Write On: The Story Within the Story
By Corbin Lewars
One of my favorite parts of working with other writers is the unfolding process that occurs when they begin to write their story. They start out with a clear intention, usually based in the intellectual more than the emotional, and then something seemingly unrelated gets written instead. They worry, try to change it back to the original plan or outline, and then fortunately call me before deleting it all and starting over.
A doctor I worked with wanted to write a book about the unfair treatment of gay doctors in the medical field. We met a few times to discuss hospital policies, laws, and numerous case studies involving homophobia. A month passed and he sent me several chapters describing his relationship with his partner, who recently died. It was beautiful, heartfelt, lyrical, and poignant. And it had absolutely nothing to do with laws or unfair hospital rules and regulations. After a few more weeks, he became nervous about not adhering to his original outline. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “What you’re creating is amazing. I’m so excited to see what comes next.”
“But I want to write a story about homophobia and the unjust medical industry and…”
“And you will,” I reassured him. And then I asked him if he had ever seen the colorful wooden Russian dolls that fit snugly into each other.
He nodded, “I think my sister had those.”
“Those dolls are like your story. Each doll looks similar to the one before it, but the very last doll in the bunch can’t be opened, it’s solid. It’s the essence and center of all of the other dolls. That’s what we’re looking for with your story, the heart of it. The thing that can’t be opened any further. I believe that’s your relationship with your partner. The unjust medical practices and homophobic patients and doctors will all be in the book as well, but when you peel all of them open, what remains is your relationship.”
He smiled and proceeded to write a love story, that also angered, incensed and informed the reader about homophobia and the medical industry. It was beautiful.
Another client is writing a novel about several flight attendants attempting an amazing scam. It’s witty, fast paced, and the reader can’t wait for them to get even with the man they are seeking revenge on. Underneath all of the humor, rising tension, and plotting is another story about letting go of a lover in order to preserve one’s own life.
“Why is this in here?” my client asked. “It doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. That’s not the story I wanted to write.”
“But it’s the story you need to write. Keep going, it will work.”
And it does work. The sad, but long overdue break up gives the protagonist more depth than if she was merely spearheading a scam. And the two stories woven together create even more tension and suspension rather than detract from one another.
“Oh no, I’m writing THAT story,” another client said after several months of trying to write a government conservation book. I nodded with condolences being very familiar with THAT story, which is the story of your divorce. “But it’s been done a million times already!” she complained. “I don’t want to be THAT writer” (by which she meant a whiner).
“You won’t be, you’ll be you and you’ll write THAT story in YOUR voice, which is funny, subtle, witty, clever, observant and absolutely not whiney.” She groaned, so I added, “If you can’t use that voice with memoir, make it fiction. Take a step away from THAT story being yours, and just write. Whether you call it a memoir or a novel doesn’t matter now, just follow the genre that allows you to be you. The witty, brilliant you.” That revived her and she began writing a humorous, yet punch-in-the-gut-because-it’s-so-true, divorce story.
I love the surprise factor that comes with allowing the story to unfold as it needs to, but an even greater reward is the growth that follows. Similarly to most areas of my life, when I try to reign control and assume I am the only navigator of my life and I know exactly where I’m going, I miss out on so many learning opportunities and delights. Delight occurs when I let go, not when I grip the steering wheel and only stare at the road. And learning takes place when I look around and open my eyes, rather than keeping them glued to the map.
My memoir was supposed to be a book about quitting the 9 to 5 world and taking the risk to become a freelance writer and editor. It is that, but it’s also a story about how I stopped viewing my body as a baby making failure, or something to be ashamed of, and instead became proud of it and myself. It’s also a book about the good times in my marriage, my estranged relationship with my sister, my fear of asking for what I want, because I might get it, and recovering from a childhood trauma.
And that’s just the book, writing the book was even more profound. It allowed me to make amends with the little girl inside of me who I shut the door on thirty years ago because she was “bad.” It allowed me to feel love and gratitude towards the man I was divorcing. It also acted as a buoy, keeping me afloat, while I traversed that divorce. It allowed me to regain my sexuality, learn how to say no rather than yes, and the other way around. I regained my confidence. I made peace with past demons. I saw people for the demons they were, not the angel they pretended to be. And then I went on book tour, which was a thirty-year fantasy that I didn’t completely believe would ever come true, yet it did. It was frightening and exhilarating, but most of all, it made me a writer. It allowed me to finally believe that no one could take the writing dream away from me, especially not me. I knew it was what I was doing with my life, because I wanted to, I needed to, and I could. All of this came from the mere idea, “I should write about quitting my job.”
So write about quitting your job, moving to a new city, or the strange person you saw on the way to work today. You don’t know where that story will take you, but you know it will be worthwhile.
Corbin Lewars (www.corbinlewars.com) mentors other writers at the Drawing Room on Ballard Ave. She is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards and her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering, Hip Mama and several anthologies. She lives in Ballard with her two children
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