I don’t want to completely minimize "How". How is important. How is craft, and craft is essential. You have to learn the rules before you can break them, and nothing replaces years of study and trial and error. But if you’re anything like me, no amount of study will ever be enough, and the How will scare you off so badly that you’ll pack up a great "What" and go home. And that’s the worst thing you can do.
An inspiration I didn’t know I needed was Charles Portis. Portis was a real stylistic sphinx. In his five short but masterful novels, the details he chooses, the places he points his flashlight, are always surprising. Norwood, his first novel, sometimes feels like not so much a novel as a collection of details, but each detail feels like it has an entire novel hiding behind it.
Details like a house burning in an open field at night, or an owl hitting the windshield of a bus, both of which occupy less than a paragraph, and it’s the same paragraph, and we’re still only halfway through said paragraph before the book, and the bus, keep rolling along. I couldn’t begin to explain to you Portis’s method because his books feel so chaotically unmethodical.
Except his opening lines. And here’s what I love about him. He may go to places you couldn’t predict, but he always starts in a very straightforward way. His opening paragraphs almost always tell you what the book is about. And I don’t mean they suggest what the book is about. They don’t paint a subtle metaphor that on second reading you see is indeed symbolic of the entire text writ large. I mean he tells you, right away, what the book is about.
Like True Grit, for instance:
"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band."
This opening line is a basically a book report of the novel you’re about to read. I’d say “no spoilers,” but it’s all right here, right down to establishing the villain and giving him a first and last name. Of course, you can argue Portis is doing many things here below the surface, like endowing his protagonist with her signature plainspokenness and her need to display an ironic detachment toward violence, but I think it’s simpler than that. I think he just has a great story to tell, so he’s kicking it off by giving the story a broad-brush outline.
The lesson here is to move on from the 'How to the 'What, and allow the 'How to evolve.
It's quite simply practice that enables you to discover your style and then see it evolve and sharpen. That process inevitably serves up Kairos moments. Moments when you feel something special and unique has emerged through your words.
Kairos is one of those lesser Greek gods, relatively insignificant compared to the Olympians and tends to flit off to mythology's peripheries.
He (Kairos) is a particular kind of god and has a specific hairstyle. It's his signature—bald on the back of the head, with just one lock of hair hanging over his face by which he can be caught as he approaches; once he has passed, there is no way to grab him.
Kairos is the god of opportunity, of the fleeting moment. He symbolizes the incredible possibility that opens up just for a moment and must be seized without hesitation (by the bangs!) so that it doesn't pass you by.
Not being conscious of Kairos results in missed opportunities for transformation or metamorphosis—a result not of a long process but of a moment pregnant with possible effects.
In the Greek tradition, Kairos defines time—not that mighty stream of it known as Chronos, but rather an exceptional time, the decisive moment that changes everything. Kairos is always associated with man's decisions, not destiny, fate, or external circumstances. The symbolic gesture of grasping Kairos by a lock of hair reflects that here comes a change, a reversal of the trajectory of fate.
For me, Kairos is the god of eccentricity. By eccentricity, we mean abandoning the "centric" point of view, abandoning the well-trodden paths of thinking and acting. To go beyond areas that are well known and somehow agreed upon by communal thought habits, rituals, and commonly accepted worldviews.
Eccentricity, the opposite of centric, has always been treated as a quirk, as marginal. And above all, whatever is creative, brilliant, and moving the world in a new direction must be eccentric.
Eccentricity means a spontaneous, and at the same time joyous, questioning of what is pre-existing and considered normal and obvious. A challenge to conformism and hypocrisy, a kairotic act of courage, seizing the moment and changing the trajectory of fate.