When The Story Finds You

We spent our winter holiday in upstate New York on the edge of the Catskills. To our delight, despite initially mild temperatures, it snowed. Not much, but enough to coat the ground and frost the trees, enough for the smallest snowman and sledding.

snowy play 2At one point, I decided to take a walk. I grabbed a wooden walking stick and headed up the empty gravel road. Away from the shrieks of my children, there was little noise. Just the satisfying crunch of the stick as it punched holes in the snow and the sound of my breath.

I’d forgotten how much I love walking, how fast thoughts rise up, like cream to the surface. After nearly a week indoors with my children – no snow to distract them, but thankfully, cable TV – I was finally alone.

snowy roadMy mind soon landed on a short story I’d been mulling over. A story about a family on the cusp of big change. A story that takes place in the Catskills. A story that happened to me. Since the specifics are hazy, and frankly too boring, I always knew it would be fictional.

With each step the story unwound like yarn in my mind, getting tangled up, unraveling, leading the way. I decided to write it in four sections, in the voice of each family member: mother, father, and their two daughters. I didn’t know yet the mother would be easiest to write, the older daughter the hardest.

I paused by a circle of pine trees and hesitated for a moment before heading into the brambles to explore. It wasn’t far off the road, there was no chance to get lost or hurt, but I hesitated. It’s how I’ve lived much of my life. Cautious, staying on the path, but lately, especially with writing, I’m taking more chances.

Back on the road, I stared at the smooth expanse of white snow. Without thinking, I began to write my mother’s name, as I used to do in sand at the beach, but instead of Mom, I wrote her name, Susan. Then I added these words: You Are Missed.

My mother, and the weight of her absence, is often just a whisper away.

Back in the warmth of the house, after hot chocolate and bedtime madness, I curled up in the chair between the rooms of my children and began my story.

It took me two weeks to complete, right in time for a mid-January contest deadline, which lit my initial fire. The story isn’t finished. I’ll tweak and sculpt more before sending it out to other contests, but the hardest work is done.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a story so quickly, but the truth is, it took longer than two weeks. I’ve had this story growing inside me for months, maybe years. The weekend I spent in the Catskills at age fifteen was the last vacation I ever took with my family. In fifteen more years, she’d be dead.

When you’re a writer, people love to tell you their stories. Oh, have I got a story for you, they say, perhaps expecting you to whip out a pen and take notes. It’s not their fault. Often their stories are fascinating, and could certainly make wonderful fiction or memoir. But in my experience, a writer doesn’t necessarily choose her stories – the stories choose her.

What themes do you return to over and over again? Is there a seed of a story growing inside you? Is it ready to bloom?

I’m so pleased to be part of Writing Bubble’s wonderful link-up. Come by, take a look, and perhaps join in!

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52 thoughts on “When The Story Finds You

  1. Love this, Dana. I loved the peek at your process, your walk, your grief. I felt like you were letting us in on a very intimate moment. Thank you. And to answer your questions: I find that the mother/daughter theme is one I return to time and again, usually subconsciously. Looking back, 2015 was for hibernating and reflecting, letting stories marinate, ruminating on where and how I want to focus my creative energy. 2016 is for blooming. Fingers crossed your story finds a home. xo

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    • Thank you Lara. I’m right there with you re mother-daughter themes. Lately, I’ve been exploring sisters also (even though I have a brother). Basically, family dynamics, the more messed up the better, is what I’m drawn to 🙂 Your 2015 sounds like a wonderful launching off point for blooming this year. Can’t wait to see where it takes you.

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  2. Great reminder to slow down and pay attention. Glad you took advantage of the opportunity. My problem right now is choosing between the many ideas floating around my head and on paper, the old ones in files I keep opening and closing and the new ones jotted on index cards….do you have that problem too?

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    • Oh, yes, Linda, I do have that problem. So many ideas swirling around clamoring for attention. That’s why I’ve been straying from my novel revision, because other newer ideas are beckoning. There must be a way to meditate on it, and find the brightest jewel in the bunch.

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  3. I love this exploration, Dana. And so much yes to the “have I got a story for you!” Since I’m an artist as well as a writer, I get a lot of people who say “Oh, I have this friend who has the most adorable kids’ stories. You should illustrate them!” I’m still learning to deflect these well-meaning comments gracefully. Good luck in the contest!

