adieu…
Assigning Roles to Your Personalities
Think of the most prominent thought patterns you have about yourself, your relationships, and the world. For simplicity’s sake you can call them protagonists. Then think about if you ever have other thought patterns that contradict your protagonist’s patterns. Consider those contradictory thought patterns as antagonists. In actuality, there is a little good and bad in each of them, but whichever way you slice it, what you want to do is give each pattern a distinctive name as to give them some character.
In turning these thought patterns into characters, having a distinctive name and visual representation of them in your mind will allow you to get a clearer picture of how and what they manifest in your life. Sometimes writing out your thoughts, contradictory as they may be to each other, is not enough, and so the more divided you are, the more important it is to try out IFS Journaling so that you can better manage the contradictions within yourself.
Drawing from my own experience, I’ll give a couple examples of some of the characters living within my Internal Family System and how I integrated them into my being in a healthier way than just resisting what I thought needed to be discarded.
Becoming Your Own Inner Parent
Little Marlon is the wounded inner child. He just wants to be loved, taken care of, and allowed to enjoy his hobbies without judgement and without the pressure of turning them into careers. He just wants to enjoy these things for their own sake. He’s also very shy around people, but also wants to befriend them anyway because he likes to talk.
Papa Marlon is the kind of father I wish I had growing up, and the kind of father I wanted to become when I grew up. He works in tandem with Little Marlon to give him compassion, leniency, and empathy. He comforts Little Marlon and knows how to talk to him so he can feel better, thus helping him develop his social skills and become more confident with other people. However, sometimes Papa Marlon is too soft on Little Marlon and lets him get away with too much when he needs discipline.
Inner Father is the internalized version of my actual father. Although my actual father could be loud, aggressive, and sometimes physically abusive, much to Little Marlon’s and Papa Marlon’s dismay, he is not wrong in asserting that children need to be disciplined. They need to know between right and wrong or they’ll go about life disrupting the order of things.
I originally saw Little Marlon is a weakling who I needed to forget all about and become infinitely better than. I also saw my Inner Father is a nuisance because he was the one bringing up shame in for me simply being vulnerable and sensitive. For so long I wish I could get rid of this weak and sensitive part of me as well as the one who was so judgmental about his very existence to begin with.
This is where Papa Marlon had to come in to empathize with Little Marlon to let him know he belongs in the Internal Family System because reconciling his sensitivity is actually what allows me to understand the sensitivity of others and treat it kindly. Papa Marlon also went head to head with my Inner Father during the years I studied psychology and childhood development, thus developing some resentment toward my actual father for some of the ways in which he failed me growing up.
Papa Marlon represented the moral stand I took in that if and when I have kids, I will never hit them or yell at them, mishandle their vulnerability, and outright ignore them throughout their lives. He is also how and why I was able to raise my God-daughter without raising my voice or laying a hand on her, and that was a great exercise in self restraint and learning to break the cycle of violence in my family.
However, I did get over zealous with peaceful parenting and at times had been too lenient with my God-daughter, who in many ways was the physical and present manifestation of Little Marlon; another fresh new child brought into the world who just needs some love and guidance to survive it so they can feel safe and sound. But at the same time can bring danger upon themselves and even us adults sometimes.
My Inner Father was right, you really can’t let kids step all over you, which is what I allowed to happen at times with my God-daughter and Little Marlon.
Papa Marlon and my Inner Father had to duke it out in what was one the most fundamental journal entries I’ve ever written in my life. What it all amalgamated to was knowing that you must be gentle and patient with children in order to foster a safe environment for them to grow in, but you also need to discipline them whenever they act out in unruly ways.
For a long time it was either/or for me. You either be kind to them or you beat them into submission. But thanks to the dialogue I wrote out between Papa Marlon and my Inner Father, the two were able to meet in the middle and teach me that you can discipline children without having to hit or punish them in any other way.
