To Make the Story Important

I’m ankle-deep into the most inspiring, amped-up writing project I’ve ever attempted, and I feel positively infected by it. This new novel is all I think about, all I talk about. Though the hero of my story is nothing like me, I feel incredibly in tune with his character. I don’t want to give anything away just yet, so I’m going to play this one close to the vest and not reveal too many details, but what you need to know is this: the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic volcanic winter, and the protagonist is a man. What he must go through to survive takes unmatched courage, skill, and drive. And of course, everything he needs to know how to do in order to survive, I first need to learn so that I can write it. This means that I’ve been researching my little tushy off, reading field guides and watching hour upon hour of how-to videos about hunting and preserving meat and staying alive in arctic temperatures. Let me put it this way: when I’m finished writing this book, you’re gonna wanna hang out with me when the end of the world comes. This book is going to require some seriously legit writer chops to pull off, but I’m more than up for the challenge.

The plotlines have been outlined, the main characters have been named, and I’m steadily working through all the organizational and preparatory matters I go through when working on a new manuscript. But there’s something else I traditionally do at this stage in the game, and that is to revisit all my favorite stories and document what makes me love them so much, so that I might use those key points as inspiration for my own story. One thing I’ve noticed about many of my favorites, is the common thread of tragedy and loss. Legends of the Fall, Never Let Me Go, The Cider House Rules, The Road, Steel Magnolias, Proof, The Color Purple—all these stories have several things in common: First, they’re all either books or plays that were later made into motion pictures, and second, each story finds its main characters at one point or another badly beaten up by the world, bruised and battered by life. It’s painful to watch, painful to experience by proxy, but wonderfully interesting. Because here’s the thing, characters who confront no obstacle and subsequently achieve no growth are boring. Ordinary love, ordinary troubles and ordinary characters don’t create lasting, haunting stories. In order to create a compelling, evocative story that can stand the test of trends and time, a writer must choose to put her characters through a great many terrible things. Just as we must sometimes cut away pieces of writing that might be fantastic but ultimately ill-serving to the story (what we in the writing profession refer to as “killing your darlings”), so too do we often have to create beautiful, noble, wonderful characters only to kill them off the very moment they find true happiness.

To live with these characters in my head and my heart, to spend so much of my time with them only to destroy them for the sake of the story does indeed take its toll. But it must be done, and it must be done well. This is not to say that violence for the sake of violence or turmoil for the sake of creating suspense is justified–quite the contrary, in my mind. Any plot device needs to effect the story on multiple levels and for mutiple aims, just as any good story as a whole must speak to more than mere entertainment. In my writing life, I do want to create entertaining stories but I also constantly ask myself and try to answer the question, “Yes but what else–what else are you going to do with this?” Stories teach us about the world, about being human. They take us to faraway lands and stretch our imaginations. They transport us inside the mind of the “Other” in a way we are unable to do in real life. Stories show us what we might have been, what we could have been, what we aspire to be. They show us what there is to be found in this big crazy world, and they make us stop and consider what kind of role we want to play in that world.

When I finally finished writing my memoir, A Real Emotional Girl, I found relief in the false assumption that no future writing project could ever make me cry as much because no other book would chronicle my own story, my history, my pain. But I was so, so wrong. In a way, every emotion I write into a piece of fiction must filter through my own heart before I can get it onto the page. Just as I must learn how skin a rabbit and built a snow cave in order to describe the way my character does those things, I also have to force myself to embody and process the hunger, fear, and loneliness of trying to survive in an inhospitable world. I’m only a couple chapters into this new novel and already I’ve had a perfectly proportionate number of tearful and difficult writing sessions. If the walls of my office could talk…

One thing that connects my memoir to this new book, and to all great stories that tell the utmost truths of the human condition, is something that I learned from one of my very favorite television series of all time, Six Feet Under. In one episode, a grieving woman asks the question, “Why do people have to die?” and she is answered with the statement, “To make life important.” If death is an element of our existence for no other reason, I most certainly know this one to be true. And I know it to be a notion worth exploring, which—at least in the domain of the written word—is what I seem to do best.

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