Why getting caught up in your story is both necessary and dangerous.
I remember the day I first fell in love with my story. I had been flailing around for the narrative theme that would tie my proposed memoir together, trying to answer the same riddle put to every author before crossing the publishing gulch: What’s This About Anyway?
I had the raw material for a memoir about motherhood, and a few ideas were coming into focus, like belonging, and extraordinary ordinary, but I couldn’t see the whole outline. I didn’t quite believe in it yet.
Then one day, a line came to me. “I jumped the white picket fence.” I sat down, and typed what became the introduction to Planting Dandelions in one sitting, carried along by the swell of story. As if I’d been paddling along a trickle of ideas that suddenly spilled into the ocean. From then on, I knew what my book was about, and I believed in it. I still do.
I think I’m almost there with my second book. I’ve begun the shitty first draft I’ve been avoiding with dread. After months of filling journals and index cards with back story, character sketches, and plot points that no one will ever see, I can feel the current picking up. I’m done with outlining, populating and furnishing my story. It’s time to get in the boat, pull the oars up, and hope I get carried away.
A writer needs to be carried away when she’s writing–infatuated, even. She needs to be carried away when she’s trying to get agents, publishers, and readers to believe in her story. It takes that momentum to bring a book into the world. Like any act of creation, really. Look at motherhood. There’s a kind of delirium that gets you through the the first year. There has to be, or our species would have died out eons ago.
But there’s a downside to the delirium. You can be carried too far away. Passion can tip over into grandiosity. Enthusiasm can veer into hyperbole. Self-affirmation can start to look like self-congratulation. When writers get carried away, they can become this person, as hilariously described by author Rebecca Makkai:
He deserves good things. He’s worked as hard as anyone else. It’s just that sometimes, you kind of wish he’d get a little bit smooshed by a bus.
I know that guy. At times, I’ve been that guy. And speaking from experience as an author and a follower of many authors, I can almost guarantee that everyone who publishes a book will be that guy to some degree, at some point in the process. I hope they have friends as patient as mine.
It’s good and necessary to get carried away by your story. For a little while. But you need ballast. I had it in my agent and editor, who bore the frothiest waves of my exuberance, and kept the worst of it out of the public eye. Four years later, I still blush to remember some of my more over-the-top gems, and give thanks that it’s unlikely anyone will ever collect my manuscript drafts and letters.
That kind of professional ballast is built into traditional publishing, where the work has to get past multiple eyes before it’s released to an audience. It’s not idiot proof, but it saves some of us from ourselves. As legitimate and wonderful as I think self-publishing is, it’s missing that critical test. We’ve all had occasion to shake our heads at someone’s very public misfire and wonder, what were they thinking?
I think a lot of the time, they simply got carried away by their story, and there was no one to pull them back.
Whatever story you have to tell, however you tell it, I hope you fall in love with it and let it carry you away. Writing a book is far too much work and risk for the half-hearted. Just be sure there’s somebody standing by with sharp eyes watching out for you, and a gentle hand to bring you in.