It took some time, but alongside raising my God-daughter like she was my own, while concurrently parenting Little Marlon, I discovered ways in which I can teach these children how to behave properly without having to resort to any aggressive means of discipline. A lot of the times, I learned that some of the things parents allow their kids to do was more of the fault of proper supervision, while at other times, it was just kids exploring the world and not knowing how to do so safely.
So for instance, to teach my God-daughter why it’s important to not run into the street, I comically simulated one of her Barbie dolls getting run over by a car and voice acting how in massive pain she was in. My God-daughter laughed at this depiction, which was a relief because in hindsight it sounds like I could have easily traumatized her instead.
But she understood even at the age of two what I was trying to teach her. So any time we went out for a walk, yes I mostly held her hand to keep her close, but there were times I’d let her go and she just knew to stay on the sidewalk.
The Internal Interpersonal Tournament
So to do an Internal Family Systems journal, you assign characters to certain thought patterns of yours and like a movie script, write our their dialogue and see in what ways they can resolve their conflicts with each other so that they can live in harmony within you, as opposed to discord.
After all, this is kind of what we do, as writers, when we write novels. All the characters we write about may be amalgamations of other people we know in our lives, but ultimately their words and actions are being born out of our very own hands. If that isn’t a more creative and emotionally distant form of Internal Family Systems journaling, then I don’t know what is!
But I digress.
Writing an Internal Family Systems journal can be a more direct, dark, and gritty form of getting the kind of self-knowledge you get from writing a novel with characters who all represent different sides of you. With an IFS journal, you remove the creative filter and write something raw, unhinged, and uninhibited. Just like the Shadow Journal, you will want to proceed with caution because the more honest and vulnerable you are, the scarier this kind of journaling actually is.
Though the good news is that if you can survive it, you will become a much smarter and stronger version of yourself that you may not have imagined possible before.
There is no shortage of articles out there that detail the routines of famous and successful writers. These masters of their craft do not wait for inspiration to strike them, rather they approach writing like a habit by having a solid routine that primes them for the moment of truth: the moment where pen needs to touch paper and the thoughts need to flow.
You, too, can also reach a level of mastery with your craft with the Five Easy Steps Toward a Writing Routine I will share with you today. Each of these steps are basic frameworks that anybody can do, but the details are completely up to you. There is no one size fits all routine since everybody works differently, so take the following tips as a template rather than a step by step manual.
By the end of this blog post, you have had gathered ideas as to what things you can do to prime yourself for every writing session so that you can write daily or to whatever level of consistency you desire. The bottom line here is to no longer rely on those random flashes of inspiration in order to write, and instead develop the discipline to transform your writing into a consistently conscious decision.
As I’ve mentioned in Productive Procrastination, not writing can actually help your unconscious mind conjure up some ideas for you in the background while you focus your consciousness on something else entirely. Which is why writers often report coming up with their best ideas in the shower, during a car ride, or even right before they are about to fall asleep.
To take that a whole step further, you should also find and develop an exercise routine to incorporate into your daily life. Not only will it help you live a healthier life, but to tie it into writing, exercise is important for us writers because it gets us out of our heads and into our bodies.
A lot of us spend a tremendous amount of time thinking and a lot of that can actually constrain us from expressing ourselves to the best of our ability because our brains can get overworked, and end up needing some time to rest and recharge. And what better way to recharge than to increase the blood flow back into your brain?
On top of that, being a writer requires you do a whole lot of sitting around, so it’s not a bad idea to get your limbs stretched out a bit as to not feel all cramped and cooped up in your chair after long sessions of writing.
I personally like to do yoga first thing in the morning because if I’m gonna be spending a lot of time sitting down, I wouldn’t want to develop a hunch back and crushed hips, so I opt for hip opening poses and other stretches that allow my spine a wide range of motion beyond being hunched over my desk. I also like to go out for walks while listening to music and do a mish mash of thinking about the next thing to write, and then focusing on the music to let my unconscious figure out the rest as I continue my walk.
But whatever you choose to do is completely up to you. Maybe you prefer to do some running, jump rope, or weight lifting etc. Whatever it is, make sure it’s manageable for your physique and that you give yourself a reasonable amount of reps or amount of time to exercise that you can do on a daily basis. You want to challenge yourself physically enough to get your heart rate up, but not so much that it also tires you out, thus rendering you even less able to write at all.
