A few nights ago, a young woman who has been taking my creative writing classes asked me, Can I write a wrong story? Her question caught me by surprise and even though I promptly answered it in class, it resonated loudly in my mind until late at night, stirring deeper thoughts on the problem. Can anyone write a wrong story?
The story I have been working on doesn’t feel right to me any longer, she explained.
I suggested we go back to where her story first started and investigate what had happened that made her doubt herself. She read the first scene in which her protagonist appeared. Her words were so beautiful, her images unique; the voice of her protagonist felt both collected and urgent, and we could see clearly that the woman in her story had a secret. The secret big enough to scare off the writer herself.
But my student wasn’t the first person to ask this question. You must have had comparable doubts, haven’t you? And I had asked my writing teacher a similar question. How do I know that I am on the right path? How do I know that I am writing the right story?
Could you sit down and write something else? My teacher asked me.
When I articulated a no as my answer, my teacher said, Then, you must persist.
Can you let it go and write something else, I asked my student.
I can’t abandon my character, she replied. But I am not sure I’m intrigued by her story.
What is her story? I asked.
She doesn’t have one yet, she answered.
I smiled because I saw myself a few years back and I asked her to read her beginning scene one more time in front of the class.
And one more time, I enjoyed her writing.
So, what happens next, I asked.
She remained silent. Her silence occupied the classroom until her lap companion, her seven-month-old daughter who played with a sheet of paper, produced a sound.
I was trying to find the source of her anxieties, so I wrote and wrote and wrote about her past, trying to figure out what her story was about. Now it all feels like a wrong story. And I am lost.
And she was indeed lost.
Yes, you are, I said. But you are not the first writer to feel this way. The fact that you can understand that something is wrong proves how much you have grown as a writer this past year. No, you cannot write a wrong story, I said. But you can make mistakes along the way, in your process of learning, and you can certainly get lost.
As a member of Pif’s team of editors, I read a lot of submissions each month, and I help our team decide whether a piece is fit for publication. A writer whose work doesn’t make the cut usually receives a response communicating, Thank you for considering our magazine, but unfortunately, your piece wasn’t the right fit for us. As a writer myself, I have received plenty of rejections, generic and personalized, and they always hurt. After the initial feeling of inferiority leaves me, I start wondering, What was wrong with my story?
I revise it, and I send it out again to more addresses. Usually, it gets rejected more times before publication.
So, what is wrong with all the submissions we must reject?
A great number of them reach us in the form of a very first draft. What I learned early on from my writing teachers and what I today repeat (annoyingly) to my students is that revision is writing. The magic of writing doesn’t kick in during our first drafts, in that tiresome act of getting stories out onto the blank paper. The magic happens during our revision process. The magic is in re-envisioning.
Nobody can write a wrong story, but yes, an inexperienced writer or a hasty writer can send their work out at a wrong time.
Dear writer, spend more time playing with your words before sharing them with the world. Ask people you trust to read your piece. See how they respond. If you are not able or willing to line edit your own work, ask a friend to help you catch mistakes. Don’t let your piece get rejected because of the grammar you could have fixed in a day.
In most literary journals we volunteer as editors, and we usually pass on submissions that require heavy editorial work. Be respectful to us who read your words at nighttime, hoping to find a piece that will make our day. Send your words as polished as you can. Triple check everything for your own success, for the success of your stories.
The more I think of my student’s burning question, the louder its echoes become.
Can there be a wrong character?
No. Just the one not fully developed, the one that doesn’t yet grab our attention. Characters need time and space to grow, to become memorable. They also need distinctions from their literary relatives. They need oddities and big voices that sound fresh and imperative, the voices that can hold the readers’ attention not just until the ending of the story but much much longer. And none of this comes through in our first drafts.
I believe (the following appears silly to my husband who believes in the power of numbers) that in my process of writing I don’t imagine characters and stories but receive them. I recognize the contours of my characters’ faces; I see glimpses of their lives and struggles; I hear the sound of their voices. And then, I listen carefully and I wait, patiently, until I can decipher their words, understand their problems. The more I write, the better and more truthful the story becomes.
Can you write a wrong story?
I believe you cannot, but you can unquestionably write a story from a wrong perspective.
Four years ago, I was mid-way through the first draft of my first novel when I realized that I couldn’t continue. I didn’t enjoy my story; it all felt forced as if somebody had briefed me on the subject and ordered me to write it. However, there was still something there that didn’t let me let go of it; there was something there that stayed alive and directed me toward different paths. When I enrolled into my MFA program and started working with my first advisor, I sent her the pages I didn’t like, asking her a similar question to the one my student asked me the other night. Should I think about changing the story?
I think you should test a different perspective, my advisor said. Your protagonist’s voice didn’t read urgent enough for the first-person narrative. A protagonist-narrator must be able to carry the entire story. So, you either make this girl’s voice stronger, or you switch viewpoint.
Of course, I resented revision. Which writer hasn’t in the beginning? But the more I learned about writing, and the more I read, the less I disliked revision. Today I know that revision is freedom. In the revision process, a writer can do whatever she wants. She can look at her story from unusual angles, play with perception and the flow. She can break all the parts apart and sew them back in but differently. Once a writer sees and seizes this magic of revision, she grows overnight from a talented into an amazing, thoughtful writer.
Can I write a wrong story? My student’s question still echoes in my mind.
No, but you can take the wrong turn.
The initial mistake that my student made, and I let her fall into it, was simple. She had a lovely beginning, an intriguing setting, and a complex character. But, instead of going forward with her story, she stumbled upon her character’s fear and backed off, then slid back into her character’s past. She kept falling further back, thinking that she might find a story in her character’s history.
I know you are writing the right story, I reassured her. All you need to do now is push through the fear and move on. You protagonist will reveal her secret as you spend time with her, and the story of the present will unfold in front of you.
But what shall I do with all these pages I wrote? She was sitting on the floor, leaned against the white wall, the print-outs of her “wrong story” scattered around her. But what shall I do with all these words? As she repeated the question, her baby girl chewed on the story’s pieces.
You will find a place for almost all of it, I said. All you need to do now is continue forward and trust the magic of revision. And then, I asked her to write a scene that would segue from the one we took as her story’s beginning. What happens next? Aren’t you curious? I asked.