“Danger lies in the writer becoming the victim of his own exaggeration, losing the exact notion of sincerity, and in the end coming to despise truth itself as something too cold, too blunt for his purpose — as, in fact, not good enough for his insistent emotion. From laughter and tears the descent is easy to sniveling and giggles.” – Joseph Conrad
At one time or another we have all had our “story.” The one about how we were wronged. It’s a pretty good story. Some of us have perfected it over the years, made it bulletproof, unassailable. Heck, sometimes it’s even true! This is fine and good, however, as storytellers we must remember that every story has an ending.
An ending is simply the natural resolution to the “universal problem.” We may go round and round with our “story” in our personal life, but in literature, revisiting the same beat again and again gets old real quick. We are interested in what the protagonist comes to understand as a result of her journey.
“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics: it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.”–John Gardner
Because we are always writing our “story” to one degree or another, being curious about the ending is an invitation to transformation. This is why writing can be so thrilling (and also terrifying). We suddenly realize that time is of the essence. The clock is ticking and we are hurtling toward the end. This may mean the death of our old identity, the death of our attachment to the victim/hero of the first act.
In story, to stay in the same place is to die. The story is always moving forward. As John Gardener says in On Moral Fiction: “Everything that happens in fiction leads to a deeper and deeper understanding.”
Part of the process of the rewrite is to understand why we wrote what we wrote. There can be a tendency, at times, for the writer to want to escape the drama of her story. This might sound strange, since logic would suggest that conflict is our goal, but here is why I think this can happen. Once we have clarity about our hero transformed, we begin to understand the hero’s victimhood in the first act. Sometimes for the writer, this can feel embarrassing. We may feel exposed. We may think, “Yuck, I don’t want to show that aspect of my nature, it is so ugly, and far too revealing.” This can be a terrible disservice to our story, and may sound the death knell to all of the great unconscious work that we have done in our first draft.
There can be a desire to toss it all out and start again, with more noble ambitions for our hero. Don’t do it.
We don’t want to neuter the liveliness of our hero for our “idea” of a better person. We love our hero, not because she is good, but because she wants to be better than she is. It has been my experience that there is oftentimes an invisible line that I approach in my rewrite. It is when the work starts to get really specific and I begin to squirm as I begin to glimpse my limitations. This is a poignant time. I can withdraw into my old beliefs or I can be inquisitive. Become curious about the “nature” of my limitations with regard to whatever it is that I am writing.
What I’m saying is that it can be helpful for us to develop a healthy relationship to our embarrassment. It is natural for us, the moment we feel ashamed, to shut down or tune out. The writer cannot afford to do this in relationship to her story. If we can develop a sense of fun, or at least an objective detachment in relationship to our stories, we will be more able to write with clarity and specificity the true nature of our characters’ experiences.
It is necessary to expose the nature of humanity in all of its messiness if the reader is to connect. As we begin writing, we may have an “idea” of what this entails. But, as I keep saying, “our story asks everything of us.”
Let’s continue to be curious about the nature of our hero’s struggle, her pettiness, jealousies, judgments, fears, and desires. When we are specific about these aspects of our characters, when we tell the truth in all of its jolie laide, our story will naturally spring to life.