The past few days I’ve been thinking about Story in general, what it means to me, and my journey through it, so that’s what I’m going to talk about today. (It’s also two days early, too, woohoo!)
Story has been a large, conscious presence in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was little my Mom would read a bedtime story to me and my brother at night and we would do anything and everything to finagle just one more out of her before bed. We were good at finagling, usually getting two or three out of her before she put the books away and gave us the Serious Eyebrow-Pointer Finger of Doom combo.
Even then I still tried to push for just one more. Story was, and still is, like a direct hit of cocaine to my nervous system. It gives me a high unlike anything else, a sense of well being and a surge of insatiable curiosity. Every time the story stopped I felt starved in the absence of words. So I started telling stories to my brother and we made games out of them. It sated the hunger for a while.
In kindergarten I gained haphazard mastery over the alphabet using fat pencils with huge pieces of lead. I learned how to write stories down and I went nuts. I found a one page story not too long ago, written on yellowing notebook paper with zero punctuation and a couple mystery words not in any dictionary. The story was about a man who worked at a gas station and loved surprises.
Honestly, I don’t remember ever writing such a thing, but it has my name at the top, written in lopsided print, so I’m going to assume no other six year old impersonated me.
That all consuming hunger for words stayed in my gut throughout elementary and followed me into my home schooled years of middle and high school. I filled notebooks and floppy disks. I raided the local library and, after reading everything they had to offer, had the librarian order stacks of books from other libraries for me to consume.
I wrote every day. When without a computer I had a notebook and pen, even when going to family gatherings and on short trips to the grocery store. I have a permanent callous on my right pointer finger where a pen sits and ink is probably 8/10’s of my DNA makeup.
I also have more pens than I know what to do with. Seriously, I could probably go the rest of my life without buying anymore. But I won’t. Because NEW PENS.
Anyway, back on topic. I wrote and wrote. I never really thought ahead to what I wanted to do with my writing. Story was just something I did, like breathing and eating nachos and playing Spyro and Crash Bandicoot with my brother. I never stopped to think about it in a larger context. It was borderline obsession and involuntary reflex with no deeper meaning.
Somewhere along the way I figured out that those books? Other people wrote them and sold them. They did that stuff for a living.
That was the biggest revelation of my childhood, surpassing the awe of learning a new language no one outside my friends spoke (Pig Latin) and that grain silos did not, in fact, house alligators (don’t ask, I have no idea why I believed that).
I got serious about Story around 15/16. I took it upon myself to learn how to craft a good one instead of just fucking around. That meant tons of practice and hours of scouring the internet for writing articles that numbered in the thousands. At the time my Mom was letting us un-school, which is a learning method that set my brain on fire (in a good way!) as it put sole control and responsibility of learning in my ink-stained hands.
I devoured history and literature until it seeped out of my pores. I taught myself the basics of grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and how to construct paragraphs. I was awful for a long time, but I kept going and I improved.
Around the age of 18 there was a giant emotional upheaval in my life. It sucked. The reverberations of it still suck. There was a period of shock that then drained away leaving fear, rage, depression, and a whole spectrum of dark emotions that never seemed to get better.
At that point, my hunger for Story turned into the last thread connecting me to the life preserver. I stopped reading other people’s words and turned to my own. I ripped them out of my soul and stuck them to the page still bloody with wiggly ligaments twitching under the harsh florescent light. I heaped misery and death and angst on my characters. Every time I finished one book I went back to the beginning for revisions and it went ten times darker.
Story is a leech, you see. To give it life it has to take from you your essence, your emotions, your hopes and fears and parts of your soul. Story will take and take everything you’ll give it.
I worked on only one novel during that time. Sure, I had other ideas crop up. I’d sketch them out, write a couple scenes or chapters, but I returned to this first one because it held everything I was feeling and needed to get out of me. I finished it eleven times. That is eleven novel length drafts between the ages of 18 and 23. Each draft of that monstrosity got darker and harder, but it left me feeling lighter and saner.
Well, up to a point, anyway. I’ll never claim to be a miracle ray of sparkle dusted moonbeams shooting out of a unicorn’s ass, because that’s just unrealistic unless you have season two of Firefly.
In contrast, even though Story is a leech and takes from you, it also gives back. It took from me a lot of time and pain and in return gave me fresh knit scars bridging the chasm of the wounds I had sustained. It also held up a mirror which showed me what was going on beneath the surface, things I kind of knew but tried not to see.
A couple months ago Amanda Palmer gave a speech at Grub Street’s 2013 “The Muse and the Marketplace” (which you can view here) and talked about how our art is our way of taking in the world and connecting the dots. We do that through whatever medium we choose and connect the dots not only for ourselves, but for everyone else around us. As writers, it is through Story that we bring these connections to life to share with others, who are just as hungry for Story as we are.
Looking back on those eleven drafts now, I can better understand what I was doing. I was searching for those connections to the whys the whats and the ifs. I was connecting my own dots looking for answers, and in doing so I explored the deeper aspects of Story.
I don’t regard Story as just something I do now. It’s so much more than that. Story is the fabric that connects all of us, whether we’re best selling authors or children whispering tales to each other under the comforter after bedtime. Story is the blood and bone and wiggly ligaments that paste together our understanding of ourselves and our universe. It is our mirror.
So, that hunger you feel, feed it whatever it wants, whether it be books, music, art, etc. Follow it into the darkest pits and into the wildest jungles. Give it pieces of your soul. Take from it what you need. Connect your dots.
Then, when you’re done, share it with the rest of the hungry people out here, because that is what Story is for.
©Shiloh Ohmes 2013