A couple of days ago, I got stuck on my current fiction project and went out for a walk to think about what I needed to do next. In the dark I whipped out my phone and started brainstorming, babbling about the nearest thing to hand when nothing particularly relevant to the story came to mind.
I ended up talking for an hour about what I call Capital-S Story. (You can find the videos here.)
I have a lot of these little made-up terms around stories; whenever I don’t know how to describe some technique or part of the process of storytelling, I’ll make up a term as a placeholder. Sometimes they stick.
This one, Capital-S Story, is sort of the Zen enlightenment of storytelling. Some writers have internalized enough of the techniques of storytelling that the process takes on an internal life of its own; everything that happens in your life integrates into the stories you tell, and the stories you tell affect your life. You become a consummate storyteller—maybe not a perfect storyteller, but someone that other people can’t imagine as not a storyteller. I talked about what that feels like in the videos and I don’t want to repeat myself too much here, so I’ll leave it at that.
In the middle of one of the videos, though, I talked about something that I didn’t explain at the time.
I was on a roll and didn’t even notice that I’d used another made-up term and didn’t explain it: “giving yourself over.”
Giving yourself over is a choice that you have to make if you’re going to become a consummate storyteller, or a consummate anything, really. What other people think of as a “natural.”
One of the things I set out to do in my thirties, after I had Ray and decided to start writing again, was swear to myself that whenever I had the chance to learn how to learn, I would pursue it. A lot of people pursue learning throughout their lives. And that’s great! But I noticed that I was often my own worst enemy when it came to learning. I didn’t know why. I just knew that I’d start learning something, then stop. I decided to find some workarounds for that, to learn how to learn.—And, slowly, I became a consummate learner.
I still have ADHD; I still start learning things and then stop, usually when I have learned enough to satisfy me for the time being. While I have interest in something, I can learn the unholy shit out of it. My sweet spot in learning is getting just good enough at something to add it to my “jack of all trades” toolbox, so I can use it as a writer and a hobbyist. Not everything has to consume me the way storytelling does.
I don’t have to give myself over to everything that catches my interest, as a learner.
There’s a difference between learning something and giving yourself over to it. A writer friend of mine who is becoming a consummate writer says she “Serves Story” and I love that. It feels right.
Here’s what I know about “giving yourself over,” where it’s different than learning.—Not that the techniques don’t cross over. And of course in the real world the order you do things is fuzzy.
First you have to learn a thing. When people talk about “you have to learn the rules before you can break them,” when they talk about “learning the basics,” they’re talking about learning using the normal sorts of techniques: practice, repetition, theory, understanding, experimentation. In learning, you never stop using those techniques. Good stuff.
After you learn what there is to know about a thing, you start studying people instead of rules. Someone told me once that in martial arts, first you study kata and moves; then, when you become a black belt, the real work of learning martial arts begins as you study other black belts. I still really like that.
But it’s not the end of a process of mastery, either.
At some point, studying the masters of whatever it is you’re learning isn’t enough. It can’t take you any further. You will still study the masters, more than ever, because you’re always learning new things and integrating them.
But eventually you get to a point where you’ve learned the rules and you’ve learned how to break them.
Stuff gets weird.
At some level, the thing that holds people back in the learning process is themselves. That’s pretty obvious, right? I think a lot of people have experienced the insight that they’re their own worst enemies. They see it happen again and again. They don’t know why, necessarily, but they run up against the limitation of self-sabotage no matter how hard they try to fight it.
“Why do I constantly self-sabotage?”
I don’t know martial arts, but I suspect there’s a level of mastery where you begin to savor losing. Not just coming up against a master stronger than you are, not just the pleasurable anticipation of learning something new, but the process of losing itself. I bet it warms the real masters down at the bottoms of their gristled, shrunken, battered little hearts to get thrown, now and then.
Being wrong. It hurts.
We fight change; a lot of the Great Stories are about, or include subplots about, how people would rather die than be wrong. (Javert from Les Misérables, for example.) Cognitive dissonance. Existential threat. Realizing that you’re not the center of the universe, that other people have valid internal lives just as valid as yours. Death. Pain. Humble pie. Eating crow. Social embarrassment. Losing an argument.
