Imagine Having Been There

Campfire3I wrote a story, something I haven’t done in a year. It’s for a contest associated with a conference I’ll attend this summer. Conference attendees don’t have to pay an entry fee so there’s nothing to lose.

My story is ostensibly about my wife’s struggle to care for her ageing mother. We have been horrified to discover that the elder health care system in America is designed mainly to extract maximum money from the family, through coercion, deception and bad faith. No surprise there, maybe, but it’s a terrible experience to fall through that rabbit hole. The psychological consequences are dehumanizing for everyone who touches the system.

So I wrote 2500 words with the daughter of the ageing mom as the main character. I asked my writing group to read it.  They had little positive to say. It was more of a polemic than a story, they said. Yes, you are upset at the injustice and callousness of American cutthroat capitalism, so write an essay.

Ow!  But after an hour-long, discussion and after reading their detailed written comments, I have to agree. The story sucks. The characters are not well-described, dialog is expositional, and narration tells instead of shows. I was motivated to tell my angry story, not the characters’.

This is where a writing group of trusted colleagues pays off. They saved me from myself.  I didn’t have enough distance on the experience to write a well-crafted story about it. Maybe I should wait six months or a year, but I think I’ll give it another go for the contest. I’ve got a month.

Re-thinking the story makes me realize, though, that the archetype of the old storyteller at the campfire or in the kitchen over a shared bottle, is not the right image for modern writers.  Real-life storytellers say, this happened, then that. I felt this way, Joe said that. We expected this but that happened.

A real storyteller rarely says, “Joe’s face went white. He looked left then right. His brow furrowed as he slowly stepped backwards away from the lake, his eyes never leaving the surface of the water.”  That kind of over-dramatization of events is an invention of modern fiction, the point of which is not to tell what happened, but to imagine having been there.

Can I get outside myself to write a proper story?


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