The Joy of Exploring Your Writing Territory

Black peppermill like machine with sliders around the body and a crank on top
The first hand-held calculator was invented “after hours” in Buchenwald concentration camp by Curt Herzstark. If creativity kept him going there, what’s my excuse? Image: Arithmeum, Bonn.

I’ve been reading Susan Kaye Quinn‘s Indie Author Survival Guide (Second Edition) Crafting a Self-Publishing Career Book 1). In spite of the title, the book covers topics that are also interesting to traditional novelists. All writers struggle with figuring out a target audience, creative freedom, and how to keep from “stopping too soon.”

Susan Kaye Quinn highlights an especially intriguing idea about how to escape comparisonitis from Steven Pressfield:

There are many nuggets of inspiration in War of Art by Steven Pressfield (I highly recommend it), but I’m going to highlight the section where Pressfield describes dealing with writerly competition in Territory vs. Hierarchy (I’m paraphrasing):

We (as humans and writers) define our place in the world either by Hierarchy (a social pecking order) or by Territory (a turf or domain). For the artist/writer, Hierarchy is that destructive urge to compete against others, to evaluate our success by our rank within the hierarchy of writers, and to write based on the effect it produces on the hierarchy. Pressfield insists the writer must operate territorially: to do work for its own sake, inwardly focused. Territorial work provides sustenance—the writer puts work in and receives back well-being; similarly the territory of our creations can only be claimed by the work we put into it. The artist who commands their domain is satisfied by the creation itself; the work is its own reward.

This goes beyond the “work is its own reward” trope. Staying focused on working territorially keeps the debilitating effects of hierarchical thinking from beating you down.

The Arithmeum museum in Bonn has the world’s largest collection of “calculating machines” which honestly sounded a bit boring until I went on a tour there last week. Inventing a machine that could carry over to the next place (from 9 to 10 or from 999 to 1,000) is a work of the imagination.

Our mathematician and tour guide demonstrated a beautiful, grandfather clock-like calculator whose inventor, Poleni. It made a lovely ratcheting sound while it added up numbers. Unfortunately, Poleni committed suicide after a contemporary’s calculator achieved the next coveted milestone.

This second calculator apparently didn’t work reliably but was a great prestige object for the Viennese Emperor. Even in mathematics, there are many milestones and many ways to solve the same problem. To me, Poleni’s story looks like a classic case of stopping too soon.

Fiction has easily as much inventive territory to explore. We’ll never get through the possibilities of plot, narration, characterization, dialogue, structure, imagery, language, rhythm, or metaphor in our lifetimes.

There’s so much to discover. Let’s encourage each other to keep on keeping on.

Happy Writing!

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Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include "Stretchy the Leech" and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She's famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she's not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She's still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! :) Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in _Windhover_. Photo: © Jane Joo Park, 2017.

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