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06. What Are Stories Anyway?

When writing a story, there are moments of ecstasy. The discovery of a new character is sheer delight, and an insight on how best to structure the narrative is a relief and a thrill. Yet, throughout the process, countless moments arrive when I ask – what the blazes am I doing?


Outlining a chapter can feel very disconnected, very wooden. Drafting scenes can feel half like the muscle burn of overdone exercise, half like aimless wandering. And coming up with the story idea itself often feels more like a lucky stumble than anything planned.


But there’s a chemistry to the showing up, over and over. There’s gold to be found in what Kenneth Grahame’s beloved Water Rat describes as the worth of “simply messing about in boats.” There’s a reward to keeping at the workbench when progress seems far removed.


Because the day does arrive when, after having suffered almost unbearable doubts, after having pressed through hundreds of hours of dizzying writing jaunts—I watch the living story rise from the ashen page. I see the narrative take shape, a tale that works on levels of beauty, and on levels of structure, and on levels of meaning.


And when it works, it seems that the story I’m sculpting has always been there. It’s a hand to a glove, a near-physical manifestation of what, until then, has been only distantly dreamed. And though I truly created the story, it seems far more honest to say that I encountered it.


Stephen King describes stories, in On Writing, as found things, “like fossils in the ground... Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world.” The writer, then, is less responsible for shaping than for digging.


I get that. And in my mind, the analogy goes slightly further. To me, stories seem like things not merely waiting to be found, but things wanting to be found.




The author approaching a story is a rider sidling up to a wild stallion. To the stallion, the rider is a force to resist. Getting caught could mean all kinds of trouble. But the rider may also represent access to protection and food, to water, to companionship, to life, maybe. So the stallion, if handled gently, if approached carefully, skillfully—he relents.


So in writing, what does that approach look like?


Chasing down a wild animal is not likely to end well. Manhandling and forcing and willing and pressing will send the horse jetting away. More, it’s the easy nearing, right? It’s the calm in the encounter, the promise of reward, the assurance.


Well, stories aren’t quite wild stallions. But I don’t think they’re all that different. The most profitable writing sessions I’ve enjoyed have happened when I’m compromised in some way, incapable of taking anything by the horns. Like when I’m dead tired. When I’ve woken from a deep sleep. When I’m exhausted from a long walk. Or stilled at the close of a busy work day.


When the mind quiets, the story seems more apt to approach.


But here is where the horse metaphor wholly ends. Because once I feel that I’m kneeling on that dry red earth, the wild stallion nosing my hand, his forelegs leading him down to rest at my feet—I find that, in a way, he speaks.


I can’t ever hope, in writing, to literally hear the story told as it comes, as through an audible voice. But I sometimes do feel dictated to. And the voice in question manifests from a place I can’t name.


Is it coming from deep within? Maybe. Or from someplace outside of myself? It sure feels like it. From the subconscious? That sort of makes sense. Out of the conglomeration of lived experiences, synthesized by my ability to make meaning out of chaos? I like that. But the truth is—I have no idea.


Having ushered many stories to life, with characters whom I’m bound to fall in love with springing onto my path, with remarkable feats won and terrible conflicts surmounted, I still can’t quite say what stories are.


I know stories as blossoms that open by moonlight. They’re as skittish as colts and as knowing as seasoned scholars. They can’t be pinned down, and they certainly don’t move by my will or ego. In my experience, stories don't really catch fire from the brew of: “I’m going to write a best-seller,” or “This is going to make me rich / famous / great.”


They move in stillness, these creatures of night, these envisaged Forest Children slipping past and dissolving into the starry woods; these competent smarties, these brilliant heroes, these dauntless adventurers and true friends, these formidable opponents, all of whom seem to know far more about life and the human condition than I do.


Stories and their characters seem to appear when my guardedness crumbles, when every facade drops away, when all my willfulness is worn and friable, when all ego, caught out by clear starlight, fades.

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