Writing Specific And Unusual
I love mission statements. A friend of mine thinks they’re dreadfully boring, but I love them. The good ones. The ones that don’t drone about how they aim to support a bland X in their struggles to achieve a bland Y. The quirky ones that are specific enough that they tell you something real.
There’s a book by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher called “Learning To Love You More.” July made the independent film “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (Netflix it!). Fletcher is an artist who has worked on a variety of collaborative projects. Both work in multiple genres.
The book is a hard copy of material from their website, which presented ordinary people’s responses to unexpected prompts such as “Take a picture of your parents kissing,” “Make a flyer of your day,” “Interview someone who has experienced war” and “Make a constellation from someone’s freckles.”
On the first page of the book, Fletcher and July offer an introduction, but the language in it might just as well work as a mission statement. I’ll link segments here: “Sometimes it is a relief to be told what to do. We are two artists who are trying to come up with new ideas every day. But our most joyful and even profound experiences often come when we are following other people’s instructions … Sometimes it seems like the moment we let go of trying to be original, we actually feel something new — which was the whole point of being artists in the first place … We hope [this book] describes the complex world of ‘Learning To Love You More,’ and the frequently wild, sometimes hilarious, and quietly stunning creative lives of a few people living on Earth right now.”
When I worked with homeless teenagers, as I have written about before, the staff was driven by the organization’s mission to “[reach] out to homeless and disenfranchised youth of New York City, offering them respite from hunger, cold, loneliness and fear and the opportunity to reclaim for themselves a sense of dignity and self-worth.”
Every day, we took stock of whether and how we had met that goal. On Wednesdays, we spent the day challenging ourselves to clear the clutter in our own psyches so that we would be of greater use to our vulnerable clients. Our meetings happened in the context of the organization’s mission and kept us on track. As a result, the young people got their meals and donated clothes and time to relax while handled with deep respect.
Organizations have to come up with mission statements, but what if we wrote our own mission statements, proclamations that cemented what we believe in and seek to do? I plan to have my college students do this next semester. I want them, at their juncture from parental and K-12 control to autonomy, to think about what it is that they wish to dictate their actions. I will require unusual language. There will be no “Be kind and honest.” Each student must come up with a statement written in his own voice, her singular way of framing ideas and passions. I’ll let you know how it goes.
In workshop this past week, I asked participants to write mission statements. They were to finish the phrase “I want to be a writer who …” with whatever came to them in 10 minutes. The first piece below came from a participant who startled herself by even announcing that she wanted to be a writer. She comes to workshop regularly and has so far treated it strictly as a one-night jolt that engages her with her feelings and takes her out of her daily life. The second piece below came from a committed writer who said this passage was one of her favorites thus far.
No. 1: I want to be a writer who SURPRISES a reader by going to unexpected places, by introducing characters that fascinate and by maybe even telling the secrets the reader believed belonged only to them.
No. 2: I want to be a writer who writes. That’s the hardest part. There are plenty of people out there who can read your stuff and tell you what they think. There are editors galore. But they have to have something on the page in front of them to edit.
They can’t pry you open and see the characters and shades of characters slipping between your skin and your bone seeking a way out, hunting for the page. The characters wait behind my eyes and at the back of my tongue, remembering the big, cold porcelain tub their grandmother washed them in. Craving the foam on the surf. Always walking over the threshold into the cool green hallway.
Next week we will be examining character with a magnifying glass, looking closely at what makes up a human being.
*No part of these excerpts may be used without consent of the author of this column.