“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.
It’s a question I am still, always, asking.
Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.
MINING FOR DRAMATIC TENSION
For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.
This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.
Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/. Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.
We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?” http://thehairpin.com/user/9639/Melissa%20Chandler.
Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.
After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.
I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!