Ep. 5 - SQaC 2 - Question
I bet you’re feeling pretty good about yourself, huh?
Last week, our focus on study proved to be a breeze and a half, and you’re feeling pretty peachy. “Oh, look at me, I naturally gravitated to consuming and creating what I want to do, look at me and my super unique self, ain’t I grand.” That’s you, ya stinker.
So far, you’re a fan. You’re just a fan.
Nothing wrong with being a fan, honestly, if that’s where you want to stay. If you’ve ever been to a sports event where you’re not entirely sure about the rules and the techniques or whatever, you’ve probably been very relieved to hear the voice of some announcer or fan loudly voicing their opinion on the direction of the game. Sometimes, a team or a player is doing something superhuman, and we wouldn’t even know it without the fans.
Because if you want to be something more than a fan, you’re going to start down a very dangerous path. Remember, there are three steps to practicing an art. Study, question, and commit. You can remember this with the helpful acronym SQaC. I put the a in there for and. It’ a very good and helpful acronym, SQaC.
Today, we’re going to talk about questioning.
Now, if you haven’t already studied, you shouldn’t be questioning. In fact, I’m almost afraid to talk about questioning for fear of some of you skipping ahead. That said, this podcast is about forging forward despite mistakes and flaws, about learning from failure and fatigue. So let’s do.
Study, as we’ve said, is mostly easy until it gets old. You’ll naturally consume and refine your palate when it comes to the things you love. But, if you’ll remember, I talked last episode about when fatigue sets in, about when the initial excitement in your commitment led to weary resignation. You’re a bodybuilder who’s getting smoller, not swoler! You’re married to Snape from Harry Potter and the relationship is work. See, if you skipped the study episode, you’re gonna be lost.
So you’ve hit a plateau. You’ve tried every practical practice and you’re no longer climbing.
I’ve hit a plateau with the book I’ve only semi-seriously named “Hollow” in all my documents. Hollow is a title, not the description. It’s also a very weird word. Hollow! Hollow to you too! I’m willing to stoop low for these puns. Just don’t ask hollow.
All the things that originally made me excited about the book have either been executed or outlined. What remains is work. The work is tiring and imperfect. Here’s an example.
In the beginning of the book, I opened on Turner, a boy brought up by a single mother. He and his community operate as sharecroppers for the local nobles: a man named Marcus and his three daughters, one of which is willing to give Turner the time of day. So Turner has a clear goal: get rich enough to buy his way out of sharecropping and marry this noble girl who is currently unobtainable. Turner actually goes to pray for this goal in a local place of worship, and is overheard by “Smoker,” who’s one of the other Sharecroppers. Now, unbeknownst to Turner and everyone else, Smoker has been plotting to destroy the local noble family and run away with everyone to a kind of magical shelter on the other side of the planet called the Hollow Fortress.
Smoker threatens to reveal Turner’s ambitions to both the nobles and the sharecroppers – both of whom would persecute Turner for his impossible dream – unless Turner helps Smoker steal something from Marcus and his daughters.
There are plenty of people out there who will tell you about story structure. They’ll tell you about it better than me. But basically, your character ought to want something, and that want, that desire, is the most important thing in your story, not for what the desire is, but for what it makes the character do.
You and I know this intuitively. I have a bunch of desires that make me tick. I want to make people happy. I want to shape the world into a smarter, better, kinder place. I want to do this through the medium of writing because it’s a medium in which I have skill and power, and I think that the excellence of one’s writing is almost more important than the message. I’m so cool.
That sounded kinda pathetic to you, didn’t it?
It sounds like Turner the dirt-poor-dirt-farmer having ambitions on a nobleman’s daughter. You and I probably question his ambition, but we understand it. In the same way, you, listener, probably heard my little speech about my desire and thought “That’s nice, good for you.” But take a second to think about your goals. Use “I want” statements. Say, for example, “I want to be strong.” Or say “I want to be rich.” Say “I want to support Author’s Dozen on Patreon, unlocking rewards like polls, bonus episodes, and even creative control!”
By the way, wow, how nice of you for saying that and supporting this free podcast and its free books.
Your goals are important. You set out to achieve goals because they will provide you with rewards. Worth, happiness, joy. See, it’s not that Turner’s quest for a noble bride is necessarily amazing; rather, what’s relatable to you and me is Turner’s idea that this goal will net him worth, happiness, and joy. Even though his methods might be questioned, the reasoning behind those methods is powerful and understandable. Worth, happiness, and joy… don’t we all want that, deep down? In fact, let’s come up with a name for those things. A shorthand for the Unquestionably Good Things in life. Let’s call them “Unquestionable Good,” or “UG,” for short. UG is what we all need. All of our wants, desires, and goals are just means of getting to UG.
It’s actually really important to question someone’s wants and desires. Every single person you’ve ever met wants Unquestionable Good. I’m serious. The worst person you ever met wants UG. Stalin and Mao, Hitler and Mussolini: they all wanted that abstract feeling of wholeness and perfection that is the Unquestionable Good. However, all of them, and every other villain, thinks that they can get the Unquestionable Good for some by denying it to others. Stealing. Killing. Oppressing. It makes my stomach turn to say it, but every villain and hero wants the same thing, in the end. The difference is that the hero wants the UG by means of good. The villain, by means of evil.
