Monday, March 15, 2010

Know Your Story: The Rector, The Waitress, and The Lion

On the refrigerator of the house we lived in in London more than a decade ago was a clipping from the “this day in history” section of The Independent:

1932: Harold Davidson, the rector of Stiffkey, is found guilty of disreputable association with women, after allegations that he made improper advances to a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. He died in 1937 after being mauled by a lion in Skegness.

I saved the clipping, thinking that though you can’t make this stuff up, I might try to make something out of it. For a long time, Harold Davidson’s sordid life was on my mental list of future writing projects. I toyed with possible plots and with various strategies for telling the story. Would it be an omniscient telling of the Rector’s, um, adventures? Would it be a post-modern tale (this was the 90s and I was on leave from a teaching job) embedded in some quirky frame narrative? Or would I use this poor man of the cloth as a vehicle for a commentary on patriarchy and imperialism (see above: 90s, teaching job)?

I did none of these. Because it eventually became apparent to me that while the Rector’s story might be a good one—even an interesting one—it wasn’t my story.

As writers, we’re always taking notes, making observations, clipping articles from newspapers (or printing them from the web). Stories are our trade, so we think we have to gather up every tale we see. And if we’re paying attention, there are stories everywhere. The challenge is to choose only the ones that are right for us, or else we risk the Atalanta Syndrome. Every time Atalanta got ahead in her footrace against Hippomenes, he tossed one of Aphrodite’s golden apples across her path. Dazzled, she’d stop to pick it up, letting Hippomenes get ahead. The punishment for her distraction? She had to marry the guy.

How do writers avoid getting stuck with a story that feels like a bad marriage?

1. Write a lot. Write short pieces, long pieces, notes, stories. It takes time to settle into a voice and a style.

2. Study your own work. You’ll soon see which issues fascinate you, which problems you keep trying to resolve.

3. Work with what fits. Once you’ve established your style and discovered the themes you want to explore, resist the temptation to go with the fancy new thing. I’m interested in identity and in the balance between strength and weakness, and I write most often about Greece. I have no business writing about Harold Davidson, the waitress, and the lion.

4. Know when to change direction. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. You don’t want to repeat yourself or to keep coming to the same conclusions in your stories or novels. If it gets stale, know when to move on.

I plan to keep the story of the Rector in my mental treasury of interesting tales. Along with the shoplifting nun who kept lingerie in the trunk of her car and the divorcing family who pummeled each other in games of floor hockey played in an old ballroom. They’re great stories, but they’re just not right for me.

Have you been tempted away from your true writing love?
How did you figure out what kind of writer you are?


  1. Ah, so that's why you don't want to take on the story of my great grandparents.... But doesn't this leave a lot of good stories untold?

  2. No, that's because YOU should take on that story. It's too good not to be told. I did consider the story of the redheaded Canadians, but I think that one, too, belongs to someone else :-)