I had never spent as much time away from a story as I had when I set my book aside for three months this past fall. This was intentional. I had returned to teaching and there were other calls on my time. I suppose I could have carved out a morning or two a week, if not to write, then report, or read, or maybe go back to see what I had and what I needed.
But I wanted the time away. I knew I’d think about the story. That was inevitable; it’s with me all the time. But I didn’t want to engage with it. I wanted some distance. I needed to leave the book, and the overlapping stories I was telling, and turn my attention elsewhere. I needed space.
I recognize that I am using the fallback lines so often invoked when things in a relationship are not going well. Not quite “seeing other people,” but you take my point. In the case of my book, things were not going badly; in fact, after struggling months earlier to decide whether it was time to start writing (finally, yes, thanks to the necessary just-do-it-already advice from my wife and brother), things felt as if they were falling into place. I could see a shape and direction. The characters were coming alive. I could see how their lives connected to one another, and to the great forces at play around them. Reason to keep going, no?
Reason to stop. Or rather to pause. Writers see virtue in sticking with things, in forging ahead, in maintaining the momentum even when they’re flagging. This is imposed from without by deadlines, and from within by a fear that if we stop doing what takes so long to get started we might never begin again.
Writers’ relationships with their stories are unlike any other. We give and give and give until the giving feels painful. The story – in whatever form it takes; long or short it makes no difference so long as it’s a story we feel compelled to tell – takes and takes and demands ever more. It is silent. It exists only because we will it into being, like Galatea and Pygmalion, except it’s not Aphrodite who brings our work to life, but us. Sometimes, when things aren’t going well, it can feel as if our stories are about to leave us, maybe forever. How will we go on?
I’ve come to believe that it’s important for writers to acknowledge what we already know, but don’t necessarily feel comfortable admitting: the emotional connection with our work. After all, we complain about our stories all the time, and the language is telling: I am sick of this story; I don’t get the story; the story is driving me nuts; I don’t know what to do with this story. And on and on. None of these laments suggests a relationship of equals; the story always has the upper hand. We let it own us.
But by acknowledging that we immerse ourselves, time and again, in relationships that can feel so hard, so emotionally draining, we can, I believe, shift the dynamic, and give it an essential balance. Unlike a casino, where the house always wins, the story does not always have to prevail. Stories can feel as if they have lives of their own, but that is because we have put them in a position to take flight. Watching a story take off can be as thrilling as it is unnerving because when a story feels as if it’s racing ahead of us, we’re left trying to catch up, just to stay close.
There is a push and pull in a relationship with a story, and the trick is to keep things healthy. Distance helps. Distance, in fact, is sometimes essential. I am not speaking only of an extended time away – a three-month separation. It can be as simple as writing a beginning, a lede, a hundred words or so – almost always the most difficult phase of any writing as we try to establish control over our stories -- and then getting up, stepping away, and catching our breath. The temptation is to press ahead, even as the act of just getting going depletes us.
Distance changes how we see our stories, and that is always to the good. When we’re writing it’s as if our noses are pressed against the glass, leaving us to see only what’s in front of us. We think we see it all, but seldom do, as editors, who have the luxury of being apart from the writing, are quick to remind us.
Sometimes we miss the obvious things, which can leave us smacking ourselves in the forehead thinking, how could I not have seen that? How? Because you couldn’t, not when you were sweating the words.
Only when I was away from my story did I realize that while one of the central characters, my immigrant grandfather, left no paper trail – he wrote down nothing, left no letters, not a word – he left a different trail that I could follow to find him: photographs. Pages and pages of black and white photos, some of them a hundred years old. The photographs, I could now see, were as revealing as the endless letters written by another key character, my late best friend’s grandfather.
It was there, in plain sight. Small details – a date, clothing, my grandfather’s face caught from two views thanks to a mirror – that taken together told me things about him and his life I did not know. I only had to see it. But I could only see it by stepping away.
My story, my book, consumes me. The writing comes in starts and fits; I get on a roll and then hit a wall. But it does not torment me, not like stories have in the past. I choose not to let it. I want, as best I can, to enjoy this, to take pleasure in this difficult, taxing, vexing, humbling relationship.
I’m all in. I’m glad to be back and see my story again.
The new issue of The Delacorte Review is now available from Amazon. This issue, Unto the Children, features three original pieces about families:
-Forgiveness -- An oral history about mothers and daughters in Iran
-When Momma's Prayers Weren't Enough -- A daughter's summons home after her nephew is arrested for murder
-A Headstone for Zach -- A father's journey to Eastern Europe after the death of his son.
It also includes an extended Q and A with the authors of Forgiveness, as well as excerpts from our archives of stories that touch on the theme of families.
Hope you enjoy it, and if you do -- tell a friend. Many thanks.