I wrote this post for my July monthly She Writes column. Have you ever heard the term AFOG? If you’re interested in creative writing and personal growth read on!
Recently one of my students, an attorney who represents death row inmates, responded to a comment I’d made in class about his writing: “Oh, I see,” he said, biting his lip and scratching his head. “This is an AFOG!”
“A what?” I asked.
“An AFOG,” he repeated. “Another fucking opportunity for growth!”
Everybody laughed. We all understood the agony and the ecstasy of this truth—for the characters in our stories, and also for ourselves in our own lives. Most of us would like our lives to flow smoothly. We’d like not to experience pain, or discomfort. We’d like to glide through life with as little heartbreak or drama as possible. We’d like to encounter few obstacles, and get what we want when we want it. But life, as you know, doesn’t quite work that way—and neither do stories.
What differentiates a story from a sketch is that something happens in a story. There’s movement of one kind or another, a shift. It can be subtle. It can be quiet. But something or someone has to change or be transformed by the events in your tale in order for you to have a story. If you don’t put your characters into risky or dangerous situations, or if they don’t experience challenges, then they won’t get the opportunityto grow or change. And that’s what readers want to see. This shift is the reason your story exists. Without it the reader ends up thinking, What’s the point?
We look for ourselves in the stories we read—perhaps not consciously. The people we read about don’t need to face the same struggles we do, but they need to be challenged, as we are. Fiction writers understand this, but the same principle applies to memoir, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting. No trouble means no drama, and no drama means that you, the writer, have a problem—which of course is an opportunity! The Chinese character for “challenge” is the same as the one for “opportunity.” What our characters do with their problems, how they respond to their challenges, is where the power of your story lies.
Likewise, how we respond to the challenges in our lives, as writers and as human beings, determines the direction and quality of our experiences. We are always creating, with our thoughts, actions, and emotions, as well as with our computers and our felt-tip pens.
We cannot know all the ways we are capable of growing until things happen—until we’ve been plunged into our own boiling water, until we’ve navigated though our own hell. It’s only once we’ve made it safely to the other side of our obstacles that we often have the wherewithal to see the opportunity for growth within the tough experience we’ve just weathered. We are not taught in this culture to welcome hardship, but it would be wise to cultivate this attitude, to develop patience and compassion, and take an honest look at our habits and thoughts, in order to make ourselves more available for growth.
This perspective is valuable for anyone to keep in mind, but it’s especially important for writers. With the number of roadblocks, potholes, and red flags in a writer’s life, it’s essential for writers not only to accept, but also to embrace challenges. The way to do this is to welcome them. Consider the outrageous possibility that nothing “bad” is happening—even if it looks and feels that way. Resist the temptation to judge your experience. Try looking for the blessings in your situation. You will be strengthened to the extent that you are able to suspend your judgment and sit with what is. This can be difficult to do, but it’s a worthy and beneficial practice. The more you resist challenges, the larger they loom. Have faith. Nothing stands still. Time marches on. You—and your characters—will get through your “opportunities for growth.” Neither of you will have to live in “a fog” forever. One way or another, stories get resolved. Be patient. Be kind. Be grateful. Love yourself—more than you think you can—and your AFOG will turn into an AMOG—another miraculous opportunity for growth!