Stories to Tell: From a Poem to an Airplane
What makes a good story?
The answer is a thousand things. It is also a single thing. It can be anything from the way a character cries to the beautiful way moonlight shines on broken glass.
A good story makes you feel something. Anything. Anger. Outrage. Hope. Confusion. Love. Regret. Excitement.
I say ‘good’ story, but what I mean is ‘effective.’ Because ‘good’ is too vague a term, and it makes me think of banana bread and my grandma. A short story is not banana bread. Or, to my knowledge, my grandma.
The next question is usually, How do you write a story like that?
The answer is easy. It is situated right between Hard Work and Talent. It’s the same answer give by anyone who has ever invented, fixed, or created something (from a poem to an airplane): you just do it. You try. You fail. You try again. You fail again. You don’t give up. You don’t give in.
The secret, I think, is to allow those Moments of Despair. You know the feeling you get when you feel like everything you’re writing is wrong – and you’re one step away from blow torching the whole mess? Shriek. Yell at the sky. Threaten to throw your laptop, cell phone, or Kindle out the window. Rage. Eat chocolate. Find some alcohol.
Watch television. Read a book. And then…get back to work. Because the truth is that half of life is simply this: don’t give up.
As a kid, I thought I could get through anything – a hurtful friend, a bad day at school, being passed over for a chorus solo – if I just put one foot in front of the other. One step, then another. And there it is: progress. Writing is the same. You put one word in front of another. Sometimes, it’s like magic and being drunk – and having a really good laugh. Other times, it’s like visiting the dentist, without Novocain, while your boyfriend breaks up with you via text message. Oh, and he’s been dating your sister.
Easy vs. difficult. Not impossible, mind you. Difficult.
The last question is usually this: Why did you write that?
I could lie to you. I could make up a story. I could tell you that I get my ideas from a tiny unicorn that lives in my My Little Pony lunchbox. But that would totally ruin my Rock Star image. The real answer is: I don’t know. For me, most of the time, I start with an image or a line. Maybe it was something somebody said to me. Maybe it was a memory that a certain smell pried loose. Maybe it was the magic unicorn in my lunchbox. I honestly don’t think it matters, as long as the words go on the page. As long as things are written.
This morning, I sat down and I wrote a draft for a story. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever written before, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. If I start writing the same type of thing over and over again, that’s when all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We all know how that story went.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: don’t give up. The second best is probably: read everything. The third might be: write whatever story wants to be written.
Each short story, each poem, each novel – each piece of writing (complete and incomplete) is a lesson that only you can teach. It’s also a lesson that only you can learn. Not even story is going to be perfect or even vaguely publishable. Some will be complete shit. Some will toil as Really Bad Drafts forever. Some will see character changes and a mountain of post-it notes.
But I’ll say it again: each one is a lesson. It’s a stepping stone, a learning experience. Good stories (effective stories) get rejected. It has to resonate with your audience. Sometimes, that audience is you. Yourself.
Rejection isn’t exactly failure. It’s not a nice day at the beach either, because everybody wants to hear the word yes. But it is what you make of it. It is also what you take from it.
You get what you give. Write the best story you can. Then, write another.