What Story Are You Being Asked To Tell?
Guest Post by Diana M. Raab
Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry, there’s no doubt you have a unique story to tell with your very own perspective. For many writers, reliving and retelling childhood stories are common platforms for their work. We often return to those times because they were filled with pain, joy or unanswered questions.
Even though we might have a sense of what story we need to tell, once in a while we get stumped. Many writers say their best story ideas come to them when they’re not necessarily sitting at their desks but when they’re out and about. It’s important to remain alert to those mundane moments in everyday life—odd discoveries and chance remarks made by others in social, work or casual settings. Compelling stories contain snippets of these incidents woven with well-known factoids. That’s one of the many good reasons to carry a notebook with you wherever you go.
My typical day begins with reading the newspaper. An article might spur my interest which would drive me to surf the web for more information. If I am in the middle of another project, I will toss the idea into my “Writing Idea Folder,” folder which contains stories I hope to tell one day. Whether I get to them or not is not important, the important thing is to have that folder for those days when my well runs dry.
Outside of having the “Writing Idea Folder,” when stuck for ideas, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
1)What is going through your head?
2) Who are your villains? Who are your heroes?
3)What are you obsessed by?
4) What inspires you?
5) Where are you in your life now?
6) What stories are you compelled to read?
Whatever you choose to write, you will soon realize that the creative journey is similar to life’s journey—unpredictable, unstructured, mysterious and laden with miracles.
In her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Margaret Atwood says this, “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”
In Writing (1993) Marguerite Duras says, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”
William Faulkner believed that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says, “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” Whatever this dream is writers often lose sleep until the project is completed and this is how they uncover the story they have to tell.
In many ways, writing could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped. Franz Kafka summarized this idea beautifully by saying, “I write in order to shut my eyes.” Fiction writers might argue that they write fiction so that they can tamper with the facts in their life and that they have more freedom during the writing process.
Joan Didion says this about her writing, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
In essence, we write to know ourselves and to figure out the world around us. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears, can transform themselves to reveal value and meaning for us in our lives now. And with any luck, for others as well.
Diana Raab is a memoirist, essayist, poet and author of seven books and editor of two essays collections, including the latest, Writers and Their Notebooks (2010) with an introduction by Phillip Lopate. She is a journaling advocate and teaches in UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and in various conferences around the country. Her forthcoming book, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey is forthcoming from Loving Healing Press in June 2010. Visit Diana Raab.