Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Agony of the Untold Story for the Fiction Writer

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.  -Maya Angelou

Someone recently sent me this quote. Its truth brought tears to my eyes. The synchronicity of it's arrival was uncanny. Although I am a fiction writer and have written about ten novels, some published, some not, a few unfinished, others yet unborn, I have for the past ten years or so feared I would never give birth to another novel.

Why my fiction writing dried up, I don't know. It was a slow drying up, but one day it was gone. There were no more characters and stories inside me. It was astonishing, really. I had written all my life, since the time I was a little girl. There hadn't been any great long breaks. I wrote all through school, majored in writing in college. I married a man who loved my writing, believed in my career as a novelist. I wrote when my children were small and all through their growing up. I reveled in the freedom of the empty nest. My time was my own. I wrote more furiously. I expected I would write fiction for the rest of my life. 

At first I worried desperately. Who was I without my fiction writing? What would I do? When there seemed there was nothing I could do to rekindle the flame, I grieved, I berated myself; I thought I was a failure. Wasn't I born to write? And finally, because I tired of the struggle, I grimly accepted the fact that my novel writing days were over. I was still writing, just not fiction. Sobeit. I'd had a great run with countless memorable characters and plots, successes and failures. I'd lived the life of a novelist and now it was time to put my creativity into other adventures.

My teaching, workshops and retreats became my passion. Yet, I have to admit, it was odd to be constantly working with, coaching fiction writers, creatively involved in other's characters and stories and not be writing fiction myself. As the years went by, I became aware of a subtle but aching emptiness that showed up now and again. Why, I wondered, am I not writing a novel? I never allowed myself to wonder long. It only increased the aching.
About two weeks ago, during a session of my teleworkshop Priming the Pump, I decided to write from one of my own prompts. Priming the Pump doesn't use word prompts. Instead, I pick photos and sometimes paintings that evoke feeling and drama for the prompts.

I have been holding Priming the Pump teleworkshops on and off for years. (If you would like to be informed of the next Priming the Pump teleworkshop, please sign up for the blog mailing list.) There always energetic and fun and the participants do some excellent writing. I, however, didn't write from the prompts myself. Since I knew why I chose them, I didn't feel drawn to write about them. Then I found the picture you see here.

The picture to the left immediately captured my imagination. When others in the workshop began to write (there are two time writing periods of twenty minutes each during the teleworkshop) I decided, hey, I love that painting, why not write? It wasn't actually a decision -- more of a reaction. And the story flowed. Out of nowhere. Out of the picture. Out of my imagination. Out of the fiction writer in me who suddenly woke up. Out of.... I don't know where, but the words flew. Characters appeared, the story took off. I felt the novelist in me breathing again. I read it to the class. The response was exhilarating. I was on to something.

I could barely sleep that night. Was this a fluke? Would I be able to write more? Sure, the characters showed up, but the story was slight. I was rusty, and blah, blah, blah. My doubts flowed as my writing had, but underneath the uncertainty, I knew I had found something intangible but real.  
I woke up the next morning with these words in my head. "My name is Viola Carpenter. I am 94 years old and of sound mind and body. I have lived most of my life in a small fishing village midway up the Maine Coast..." This was not the story I had written the night before. The character had another name and there was nothing of Maine in the story, but I knew this character; Viola was a live one. She was bold and she was ready to talk.
I jumped out of bed, put on the coffee and when it was ready, headed for the computer and Viola. I wrote for hours and wrote again the next day.... Viola has been talking to me ever since, and the story is evolving. She speaks to me when I am not writing. I fall asleep thinking about her and wake up thinking about her. I have no idea where the story is going. But I am writing. The fiction writer in me is alive and well.
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  1. Hi Emily,

    I love the picture you chose and the name Viola. Good luck with the story, or will it be a novel?

    Pictures and paintings are wonderful idea generators. I have written a few stories which were sparked by a painting or a phot.

    I just finished a story whcih was begun in response to a writing prompt and sent it out to an on-line journal. It began as one thing, but finished in a totaly different direction. I won't say the story wrote itself, but it kept pulling me away from my original concept. This probably happens to many writers. Sometimes, it's a struggle to go in the new direction, but I think I have a better story than if I had finished with my original concept. Even if a publisher doesn't take it, I am pleased with it.


  2. Hi Adelaide
    Thanks for your posting. It will be a novel. Novel writing is in my bones. I hope to write more about the process as I can see it more objectively now than I used to do.
    I already feel the story pulling me away from what I thought it was... Today was the first real day of spring for us here. It was so gorgeous, the garden pulled me more than Viola!! I am going to get up early tomorrow and spent time with her. :)
    I like your attitude about submitting you story. The fact that you are pleased it the biggest payoff!
    Good luck,


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