Tue 18 Sep 2012
I read an interesting piece the other day in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It was a column by Jack Sheehan titled: “Every Writer Struggles To Tell The Next Great Story.” The piece was about how much more there is to writing a book than telling a story. It’s a great piece and well worth a read. I completely agree – but I also disagree.
The story is the message in the bottle. If you’re hanging out on a dock and a bottle floats by – you might be angered at the thought that someone disrespected the planet enough to turn a lake into a trashcan. You might give the thrower the benefit of the doubt and wonder what extreme emotion or life-changing peril the thrower was experiencing that sent the bottle flying towards a watery future. But it’d be all about the bottle.
What if a man’s been alone since his ex skipped off with his business partner and the company bank account. Now, he’s nearly decided there’s nothing left to lose – nearly. He chooses to take one last gamble, writing a note to a lady he’s met only in his dreams. He tucks it in a bottle and lets the water decide his fate. The note is the story.
Mr. Sheehan’s right that the best tale in the world won’t carry a reader if it’s not told well. He relates meeting a lady who perked up when she found out he was a writer. Yes, she had a great story to tell and needed someone to write it down. Sheehan says:
The clear implication when folks say they have a great idea for a book or movie and just require a scribbler to put it on paper for them is that the person making the pitch is holding all the valuable goodies in this proposition and that the prospective writer is merely a necessary nuisance to be tolerated on the path to stardom.
This is akin to telling Herman Melville, “Hey, Hermie, I have this story about a big fish and a guy who’s mad at it. If you can just toss some verbiage around and put the commas in the right place for me, I can take credit for one of the great novels of American literature. Oh yeah, the fish’s last name is Dick.”
Sheehan’s right that the teller changes the tale. Every writer brings his or her own thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and outlook. All those things shape the story. For example – back to the message in a bottle – what kind of bottle did the thrower choose? Was it Perrier, wine or soda? And the note – was it handwritten or typed? Was it written on lined paper, a napkin or the back of the menu for the restaurant where he proposed to his ex?
I believe that the story is the star, but it has to share joint billing with the characters. A reader never cares about how the story turns out unless she first cares about the people living the tale. No matter how feisty or how big the fish is, you have to care about the fisherman to care about whether he catches the fish.
Sheehan brings up another good point — the story has to be punctuated correctly. His snappy way of phrasing this point is one of my favorite parts of his piece. He says: “ And yes, the correct use of punctuation is as critical to the process of writing as using the right instruments is in brain surgery.”
Sheehan ends up telling the lady that she’d have to write her own story because no one would care about it the way she did. But will the lady ever write her story? Sheehan thought not.
Of course, they don’t do that because they can’t. And the reason they can’t is that good writing is grueling work, requires tremendous discipline, a certain degree of talent, and years of experience to discover what is true, and then craft it in a pleasing way. And yes, the correct use of punctuation is as critical to the process of writing as using the right instruments is in brain surgery.
But you know what? I hope Sheehan was wrong. I hope that lady did sit down and write her story and I hope she put it out there for readers to love and hate. An untold tale is a sad thing. It can rattle around in your head for years, tormenting you for leaving it in bits and pieces when it wants to speak to the world. That lady may have been someone who always dreamed of writing a book and just hadn’t had the courage to start yet.
Yes, writing is hard. Crafting a story so that the reader wants to turn the page is an ongoing challenge. Crafting a story so that the writer wants to sit down at her computer more than she wants to go shopping or watch television is even harder. Because truthfully, it’s not starting a story that’s the hardest part – it’s finishing.
But if you have a story you want to tell, in the history of the world there’s never been a better time to try than right now. You don’t risk putting all that work in on a poor little tale doomed to die on your hard drive. The gatekeepers are gone and writers can put their work right up on the virtual shelves at sites where readers from around the world shop every day.
I think the saddest story of all is the tale of the writer who could have been but wasn’t because she never dared to do more than dream.