The story…must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.
– Maxwell Anderson
Several weeks ago, I came across this quote in my reading. I jotted it down and pinned it to my bulletin board. I can’t think of a more concise or precise definition of what makes a story meaningful – or one that is just a smattering of self-indulgent, pretty words decorating a page.
My niece is an aspiring writer. On Sunday, we met at Starbuck’s for coffee and she began telling me about her creative writing course. I watched as she anxiously pulled this way and that on her napkin as she told me about the writing assignments given to the class. Finally, I placed my hand over top her anxious one and asked what was wrong. She admitted she worried she had no ‘original idea’ – and wondered if she ever would. “Am I just wasting my time?” she asked.
What do you say to something like that? I’ve seen her writing, and it is very good. If she has any weakness, it is waiting for that ‘original idea’ to strike.
I was silent for a moment or two, unsure what to say. I think we’ve all been there from time to time: wondering if we have anything new to add to the writing scene. I know I’ve despaired a couple of times, worried that I was just decorating a page rather than telling a story.
I suggested she look around the coffee shop. There was a variety of ‘characters’ right in front of her, all she had to do was free her imagination. Each of the people in that shop had a story. Each individual acted on motivations, ambitions, heartaches, joys that we can only imagine.
But that’s the job of the writer: to imagine it. And to bring it to light.
The lady with the two large Danish pastries in front of her, dully munching away, her sizeable girth barely contained by the chair’s seat – why did she eat so much? Was there a story there? The young man, Bible in hand, talking earnestly to another male friend as they sipped coffee – was the earnest fellow trying to win a soul for Jesus? The orange-haired young girl with multiple tattoos and piercings and dressed completely in black – was she a non-conformist, a faddist, an exhibitionist, or someone with poor self-esteem? And the middle-aged woman stuck in the corner, nose in book, occasionally glancing up and scowling at nearby patrons, her body language keeping them from getting too close – what was her story?
Characters and stories exist all around us. You have to ‘attune’ yourself to seeing them.
We talked about her fear that she might not have anything ‘original’ to say. I think the originality is in how you say something, not necessarily the idea itself. There are few original stories. A humorist once cracked that you can sum up every story as ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again.’ Or not.
He might be right, but I prefer the thoughts expressed in an old song from the movie, “Casablanca” – it goes like this: It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. The song reminds us that the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
Human beings may surprise you from time to time, but what drives us are the same motivations: love, fear, a desire for affirmation. A need to feel that in spite of our short time on this planet, we matter.
All the poetry and all the stories in all our books, legends, and religious texts center round these basic needs. It’s the author’s job to explore them. Even in the most mundane situations, these motivations are always there. And the writer realizes this, and the story process begins.
Finally, I shared Anderson’s remark with my niece – the best of stories explore the small battle between good and evil that rages within each of us. Never deceive yourself that it doesn’t rage within you. It is the degree to which your struggle impacts others – or history – that makes your struggle unique. That struggle is part of who we are.
Perhaps exploring it is the only reason for a story. It’s in the struggle that we figure out who we are. Are we heroes or barbarians? Do we strive for the light or settle for the darkness?
Each of us makes that decision, each day of our lives. It’s just a matter of degree.
I’m not sure if any of that helped my niece. I hope so.
Like me, she doesn’t want to decorate a page with pretty words. We want to tell a story where the reader gets a glimpse of himself in the telling.
After all, we human beings are not so very different when you get right down to it. The fundamental things still apply – as time goes by.