#2017WritingGoals: Writing with Exclamation Points Instead of Question Marks | #amwriting
In 2009, the film Man on Wire took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary (and this was then fictionalized in The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt). 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 documentary won the award, Petit was interviewed by NPR’s Weekend Edition host Scott Simon (02/28/2009), 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 read and/or 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.
Even when we practice writing with Exclamation Points, the Question Marks can resurface quickly. Back when I was still writing for publication regularly, I experienced this many times when negative reviews came in or series proposals were rejected by publishers, leading to thoughts like: Is 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?
Then, after four years of almost nonstop writing—when my writing turned into a “job,” something I was required to do to earn money instead of something I wanted to do because I was passionate about it—my last contact was canceled before the final book was written. And I quit writing. For almost four years, there were not only no exclamation points, there was no punctuation at all. 😉
When I did get back to the point at which I felt like I needed to start writing again, everything was a question mark. Can I do this? What if I don’t have any more stories left inside of me? What if the eleven books that are published are the only stories I’m ever going to have to tell? What if I’ve forgotten how to write a good story? What if I can’t write a good story again? What if I never actually wrote any good stories? Am I still any good at this? Am I too old to do this? Should I just give up?
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?
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