About a year ago, in the middle of January, I was trying to fall asleep and out of nowhere, a sentence came to me.
Just one line. A line of dialogue.
It tugged at me. It kept me up.
Who said this line? Why did they say it? Where were they? What were the stakes?
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King compares the process of writing a good story to the process of unearthing a fossil. You see part of the story peeking out of the ground–then you unearth the story by asking the right questions. You don’t imagine a bunch of independent, isolated pieces lying on top of the earth and then try to fit them all together.
You start with one piece–then you see what’s already attached to it.
So that’s what I did. I got out a notebook and I started answering those questions.
And a story emerged.
A long story.
Long enough for three books.
I stared down at my notes and thought, I don’t have time for this. I’ve got to finish this book I’m working on right now. When am I going to find time to write another book, let alone three? I’ve got a job. And a toddler.
Still, the story wouldn’t go away. As I drove to work, the plot, the characters, and their motivations took shape. As I listened to music in my car, and I could see critical scenes playing out before me as I drove, much like a movie trailer. One morning while on a short vacation with friends, I got up at 5:30 and spent two hours writing out the first five major scenes.
But then I got stuck. I couldn’t see past a major conflict. I couldn’t figure out how to resolve the conflict in a way that fit with the characters.
So I put it away. I finished the book I was working on. I learned how to publish, how to market, and how reach new readers. I spent time blogging and writing essays to submit for publication elsewhere.
But the story wouldn’t go away.
My husband put several books in my stocking for Christmas this year. One of them was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.
I wasn’t ready to read it at first. I was still working through the grief of miscarriage. But within a week, I decided it was time to allow myself to cultivate my creativity again. It was my creativity, after all, that had saved me, time and time again.
In Gilbert’s book, she articulates a belief that ideas come to people, almost like a kind of spiritual possession. And if the person doesn’t try to bring forth the idea to the world, it will move on, seeking someone else to bring it to light.
What a bunch of mystical bullshit, I thought.
But I kept thinking about the story that I had told to wait. I couldn’t deny that it was still lingering there in the deep recesses of my brain. It was like a puzzle that I couldn’t figure out.
So I dug out my notes about the story and the twelve pages that I wrote a year earlier and I read them.
As I moved through the pages I was swept up in the story that my previous self had written. Whose voice was this in these pages? Who wrote this? I know I did, but this doesn’t sound like me at all. It truly felt like I was reading someone else’s great idea.
But I still couldn’t figure out how to resolve the major conflict.
This last week, I had coffee with a good friend, Cate. She asked me if I had any desire to write fiction again. I rolled my eyes and shrugged, “You mean besides that one book that I can’t figure out?”
“What book?” she asked.
It occurred to me that Cate was a fresh audience with whom I’d never shared the concept of this book.
I told her everything that I knew. She listened, her eyebrows lifting in interest in all the right places. I had to backtrack a few times to clarify plot lines and motivations, but she stuck with me the whole time. As she asked me questions, I could feel the gears clicking into place again, the story starting to open up and move.
As I drove home, I started to re-imagine the story. What if this… What if that…
I jotted some more notes down in a new notebook. I scribbled out the plot arcs for all three books. Oddly enough, the most logical and motivating place for me to begin was with the second book.
And so that’s where I’ll begin.
After this experience, I can’t totally write off Elizabeth Gilbert’s premise, that ideas knock on our doors, asking for us to bring them to light.
Because where did this first line of dialogue come from?
I have no idea.
While I can rationalize the experience of unearthing the fossil of this story question by question, I cannot rationalize where that first spark of curiosity came from. I can attribute my own imagination as the source that fleshed out the answers to all the questions that surrounded this line of dialogue.
But where did that first line of dialogue come from?
I know it didn’t come from me.
Damn you, Elizabeth Gilbert.
But also bless you, for convincing me to not give up on the idea that wouldn’t go away.
Now the hard work begins.