Bottom line is that you don’t want your blood vessels and muscles to stiffen, so get some exercise in order to increase the blood flow through your body and not develop any cramps from sitting too long.
2. Physical and Mental Nourishment
Now that you’ve got your body moving and blood flowing back to your brain, it’s time to nourish your body and mind with some good food and drink to replenish some of the energy you spent exercising. And since your organs will be more active, the food and drink you eat will digest faster and provide you with much needed energy to write. Take care of the body, you’ll take care of the mind.
I’m not a dietician so I can’t really suggest anything specifically healthy for writers in particular, though we all have some rough idea of what constitutes as “healthy food,” so use your best judgement. You know, your fruits and vegetables, your whole grains, and so on.
I personally like to eat buttered peanut butter toast after yoga and have a hot steaming mug of black coffee to wash it down with. Coffee is a writer’s bestfriend, after all!
I’ve loved peanut butter since I was a kid and it also just so happens to help with improving memory, cognitive function and concentration; brain functions that writers benefit greatly from. You want to remember intricate details about your work, choose the right words and passages to incorporate them, and be able to do so with the focus required to weave it all together in a compelling and comprehensible way.
And, of course, who can deny the wonderful jolt of energy coffee can bring when you most need it? Not to mention it’s quite soothing to take sips every few paragraphs of writing, or whenever you need a moment to pause and think about what to write next.
On top of the physical nourishment you can provide for yourself, there’s also the mental nourishment beyond the benefits of peanut butter and coffee. This can come in the form of reading other books or watching a TV show, or consuming any other art form that inspires or even informs your writing.
Once again, choose your own adventure. As of this blog post, my pre-writing mental nourishment is reading about Stoicism for an hour so that I can steel my mind and feel inspired by these great and ancient intellectuals—who I’m now learning bestowed a ton of wisdom on us that the world now views as commonplace, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Feed your body and mind with good food and good art, you’ll need the energy and inspiration.
3. Warm Up Writing
After taking good care of yourself, it is finally time to do some warm up writing. Whether you consider it “actual” writing or not, it’s a very useful practice that can help ease you into focus. It can also help combat your inner editor and possible perfectionism.
Just like how a singer will do silly sounding warm up exercises before a performance, a writer, too, must do silly writing exercises to be okay with making mistakes and imperfect prose. You get that out of your system, then you’re more likely to feel comfortable with the “actual” writing you want to do, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay, or anything else in between.
I’ve written several blog posts in the past about different forms of free writing you can do, often suggesting that depending on how “stuck” you feel, the longer you will want to free write. On a good day, I give myself only five minutes to free write before I sit down to work on a project, otherwise when I’m feeling a ton of resistance, my free writing can go from 10-20 minutes depending on how stuck I feel.
Here are the three types of journals I’ve written about before that you can potentially use for your own warm up writing exercise:
The Personal Journal – I cannot stress enough how important it is for people to start journaling because it helps you understand yourself tremendously when you pour your heart out onto the page about your true thoughts and feelings about your life. As of this blog post, journaling for an hour is my personal writing warm up exercise because 2021 was an eventful year for me and I’m still processing some of the things that happened in it for me.
The Free Fall Journal – One of the first things I learned in Creative Writing class was to free write for about 10-20 minutes about anything. And when I say anything, I mean anything. You can write lyrics, a loose outline of your novel’s next chapter, or you can even write a whole ton of gibberish, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re warming up your mind to get any sort of thoughts out onto the page and get your hands moving, that’s what’s important.
The Shadow Journal – For the really resistant writers, this kind of journal could help you contend with your own dark side. You know the one. Your ego. The thing that constantly tells you that you’re not good enough and that you shouldn’t even bother writing today, it’s a waste of time. Or it’s too hard, so why bother? Writing a Shadow Journal is a deep and intense discussion with your own dark side, arguing as to why you are capable of writing. Not just today, but in general. You give your inner critic a voice and listen to what it has to say, but then you squash it with counter arguments that restore your belief in yourself. If you so dare, of course. This type of journal is risky, so proceed with caution!
