According to those in the know, there are only so many stories in the world. Apparently, if you distill the stories of the Bible, of Shakespeare, and of the world’s indigenous people to each story’s key message, you’ll discover a remarkable similarity in spite of the stories coming from different cultures, different beliefs, different languages, different geographies.
Perhaps it’s not surprising there’s such similarity across stories: there’s a universality to them. We can recognize ourselves in them because they are about us, humankind, the human tribe with our human nature and human relationships, behaviours and our attempts to interpret our world and the situations we find ourselves in. Our stories help to make meaning, help us understand the world around us. Being human connects us. At our core, we all do some of the same things, have many of the same wishes, concerns, obstacles, hopes and dreams.
That’s not to say there aren’t 7.2 billion different ways to tell those stories, because there are. Writers and tellers of stories are often astute observers of human nature, if only just their own, and are compelled to tell these stories, to share them and find ways to deliver the same stories in new and interesting and powerful ways.
We all know the stories. They’re universal, after all. They tell our stories. We look for them, identify with them: human vs something or another; good vs. evil; love and hate; find love, lose love, find it again; sacrifice; escape from what you’re born into/overcoming the odds; change, journey, transformation, discovery, salvation, transcendence; dangers of technology; fighting/tricking the gods; shapeshifting/disguise; ordinary people doing ordinary things, heroically.
So knowing that, why is it so hard to figure out what to write about? Why is it that some days, brain freeze sets in? For me, it’s a certain predisposition to overthink it all. When that happens, when I fuss over what to write, that’s the signal: I’m lost. I’m not writing to my strengths because I’m forcing it. I make fake connections. I draw wrong conclusions. The piece doesn’t flow. I get stuck.
When getting stuck happens, aversion therapy works: I avoid asking the question, what to write about? Instead, I get curious: what’s happening? What or who is standing out? What’s distinctive? What or who is under the radar? What, if anything does it connect to and how? Generally, people are nosey: they want to know what’s happening. It works for me.
There are other approaches. Here’s what Hemingway has to say: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
I’m lukewarm on Hemingway truth be told, but when stuck won’t get unstuck, that’s not a bad piece of advice. You can define a hurt in many ways. The magic is how to write about hurt in a way people can connect with; once you’ve decided what to say about hurt that people will want to read. Failing that, you could work to discover a new, universal human story that needs to be shared with the world.