Monday, February 8, 2010

Guest author Steven Barnes: You Are the Axe

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling novelist, life coach, television writer and blogger. You can learn more about his life, work, and teaching, or request a free coaching session at: His new THE HERO'S JOURNEY: Life Mastery in the 21st Century course for high-energy creative living is available at:

One of the hardest things to teach a new writer is that we are always our own primary audience. That sales or awards or anything else are entirely secondary to being honest to YOU.

Fine words. Lofty concept. The natural question to ask it: How do I do this and simultaneously build a career?

First, you must develop a set of theories about how human beings operate, what the world is, how we can best live together. What is love? What is worth dying for? How much freedom shall we sacrifice for security, or vice versa?

These questions have plagued philosophers, psychologists, and politicians for generations. I have my own answers to each of these. Some of them are clear, and solid. Others are more flexible and less dogmatic (my dabbling in politics is notoriously likely to be more philosophical than historical in basis.) But still, you must be prepared to defend your positions, because in essence, that is what a story is: a conversation setting out part of your beliefs about the structure of the universe and the nature of humanity.

An example: in my Outer Limits episode "A Stitch In Time" there is a moment when a woman has the opportunity to travel back in time and kill the man who raped her. Executives at the company wanted me to have her walk away, realizing that if she changed her own past in such a fashion, many other women would suffer. I stared at them, and said "It's easy for us to say that. We're all guys." And indeed, there wasn't a woman in the room. "Go home and ask your wives about that one."

I rarely push back hard against television and film folks (after all, they control the checkbook!), but this was a matter of principle. I've dealt with rape victims for decades, and I haven't met one who wouldn't move heaven and earth to go back and change that part of their past. This ties in intimately with my beliefs about the most basic motivations in the human spirit: survival, and a healthy sexual expression. We'll do almost anything to live without fear and dysfunction in these arenas.

Well, the next day those executives returned, looking pretty darned sheepish. To a woman, their wives had agreed with me. They shot it my way. The episode won an Emmy.

I knew what I believed, and what I stood for, and believed that any change in the script to match apparent "story needs" would be dishonest, demeaning, and damaging to the work. All that was required at that point was the courage of my convictions.

I tell my students often: "I'm not asking you to accept my values and beliefs. I want you to develop YOURS. To be prepared to die defending them, because ultimately that is what life is, a daily expression of your deepest values."

Abraham Lincoln supposedly said that if he had four hours to cut down a tree, he'd spend three and a half of them sharpening his axe. It is vital to remember that in the matter of your life, your career, YOU are the axe. Without an accurate perception of humanity, you cannot create characters who live and breathe. Without a constantly maturing and evolving philosophy of life, you cannot understand the interactions of plot and characterization that make good fiction. Without the ability to, in the words of samurai Musashi Miyamoto, "See those things that cannot be seen," you will never match the flow of poetic language and imagery to the subtext of your work. The best you will be able to do is imitate the work of better artists, and that, as a wine connoisseur once said, is as the second pressing of the grape.

The world needs artists. And if you go deeply enough into yourself, the specific transforms into the universal. And those who can touch us, give us perspective on our lives, help us understand the world as it is, not as we hallucinate it to be, will always find an audience. Your career will take care of itself if you first take care of YOUR self. Success belongs to those with the energy, courage and creative flow to grasp it. Begin with yourself.

You are the axe.

If you're interested in a completely free downloadable writing course, I'm offering one at Come on over!

Steven Barnes


Stefanie Worth said...

Steven -- Welcome to Novel Spaces! I've been subscribing to your Lifewriting emails for a good, long while, absorbing your vast and thought-provoking wisdom. As usual, this axe piece really hits home for me right now.

I know we all struggle with the story-of-your-heart vs. write what sells commands of publishing but I do find that stories that ring true to basic human nature seem to sell regardless of what's hot at the moment.

Thanks for sharing your insights here and elsewhere.

Liane Spicer said...

Thank you for being our guest, Steven, and for your insightful article. I spent hours reading your website, and I will be back to look at that free writing course.

Shauna Roberts said...

My thanks too, Steve, for visiting our blog. Like Stefanie, I get your Lifewriting emails and get a lot out of them. This post was especially great, with a lot of food for thought to chew on for a while.