The process of writing amazes me. There is so much involved in making it look simple, natural. Being a part of the process is humbling. To feel the birth of an idea intrude in your thoughts, whether you’re looking for it or not. Then to see it become something that entertains or delights someone else. We talk about the craft of writing, and we try to get people to believe that it’s hard work, but often the hardest thing to do is to sit quietly and let the story develop in our minds, or come to us from. . . wherever.
I’ve recently realized that a writer’s story isn’t just one story. It’s several. And they can be very different.
The first story never reaches paper. It’s the story in my head,
the original thought that spurs me to the paper or screen. It’s a mental picture or movie that’s not restricted to written words on a page. It has life, emotions, a vividness that escapes my best effort at finding the words to express it. It has a backstory or history that comes from my life that I’m unable to verbalize to anyone else.
I like the story, maybe even fall in love with it. It contained a depth that I want to capture. But as soon as I try to grab it, to articulate it, it slips through my fingers like smoke from a candle.
The First Draft
The story I get on paper pales to the one that is in my mind. The smelly first draft. It resembles what I had envisioned but, at best, it isn’t in focus. At worse, it’s like looking through a filthy lens. Instead of having the depths and hills I felt, it’s just flat.
It’s not the same story that was in my mind, but hopefully close. But I captured it on paper. This gives me a structure, a silhouette, of the story that I can now begin to fill in. Still, it’s only two dimensional, not the three or four that was in my mind.
The Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
After a time of grieving the lack in my story, I begin to clean the lens and see the story through the dirt. I chisel and sandpaper and wipe with a rag until the final product is revealed that makes me smile. That I can show to others without cringing. Or else it goes in the drawer.
This story is not the same as the dream. I have to leave the dream behind to focus on this story. And a lot of times, over the course of the time that it takes to write the story, I’ve forgotten the original dream. Or I excepted that this is a different story, one confined to 26 letters and the surface of a page.
The Audience’s Story
This brings us to the final story. I wrote it, but now the story is out where others can see it. I wrote ‘The End’ so I’m finished. Now, it becomes the story my reader experiences.
When my dream included my uncle, with all he means to me and the history we had shared, the audience will see only a man. So I have to flesh him out on paper. To show what makes him significant in this specific story.
And that’s a different story. I know that my heroine looks like my cousin. That she wears the clothes of our aunt on my mother’s side, the one who lives across town and works for an advertiser. And, of course, the surf where they walked in my story is at Hilton Head, SC, in the early morning before the crowds take over.
Instead, the reader sees her student, or the lady from the six o’clock news. Maybe, the coed who walks her dog before everyone leaves for work. In addition, the beach scene she sees is Lake Michigan, or the beach at Gold Coast, Oregon, or the coast of Barbados.
My story is no longer mine, but the reader’s. (Don’t freak out, I still get the byline.) They use my words, but their experiences and memories to make a totally different story. That’s why we can discuss someone’s story at a book club and everyone contribute because the story becomes unique to them.
It’s why we can read the same story years later, and it’s new to us again. The writer’s story hasn’t changed, but we have. Our experiences have.
Writing a story is more than just putting a mental image onto a page. It’s the start of a new conversation, with ourselves as well as with our readers.