The character of Turner wants a goal that is neither strictly evil nor strictly good. Turner wants UG by means of marrying this girl. But in my book, his path to UG gets seriously complicated a few pages in. Every path Turner uses to get to UG are going to lead to difficulty, trial, and drama. Without those paths; without want, need, and desire, Turner has no character, and we have no story.
But if Turner just kept trying and trying to reach UG by means of an Unquestioned Goal – like the goal to marry this girl – he wouldn’t be interesting in the slightest.
Unquestioned Goal, UG, Unquestionable Good, UG. Okay, we can’t use UG anymore because it’s confusing Unquestioned Goals with Unquestionable Good. And if those things are confused, we’ll never SQaC properly.
Unquestioned, Unquestionable. We’re back to Question: the Q which is a part of the very memorable and very good acronym SQaC.
While you’ll never reach the limits of what study can teach you, but you will see diminishing returns. There’s only so much our bodybuilder can bench. There’s only so much Snape-patience in our Snape-lover’s heart. As finite beings, we have limits on our mind and body and soul. And you’ll find that every single path you take toward the Unquestionable Good will fall short. You may touch joy during the study phase. You may have a temporary sense of worth and happiness. And that’s why you can’t just stop pursuing your goal. You get UG sometimes, but even if you keep doing maintenance on your goal, you’ll see less and less UG.
Like I said, lucky you. Because now you get to question your Unquestioned Goal that you’re using to get to your Unquestionable Good.
See, if your method of getting joy isn’t getting you joy, you have to question it. That question is what makes you special. It’s what makes you a human being.
Have you ever seen the Terminator films? If not, let me explain. In the Terminator franchise, a Terminator is a muscly robot sent to assassinate a person. What makes the Terminator scary is that it will do anything to accomplish this goal. To quote the movie:
That Terminator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop... ever, until you are dead!
A robot can accomplish a goal really well, but it can’t question that goal. If Turner was a wife-getting robot, he’d just keep trying and trying no matter the cost. That’s not a human being. That’s a force of nature. It’s confused Unquestioned Goals with Unquestionable Good so much that it’s actually not even concerned with reaching goodness anymore.
You, listener, are not a force of nature. You have limitations. Even if you have a will like a Terminator, even if you’ll do anything, anything to accomplish your goal, this world is one where things break and die and whatever you pursue will eventually turn to dust.
So, spoiler alert. That girl Turner wants to marry? Unbeknownst to everyone but Smoker, that girl and her sisters are already dead before the book even starts. Even worse, Smoker dies soon after, so Turner can’t even devote himself to vengeance.
Turner is going to have to find a new way to get his Unquestionable Good. He’s going to have to question.
His original goal was flawed. He’s going to be forced into new methods of reaching Unquestionable Good.
Now, does questioning mean you ought to give up the thing that you studied? Usually not.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that a certain velvet-voiced podcaster originally started reading so that he could get that dopamine hit of consuming a well-told story. Let’s say that this guy went down our natural study route: he naturally loved reading, then naturally loved writing, then naturally loved the idea of being an author who’s cool and important and well-liked and who has tons of money and free time and everyone loves his work and gives this totally hypothetical author all the love and worth and joy and peace that he could ever want, forever.
Hold on. Question that.
Can this author really get the Unquestionable Good via his Unquestioned Goal? Maybe a tiny bit, at great cost. See, after all that work and sweat and tears, after all that compromise of vision and destruction of self in order to gain the love and respect of others, this author might get rich, get awards, get love. But those rewards came at great cost. The author is rich, but because he sold out. The author gets awards, but he knows that even if people honor him as a writer, they don’t honor the other parts of him. The author gets love, but the people love his false self: the self he designed for people to love, not the self that he feels inside. And all these rewards fade in time, leaving him worse off than before.
Does that mean giving up the thing this writer studied? No. He just got off-track. He took on the wrong motives. But then he questioned those motives and tried a different way to achieve the Unquestionable Good.
Questioning can even turn what you studied for evil into a force for good. A member of America’s alt-right could question and then reject his racist beliefs. All of this person’s hatred led to zero happiness, even in his fleeting feeling of superiority. But that study is not wasted. The study that this person put into the alt-right would still be valuable, because he could use that knowledge to fight the alt-right and racism in general.
If you’ve run up against a wall, lucky you. If you’re seeing diminishing returns, lucky you. You’ll be forced to ask questions. Is this best? Is this nice? Is this even going to get me what I want, and is what I want even good to begin with?
If you’re not lucky, if you’re not met with failure, if you’re absolutely sure that your motives are absolutely good, if you’re positive that you will gain nothing but Unquestionable Good from your goal; even then, you must question. If your goal is, in fact, nothing but Unquestionable Good, than it will be Unquestionable. It will stand up to any reasonable criticism or doubt, from you or anyone else.
For instance, I literally cannot stop writing. Help. I am so certain that writing is fun for me that I have written this podcast episode of two thousand and some odd words and paid to put it on the internet and I still haven’t done my dishes or gone to Switzerland or any of the other things I really ought to be doing because I cannot help but write. It doesn’t matter if this is good or best because I am a writing Terminator, and I hope somebody reprograms me in Terminator 2 so that I can be the good guy.
This episode was a little bit tougher than the last. Hang on to your big bouncy butts. We’re only halfway through our SQaC. UG.