on writing

You Need To Write That Great Story

Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

Many years ago I outlined a novel idea that I titled The Patriot. This was toward the beginning of the Tea Party movement, when the first signs of modern day hyper-patriotism emerged; the “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” era, where any remark suggesting that the White House overreached bordered on treason. (Or at least that’s how some folks made it seem.)

The Patriot, had I bothered to follow my own outline, was the story of a mundane, middle class, middle American husband and father whose life unravels through no apparent fault of his own. He loses his white collar job of 20 years to “right sizing” and struggles to find a comparable position. An accident burdens the family with tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt. The ensuing stress and depression lead his wife to leave him, taking the kids with her. Buried beneath a purple mountain of debt, inevitably the poor bastard loses his split level ranch home out there above the fruited plain.

There’s only one direction that a setup and title like that can go. Our antihero tumbles down a rabbit hole of anger and resentment, grumbling about the corrupt politicians who create tax benefits for heartless CEOs who move jobs overseas; a government that unfairly tilts the job market away from qualified candidates like him just because they are middle aged and white; on and on.

Talk radio, cable news, and social media all function as fuel pumps splashing gasoline onto the inferno smoldering within him. By the end of the story our mild mannered office schlub is a fully radicalized uber-patriot out to save America, even if he has to kill the patient in order to cure it.

So why didn’t I write this novel? Laziness comes to mind as does fear of failure, but I’m not sure that this question boils down to one simple answer. There are many possibilities here, all of which come with a lesson learned:

  • Don’t Write Your Own Rejection Slip. The idea for The Patriot seemed pretty hackneyed. The same territory was explored in Taxi Driver, Falling Down, and American History X, just to name a few stories. But “it’s already been done” is nothing more than a convenient excuse to avoid writing. Your spin might be better or worse than those who explored a given topic, but it will definitely be your spin. Shakespeare used existing stories as springboards for his own work. What, you’re better than Shakespeare? We experience enough rejection as writers already, why reject our own stories before we even really explore them?
  • Don’t Try To Time the Market. As slow as I work, I was certain that the hyper-patriotism of the Tea Party would be old news before I finished writing The Patriot. This was back in 2009, remember. Assuming I took a leisurely five years to complete a draft I would’ve been circulating my manuscript in 2014. If I managed to sell it, The Patriot probably would have hit the shelves right around the dawning of the Trump era. Reflecting on this feels a bit like torturing myself with “I could’ve bought Tesla at $38 per share but I thought that the peak had passed” thoughts.
  • Write the Damned Thing, Don’t Just Think About the Damned Thing. If there’s one thing separating those who talk about being writers from those who write it’s this. Generating story ideas is both important and fun, but if you aren’t writing them can you really call yourself a writer?
  • Time Is Going To Pass No Matter What You Do. I figure at least 4,000 days have passed since I first stumbled upon the idea for The Patriot. Even if I wrote only a quarter page–65 words–per day, I would be holding a 1,000 page manuscript right now rather than a dusty outline and this list of lessons learned.
  • Trust Your Gut. The idea of artists as channelers of the zeitgeist is a bit too precious for me, but that gut feeling of yours is onto something. It’s not because some fruity muse gifted you with a magical antenna that picks up the feeling of the times, but rather that making art requires close observation. Answer quickly: What color is a shadow? If you answered black or gray, try again. If you replied “the color of whatever object it is cast upon, just darker,” then you might be an artist. The same holds true for cultural shadows: Artists tend to pay more attention to them than “regular” folks do. Trust your instincts regarding what material might make a good story.

The Patriot is a dead idea, not only because now it plays out in the headlines every day but because I’ve reduced it to an object lesson rather than a story. However, there are countless other story ideas drifting like currents through the ether, gathering strength as they near the shore. Hopefully the next time that the fruity muse invites me to catch one of those waves I’ll paddle out there and get that sumbitch.

Categories: on writing

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