Where The Story Ends…

Once upon a time, I tried to write a book. Actually, that particular sentence could bring me back to any number of failed enterprises in which I tried to make a writer out of myself. I’m going to be a bit more specific: I tried to write a book when I was in grade 6 (that’s the 6th grade for anyone below the 49th parallel.) This time, the book was going to be titled “How to Survive Middle School Without Losing Your Composure”. It was to be the first of a trilogy.

As you can probably guess, the exercise was an abject failure. For starters, I didn’t get through the first two weeks of middle school without losing my composure. I did survive –  which I sometimes think is accomplishment enough – but I have no idea how to get through most experiences without losing my composure. That particular characteristic was even more obvious when I was 11.

This delightful anecdote brings me to the reason I have trouble writing things that people will actually want to read. (Academic papers notwithstanding. I like to think I write a pretty sweet synthesis paper, and I also like to think that the people who read them actually enjoy them a little. But I also use the word notwithstanding on a regular basis, so you might just want to write me and my opinions off right now.)

There’s a very common trope in fiction where the hero(ine) is trying desperately to figure out what to write or how to write –  and then some wise old Obi-Wan/Mr. Miyagi type tells them cryptically to “Write what you know”. Suddenly they pull through their denial, the penny drops, and they write something brilliant and they’re on their way to happily ever after.

This sort of thing doesn’t work so well for me, for several reasons.

This is fantastic advice for people who know things. In particular, this is fantastic advice for people who know the way their stories will turn out, or whose stories already have turned out. I’ve been writing (it’s still writing even if you never finish anything) since I was about nine. I remember writing at age nine. When I was nine, the endings were easy. Everybody lived happily ever after, if maybe a different happily ever after than they’d originally planned. Maybe the “Sk8er Boi” wound up with the ballerina after all; maybe the pretty, popular girl realized that the mousy bookworm was actually the most awesome best friend in the world. The details vary, but the bottom line’s the same.

I never finished anything because I got sidetracked somewhere in the middle. I always knew everything would work out (because that’s the joy of writing a story at that age, everything does eventually work out) I just didn’t know how to get there from the beginning. At some point between nine and now, I grew up. Not a whole lot has changed. I still don’t have any idea how to get to the end of the story: neither the one I’m writing, nor the one I’m living.

All that stuff about how your protagonists are always you tends to throw me for a loop as well. I’ve got even less of a clue about how my story is going to end than I do about the stories I’m trying to write.

I’m petrified that somewhere in this story the naive young woman who wants so badly to believe the world can change will find out that by the time she has the power to change it, she won’t want to.
I’m afraid that I’ll forget the things I know and feel and believe. This is, I suppose, where religion would come in handy. There’s always a guidebook to consult if you get confused or can’t quite remember. All I’ve got is my gut. No instruction manual, no roadmap.

So let’s go. How lost can you get if you don’t know where you’re going?

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