Why We Write Our Stories

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This past week I took a risk and wrote a short story that I’d been thinking about for some time but had been reluctant to tackle. The story, Novocain, dealt with a subject no one likes to discuss: the sexual abuse of children.

Several years ago, a longtime friend shared with me that she’d been sexually abused as a child. I remember my feelings of shock and revulsion that anyone could have subjected my friend to such horror when she was just a little girl.  I knew her parents – or so I thought. Yet I never suspected that my friend had endured the emotional pain of sexual abuse during her childhood. But she did – and years later it still continues to affect her. My friend is a happy woman. She has a good life, a loving husband and children, a rewarding career. But the memories linger, and she felt the need to share her secret with me.

Some things never go away.

If you’ve read any of my flash fiction or short stories, you know that I generally write quirky little things. While on occasion I may tread ever so lightly into more serious territory, it is always a quick journey; I’m in and out before you know it.

Novocain was different.

There was no science fiction element, no fantasy, nothing humorous or freaky. Instead of my favorite destination, a trip into the Twilight Zone, Novocain was a trip into real and unhappy past events.

Wally Lamb, the author quoted above, is one of my favorite writers. I’ve just finished reading his book, I Know This Much is True.  During my reading of the novel, I was struck by how often the events of the past continue to intrude into our present-day lives. I can say with certainty that my own past continues to affect my present in both good and bad ways. The same is true of the friend I mentioned.

Lamb believes that the stories we write are written because in some way we need to write them. I think that’s true with my writing of Novocain.

The story was written in response to a weekly challenge in which I participate, and I was given several prompts in the form of words and phrases to incorporate into a story. Generally, those prompts lead me down sci-fi avenues and into flights of fantasy. But this time, I felt compelled to use the words to address my friend’s tragic experiences. I felt the need to tell her story with a light touch. I also needed to consider why a mother might look the other way when confronted with the suggestion of abuse.

I combined my friend’s past with a seminal memory of my own mother’s unhappiness early in her marriage, and the stress that unpaid bills and family pressures placed on her. Using creative license, I fashioned a situation that allowed me to sympathetically view my friend’s experience and, at the same time, explore the feelings of a mother caught in a situation over which she feels she has little control – and no escape from.

Lamb is correct. I did need to write that story. I wrote it for my friend, but I also wrote it for my mother. It’s my way of coming to grips with her past unhappiness, and how it often made her seem timid and ineffectual.

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Lamb says he writes fiction as a means of moving beyond the limits of his own existence.  I’m struck by how closely I identify with that rationale. I’m willing to bet money that most of us take up writing as a way of venturing beyond the limitations of our own lives and experiences. We human beings are curious animals; we are also empathetic. We are driven to understand, to comprehend, to relate. Fiction empowers both the writer and the reader to push past the limits of our own understanding.  Through the sharing of our stories with one another, we relate to each other. We move beyond our singular experiences.

We become more than who we are individually.

In writing Novocain, I touched only briefly on what the child experienced.  My focus was the mother. I think my need to understand how a mother might look the other way when confronted with a hard truth compelled me to write the story from her point of view. I needed to comprehend something that seems incomprehensible. It was a stretch for me to try to understand, to relate to this woman. That’s where my mother’s past unhappiness came into play; it allowed me to look at the abuse from the point of view of an overwhelmed, unhappy woman, and one most likely in the grip of depression.

'...where humans go, lions and tidal waves follow.' ~ Wally Lamb

‘…where humans go, lions and tidal waves follow.’ ~ Wally Lamb

Because I couldn’t bear to let Novocain end on a tragic note, I tried to leave room for hope. In my story, the mother seems to understand she cannot ignore her daughter’s claim of abuse. She decides to take action, but one has the uncomfortable feeling that she is teaching her daughter to avoid problems rather than confronting them head on. It is my story, of course, and yet even I wonder if that mother has the guts to confront her child’s abuser… or whether she will simply cover things over, and merely assist her child in avoiding future contact with the perpetrator.

For this woman, to take positive action and confront her child’s abuser would be going against her own timidity, her own fears. It would require that she have the heart of a lion… it would require that she be willing to risk a tidal wave.

I left things open at the end. Each reader will bring their own thoughts and feelings to the story, and decide which way they think the mother will go: will she remain timid, choosing the safest of choices, or will she finally stand up for her child and herself?

