You're Writing the Same Story


You're Writing the Same Story

For Memorial Day this year, I found myself in a small Vermont town, working on my novel. Sometime around noon I heard the fanfare of trumpets and drums beating outside my window; I stepped outside just in time to see the town's charming little parade come by, waving banners and flags, high-stepping and proud. It's always fun to see a parade go by, but I was also glad that I was in a small town with just one Boy Scout troop and one high school band, because after a while, parades start to get repetitive. They also look the same no matter where you are. There's always the firetruck and the band and the camping troupe, the same people you don't know marching by.

I know I'm not supposed to knock parades, their being patriotic and all, but on a purely aesthetic level, I think they can teach us a lot about our own bad habits in writing. Once my dad attended a very long parade. He used two rolls of film taking pictures of the event. When we got the photos back, there wasn't a single interesting photo in the whole bunch; it was just a wall of unknown people walking past. Sometimes this is the exact effect we create in our own writing.

MY WEAKNESS IS NUNS. I'm fascinated with their lives, their choices, their identities. I've currently got about three different stories about nuns in various stages of completion. They could really be good, but only if I work hard not to slip into parade mode, just trotting out the same old repeating perceptions, stereotypes, and cliches.

It's kind of like this: our heads are already filled with perceived narratives and narrative expectations. That's kind of like the parade route. We know where stories traditionally go. Start with a certain kind of character - a cheating husband, a lonely old widow, a child whose parents are divorcing - and already we've got a very rigid set of possibilities in our minds. The story could go one of two or three ways, and once we've limited ourselves to that, we just start the parade, let the usual old forms march past, and that's the story. We could complete it on autopilot - and we can do it over, and over, and over.

Have you ever found yourself writing the same story over and over again? It happens more often than you realize. After a while, we've practiced writing enough to just wind up the toy and set it going. But of course, that is not going to produce fresh, original, surprising writing. It is not going to produce the kind of work that grows and changes as the story progresses. What if, halfway through the parade, an escaped rhino from the zoo charged through the procession, causing havok? What if that lonely old widow didn't grieve at all, but took up salsa dancing and got out of the house? You've got to find ways to break up the solemn march of fulfilled expectations; you simply must, or you won't be writing a story worth its salt.

So have you written a story that was more like a parade? Tell us about it, and tell us how you managed to shake up the dull procession.