Going Back to the Start

I have serious commitment issues when it comes to the ends of my stories.

There, I said it. I can start a story with the best of them. I can throw my characters into all manner of unsightly and unpleasant situations; I can make them love, hate, burst into tears, rage to the heavens or even sulk in a dark corner when warranted, but writing that final, climactic scene and resolving all their earthly (or unearthly, as the case may be) troubles often eludes me to the point of utter despair. I cannot even begin to count the number of unfinished stories I have languishing on my hard drive, characters poised mid-angst, begging for literary peace.

Instead of peace, I give them cold, hard abandonment. Weeks, months, years go by. I set a perfectly good plot aside, people and places I’ve invested metaphorical blood and sweat and tears in, and force myself to forget all about them. When all else fails (read: when I don’t have a professor breathing down my neck for a graded ending), I simply let my stories go, like birds longing to be free.

And I wait.

Until one day, completely out of the blue, the story will edge its way back into my thoughts. I might be looking for inspiration regarding a different story, or having a completely unrelated conversation that triggers a stray memory, or read a book with a character that reminds me of one of my own. However it happens, the seed is replanted, and there it sits, growing in the back of my mind, pushing against its boundaries until I am suitably nagged enough to pull it up on my computer. And that’s when the fun starts.

Have you ever gone back to a story you haven’t looked at in a while? Inevitably, one of three things happens (listed here, in order of increasing likelihood):

1)      “Oh,” you say as you go through your piece, nodding your head in surprised satisfaction. “Well, this isn’t so bad at all. I can work with this. An edit here and there and I can just keep going right where I left off! This is great!”

2)      “Oh dear,” you say as you go through your piece, shifting your eyes around to make sure no one else is in the room with you. “This…well, this is not completely unsalvageable. These pages will have to go, of course, and this entire chapter—I must have written this after that thing at that place with those people last year. But no, yeah, I can totally do this. Absolutely. The names are great. I won’t change those.”

3)      “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD,” you cry to the heavens as you throw your hands helplessly in the air and lean as far away as you can get from the horrors on your computer screen. “WHAT WAS I THINKING?”

We’ve all been there—blinking at the words we know we must have written down, because the files and pages are most certainly ours, but how, how did those ideas ever make it past our mental editor and into the fabric of our story? Maybe this is why I have such trouble with the words “The End.” Because as a writer, I know that the first completed draft is really only the beginning, the tip of the revisional iceberg. And I worry that, for all my slaving away to get my characters through their trials and over that peak and across the finish line—what if I make it all the way back to the start only to find that the road, once smooth enough to traverse, has become the very quagmire we all fear our stories will turn out to be?

On writing, and the choice I never made

I was a storyteller long before I understood the power inherent in pulling words together to create a world, to manipulate characters, to bring plots and arcs and drama to life on pages. I have been writing since the concept was introduced to me in the first grade by my teacher Mrs. Valerie Frederick, and for better or worse, she encouraged my fumbling six-year-old attempts. I can’t remember now what I wrote about — I shudder to think of the Herculean task that woman took on reading what must have been the barely coherent ramblings of her students— but she awoke my Muse with a vengeance that has yet to be satisfied more than two decades later.

(An aside, and a lesson to all you teachers out there, wondering if you’re making a difference: As a Navy brat, I attended eight different schools from Kindergarten through high school graduation, so for me to remember the full name of my first-grade teacher is no small thing. If I ever manage to come across Mrs. Frederick, who I can picture in my mind with startling clarity (she was a teacher at Birdneck Elementary School, Virginia Beach, VA, in the early ’90s) I plan to thank her for helping to plant the seeds of what became an enduring love of my life.)

But back to my Muse, who gripped me at age six, before I even knew what a Muse was, much less what to do with her. She has always been a presence in my mind, urging me to revel in words and the joys they can bring. Even when I’m not writing myself, I’m enjoying the creations others have woven, and the things I enjoy the most now are the things I’ve enjoyed my entire life: books, music, movies, plays; the worlds others pull from nothingness and bring to life are the worlds I want to be a part of, and the feelings they invoke are the feelings I want to share. But beyond that, I want to grasp at my own universes, invoke my own feelings and throw them out there for other people to experience. That’s what being a writer is for me.

This is who I am, and who I’ve always been. I just didn’t always understand that it wasn’t a choice I was making. Back when I wanted to be a marine biologist, or an environmental lawyer. When I was suffering through biology labs in college (honestly, a vegetarian trying to dissect a sheep’s eye is worth a story all its own; do you have any idea how bouncy — but I digress) or finally coming to my senses and settling on Philosophy and Classical Civilizations as the wholly impractical but completely enthralling double major I would eventually graduate with. Still, it took careers in marketing, graphic design, and editing before I finally smacked myself mentally and gave myself permission to say out loud that I wanted to start being a writer — the thing I’ve always been anyway, whether I meant to be or not.

Because whether I was six and writing about my cat (Tigger; he was a good cat) sixteen and writing angst-filled poetry (you did it, too, don’t pretend you didn’t), or just chasing sheep eyes around a college biology lab (seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve — but I digress again), my Muse has always been on my shoulder, looking around, taking notes, waiting for me to get done with my so-called “choices,” so we can get down to what we’ve both really known all along. I’m sure she’s quite relieved that I’ve finally started listening.

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway
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