I’ve been reminded recently (today, as a matter of fact) that I cut off people when they’re telling me stories. My active, fiction-writing mind, eager to fashion the ending of the tale, jumps ahead to guess what happened next. And my mouth goes right along with my brain. It is an incredibly annoying (and rude) habit, and it’s ruined many a good story.
My habit is worse for some people than it is for others. If I cut off my husband (and inevitably craft the wrong ending), he merely says, “No,” and continues the story. But for my teenage daughter, the interruption stops her in her tracks. No amount of encouragement will restart her tale, and it’s a double-lose for me. I feel badly I’ve cut her off, and I am robbed of hearing a good story.
This habit has played itself out in my writing as well, most notably a year ago as I wrote the conclusion of my novel. I knew what the outcome would be. I plodded along toward the manufactured ending no matter how much one of my characters nagged that he had a different one in mind. After weeks of his hounding, I finally surrendered. “Fine!” I thought. “I’ll write your stupid ending. And then I’m going to burn it, because that’s not what happens!”
I wrote his story. Clouds parted. Light blinded me. Angels began to sing. And I was forced to concede it was a far better conclusion than the one I had been planning for months.
Since then, I’ve practiced a couple techniques that have helped leave room for my characters to dictate their stories to me, rather than forcing my ideas upon them.
1. Visit more often.
The longer I am away from my work, the stronger the urge to control it. That’s one of the many reasons I write a minimum of 20 minutes a day, no matter what. Holidays and weekends included. When I write every day, it feels less like work and more like listening and recording. It’s a comforting ritual, and there’s no need to panic about getting a certain amount done or dictating the direction.
2. Take a physical break.
Pausing to get moving physically helps separate the left side of my brain (and the preconceived outline) from the story and allows the right side to mull over the plot twists while I walk, stack wood, vacuum the floor, or weed my garden. The character’s voice shines through when I’m not over-thinking the next move.
I’ve had great success with a 22-minutes on, 8-minutes off writing and resting cycle. Twenty-two minutes of timed writing followed by an eight-minute timed break in which I run around the house at warp speed trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of shoveling, vacuuming, stretching or paperwork I can before the timer dings and I must return to my desk. The story simmers in the background during these sprint-breaks because I’m more focused on ticking off a task rather than plotting the next move. But every time I return to my desk after these active breaks, the next phase floods out.
3. Close your eyes and listen.
I can’t assume to know someone else’s experience, including my character’s, and I can’t force my expectations into a situation the character is trying to explain. It must be the character’s story, and the best way to allow the character in is to sit and listen. I close my eyes and wait. I push my thoughts back and connect with the emotions the character is feeling.
I’m still learning to bite my tongue, and hold the pen steady, so that I don’t cut off my loved ones and my characters. It’s hard work to resist the urge to construct the outcome of a story or blurt out the answers to "what if" before anyone else gets the chance. I’m a work-in-progress, as are my stories and characters. But may I always remember to sit and listen, both in writing and in my relationships!
“It was as if the novel was already written, floating in the air on a network of electrons. I could hear it talking to itself. I sensed that if I would but sit and listen, it would come through, all ready.” - A. S. Byatt