My favorite part of writing a story might be the moment right before I begin writing a new story. I’ve been mulling over an idea, sometimes for weeks, before I ever let pen touch paper. I’ve been planning and shaping and pushing characters this way and that. And all the time I’m thinking, this is going to be my best story yet. This is going to be the special one.
In my mind, the “special story” is that Loch Ness monster I’ve been trying to capture for all my writing life. It’s the mythical story out there that is The Perfect Story. None of my flaws and failings as a writer have crept into it. It’s punchy and vivid and not a word is wasted. It’s haunting and lyrical and deep, but not too long. It’s the misty vision of a perfect story that I think so many of us writers have in our head.
And then, full of optimism, we touch pen to paper — and what happens? All the usual failings come creeping in. First one cliché wiggles its way into a sentence like a worm into an apple. Then there’s another one. We let it go because the imperative of the story is pushing us on right now; we can tolerate those cliches, we can fix them later. So we write on. Somewhere around page three or four or five, I begin to realize that this story is not going to be the Loch Ness monster. It’s not going to be that fabled perfect story. It is already disappointing me, already quietly telling me to quit. Give up, my sad little story whispers. Even my handwriting on the page starts to look silly and childish, preoccupied with immature things.
The problem is that just like those poor dreamers, the seekers of bigfoots and Yetis and Nessies, I’m chasing a fantasy. I imagine the process of writing to be eventually putting perfection down on the page. And while we can polish and polish and make things truly excellent, we can’t let the idea of The Perfect Story stop us from writing any story at all. Too often I become discouraged halfway through writing a story and I decide to cast it away rather than go through the hard work of finishing it and making it work. I’ve got a folder full of disappointments, and all of them began as Loch Ness Monsters, as creatures that I thought could become unique and perfect, could rear their heads up through my writing life like nothing anyone had seen before.
Does this mean I’m settling? That I can’t write well and movingly? Not at all. I know there’s a seed of talent in me, but it always takes more work than talent to draw something out of its rough husk. To chase after the Loch Ness monster is folly — and it distracts you from all the wonderful realities out there that can be reached. I don’t want to toss back my next story the moment I realize it’s not going to be the mythical story. I’d rather hold on to that fishing line, very patiently, and slowly, painfully, reel in what’s actually there.