There’s also a variety of writing prompts you can do that are out there if you are looking to do something a little lighter than full out journal entries like I’ve suggested. Looking at this list now, I’m surprised how I haven’t even written about The Progress Journal, so make sure to follow the blog in order to get notified when that post gets published!
The bottom line is: warm up writing is like a singer doing vocal warm ups, and you can think of writing your actual project as showtime!
Speaking of which…
4. The Actual Writing
Now it’s time to do some actual writing!
Hoping that you’ve nourished your body and mind properly, and warmed up your writer’s mind, it is time to finally write what you’ve probably been thinking about writing for a long time.
If it’s a big project like a full length novel or movie script, which require a huge time and energy commitment, it is that much more important to have these pre-writing routines set in place so your body and mind can associate this sequence of actions to serve your ultimate purpose: creative self expression.
This purpose can often get stifled when we do not build healthy habits that integrate writing into the rest of our daily lives. Since writing a huge project can take so much time and energy, it’ll only be natural to not feel like it on certain days. For many people, myself included, it could be several days where we feel the resistance. But if you develop and stick to your routine, you can make it a lot easier for yourself to sit down and write when you know you need to.
This part is self explanatory so we won’t linger on it for too long.
You know what to do, just do it!
And then of course…
5. Reward Yourself
Last, but certainly not least, you should have a reward in place for all your writing troubles. I personally like to play some video games and produce music after a long and hard writing session.
Once again, whatever you choose is entirely up to you!
The idea is to have something to look forward to after each writing session, especially on the days in which the writing itself isn’t the thing you’re looking forward to doing. And understandably so because not only is writing difficult, so is the simple act of getting your self started. In fact, I would argue that getting started is actually way more difficult than the writing itself. If it wasn’t difficult, posts like this wouldn’t even exist to help people with a very common problem.
I will write more in the future about how you can reignite the flame that initially inspired you if it happens to be flickering out later in the project’s lifespan. But for now, give these tips a try and let me know how it goes!
For the uninitiated, fan fiction is when a writer takes characters, plots, and locations from already existing stories and writes their own spin on it. From Harry Potter to Twilight, writers across the world have repurposed these stories to their own liking, often reinterpreting the stories in a way that either expands on the lore, or changing up some concepts and plot threads to what they would have loved to see happen in the original story.
Writing fan fiction is a pretty common practice among writers and is often a springboard for writing their own original stories. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey actually started off as a Twilight fan fiction and later became its own original story, which could explain the similarities between the dysfunctional relationships of each story’s respective starring couples.
Now despite fan fiction being a common practice, there are other writers out there who look down upon it because writing fan fiction lacks originality and is considered “cheating.” If you’re one of those writers, you’re not alone, because I was one of them. If you’re a fan fiction writer, maybe this will be a nice refresher or an eye opener as to why what you’re doing is pretty valuable.
The Originality Trap
For a long period in my life, I was overly concerned with being original. I often thought to myself and explained away to others, “why do what everyone else is already doing? I want to stand out, otherwise how else would I ever get noticed?! I want to be original!”
Time and time again, I see a lot of writers and creators get too hung up on wanting to be original because they want to stand out, only to stifle their own creativity because they’re afraid of being a carbon copy of someone else. Having been in that state of mind myself, I can confidently say that this mindset is a surefire way to kill not only your own creativity, but your own confidence as a writer.
This goes for all creators, actually.
Being too concerned with originality could lead to trying too hard to be eccentric and weird to stand out, but then miss out on possibly adding any depth to your work. The harder you try to be original, the more difficult you might make it for others to even comprehend what you’re trying to convey.
This is not to knock on genuinely eccentric work that for whatever reason is difficult to comprehend, and trust me, complexity can be part of the fun in consuming an art piece. It satiates that part of our creative minds that like to think really hard and extrapolate meaning through concerted effort like a puzzle, then feel rewarded once you figured it out, or at the very least created your own interpretation of the piece.