We self-sabotage because it hurts not to. It keeps us from having to face the fact that we’re wrong.
At some point, though, you get good enough at a thing that the only way forward is to stop self-sabotaging.
You have to unlearn what you once knew in order to learn some thing new. You have to be wrong in order to better be right.
But giving yourself over goes past that.
To unlearn, not just so you can learn a better way of doing things—although there is that, too—but because it’s easier to move through the learning process without having to know what you’re doing or defining who you are.
“Giving yourself over” is when you release self-control over to the process you’re following. The thing you’re trying to do “wins,” and you “lose.” You serve something bigger than yourself, not as a servant serves, but as a—a channel, maybe?
On some level, you sacrifice your current sense of self to the process.
“I am a writer.” “I am a good writer.” “I am a better writer than X.” “I know how to write.” “I’m a good person (or a bad one).” “I stick to my values.” “I make my own choices.” “I know who I am.”
There’s a line from an old version of Little Red Riding Hood, one where there is no hunter and she gets eaten:
“Take it off and throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”
Becoming a consummate artist means being consumed, even more, volunteering to be consumed.
Throw your ego on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.
It doesn’t have to be an art that you give yourself over to; anything will do. I’ve known a couple of people who gave themselves over to the Christian God and it gave them genuine grace; another guy who gave himself to Buddhism; an aunt of mine who gave herself over to Family (Aunt Margie); other people to a wide variety of professions, ideals or ideas, moral codes. I’ve seen some weird ones but they all work. You’ll see a sense of service; they’re the people who spring to mind when you think of someone having a genuine, non-ego-driven calling in life. They have flaws and often don’t bother to hide them, even calling them out for your attention. They still seem consumed by doubt, even to the point of literally or figuratively stumbling over their own feet, but catch them suddenly and they’ll act with confidence (even while saying they’re not sure about what they’re doing). The ones I know have all gotten REALLY cranky at times. Nobody, but nobody, gets hangry like a consummate whatever. Competitive, although delighted to lose or be shown up in some way. Weirdly vain, too; they don’t mind looking like stereotypes but will set you on fire if you call them the wrong one. (I once steamed for weeks over being called a “normie.”) Petty. Sarcastic. Rude. Ironically egotistical. Greedy. Scheming, but often in a way that’s bluntly obvious and more there to make you laugh than anything else—they have a two-year-old’s sense of scheming. They tend to be fucking brats! The first to laugh, whether it’s at you or themselves. And they’re generous and kind, even if that generosity and kindness doesn’t come to the front easily in some—it operates behind the scenes, something you only find out later. They wear socially acceptable masks in public, but they aren’t attached to them; they wear their identities with a wink.
I’m not there yet. Getting there. But not there.
The things we think of as our selves really aren’t. We are bigger than we know, even if we don’t always have the sense of it. We don’t have to hang on so hard to who we are; who we are will take care of itself, when we’re not fighting it.
To give ourselves over, most of us have to dedicate ourselves to something that’s important to us, for a long time, exploring it in every way we can invent and discover. We have to master, or intuit, everything that it’s possible to know. We have to try hard, so hard that it’s not possible to try any harder (this part is important). And then we have to reach a point where the only way forward is give up in a way that continues action, so exhausted that we don’t know our own names but still are on our feet. We slide effortlessly through cracks we didn’t know were there; we discover an ability to throw ourselves at the ground and miss. We float.
And even that’s not the end of it. Continuing to move forward means more dedication, more exploration, more mastery. And more points where we have to give up, again and again, until (I suppose?) it’s just your normal resting state.
The process feels like losing; it feels like having parts of you get taken away, and that soon there will be nothing left. It’s terrifying; it feels like dying. Like being lost and abandoned and weak.
And yet the people who do this don’t seem small, or dead, or incompetent.—I see them; I see the people in the middle of this; I see myself. I feel like the embodiment of failure most days.
But then I also am coming to enjoy being wrong.