Most of you know the story of Scheherazade, the framing device for 1001 Arabian Nights. For those of you that don't, Scheherazade has the misfortune of being forced to marry a sultan with a penchant for killing his wives on the wedding night. She devises a plan to save herself—she'll tell stories every night, so compelling that when the sun rises, her husband will allow her to live another day so he can hear how the story ends. Needless to say, the name Scheherazade has become a compliment to storytellers everywhere. Face it, if you were writing for your life, you might be amazed by what you'd come up with.
Lying awake in bed last night, I thought about Scheherazade, and realized that all writers are in the same situation. If you write for a living you are, in a very real sense, writing for your life. Maybe you won't be decapitated come sunrise, but you certainly could go hungry if your work doesn't sell. And that leads me to an interesting question—if you have one night left on earth, do you tell the story you think the executioner wants to hear, or the one you want to tell?
If the Sultan hadn't been so taken with Scheherazade's tale, it would've been "off with her head" the next morning. So you might think telling the tale he'd want to hear is the way to go. Give the man what he wants—action, explosions, pretty girls and a cliffhanger—and maybe he'll let you live. Then again, if she hadn't been passionate about her story, and had strung together a bunch of familiar clichés, the Sultan might have found it dull. Or, maybe he's not much of a story guy at all. He'd rather play video games and plan his next wedding so, great story or not, you'd be dead and forgotten by dawn.
So, you probably see it now. The Sultan is none other than you, dear Readers, in all of your magic-carpet-riding, palace-dwelling glory. Every day, you demand more entertainment, and the viziers—the publishing and entertainment companies—trot another eligible young writer (or actor or movie director or tv show or video game) into your room. And the stories begin. If you like them, we keep telling them in hopes of publishing another book, producing another show. If you hate them, the viziers drag us away, never to be seen again. It's easy to see why there are so many vampire books in the world. If you were next on the chopping block and heard someone had lived through the night by telling a vampire story, you might think it's a good idea to tell one, too. Then again, who knows what this Sultan wants? All the algorithms and soothsayers in the world can't guess what will win the Readers' hearts and minds. Yesterday's hit can just as easily be tomorrow's cliché. So, if you can't please them, why not please yourself?
A few years ago, I had the great fortune to hear Susan Cooper speak at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators event in New York City. As the author of The Dark Is Rising series (a personal favorite of mine) and many other fantastic books, she had much to say about her own work and the life of a writer. But that resonated the most with me was her advice to write what is in your heart. Listen to your own story, she said, and don't let it be drowned out by the sounds of the marketplace.
The sounds of the marketplace. I thought about getting that tattooed on my arm where I could read it whenever I was struggling against an editor's notes, or my own desire to take the easy route. Whenever the bills started piling up and I wondered if I would ever be the next big thing with books in a dozen languages and movie adaptations left and right…whenever I began to think of money as motivation for my creativity, I could just roll up my sleeve and read Susan Cooper's words. Then, since my sleeves would already be up, I'd get back to work doing what I do best—telling my stories my way. After all, if you really love storytelling, don't you want to tell the one that sets your heart racing, the one that brings a tear to your eye and excites you? The story that makes you feel the most alive?
Unfortunately, I've been timid about the tattoo. But the advice has left a much deeper mark on my psyche than any ink work could, and I think of it it whenever I feel I'm losing my way. So, when I lay awake last night wondering where Scheherazade pulled her stories from, how she knew she had a hit on her hands, I decided it she must have been following similar advice. I think Scheherazade wasn't telling just her stories to the Sultan after all. Like reading a favorite book before going to bed, she was simply entertaining herself on the last night of her life. The fact that the Sultan was also entertained, and she had 365 "last nights" was a happy by product. Kind of like winning a book award or ending up on a bestsellers' list. You can hope for it, but you can plan on it.
At least, that's how I see it. What about you?