However, I would argue that less is more when it comes to art. This is why a lot of the “simpler” things like pop music and popular fiction can easily be seen as reductive and good for the “uneducated masses.” There’s this huge contention with music where artists tend to start simplifying their music to appeal to wider audiences, and that is often seen as “selling out,” thus leading to people begroaning that “they’re not as good as they used to be.” And, “oh, they just want to make more money so they make whatever the radio stations will eat up like candy.”
In my opinion, this elitist way of thinking of art does a huge disservice not only to ones self, but also the artist themselves that these critics are trying to disparage. Because what if this simplification of their work is actually a byproduct of their genuine desire to change up their style and communicate their message in a clearer way without all the intellectual fluff? Whether consciously or unconsciously.
Again, not knocking genuinely complex and intellectual work. I’m not saying everything should be simplified so everyone can enjoy your work. What I am saying is if you aim to be original you might end up alienating an audience that may have otherwise loved your work regardless of its originality factor.
As consumers, most people don’t really care much for originality no matter how much they claim to. In actuality, people want to connect to a piece of music, a movie, or a book in a way that is personal and intimate for them. No matter how consciously one may claim to seek to be original and only want to consume original work, sometimes the simplest pieces of art become their go to loves for life when they can let go of all expectations and just surrender to what the piece has to offer.
The last thing I’ll say about the Originality Trap is to focus more on what you want to convey—even if it’s been done a thousand times before—in whatever way you feel natural to you. If you have something worthwhile to say, how you convey it won’t matter as much as you simply putting the effort to convey it at all. Any sense of originality and profundity will naturally emerge if you are earnest and honest in your expression, without trying too hard to impress your audience with attempts to seem original and unexpected.
Originality should be the natural byproduct of genuine expression, not a concerted effort.
Learning From the Masters
Originality Trap rant aside, now it’s time to talk about the beauty of fan fiction because it is something I learned how to embrace again recently.
From a consumer’s standpoint, fan fiction can help fans get a little more mileage out of their favourite stories when a fan fiction writer can fill some gaps and provide more closure for a story that may have officially ended long time ago by the original author. We grow so attached to certain characters, locations, and plot threads that maybe we’re not ready to let go just yet, and so fan fiction is usually a good way to extend that story a little more, kind of like how video games now feature mods and downloadable content that extend the lifetime of them.
From a writer’s standpoint, you could be doing yourself a ton of favours by Learning From the Masters. If you are so inspired by another writer’s work that you want to repurpose and re-contextualize your favourite characters in either familiar or new settings, then it’s an opportunity to not only understand their work better, but your own.
By taking existing characters and writing about them with the conscious, or even unconscious, decision to respect their way of being, you are understanding the nuances of character. If you can accurately write a character in a new situation where readers can say, “that is exactly what they would do/say!” Then you’ve done your job at truly understanding the character’s behaviours and growth from the original series, thus giving you a good insight on how to write your own characters down the line, which we’ll get to a little later.
Then of course, if you choose to build upon an existing plot thread from the story that either left you wanting more because of unresolved issues and unanswered questions, or you see the potential for more storytelling—then once again, doing so can teach you how to understand the importance of stakes in stories and the impact they have on audiences. Not to mention the characters themselves, of course.
Let’s take Cobra Kai, for instance, since I gushed about it in last week’s post about The Paragon of Potential. While this series is an official continuation of the Karate Kid series, the writers of Cobra Kai can easily be seen as fan fiction super fans of the series. Out of all the reboots and sequels in existence right now, in my opinion, Cobra Kai does it just right. There’s a few sprinkles of nostalgia here and there, but fundamentally, the writers have a deep understanding of all the characters and lore the original movie series contained, and so they are well equipped with expanding the universe with a huge new slew of karate students from all the different dojos.
