My friend once told me the best writing was the stuff one felt uncomfortable reading or showing to others. And it was those pieces which often contained more real experience and the genuine emotions; the very things which would resonate with the reader also made the reading feel more risky. Hence the adage, “write what you know.” These pieces are more than "just stories,” they’re a relaying of experience which the writer feels connected to, they matter, they’re real. And I have come to realize that these pieces are the ones where I've left part of myself and the pieces for which I bear the thinest skin for criticism. And yet, it’s precisely these connections, this genuineness of emotion, which allows the reader to relate to the story.
This in mind, the balance between what to put into a story and what to leave out is always tricky. I recently wrote a story draft in which I fictionalized and wove together two different experiences. The heart of the story was something I really experienced and I had the dilemma of deciding "how much to tell." In the first draft I stuck to what I felt safe with, but it wasn't enough. After reading it, my friend said "I feel like the author knows the key in the relationship difficulties between the characters and is keeping it from me." She said, she found this frustrating as a reader because I wasn't trusting her with the information she needed to fully connect with the character and truly feel what was at stake and sympathize with her journey. This left her feeling gipped. This was important for me to know because I want the reader to understand and fully experience the story and to do this they must be able to fully connect with the main character, whom they will travel the story with. At the same time I realized this also caused me to leave out another key in the story, a part of the "Hero's Journey,’ a moment where the heroine loses something.
I'd have to say the turning point in my storytelling was when I read “The Writer’s Journey,” a book written by Christopher Vogler, from which I learned the importance of the "hero's Journey" model. This knowledge came during my rewrite of "The Closet Guardian," a story of a boy who comes to terms with his fears around his father’s leaving, and irrevocably changed the way I look at story structure.
"The Writer's Journey" talks about "Mythic Structure for Writer's and the focus of the book encompasses the "Hero's Journey.” The Hero’s Journey, is an essentially different and totally organic, way of seeing, using and dissecting a story plot and what each stage accomplishes for the reader. Vogler is very good at relating the concepts with examples from well known stories, myths and films.
I didn't read this book... I absorbed it like a sponge over the course of a month before sitting down to redraft my story.
When I began the draft I didn't eat for 8 hours. My face was sucked into the screen as I typed and edited, scrutinizing each line for feel and flow while I transcribed from two separate and very different versions and added in the third layer of the boys father. When I was finished my brain kept going all night analyzing and cross analyzing each of the story threads. And when I realized I had the first story I'd ever written which it could be picked apart and studied, (as one studies things during English class) for structure and integrity, and hold up no matter which way it was looked at, my soul was flying.
The Hero's Journey is a circle and the most important part is the death. Something has to die and the reader has to get that heart clenching fearful experience of perceiving something they care about has or is about to die. This has to happen in order for them to feel the relief and elation born of returning from that place with a better view, a true shift, the knowledge that they've been through the life changing valley of death along with the character and survived. This moment came in my story "The Closet Guardian" when the boys mouse, symbolic of the memories of his father and his hope of someday seeing him again, is crushed and we think he's dead. And when the boy picks the limp body up in his hands and cries we see the mouse twitch and are suddenly relieved, elated, that he's going to be okay.
It is those moments that the reader wants. They want to laugh, cry, fear and mourning, with the character. And as a writer I need to measure up to that expectation. And so, in my new story I now have to take a bit of courage, step back into the heart of the story, battle my fear, and put in the missing parts, before I can achieve the reward - a story I know will be damn good when I'm done. Knowing that part of me too will be in someways sacrificed; no longer just mine, it will live forever in vulnerability of the page, away from the protection of my heart as I emerge from the story, make my cover letter, and send it out to the world.