On (not) playing to your strengths

During week two at Clarion, I wrote a story that played to my strengths—one where the story was strengthened by being told from the viewpoint of a character who was almost affectless, so the story didn’t suffer from my limitations at showing a character’s feelings as he suffers.

As I observed at the time, this was probably a mistake:

The thing is, Clarion isn’t a time to stay within your limitations. It is a time to push beyond them. So, I’m a bit disappointed in myself. But only a bit: I didn’t do it on purpose; I was just trying to tell the best story I could. Now that I’ve thought about it, I’ll take more risks with the next one.

And I did. In fact, I’ve taken that particular risk with pretty much every story I’ve written since then. And with practice, I have gotten better at that aspect of storytelling and character development. In fact, I’ve used every story I’ve written since then to try to stretch my abilities, not just in that area, but in every other area where I know I have weaknesses.

That was probably a mistake too.

If you want to sell your stories, they need to be the best stories you can write. But for the past ten years, I have refrained from telling stories in a way that let me keep within my limitations, because I wanted to grow as a writer.

It was great practice. I’ve learned a lot. I’m a stronger fiction writer now. But I’m not quite sure how I fell into the notion that I needed to try to push beyond my limitations with every story I wrote.

Within the context of a workshop, sure. It would be a waste of the opportunity to workshop a story that I’d crafted such that it required only the tools I’d already mastered. But for other stories—for stories that I’m writing to sell—perhaps it wasn’t necessary to make such an effort to showcase my weaknesses.

Why it took me ten years to figure this out, I’m not sure. But I have finally, I hope, learned better. I’ll still try to stretch and grow as a writer. But at least some of the stories I write—for a little while, perhaps many of them—will be crafted to showcase my strengths.

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