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  4. Hi Dana! It’s about time I get over here. All this great stuff you’re putting out there. This was a peaceful, relaxing read. It was as satisfying to read as the “crunch of the stick as it punched holes in the snow and the sound of my breath.” Love those inspired moments. And, now I know about the Writing Bubble’s link-up thanks to you, and I’m linking up right now! Thank you! It looks wonderful!

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  5. I loved reading this, Dana and finding out more about your creative process. I find walks can be really helpful in getting the creative juices flowing and in moving a story along and transforming it too. I have far too many stories I’m working on at the moment and one that’s been calling to me for years that I haven’t even lifted a pen to attempt to get on paper – I don’t even know if it’s a novel or a short story! I’d love to read your story sometime as I love the way you write. Thanks for linking to #WhatImwriting and for the shoutout too. xx

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    • Thanks Maddy! I’m so grateful to your blog and link-up. It’s fun to see what everyone is up to. Walking is the best, writing this post made me realize I need to make more of an effort at home. It’s hard to make time for all the stories, right? But one day you’ll find time for the one swimming around in your brain 🙂

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  6. I feel like you climbed into my brain and stole my thoughts about stories finding the writer. I’ve been resisting writing about my life as a single woman and it keeps coming back to me. I wonder if the resistance makes the story stronger?!?! I’ve let go and started some rough writing. Now I have three different pieces of writing going at once. I NEVER thought that would be me. Letting go and allowing the writing to guide you is scary and it’s working for me. Thank you for this!!! Your story sounds amazing and powerful and I’m hopeful I get to read it soon!!

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    • Oh, Michelle, thank you! I say, WRITE THAT STORY! Sometimes the ones we must write, the ones so important to our soul, are the ones we edge away from. I definitely think resistance sometimes has a double meaning. I love that you’re working on several pieces at once!

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  7. SO true how a story bubbles for years and that this one did take more than 2 weeks. I have a theme in fiction that seems to come up a lot, but I can’t even utter it. I know it’s there though.

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  8. I feel the same way. The stories choose me.
    And it’s the photos too. People often expect me to take photos and I don’t. Or they tell me how they think I should take it. That’s actually really annoying.

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    • Yes, they do, right? How interesting that photos choose you. Makes absolute sense. And I can imagine how people love to tell you what to photograph. It’s probably even more prevalent than with writers since everyone has a camera (or thinks they do, ha, since it’s on their phone).

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  9. I love this post and can completely relate. I find myself drawn to locations and then have to revisit them alone. That’s when I know my creative juices are working away and a story is woven. If only it were as easy to write from the mind’s eye. Thanks for sharing! X

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    • Thank you for reading! It’s funny, I didn’t entirely connect that being in the Catskills was the main reason I started it when I did. I knew I’d write the story eventually, but perhaps being in the actual location triggered it to happen. Makes sense, but certainly not convenient 🙂

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  10. It’s understandable how the story came to you whilst visiting somewhere with such strong memories. The story sounds fascinating and I imagine it comes straight from the heart. Good luck with the contest.

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  11. Wow – what a wonderful writing moment. Connecting with your present and your past so fully… I imagine it made for an incredibly powerful story.

    The novel I’m working on now came from a moment in a walk – sleeping baby in the sling, absorbing my surroundings, and as you say the story just came!

    On a completely different note, we were in almost the exact same location over Christmas and New Year! We were staying near Poughkeepsie visiting two of my brothers who are currently living in NYC and ventured up into the Catskills a couple of times. So beautiful! I was a little bit gutted by the lack of snow, but at least we had some in the midst of all the unseasonably warm weather 🙂 xx

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    • Sophie, thanks so much. I hope the power is conveyed in the actual story, but you never know. I love that your novel idea came during a walk! And I can’t believe we were practically neighbors over the winter break! Next time you end up in the Catskills, let me know. How crazy would it be to meet up for tea 🙂

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  12. I love how walking outside can open you up in this way. It felt so familiar to me, the process you describe. I often have the same feeling when I am running, or swimming. And those stories can come in bits and pieces over years. can’t they? Every now and then I write something that feels so familiar I run it through several plagiarism checkers before I hit publish! But generally it’s just because I’ve written it in my head a long time ago.

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    • Yes, to running and swimming! I wish I had time/energy to do those 🙂 I’ve heard other writers talk about swimming. Have you heard of Lidia Yuknavitch? She wrote a memoir called, The Chronology of Water, which is about her recovery from the grief of losing her baby, but also very much about her connection to water.

