Inspiration For The Small Days by Lee McAulay

Some days you sit in front of your story and the words fight back.

“This isn’t any good,” say the Angry Words, before you’ve even got your fingers warmed up for writing. “Why bother? Let’s go watch TV, and see how real professional writers do it, because let’s face it, they’re wayyyy better than you are at this storytelling lark, and their stories are much better than yours. Your story isn’t as important,” they say.

This post is intended to put those Angry Words back in their place.

Let’s start with the first argument: this isn’t any good.

Well, if it’s a first draft, it’s allowed to be a bit rubbish. That’s what a first draft is for – to spill the story out as fast as you can release it in a jumble you’ll sort through after that first rush of excitement.

The key is to ride that wave of creative storytelling until it casts you up, exhausted, on the page. And if you don’t write it, you’ll never have a second draft, or a third, or however few you need to finish the story.

The next argument: others are wayyy better than you are at this.

What, you mean they’ve spent more time working at it? Like a concert pianist who still spends eight or ten hours a day making mistakes on their piano at home, for weeks on end, so that when they turn up for the Last Night of the Proms they’re perfect.

This is all, really. Those hours may come slowly, for those of us with other commitments, and we choose to spend our time writing – or not – according to priorities. But the story still nags, and we snatch time during baby’s naps, or on our morning commute, or during the ad breaks of our favourite TV programme. And we write.

Now for the last argument: your story isn’t as important.

Kill this now.

Everyone alive needs a story. Whether it’s a broad sweeping epic of emigration and war, or a gentle romance of childhood sweethearts, or a tale of a sweet life in paradise, everyone needs a story. Stories are how we share experience, ways to deal with what happens in life, to show that there are other worlds, other reactions to your circumstances, other strengths you can borrow. Small works are just as important as Great Works.

In Lord Of The Rings, Aragon is fired up about the story of a mortal man who marries an elf princess, centuries before; it’s what he wants in his own life. He knows this mythical pairing forged a long and happy marriage, and for him, as a homeless loner in love with a woman way out of his league and no longer in the first flush of youth, the story of Beren & Luthien is his lodestone.

We don’t all live – or write – sweeping epics that inspire great deeds. Not everyone wants to live in a Great Work. Some of us have small, domestic stories that provide warmth and succour and what Tolkien called the Last Homely House In The West.

There is much to be said for a book within whose covers a reader knows they are safe.
Some days we need that sanctuary. But judged against the Great Works, those stories often seem small and unimportant, and as writers we’re often encouraged to dismiss the small and safe. On those days when you look at your story on the page and think it isn’t important, remember the words of the poet Emily Dickinson:

“They may not need me, but they might
I’ll let my smile stay just in sight
A smile as small as mine might be
Exactly their necessity.”

Replace “smile” with “story” and keep writing. Let the small stories have their day, and provide their own special strength, when we write them and when we live them.

8 comments

  1. Excellent post and timely for me as this weekend I’ve been struggling. I need the constant FIRST DRAFT reminders. Just push through it. I think that should be on the wall where I can see it constantly.

  2. Hello all!
    Thanks for the kind words.
    There’s a similar post over at http://www.seanferrell.com/2011/12/pathetic_email.html (which I found via Terri Windling’s blog). Sean says, of writing a novel and the fear of attempting the task:
    “The fact you are feeling small means you’re in the right place: it means you care. If you didn’t care it would have no power over you.”
    Too true. Stories mean something, even small ones. It’s part of being human.

  3. Seriously, woman, it’s like you hopped inside my head for five (very unpleasant for you) moments!! I’ve not been dealing with a doubt monster, but a doubt demon. It’s been hell – literally. I came extraordinarily close to just deciding to stop writing altogether and go on Thorazine to stop the voices in my head. Thanks. Again.

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