Thirty years later, how would the rivalry between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso manifest? This is probably the question the writers asked their selves upon the story’s conception. And to think it might have been sparked by a joke video on YouTube about who the “real” villain of Karate Kid was.
It posits that while we were lead to believe that Daniel, the protagonist for the original Karate Kid Trilogy, was the hero of the series, the true hero of the first movie was Johnny Lawrence. He was an ex-degenerate who just wanted to do better for himself upon his senior year of high school, but Daniel’s presence threw a wrench in his plans by moving in on Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and beating him at a karate tournament he held dear to his heart, thus leading to his downfall in life that robbed him of all confidence and self esteem.
This video was made as a joke, but the points made were so valid that they were probably the catalyst for expanding on the Karate Kid series to the extent that Cobra Kai has done.
Now, likewise with whatever fan fiction you write, if you take in account all these important details about the behaviour of certain characters, the issues they have with each other, and the overall effect their relationships have on the people around them, you can end up writing fan fiction that can make readers feel as though your take is a God honest continuation as if the original creators wrote it themselves.
Or at the very least, you’ve had a ton of fun playing puppet master to your favourite characters and laid down the foundation for characterization which can later inform your own original work down the line.
Taking Creative Liberties
On the inverse, writing fan fiction can also mean Taking Creative Liberties with the property. Maybe certain characters who were never originally meant to be romantically involved can be, if you make it so! Actually, this is the most common thing fan fiction writers do. It’s calling “shipping” because you’re pairing two characters into a relationship that audiences may not have expected. The meme ship has long since sailed with shipping being the sole reason for fan fiction existing in the first place.
But memery aside, of course, you can take creative liberties in other ways such as putting familiar characters in fresh new situations they might not have otherwise been in in the original work they featured in. What would it be like for Harry Potter to get shackled to a boring office job in his adult life, long after his adventures in Hogwarts? What would it be like for the Ninja Turtles to upgrade their weaponry to include guns? What would it be like for—
You get the idea.
These are the kinds of open ended questions you can ask yourself when wanting to re-contextualize existing characters in unexpected settings and situations. By doing this, not only do you expand on your favourite story, but you also expand your own capacity for creativity and originality.
As mentioned before, Fifty Shades of Grey started off as a Twilight fan fiction, but obviously characters and concepts were changed drastically to remove the supernatural elements and replace them with more contemporary concepts, but still maintaining that dysfunctional relationship dynamic Edward and Bella had.
Fan fiction can start of as a blueprint for your own original work when you realize the characters you are writing are no longer the ones you’ve borrowed from an existing piece of work. Maybe then you can change their names, their roles, and traits and make them your own. Likewise with the new plots and locations you come up with in your fan fiction writing. If fan fiction isn’t an expansion of existing work, then they can definitely be used as springboards for original work.
In the best case scenario, they’re both!
And don’t worry…
It’s Not Stealing, It’s Borrowing
Almost all creativity starts with as an imitation of other existing works. That’s what they exist for: inspiration, not competition. Being too fixated on originality gives you the mindset that everybody else’s work out there is your competition, rather than your inspiration. It disgraces what you were originally inspired by because there’s a part of you that aspires to do something just as great as they did to create the impact on others in a way you were impacted by it.
And that’s what the real focus should be when it comes to creativity: impact.
Fan fiction can help you understand its importance whether you consume it or write it yourself. When a story affects you so much that you want to expand on it or write something similar, it’s a beautiful thing. It did its job. And as creators, this is something we must all embrace if we want to stand any chance at ever standing out above the crowd. Because it’s not about how original you can be with your ideas.
The originality will come from how you take existing ideas and repurpose them in the way that shows your own individual style and perception of them. The purpose of an artist is to open the eyes of their audience by hyper-focusing on certain details of life and the world that the audience may otherwise miss. It’s through art that you inspire others to expand on their perception, just as much as fan fiction can help you expand on your own perception of not only the work you’re borrowing from, but expanding on the perception of what you think makes for a good story.
Which in turn allows you to create that original story burning inside of you.
Do you read or write fan fiction?
How has fan fiction benefited you as an audience/creator?