After years of writing, editing, publishing authors and teaching, Jack Heffron knows why we get stuck and how to work around that and back into our material. He’ll be teaching with Meg Files and Sheila Bender at our Writing It Real in Nashville April 25-28 conference. Join us for a chance to work with Jack as well as all three facutly.
We’ve all been there—that time when we’re just not sure where to go next with a piece of writing. It might have begun on one subject and somehow evolved into something else. Perhaps it began in a different form or genre but keeps tugging against you to switch to another one, like a dog straining at its leash. Perhaps it has simply grown dull for you. You want to finish it, but you’re wrestling with how to do that.
Maybe the problem lies in the storytelling rather than the story. If you’re struggling with a piece of writing, take time to think about the core issue. It could be a matter of UPS, GPS or WTF.
Sometimes we’re so intent on getting the point across that we move away from storytelling. We know too well what we want to say—and we say and say and say it.
I see this dilemma most often with writers working on memoirs. The writer knows the focus of the piece and the protagonist’s goals very well because she is the protagonist. In some ways she knows the story too well. Let’s say we have a writer who is working on a memoir about her battle with breast cancer. The writer begins with the day she hears the terrible news and walks the reader step-by-step through the various medical procedures. She tells us how the illness changed her life. She tells us what the illness has taught her and offers advice about surviving such a challenge.
The problems from a writing perspective should be clear. First, you’ll notice that she “tells” rather than “shows.” When we already know what we want to say, we tend to rely on an expository approach rather than a dramatic one, which undermines the reader’s experience. The memoir becomes more like a lecture than a story.
We feel sympathy for the protagonist and accept the message she delivers, but there will be no discoveries for us because there will be none for the writer.
When she takes the memoir to her writing group or to agents, this writer is surprised that readers aren’t bowled over. She struggles to revise. She’s told that the story is “slow” and so she trims to speed the pace.
The real problem is that it’s too narrow, too controlled. There’s no interesting subtext to engage the reader because the writer knows exactly what she wants to say and never deviates from saying it.
Hannah Arendt speaks to this situation when she writes, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” Reveal your meaning and let the reader define. That’s where the connection is made. And allow the story to reveal its own meanings. As Sharon O’Brien puts it, “Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning. I wanted to know what I was going to say.”
We need to allow for our own revelations, for the piece to take its own direction. Focus on evoking the moments and the people. Then the story can break free and tell itself.
Another way to revive your project is to look at structure and direction. Maybe you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Your literary GPS keeps saying “recalculating” in an annoying voice.
Have you started as close to the end as possible? Have you whittled away the non-essentials, presenting only the most necessary and engaging moments in the story? Leo Tolstoy speaks directly to these questions by saying, “Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible.”
Focus on that situation and on tying that knot. Show us how the character struggles to untie that knot. Keep the dramatic heat on high by trimming away anything that cools the piece, such as long flashbacks or exposition. Think in terms of digging deeply rather than ranging widely.
Think, too, in terms of causal connection between events. The piece shouldn’t be built on “this happened and then this happened,” it needs to be “this happened because this happened.” The lack of causal connection is why many pieces fail to keep the reader engaged. A writer, for example, writes about a trip abroad or a stint in the military because everyone tells him “You need to write a book about that.” The book, however, becomes a series of loosely connected anecdotes that lack causal connection. It lacks tension and momentum. A story needs to be more than a tossed salad of anecdotes. Ask yourself, what main dramatic (or thematic) thread runs through the center of my piece? Then ask, “Am I still on that road?”
Sometimes we simply don’t know where we’re going or what we’ve got. Though you have worked on it faithfully, it has yet to reveal itself to you. You are simply lost.
First: don’t despair. If you remain engaged by the piece, you can build on that connection. At these times, writing truly is an act of faith. Trust that feeling of engagement. Then, don’t try so hard to control it. Allow it to be what it wants. The piece might have begun, for example, as a story about a couple struggling with their marriage due to their inability to conceive a child. The writer drew the idea from a friend who is in that situation. The writer fictionalized the situation but stayed true to the basics of it. The early pages came easily, but then the piece began to lose steam. The writer added a few fictional complications but none seemed to fit. She tried writing through to the end, but all the resolutions lacked invention or nuance. And so she plods through draft after draft but is ready to give up. She needs to go back to the start, to figure out her own connection to the piece. She doesn’t face the dilemma personally so why does she want to write about it?
Eudora Welty wrote, “Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.” The key word is “discovering.” We need to reveal to ourselves our connection to the situation and then reveal the connections among the events.
The writer of the marital discord story might discover that what began as her friend’s story has become her own. At some level it speaks to her own fears of separation from a mate due to forces beyond her control. It might speak to her deeper fear of being alone. With those ideas in mind, she can refocus the story—she might even start over. Annie Dillard advises that sometimes we need to “tear up the runway.” She says, “It helped you take off, and you don’t need it now.”
The key is to begin with what you do know—that you believe in the piece and want very much to write it. Then try to gain a better understanding of your connection to it. Use that awareness to guide the piece. Take heart in the words of John Steinbeck who admitted, “I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” And he won a Nobel Prize for Literature! Sometimes taking our chances is all we can do.
This article is for our members. We welcome you to try Writing It Real today!
Already a member? Login below…