Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Heart of the Story

Today, I wrote a pivotal scene in a novel in progress. It's a novel that has seen two full re-writes already, and is now in its third round of reworking. It's the kind of scene that changes everything--redefines who's "bad" and "good" in the novel--makes the stakes higher, more tragic, more painful.


Why write a scene in which a central character has to endure something terrible? Something awful?

See, when I wrote the first draft of this novel, I avoided that kind of thing. It's a book about a ninth grade kid who wants to make his basketball team. (Kind of like...well...when yours truly was a ninth grade kid wanting to make a certain basketball team.) I wrote the original novel straight through in bursts and gusts like some kind of windstorm hepped up on the sound of catching, cascading leaves.

I wrote like fire on that first draft, all the while keeping my eyes on the finish line.

But in writing the novel like this the first time through, I only brushed the surface. I only threw a few minor obstacles in the path of my character (ahem, myself).

Okay: a minor bullying issue.

Okay: character locks up in basketball games, fumbles ball a a lot. Misses easy jumpers. Misses passes.

Okay: character has a crush on popular girl. Said girl does not, in any capacity, experience similar sense of crush-ness.

Resolution? Character's brother, teacher, father help character overcome these (minor) obstacles. Character makes team. Scores points.


It was, essentially, 135 pages of if only.

The second draft saw more obstacles come to the character--more nuances personalities of others involved, more suffering, more confusion. But still, too easy. Too fast.

It was, essentially, 155 pages of maybe life could be like this, but it's not really that interesting or inspiring.

So then I did what any hard-working, determined, courageous novelist would do: I started a brand new novel.  I didn't look at the other novel or work on it for another six months. I left that character (ahem, myself) stranded in a world without too many obstacles, without resolution or redemption for why he even wanted to make that team so badly, how his family was going to work things out, and a host of other confusing, plain-old-hard-to-forge-ahead dilemmas.

And the new novel was great fun! Such joy! Ah: the beginnings of things! Anything is possible, everything is possible.

But the other novel, when I was trying to escape it, kept doing small annoying things.

Like: when I'd be pumped about a great scene for the new novel, the old novel would whisper stuff like: Dude. Dude! You never even gave me a chance, did you? You wrote me up to a point, but just when you sensed that wall coming, you took cover and ducked out.

Like: when I'd think about other novel ideas to get brainstorming on, old novel would shake his head and say, And I was counting on you. Really. I was thinking we were forming a relationship built on trust. Commitment. Sticktoitiveness. At least I know how you REALLY feel.

New novel was fun. Brainstorming Novel was fun, too. There were (and are) some really neat ideas in both. But Old Novel saw right through me.

Then, something happened which made Old Novel's voice as loud as a Lion drinking five Red Bulls talking into a microphone attached to a state of the art sound system.

Francisco X. Stork came along and wrote a blog post which was beautiful, profound, moving, mesmerizing, and about one-hundred other adjectives. And one line in that one-hundred-plus adjective blog post took a walk off the screen of my computer, crawled across my keyboard, under my shirt, rock climbing up the many belly and chest hairs of my body, right up over my chine, lips, semi-large nose and directly in front of my eyes.

The novel you need to write is the one that scares you the most, the one you think no one will publish and if it is published no one will read and if it is read no one will understand, except perhaps another soul like yours.

The sentence joined forces with Old Novel and the two of them came at me like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, like Milk and Cookies, like Dragons and Fire, like Laverne and Shirley, like garlic bread and more garlic bread.

I could no longer resist.

So I gave New Novel a few loving, tender words, and promised I'd return soon, and I opened up Old Novel and dug back in.

This time, however, I wrote intothe fear. I wrote into the places I didn't want my character (ahem, myself) to go. I wrote into the darkness and the confusion and into the pivotal scene I mentioned at the start of this post.

I cried.

A lot.

My heart was pounding, and I experienced a minor allergy attack, and the three people to my right in the computer lab kept looking over at me like, Why is that guy crying and sneezing and DOES HE HAVE TO TYPE SO LOUD?


Because in this last month of Old Novel's third re-drafting, I am finally writing into the heart of the story. And it's scary and painful and wonderful and incredibly gooey in there. Nothing makes a whole lot of sense (yet). And nothing is easy. And no redemption is going to be possible without a lot of learning, one hefty character arc, and loads of transformation, from outside and from within.

Kind of, ahem, like my life.

When we write into the heart of the story, we're no longer writing with a publishing deal in mind, or with a certain audience in mind, or even with a goal in mind. When we really find ourselves getting into the center of the story, we're writing what has to be written--the words announce themselves and we're choosing to allow them the space to be who they are, show us what needs to happen even though it's scary and painful and all we want to do is say Surely there's got to be another way?

But there isn't.

(In writing, or in life.)

Without the pain, the redemption isn't real. Without the obstacles, the triumph isn't beautiful. Without the confusion and despair, the clarity and the hope aren't authentic.

And we we were somehow able to all get together under the guise of having a Jimmy Stewart movie marathon or a garlic bread-eating contest or something typical like that, but instead, we arrived at the wide open space with no television and no oven, and instead we all started talking about the kind of lives we want to live and the kind of stories we want to write, I'd venture to say that we'd come to a pretty quick consensus.

We want to write and live the ones that aren't easy. Even though the surface of ourselves and our culture certainly claims otherwise, we know deep down that we don't want ease. We don't want clarity without confusion. We don't want triumph without despair. We don't want love without first moving through and past fear.

And the only stories worth telling and the only lives worth living are those whose words and arms open up wide enough to embrace the suffering and the joy--knowing that both are necessary to both forge and move our hearts.