“You know what I think you should write about?”
“I have a story idea!”
“I’ve always thought it would be neat to read…”
I have a visceral response to these words. Recently, I’ve responded to other writers commenting on the same thing. (For example at the Semi-Sane Writer’s “Stuff you just don’t say to writers” post). Because of my strong response, I wanted to flesh out my stance on this topic.
First, let me say that if anyone has ever uttered these phrases to me prior to the publication of this post, you’ll know that I respond to all of the above phrases in the same way. I smile brightly. I muster up all of the encouragement I can, and I tell the speaker that it sounds like a great idea. I tell them that they would have a fantastic story on their hands.
Generally speaking, this is not the response that people want me to give. People want me to write their stories for them.
There are two major problems with this:
- I don’t have time to write all of the fantastic story ideas in my own head, let alone the ones in yours.
- The thing that makes a story special is the person creating it. It comes from inside you. Me writing your story wouldn’t create a good story. It would be flat, lifeless, it would have no resonance.
Let me break these down a little bit more.
Writing is Work. Hard. Work.
When I am working on a novel, I’m essentially working two jobs. I work at the office, and I work in the evening as a writer. Not to mention the marketing, the social media, the blogging, and all of the other stuff I’ve got to do. My house does not get cleaned, my laundry does not get done, and my pets attack me when I go to bed because that’s the only time I’m available to pay attention to them. I’ve got to prioritize every single thing I do – from making sure we have food in the house to when do I sit down and write blog posts.
Within that span of “writing” and “working on a novel”, I’ve got multiple projects to juggle there too. I have the generative new draft that is all imagination and sky’s-the-limit thinking. I have the editing work that is meticulous and vital. I have the outlines for sequels, the new ideas that come out of nowhere that I need to honor and note out in case I ever get a chance to go back to them. I have the feedback from beta readers to sift through. Each one of these tasks requires prioritization within the project. Each project requires prioritization against the others.
It is a job.
Neil Gaiman says that he likes NaNoWriMo because it teaches would-be novelists that writing is not easy, it’s not quick, and a lot of work goes into just 50,000 words (which is about half the length of most standard commercial novels).
I came up with no fewer than six story ideas while I was in the throes of editing Salvaged. Some of them are damned good. They all have 2-3 pages of notes sketched in word documents on the desktop of my home computer, waiting to be fiddled with when I’m ready for them. Some of them will stay there indefinitely. Hell, Salvaged was like that off and on over the course of about 16 years. If I ever write them, it will be because the time is right, and the project list hits that point.
Authenticity Is the Key
The only reason someone would let their whole life fall apart in order to write a story is if that story was driving them a little crazy in its need to be told.
The only reason stories drive writers mad is because they speak to some deep need within us. They address the writer’s darkest fears. They are ways for the writer to manage the brightest thoughts and hopes.
The thing that draws a reader into a story is that cathartic place where the reader can vicariously watch the writer work through something profound.
You’ve heard that there are no new tales, no new ideas. I sort of agree with that concept. The thing that I believe makes a story worth retelling is the interpretation. What makes that story resonate with that writer and then with that reader?
I’ll admit that my stories serve in a really roundabout way as my therapy. I work through trust issues with my characters. I go through transformation far more mundane than my characters do. You might not be able to see me in my story, but believe me when I say I’m there.
So all of those unwritten ideas that I’ve mentioned in the section above? They are my own ideas. They resonate with me. They speak to me. They are part of me. They are some tidbit of therapy that I need to work through.
Write Your Own Story
Your story idea that you want me to magically write for you? That’s your story. It’s your therapy. It resonates with you.
Me writing your story would be like me attending your therapy session in your place. I could sit down in front of your psychotherapist and tell them my interpretation of what I thought was going on inside you, but how would that help you? How would it help me?
I would have to imagine that a story retold in this way might lose something. It might gain something as well, if your story idea resonates in a different way with me than it does with you.
I also can’t imagine pouring as much time, as much effort, as much love and as much angst into someone else’s story as I do my own. Someone else’s story wouldn’t drive me crazy in its need to be written. Someone else’s story wouldn’t travel around with me day in and day out unless I had a way of tapping into it and making it mine.
(Incidentally, since I’m working on at least two collaborations, that’s the key for me in joint efforts. I have to see where the tales resonate for me, where my passion lies in telling the same story. I have to make the collaboration “mine” or at least “ours”, rather than let it keep belonging to someone else.)