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      • I know what you mean about time/energy. I used to swim weekly while my son had his lesson but haven’t swum alone since he started school. I do manage a weekly run though. 🙂 I hadn’t heard of Lidia Yuknavith but that book sounds like another book to add to my (steadily growing) list! Thanks for the recommendation. x

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      • Once a week run sounds (almost!) doable to me! Maybe I will give it a try once the snow melts 🙂 I just ordered her memoir and will let you know how it is. Her novel, The Backs of Small Children, is super intense and dark. I will be putting up a book review any day now!

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  13. I can’t wait to read it! Did you read Big Magic? Elizabeth Gilbert agrees that stories find you… As for me… I find that I get an idea (usually non-fiction, like 99.9% of the time) and it’s awesome and then I sit down to type it and it’s not awesome at all, it’s like a big hunk of junk and I have to prune it and tweak it and hack it until I’ve molded it down to something I like. And I hate that I feel so inept when I sit down at my computer, but I love what I’ve created when it’s done. I can’t wait to read your story.

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    • Pam, I did, and I LOVED LOVED Big Magic!! Here’s the thing, most of the time, 99%, when I have the idea in my head it sounds/seems so much better than the reality of what ends up on the screen. Liz G says that, too, and Ann Patchett. This time, for whatever reason, it flowed in one of those magic kind of moments. Now to be honest, I have no idea if it’s actually any good (!) but it came out in a way that did not feel like pulling teeth, the way it often does 🙂 Though to be clear, I did edit and revise once I finished. It certainly didn’t come out fully formed! Just not as painfully formed.

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  14. I keep thinking I commented on this but it has been in my mind a lot lately. I truly cannot wait to read what you write. I love how it flowed out of you – that is exactly how I write. It is in my heart and mind, in the background, for months (sometimes years) and when I sit down to get the words out they just come. ❤

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    • Thank you Allison! I love that you also simmer stories. I wish it happened more, but I can never predict which stories will flow and which need a pick-ax 🙂

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  15. Love watching you take the detour, into the unknown for there you will find yourself. I have about four fiction stories that always resurface in my mind I will tackle each and everyone. But the picture book stories seem to come quicker and clearer at the moment. I think it was Stephen King who said a good story will never leave you it will always be there. Dana I wish you much joy in your writing journey. Good luck in the competitions too.

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    • Kath, yes, I can see how the picture books rise to the top as far as time and ease go. Perhaps consider taking notes when inspiration strikes on those four stories, and when the right time comes, you’ll have something to go on. Thank you, as always, for your kindness and support, and please know I am sending mine right back at you 🙂

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  16. My three fictional manuscripts (not to mention plenty of non-fiction essays) seem to circle back to pregnancy and motherhood. Since I am a woman with kids, this is hardly earth-shattering; but the fact that even in my 40s I considered having more children (after birthing my first two at 28 and 30) means this theme runs a little deeper than just “I’m a mother, therefore I think about motherhood.”

    I’m trying hard not to let my next WIP be about mothers/daughters/babies/pregnancy but I’m not sure I can do it. 🙂

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    • It’s fascinating – and yet not surprising – that our obsessions find their way into our stories, even when we think we’ve already tackled that particular topic. I know I’ll be writing about my mom, in one way or another, for the rest of my life. I say, go where your interest lies, even if you’ve been there before.

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  17. As always, I could feel the snow and crisp air. Thank you for sharing how stories grow in you. I have had an personal essay growing since the summer, tried to write it in the fall and nope, couldn’t breathe yet. But now, it is heavy and has lungs, but like you said, now the hard part – the birth. Looking forward to reading your story one day.

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    • Oh, thank you Terri, your comments make me smile and feel so seen and understood. Your story will come when it’s ready. I love your metaphor about it not being ready to breath yet, but maybe soon.

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  20. First off I want to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself
    and clear your head before writing. I’ve had trouble clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out.
    I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
    Many thanks!

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    • Thanks so much! The only way I can center these days is to get up early and NOT check Facebook or email, and just turn on my computer (after making a cup of coffee of course) and start writing. The first 10-15 may just be staring at the screen or reading a few pages of a book, or it may be finding a writing prompt to get me going. All you can do is start writing. Anything. Without over thinking or over criticizing. The more I write, the easier that beginning is, though some days are always going to be tough. Good luck!

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