Sunday, January 29, 2012

Growing a story

Last week was a particularly good week for me. A story I began writing in October had gone dormant by November. Try as I might, often writing only a few lines a day, some days none at all, the story just wasn’t growing. "Writer’s Block" is the term usually applied, but it isn’t the writer who is blocked, so much as the story. It happens to all of us who write regularly, and sometimes the causes are obvious: the concept is a poor one, the characters are the writer’s creation, not the story’s. The writer is trying to write the story, instead of tell it.

You see, we are all storytellers. When we reminisce with friends and family,  when we pass on a story someone has told us or we tell a joke, we are telling a story. Those who write do it with greater art, perhaps, even skill, than those who are simply relaying something they have experienced or heard or thought about, but we are all telling stories.

For the writer, it becomes complicated when you try to influence the story. Every story has its own beginning, middle and end; has a structure that you create. It is something like a tree: from a root that has been planted, branches and twigs and leaves develop. It becomes beautiful when it is in full leaf and even more when it flowers. An arborist may influence the way the tree is shaped and blossoms by pruning, but once the seed is planted, when the roots take hold and the trunk begins to grow, you cannot do too much without changing the way the finished tree will look. What you do may at times make it more handsome, but you also run the risk of weakening it, shaping it to an ugly form, creating something that even you want to simply cut down and burn.

This week past I rediscovered what I already knew about my tree: let it grow on its own, with perhaps some judicious trimming here and there, and it will achieve the shape and size I first envisioned. Finally, after weeks of struggle, I just stopped, and suddenly the characters took over. Letting them drive the story, telling it through me, has allowed them to breathe again, to begin their final growth into fully shaped and living characters.

At about half-past noon the day the characters came alive again, a nuthatch came to the ring at the bottom of the feeder that hangs just beyond my window. For almost a minute, instead of eating he sat, back to the feeder, facing the sun. He was obviously enjoying the nearly 50-degree temperature and the warm, full sun. Perhaps is was just the winter dormancy I was dealing with.

Spring seems to be coming after all. I am letting my characters open up and flower.

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