We love it when the inspiration strikes and we’re in the flow. The thing is we hate all the crap that gets in the way. The work, the stuckness, the setbacks, the pain, and even trauma. Why can’t writing be easy all the time?
The thing is (and I’m sure you’ve heard this before) the ugly stuff is the grain of sand in the center of a pearl. The real insight and depth of your writing comes by taking the tough stuff ugly and giving it space, time, learning to become beautiful. While we’re in it, it’s painful, but when we witness it we see the significance. Without the grain of sand to irritate the nacre of the oyster, the pearl has nothing to cling to.
That’s why, Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” absolutely changed my life and became the center of my philosophy about writing. If Frankl can find meaning in the Holocaust, than obviously, I can do it with my own struggles. I can turn it into art.
Frankl believed that tension creates meaning, the tension between who you are now, and who you hope to be, the tension of striving and suffering. It makes perfect sense to me. Without stories, life is just a series of meaningless actions and events.
Over time I’ve begun to refer to this in my own mind as “Frankl’s Law” and the principles of storytelling perfectly demonstrate why that is. Building tension pulls the reader into the story and it creates connection. Tension is what leads us to enlightenment.
Why is that?
Tension creates greater and greater levels of imbalance in human situations that the mind of the reader hungers to resolve. However, it’s not in the resolution that we’re brought to our highest heights, but the moment of greatest tension, the climax.
In stories, as in life, moments of high tension make us more alert and alive. Tension focuses our attention, so that greater lessons are revealed. Of course in a story it’s easier to read the messages in an artfully crafted climax, than weather through the experience ourselves. It’s much harder to appreciate high tension in real life. The only trick that you must perform for your reader is to go deep into the mind and heart of the character and remain the objective witness at the same time.
As tension builds in your mind, the discomfort or imbalances pushes you toward new insight. It’s as if it forces you to find new meaning. Let’s look at one of Frankl’s examples, which is also one of the most quoted sections of the book. It’s generated from the tension between the degradation of life in a concentration camp and one man’s contemplation of love.
“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.’
“That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.’
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
Frankl’s words are such an exquisite example of pain breaking open. In fact, it’s tension that creates the meaning, “a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.” The tension he was under focused his attention so completely that a veil was lifted and the epiphany poured in. Tension increased until it broke into heightened clarity. There was nothing to be figured out but everything to be realized.
With writing, perhaps more than anything, we get frustrated when we don’t know what to say. That’s why we always travel with questions close at hand. Essentially tension is a longing for something to come into balance, a longing for a solution. Pure hunger. When you stay there, in that longing, the answers become more profound. Tension, discomfort, and uncertainty rise up, demanding an answer until at last we understand. Something is revealed.
The whole process becomes a little easier, when in the midst of all that tension we remember to open our minds and ask. We don’t receive the answer when we’re only grasping the problem.
In order to create space in the midst of tension, choose faith over frustration. Faith is really just the way to focus on the solution before the solution exists. Let your mind float around in what doesn’t yet exist, even if it seems really dark in there, and just have faith that clarity and light are on their way.