Turning Whine into Gold
Writers, like other artists, are among the most socially liberal people I know. The artist within understands that all human emotions and perspectives beg expression; the storyteller within understands that all humans face tough stakes if we can’t reach our goals.
As in story, our life journeys matter because of something that happened to us in our past that affected the way we see things. Beneath the mask we allow the world to see, this event tattooed our tender hearts.
Writers know: we all have a backstory.
So why do we forget that once we have left our fictional worlds and re-entered real life?
On the way home from a conference last winter, a fellow author and co-presenter—after talking story all day!—got stuck in the same traffic jam as the rest of us heading south. He posted a picture of his digital speedometer on Facebook, displaying zero miles per hour, with some snide remark about how wasn’t this just peachy [translation: after spending a day doing what he loves, he might be late for dinner.]
I, on the other hand, turned around at the first available spot with a lump in my throat and used the GPS on my cell phone to find an alternate route. From a parallel road up the hill, I passed the three-mile backup. Saw the crashed cars. The stretchers lying on the road. The ambulance and police. The fire trucks. By the time I got home, the breaking story about the two teens killed had hit the Internet.
I have to wonder about that other presenter’s backstory. Why he thought it was all about him and his inconvenience. Had he been through something so overwhelmingly horrific in his life that empathy feels too dangerous, and he can only tap into it when safely behind the keyboard? Was it so bad he feels the laws of statistics should guarantee smooth sailing? Or was he born to a family who provided for his every whim, and the worst that’s ever happened to him was that lukewarm shower he had to take because the plumber didn’t think their water heater coil was a true emergency?
Pretty sure he doesn’t have my backstory: my 21-year-old nephew was killed in an accident on that same stretch of road.
What if this presenter hadn’t stopped to answer additional questions, and had left a few minutes earlier? He might have been on one of those stretchers, so grateful for the emergency personnel who closed the roadway and made a priority of tending to his injuries.
A dreaded commute is full of strangers whose imagined backstories will save your sanity. Could the “idiot” who just cut you off on the highway be a woman who is finally running away from her abuser? Or a man on the way to the hospital, with a child who is bleeding out in the backseat? It doesn’t hurt to think that way. Anger will not get you there any faster.
I once read a Facebook post in which a bestselling author actually complained about the “pressure” she felt from fans who wanted her to write faster. Um, maybe she was missing the obvious, that this “public shaming” was meant as a compliment?
When all else fails, my favorite backstory: she would have been nice, she even wanted to be, but her nanny dropped her on her head when she was little and she’s never been the same since.
Once you step away from your work, don’t forget that compared to mere mortals, writers have empathic superpowers. When you’re faced with someone taking inexplicably frustrating actions, remember what you know about story: we’ve all been through some s**t. This fact alone can explain away a bad review, a snippy comment from a fellow author, or the sudden absence of expected support. And it wouldn’t hurt anyone if you assign this yahoo a backstory that will rid your day of anger and replace it with curiosity, imagination, and empathy.
You’ll be happier, and it just might lead to story.
Do you make up stories that help you get through the day? Please share!
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.
Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.