Living Our Stories

In writing workshops, teachers and advisers (and agents/publishers) all say that regardless of genre, a book’s word count is limited. In science fiction, for example, the standard acceptable word count ranges between 90K and 120K. Given this restriction, it’s important for the writer to confine herself to those words that move the story along toward its ultimate goal. They also drill into our heads the writer’s mantra: SHOW. Don’t TELL.

This morning I found myself comparing this philosophy to Life. We have a limited number of words (minutes/hours/days) with which to tell our story. If what we’re doing at any given moment does not further the purpose of the story in some meaningful way, it’s a waste of that finite resource.

Of course, key to either of these concepts is the fact that the writer must know the purpose of her story, its relevant point. She has to know what it is she wants her book (or her life) to accomplish. Ask any writer what is the goal of her story and (unless she is a writer with years of experience, or her log line is so practiced she could say it in her sleep) you’ll see her expression change to one of deep thought because in life, even more than on the page, refining such a sweeping, sometimes spiritual idea to the limited confines of mere words can present a real challenge.

It’s interesting to note that even if the writer has not defined it, the message of her life is there in her actions when she thinks no one is looking. It shines forth in her passions, in her treatment of others and of the world around her. The meaning of her story is revealed as much in what she avoids as in what she embraces. It is that showing that demonstrates to others what her life is really about far more visibly than her words ever could.

But here’s the big difference between writing and living. It’s expected that writers will draft and edit and rewrite their stories until they get the words right. Life seldom gives us the chance to rewrite our actions this time around. Unless reincarnation is true and we’ll get other tries (during which we still won’t remember the mistakes we made in the last draft), this is our one opportunity.

Writers or not, we’ve all heard the advice that we should make our moments count for something. I admit I’ve wasted far too many in floundering, not knowing what my story is, much less how to tell it. Or in letting others manipulate how I tell my story, as if they know any better than I what that might be. Or by doing completely irrelevant things that don’t help the process in any way, like regret or self-flagellation over things I cannot change. These are like throwaway scenes that I know will be cut from my manuscript in the editing process, so why do I write them in to begin with?

Who knows? Certainly not me. Even now, working a first draft of my second novel, I know that a freshly written scene is first-draft material, and may end up in my digital trash. Sometimes, pointless bits are stepping stones that carry me from where I am to where I want to be. They help me decide which way I want the story to go. They are tentative explorations that are part of the process of clarifying and refining the story’s purpose.

Maybe they aren’t completely pointless, then. I don’t know about you, but even if I have planned my overall point into a story outline (yes, friends, I am at least in part a plotter), weaving its threads into a riveting tale takes time and practice. Just like in life, I try things, make mistakes, go back and try again. Sometimes (like that manuscript that just can’t be fixed), the only thing I can do is walk away and start anew with another story. Every experience, good or bad, hones my skills, tightens my focus, sharpens my message or purpose.

And doesn’t that say something? Because the writers who’ve been there, who know how to cut and edit and trim, who know the process for making every word pack dramatic, meaningful punch, their names linger. Maybe Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Graça Machel, Gandhi and their ilk are/were their kin, showing us the point of their stories through the impactful events of their lives.

After all, no matter how many short stories or novels or essays I may write while I’m on this journey, my life is the story that really counts. I hope that despite my mistakes or edits or attempts to rewrite, that tale will have meaning not just for me, but for those whose lives I touch along the way.