Do you have any feelings about Wally Lamb’s remarks about writing? Have you taken experiences from the lives of others and combined them with your own memories to create a story? Do you think it is through our stories that we relate to one another, and transcend the limitations of who we are individually? Do you have a particular favorite among your own stories that touches on any of the remarks made by Lamb?

About Kate Loveton

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time... ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?
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25 Responses to Why We Write Our Stories

  1. You have touched a very sensitive aspect of our childhood and memory. Indeed this is such an agonizing experiences for children and which remains strongly imprinted in their memory and it does affect their future life and living. I was just dealing with the topic of “mystery of memory”…and I was questioning that thought why we remember some aspects of our life and forget many aspects of our life. Some of this very painful experiences of life remain very strong in our memory and this keep influencing our actions and behavior in life.

    It is a very difficult situation for a mother to handle such a situation, it requires courage to confront the injustice and the pain a mother undergoes hearing such stories from their daughter is inexplicable.

    Such a nice post, dealt with very sensitively and triggers us to think and do something what is possible at our end.

  2. I completely agree! As an amateur writer I often write things to discover how something felt. As someone who has always had difficulty identifying with others I think it allows me to be empathetic because I see a small bit of myself in every character I write

  3. W. K. Tucker says:

    When I’m in the process of writing a story, I usually don’t see myself hanging about in the plot. But after the story is finished and has rested a bit. I see bits and pieces of my life, thoughts, hopes and dreams scattered among my characters. Unbelievable!

    • Kate Loveton says:

      That is funny how that happens! I wrote a story several months ago, and only after I’d finished it did I realize I placed my dad in the story! It is odd how these bits and pieces show up in our stories.

  4. markbialczak says:

    I thought you left no doubt that the mother knew she had to react to her daughter’s words, Kate. Where I was left hanging was how I thought perhaps you left a little hope in the mother’s wish that perhaps her daughter was just making the tale up to get her way. My tendency to wish for a lesser evil left me choosing to believe that ending. The daughter knew that line would stop her mother from leaving her in the car with a guy she didn’t want to be left with.

    And I do believe in Wally Lamb’s words. We write things that we must.

    Thanks, Kate. Your stories do a hell of a job in helping me think about life.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Mark, that’s an interesting premise… that perhaps the daughter might have been making up the tale in order to avoid doing something she didn’t want to do. And you’re right that it is probably what her mother wished to believe. But in the end, I think she knew her daughter too well to believe she was making up something, and so – in spite of her own problems – she had to accept the reality and shield her daughter in some way.

      Thanks for your kind words! Such a nice compliment!

  5. willow1945 says:

    It’s an interesting premise that we write to get beyond the limits of our own lives. When I look at my own writing, I have to say it’s all about me 🙂 I wrote a children’s fantasy novel some years back and the longer I wrote, the more I saw myself in each of the characters, the naive but brave side of me, the controlling part, the overly trusting, overly loyal part of me, the lazy, hedonistic side, and so forth–quite a parade of inner parts. Even the story itself, set in an imaginary kingdom, was very symbolic of my life. And my poetry is pretty much all about myself. So, perhaps typical of the Me Generation, I seem to be pretty much just exploring myself! Thanks for the opportunity to ponder this fascinating question with your thoughtful article.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Ah, but you’re wrong my friend! It isn’t always just about you, not entirely. I’ve read the poems where you’ve let those ‘voices’ speak for themselves. You know the poems I am referring to.

      As for it being all about oneself, I think to a degree that is true of all of us. Writing is kind of self-indulgent, at least for me. I write about characters, but always view them from the lenses of my own reality. So, while I try to give them their own lives and motivations, parts of me leaks through. In that sense, it is certainly about me, too.

      Anyone reading this comment, please check out Willow’s blog and her wonderful poetry. I ran across her blog quite by accident, and have been a regular visitor ever since.

  6. The story was well written with the right kind of voice and a natural response from both mother and daughter. I’m pleased the mother is planning ahead quicker than I thought she might. Still, it was difficult to read she didn’t go after her daughter immediately, because of course she could not, she had been thrown another unexpected curve-ball and was a mess herself.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      You nailed it, Tess! The mom in the story was indeed a mess herself. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to have her go after her daughter at the end – or not. I went back and forth, weighing the mother’s timidity and the fact that she was – emotionally – barely holding on herself.

