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The Story I Thought I Would Write When I Knew Everything

I’m a slow reader. I take my time with the language and I have to process the imagery and characterizations, the settings and the metaphor. I savor words. I wonder at settings. And so, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to know the same can be said about my writing process. And if I’ve told you anything about the book I’m working on and then some day you ask me when it will be finished, my canned answer is always the same.

“Never. That’s the novel that got away.”

People assume I’m being sarcastic or despairing. And when I originally uttered the phrase, that’s probably how I meant for it to be interpreted. But the more times I’ve said it, the more I’ve come to realize that the meaning behind my flippant response has actually become exactly true for me. And I’m glad.

I remember about a thousand years ago when I first tripped over the idea for my current work in progress and it was such a juicy little nugget that I broke out in a sweat and felt my head spin with the possibilities. It was that dizzy kind of lovesick that propelled me to spend hours researching and piling up articles and photographs and any little tidbit that would help flesh out the ideas bobbing around in my head. Discovering an idea for a new novel always feels like discovering a long, lost sibling who is exactly the best friend I’ve dreamed of having. We can finish each other’s sentences. We stay up late giggling and telling secrets. We are perfect for each other. The new book is the book I was always meant to write. It’s freaking destiny. When I die, I am sure something will be written about it on my headstone.

This is how we all feel, isn’t it, when we meet our stories? It’s love at first inkling. And it should be! These stories, or the first little glimmers of them, are all the things we believe them to be and rightfully create our euphoric experience. Our first glimpse of a story is the thing we’re all longing for on this search – a divine purpose. We are meant to tell the stories that spring from our hearts, or more aptly, our subconscious. Our stories are the most profound creations that we are humanly capable of delivering to this world.

However, here’s the rub. It’s the delivery that changes everything. The delivery, always, inevitably, as it should, breaks the spell.

You can tell a friend, tell an agent, tell the moon – your beautiful story will unfold before you like the yellow brick road and shine, shine, shine to the satisfying, happily ever concluded. But the moment the first key is struck or the ink meets the page, when things get metaphorically concrete, our perfect stories are doomed. Here’s why: the road will always fork. I like to think that a wise writer (me) will one day realize after much gnashing of teeth and cutting of bangs that it is in that instant, the real magic of writing begins within us. The writer’s mantel falls heavy on his or her shoulders with this hard truth: we must choose.

And I suppose first and most importantly, we will have to choose whether to abandon a work at this point when our clarity is lost? Many do. Or will we try to force the story to contort itself to our original vision? I have.

I’ve pitched stories in their complete and glorious whole, with that golden patina of an unwritten word shining and spectacular. I’ve believed I could see the entirety of the novel laid out before me, delivered on a golden fleece. And then, I sit to write and the thing vaporizes and becomes nothing but a dreadful frustration. Madness plagues writers for just this reason. We call it as many names as there are those of us struggling with the delusion that a story is a contained and solid thing from conception. If you can tell it from start to finish, why, why, WHY then can’t you write it the same way? Because of choice.

Because a story (don’t hate me) is a journey. How many times have we sat through classes and workshops or slogged through the pages of books that promise to tell us the real secret to writing a novel lies in the characters’ journey? Why then, should it be different for the writer? It can’t be. And if it were, I suppose I believe it would be pointless. Where’s the divine purpose in starting and finishing in exactly the same place?

So, here’s what I say. A story is a journey the writer is meant to take, not one merely to be observed.

We are meant to chase the idea of it and wrestle with it and lose it and find it again. We, as writers, even more than our characters, must be changed by our stories. We must be heroes. We must be villains. We must climb and fall and discover and grieve and sacrifice and slay dragons to reclaim our souls. We must watch our breadcrumbs being gobbled up and then still manage to take one step, then another, until we face our worst fears and lose all heart in the darkest of nights. Only then can we look up from the work, from the blinding beauty of the last sentence, to mumble, “Well, hell. I’ve come home.”

Breathless, we can sit back in our chairs and wonder that the shape of our stories are familiar, and yet nothing we could have imagined until we’d allowed ourselves the grace of learning what the story had to teach us. These are the stories that will be everything we knew they could be and only some of what we planned and something more than we could have ever known when we first believed we knew everything. Because the stories we are meant to write require bravery and courage and change in the writer before they can ever be worthy of a reader.

So ask me again. Please. Ask me every time you see me. When will I finally finish writing that story I told you about all those months or years or decades ago? Never! I’ll say. That one completely got away from me.

Oh, how I hope, never. And I can’t imagine where it’s going.