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Writer-Talk Tuesday—Writing with Exclamation Points instead of Question Marks

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In 2009, the film Man on Wire took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It’s a film about the high-wire walker Philippe Petit who walked a wire suspended between the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s. After the film won the award, Petit was interviewed by NPR’s Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, and there was one section of the interview that really resonated with me:

Simon: Can I get you to recall what that first step was like?

Petit: That moment, the slow-motion shifting of my weight, from the position where I have one weight anchored on the building and one weight—one foot touching the cable to turn the page from pedestrian and to open the page to life, to a short life as a bird, is of course for the wire-walker a point of no return. And for me, it was stepping into the live moment of living my dream after six-and-a-half years of dreaming my dream.

Simon: …What would have happened if you’d slipped?

Petit: That’s a very wrong question, because it doesn’t apply to me. I do not put myself in a state of question mark on the wire. Actually, the question mark, I transform it in[to] an exclamation point. And, again, when I say I’m writing in the sky, it’s not a beautiful image, it’s actually exactly what I’m doing. I have composed my text in my head, and I’m just now writing. I force my body to follow my will; and I will never put myself in a state of risk, only a state of ‘I hope the wire is strong enough; I hope I have enough training to do…to walk on that wire.’ And, at the same time, what I am sharing with you, this solidity, I am completely lying because here I am in the most fragile state and the most fragile universe there is. But this combination of extreme, the solidity in my heart and in my body, and the fragility of being a man on a wire, is actually the beauty of the miracle of wire-walking. So let’s not try to explain it further than that.

[The entire interview can be heard here.]

Petit’s statement about turning the question mark into an exclamation point struck me—especially since he reinforced it with the image of himself as a writer (and later in the interview as a poet). How many times when we sit down to write do we do it in a state of Question Mark instead of a mind set of Exclamation Point? For example:

      Can I do this?
      Am I really called to be a writer?
      What if my story isn’t good?
      What if no one likes my writing style?
      What if everything I write gets rejected?
      What if it’s never good enough?
      Am I following the rules?
      How am I ever going to get to 50,000 (100,000) words?

Sitting down to write in a state of Question Mark can paralyze us—we, like Petit, are at the point where we have one foot on the solid surface of “real world” (for him, the building) and “writing world” (the high wire). To be able to step out into that writing world, we have to turn those paralyzing questions into Exclamation Points:

      I can do this!
      I am called to be a writer!
      My story is good!
      I like my writing style!
      Rejection isn’t the end of the world!
      It’s good enough for me!
      I can worry about the rules later!
      All I have to write today is one page…one paragraph…one sentence…one word!

Self-doubt never led anyone into success. If you read/listen to interviews with successful people—whether they’re successful in business, the arts, raising their families, philanthropy, or whatever area of life in which they’ve applied themselves—you’re going to find out that though doubts may have surfaced, they didn’t listen to them, didn’t give them any ability to take a foothold in their lives.

If Petit stood at the wire thinking, What will happen if I slip?, he would never get that anchor foot off the solid ground. He doesn’t allow himself to think fatalistically—and yet at the same time, he recognizes the fragility of life. He’s not going out on the wire with a casual disregard for his own mortality. For him, it is the combination of the fragility of life and the solidity of the confidence he has generated in his own heart and mind as to his calling that allows him to pull that anchor foot off the building and onto the wire. To live life, as he said, for a short time as a bird in flight.

Yesterday, the Question Marks surfaced for me again. I learned that both of the contemporary romance series proposals I had out have been rejected. Perhaps not fatally—as they were both only with one publisher. But rejected nonetheless. And even as an author with (about to be) nine books out and three more under contract, that rejection is enough to turn the one or two Exclamation Points I had from signing a new contract to curl over into Question Marks again. Was it me? Do they not like me? Is it because my books don’t sell enough copies? What’s wrong with me that they don’t want to work with me anymore? Is it because after so few books, I’m already showing that I’m a hack and can’t come up with new/unique/interesting story ideas?

How quickly the “Yay, they like me! They like my stories so much they’re willing to give me money to write them!” turns into the negative self-talk, the self-doubt, the assurance that I’m washed up as a published author instead of someone who is still, very much, at the beginning of my career as a published author—convincing myself that it’s over.

So my goal for the rest of the week is to recognize the Question Marks and whenever one surfaces turn it into an Exclamation Point.

In closing, I’d like to share this quote from Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and founder of Guideposts:

Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.
~Norman Vincent Peale

What Question Marks are you dealing with in your life (writing, work, family, etc.)? How can you change them into Exclamation Points?

  1. Tuesday, September 20, 2011 8:21 am

    How much time do you have? 😉 Question marks are out there in EVERY aspect of life. I guess for me they’re centered around writing. Will anyone represent me? Will these two new stories garner any interest at ALL? How can anyone like ME when there are so many better writers out there?

    I could go on. But then when I remind myself that GOD is in control, not me, and not anybody else, I begin to turn those question marks into exclamation points.

    What a great post, Kaye. I needed that this morning!


    • Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:42 pm

      This is actually a revision of a post from two years ago—two months after Stand-In Groom came out. And the original was much more upbeat than this one. I found it going through the media library looking for the image of the typewriter—and I came across the photo of Philippe Petit and re-read the original post. It’s amazing to me how many more Question Marks I have now rather than Exclamation Points from where I was then!


  2. Jennifer permalink
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 10:13 am

    Kaye, what an inspiration you are to me today! This post couldnt have been more timely for me. I have been paralyzed with those questions for weeks. Choosing to find other things to fill my time with instead of write because of the questions. I was getting quite tired of myself. Your post has helped me to see that the questions are harmful. I will be printing off the questions you turned into exclamations and hanging it up. It’s brilliant. Thank you.


    • Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:43 pm

      I think we need to reserve the questions for when we’re in the revision process—but frame them in such a way that they’re constructive rather than destructive: Is this the best way to word this? Am I getting my point across? Can I make my characters stronger/deeper/more unique? and so on.


  3. Writingmama permalink
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 10:44 am

    I love this idea. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Carol permalink
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 11:02 am

    My question mark is around writing. It’s my life long dream, but I remain paralyzed by fear most of the time. So in the spirit of your article: I can do this! I like my story! All I have to do is write-no rules!


  5. Tuesday, September 20, 2011 11:25 am

    So sorry about the rejections, Kaye. I sure hope someone picks ups the series soon. 🙂

    Thanks for your words. I found them very encouraging and motivating–just what I needed.


    • Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:45 pm

      With the way the publishing paradigm is changing, by the time I’m finished with the new historical series and ready to turn my attention to writing contemporaries again, who knows what my options will be . . . but probably more than what I have even today!


  6. Lyndie Blevins permalink
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 12:20 pm

    What an encouraging post, Kaye! Thanks


  7. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 12:28 pm

    Lately my whole life feels like a question mark! My daily mantra is: Can I get through this day? LOL. I need to create some exclamation mark mantras. My writing has slid into non-exsistent this last month and I have to do something about that. Thanks for the inspiring and thought-provoking debate on question marks vs exclamation points.


    • Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:48 pm

      My writing—at least, on what I’m supposed to be writing because it’s now under contract—has been non-existent since I finished Turnabout’s Fair Play in mid-May. It’s been nice to have a break from the constant and grinding pressure of deadlines, but I really want to be able to take my time with revisions on the books in this series, not procrastinate myself into having to cram months’ worth of word count into a few weeks just to have something to turn in at deadline.


  8. Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:14 pm

    Magnificent post, Kaye!



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