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Sunday, September 16, 2007

 

Writing and the Purple Cow


What is a purple cow and how do we find one?

Seth Godin writes:

When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was.

Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring.

Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring.

A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.
(For a while.)

-- excerpt from Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin


Seth was talking about marketing your business or product, but I found his words incredibly wise, or “sage” (as Sue likes to say, ;-) ). If you see something too often, it’s not going to appeal to you. Your eyes will glaze over and you’re on to the next thing. This is particularly true in this day and age. But it wasn’t before.

Think of writing, and what we all call “the classics”. Those were amazing pieces weren’t they? Perhaps. But why? Maybe because they were the first ones to unleash those concepts or ideas on the world. The same thing can be said with art. Every artist has heard the saying, “It’s all been done.”

As time goes by and we advance in technology, a scary thought is that someday everything will be done. What would happen then? A hive-like mentality? All for the greater good? No means of expression? I shudder to think about that future.

Seth was talking about how the old advertising standards simply don’t apply anymore, but the quest for the purple cow can be anything. It can even apply to your blog or your writing.

As I let this concept sink in, I thought about our quarterly flash fiction contests. If you’ve never been on the opposite end of a prompt-based contest (most people haven’t—even editors in the industry for years!) then you’d find out something extremely curious: people write about the same things.

I would say that our prompts are fairly loose, and give room for interpretation, but you’d be surprised at the outcome. Writers choose the same plot twists, the same surprise guest, and even the same characters!

For instance, take our Fall, Winter, and Spring contests—the ones where I was actively judging—did you know that in those contests George Clooney was a bigamist? It’s the weirdest thing, but that quote came from one of our guest judges, who blindly judged entries. I laughed when she wrote that to me in an email, but the thought had already occurred to me. Believe me, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that at all, I just think it's strange how many wrote about the same celebrity!

Each contest we’d have more than five women feature George Clooney in their story. He’s a hunk for sure, but oddly enough, there were no other mentions of celebrities, except for maybe one Brad Pitt reference, but no main characters of other celebrities were incorporated. Now, I haven’t a clue what this means, and the stories were completely different... but it still seems odd!

Are we all interconnected in some way? Like when you think of a friend and then later on that day the phone rings? Or is it much greater? Are we moving closer to that ‘hive-like mentality’ that completely petrifies the artist in me?

Besides simply mentioning Mr. Clooney (just an odd coincidence), there were many other similarities in story: same structure, same ailments, similar dialogue, beginnings, endings. Of course, our guest judges did a fabulous job of picking the winners, and the variety of stories were great, but did those elements play a hand in their decision? I honestly don't know.

Perhaps on a more universal level, we’re getting to the point where everything in fiction has been done before. Where story arcs have come down to a few set methods and we have to choose one of those if we want to sell a book.

Whatever it is, let’s make a pact to keep striving for that purple cow.

But how do we do that?

This is what I truly believe:

  • We are all like snowflakes, each one of us is unique.
  • There is no single person out there on the planet that can tell your story the way you can.
  • No one else has experienced your true-life stories.
  • You have something special to tell the world.
  • You have your perspective.
  • Your personal story is, in essence, your purple cow.


Now, I want to know:

-- Do you think there are only a few set story arcs to fiction? And does this bother you?

-- How do you feel about sharing your true-life experiences? What are your reservations?

-- Have you ever found your purple cow?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Sue said...

Positively Purple, Angela. Great Post! You bring up so many insightful points. I'll answer your questions.

1. I'd bet the classic story arcs are set deep into our subconscious minds, and we probably carry a collective set of story arcs from various sources, not only books but great films as well. This doesn't bother me a bit. Writers can still continue to create alluring works.

2. Sharing most true-life experiences is fairly simple, but not all. For many, we need pseudonyms to be true to certain stories and yet spare ourselves, family, peers, or whoever would be affected most by the fallout.

3. I'm still searching for my purple cow! At least I'll know it when I see it! (I hope.)

8:10 AM  
Anonymous julia ward said...

What a thought provoking post! I would suggest that we all are exposed to varying degrees the same language and filters which society expects us to use to connect us together. We all see the same boring cow - but some of us internalize the experience into the magic of a Betsy Buttercup guarding that nuclear giant beanstalk and Monet had bad vision and painted the most beautiful garden.

I dare say it requires a fearless and courageous spirit to write, or draw OUR cow, OUR garden, OUR life.

Isn't the real question - "How willing are we to journey into ourselves and speak boldly of our own voice?"

blessings,
julia
www.ablindingheart.com
tips and resources for writers

4:20 PM  

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