      But I wanted her role as her Judy’s mother (her protector) to win out, and I wanted to end the story on a hopeful note.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. I appreciate it.

  7. Helen Espinosa says:

    I once believed I couldn’t tell a story that wasn’t based in some way on my life experiences, or the experiences of loved ones. In getting them out and down on paper, I’ve been able to reach for something more, to push past reality into more fictional ideas. I ultimately believe, though, that our experiences always shape what we write in some way.

    Thank you for this piece. It touched on many things I’ve been thinking since I started this process.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Helen, what a thoughtful post.

      I think you’re right – in some way our experiences do shape what we write. I am willing to bet that even writers of horror, science fiction and fantasy still incorporate elements of their past into their stories. I know Stephen King does. And so does speculative fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. I know just a little about Ellison’s past from his essays. One day I came across a story he wrote (my favorite by him, by the way) titled ‘An Early Life Furnished in Poverty,’ and I immediately knew this fantasy was about him. He’d shared so much about his past, it was easy to pick up the similar elements.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. This is a wonderful, thoughtful post, Kate. I think Wally Lamb is incredibly intuitive about writing and speaks the truth. Your strength in doing this is remarkable, and you have given me the courage to write about something that happened to me when I was eight. Luckily, I got away, but I never told my mother. I was too ashamed. Now I have to find the words.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Thanks, Noelle. I hope you do write about your experience, my friend. People who are abused – or even just approached – often feel ashamed. When I was nineteen, I had someone approach me on a street and try to pull me off to the side of the road, taking a liberty as he did so. I, too, got away, but I was terribly frightened. Worse, I felt ashamed, as if I were the one who did something wrong! How bizarre is that? So, I understand what you are saying.

  9. I have Wally’s book on my shelf and have for closr to nine years. I should read it. Mother daughter roles…girlfriend, I have been trying to understand those for years. Writing beyond my life experience is helps extend my journey.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      I love Wally Lamb! I liked his book, ‘She’s Come Undone,’ too. I’ve ordered another book by him but can’t recall the title. I’ll be getting to it soon – although now that Heather Costa has written such a good review of ‘I Am Pilgrim,’ I may be moving Wally down the queue behind that one.

      So many books, so little time! 🙂

  10. A brave post, Kate! I would like to read Novocain. Is it published yet? TiV

  11. Reblogged this on Trials of a wanna-be-published writer and commented:
    Kate once again comes out with a fantastic, informative and thought-provoking post. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy reading this 🙂

  12. This is a fantastic post, Kate, and brings up a lot of very interesting questions about why we write.

    While fiction tends to be something imagined in the writer’s mind, a lot of what we write is influenced by our own personal experiences. The names and faces, perhaps even the places and circumstances too, but the emotional resonance often seems to come from within us.

    I often use writing as a tool to understand many aspects of my life that often confuse me and I think there something great about debunking from our conscious mind for a little and letting our hearts and emotions guide us instead.

    Writing from experience can often be emotionally-draining work, yet I think that we can only truly capture the emotions of any given situation by having a certain experience of it in the first place.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Excellent comments, Heather. I agree with everything you’ve said. I think we often write our pasts into our stories in some manner, even if it’s only slightly. I know some of my characters have been based on people from my past, but the story elements or situations are changed.

      Thank you for reblogging the post! I appreciate that. ❤

  13. Having read your aims and objectives in writing Novocain, Kate, all I can say is that you absolutely nailed it. My own stories contain something of me, of my past – how could they not? I’m not sure, though, that there has been anything I have felt compelled to write. Having said that, the lead protagonist in The Orphans carries my concerns into the story, and addresses issues that I am, for various reasons, unable to address myself . In that way, fiction becomes something of a wish list.
    Friends have also suggested that they can recognise me in some of my characters. That’s scary – especially as my lead characters are frequently strong women: the exact opposite of myself.
    Maybe that goes part way to explaining why I don’t like to analyse my stuff. Perhaps I’m not comfortable with what I might find!

    • Kate Loveton says:

      What an interesting response, Keith. Thank you. I like to think that your liking for strong female characters is evidence of your respect for women. 🙂 I suppose we all put something of ourselves in our stories. While I try to slip into the minds of my characters, I probably still put a piece of me inside them. Which is kind of scary since so many of them are murderers …

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