April 27, 2011

The Story of the Story

The latest addition to textBOX is not a new story or essay, but a very brief piece written for the anthology by Mimi Schwartz to accompany “Off the Record”—a chapter from her prize-winning memoir, Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village. In the note that now accompanies her essay in the anthology, Schwartz writes that she discovered her task was “less about finding THE RIGHT ANSWER about the goodness or badness of Germans in my father’s village and more about the complexities of finding out.” In other words, the truth she thought she was looking for turned out to be only part of the whole story, a story that included the process of discovery as well as the journey of its author.

Despite being just three paragraphs long, this mini-essay has gotten me thinking about the evolution of writing projects—how they can grow out of one thing and into something else and how that transformation can be such a frustrating and productive part of the writing process. The novel I’m currently working on began life as a screenplay over a decade ago: one with quite a bit of expository dialogue explaining the character’s extensive back-stories and more than a few larger-than-life coincidences carrying the overly intricate plot. Since its inception ten years ago I’ve put it down and returned to it more times than I can count. I’ve also earned a BA and an MA, had two children, written two short screenplays, a dozen or so short stories, an equal number of academic essays, moved halfway across the country, and, most recently, discovered Scrivener (with which I am madly in love – more about that in another post).

Process can be anything from the basic act of putting pen to paper to traveling across the Atlantic to uncover the complexities of your family’s past. What was once an amateur screenplay is now an almost finished novel. Thinking about the long, sometimes painful, sometimes incredibly rewarding process reminds me just how much perseverance is required to keep working on a project that quite frequently just doesn’t seem like it is ever going to work. My novel no longer bears anything more than a superficial resemblance to its former self and despite the fact that I was arguably a very different writer when I began the project, I am more committed to it now than ever. It’s the many changes that have taken place in both my life and my manuscript that have shaped what it has become. Whether it ends up being a part of the story itself or is the invisible scaffolding beneath the story, process is an essential part of the finished product and it’s good to be reminded of that every now and then, especially when the process is long and hard.

Not all of my writing is this way. I’ve written stories that came to me in a flash and were written and rewritten in a matter of days. This story is different. For this story the process has influenced every character, every scene, every scrap of dialogue. How does process affect your work? Is there a piece of your own writing for which process has been particularly integral?

On a completely unrelated note, if you’ve got three minutes and twenty-nine seconds to spare, I recommend watching the animated video interview I did with TMR’s social media editor Rob Foreman.


Nell McCabe is the Anthology Editor for The Missouri Review.

About Nell

Nell McCabe is the anthology editor for The Missouri Review. At least for the next 10 days.

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