July 27th, 2015

Backstory matters

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine into Gold

Kathryn CraftWriters, 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!

About Kathryn

10685420_966056250089360_8232949837407332697_nArt of FallingKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy (featured in Target until the end of August!).

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.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor


33 comments to Backstory matters

  • Oh, I am going to remember the “Nanny Drop” when someone angers or disappoints me! 🙂 I get frustrated with traffic problems, but whenever I hear a siren, I remember the horrible car accident my family was in when I was only nine years old and I say a brief prayer that whoever needs the ambulance will be saved as we were.

  • Thanks for a great post! I was helping a little one yesterday who was crying about her dad leaving her in nursery class. I told the father about a time when I was probably three and my parents were attending scout training. I was put on a bus for daycare for the day. I was traumatized, thinking I would never see my parents again. Clearly, I remember the incident and because of it I understood this little girl. I may be a writer, but your post is about so much more than writing, and I appreciate that.

    • Oh my gosh Mary Ellen, the horrible memories of Girl Scout day camp you bring back! I was sure they would kill me, either with the lukewarm milk or their insistence that I put my head under the water and blow bubbles. I lived in constant panic! Another thing we all have in common—we were all once children, and some of us have not outgrown all our fears.

      • I’m just catching up from vacation and this exchange has me giggling. I was the gal who couldn’t wait to get to Girl Scout camp and all those adventures. Surely it would be less scary than what I left at home.

        You’re right, it’s all in the backstory.

  • Kathryn, I’m glad I opened up my email today and read this post. It’s always good to have a reminder that we never know what others have suffered, or what kind of day they are having when they are short with us. I imagine that most of the time that other author is probably a nice guy–I know when I spend a day writing-focused, I feel guilty for taking the time away from my family. Maybe something like that was narrowing his focus to his own concerns. And if he found out what caused the accident, I wonder if he was embarrassed? Lord knows we all have moments of selfishness.

    I also think you are so clever to tie this to craft! When authors truly lack the empathy you’ve described, you can read it in their books. They tend to be too black and white for me, especially around the antagonist and his or her motivations. (Maybe I’m weird, when you said that thing about the Nanny, I instantly imagined how awful she must have felt alongside the parents’ grief.) Sometimes a very successful writer misses the mark like this and I scratch my head.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Amber I also have great empathy for the nanny. I’ll never forget when my naked baby son decided to roll for the first time—right off the changing table. I’ll never forget the sound of his (luckily relaxed) flesh hitting the hardwood floor. It was a frightening new mom moment and I was so thankful he was all right. It could have turned out very bad. Thankfully we are of hardy stock, as my aunt learned when my cousin code her Big Wheel down the basement stairs and crashed into the wall at the bottom. Although that could explain a few things, lol.

  • The nanny scenario is one I want to remember, too. When I hear a siren, I pray for the responders and those they’re attending. Yes, I also make up stories. With cars cutting me off, I think maybe they’re late and afraid of losing their job. Been there; done that. The stories are endless.

    • Yes, Judy. Will never forget the siren I heard while my first husband, dead by suicide, was being interred. Our emergency was over, and someone else’s underway.

  • I already try for empathy for others – we really don’t know what’s going on in their lives that day. But imagining a back story for them is great creative exercise as well as an exercise in empathy. I’ll be doing this. Thanks, Kathryn.

    • I almost lost our on a great marriage through lack of empathy! After my first husband’s suicide I was understandable twitchy about men. When I finally thought I’d connected with someone and agreed to meet for lunch, he was in such a funk I was ready to run as fast as I could in the other direction! Luckily some of his friends told me how great he was and that he must have just had a bad day. Almost 15 years later, I’m glad they did!

  • Kathryn, I’ve just come into possession of a book called Unoffendable by Brant Hansen. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a feeling it would do the world a load of good if everyone read it. 🙂 I had a best friend as a child who had a very generous spirit with everyone who inconvenienced her (well, except her mother) whereas I grew up with parents who had little patience with incompetence. It has been a lifelong struggle to remind myself when I am being impatient like my parents, “What would Tina think about this?” And frankly, for a Christian like me, “What would Jesus think about this?” is the same question. Do I treat this other person or situation with grace, forgiveness, and concern? Or do I think of myself and my agenda more highly than I ought and respond with bitter resentment and snark? Our cultural sense of humor calls for snark (which I would bet is why this other presenter posted that photo and comment–to entertain) but what our world truly needs is compassion.

    • As with everything, Erin, I think the answer is in struggling with the balance, as you already do. I grew up where snark was the family M.O., and as a sensitive child, I did struggle with it. Yet I need a good laugh as much as the next person. But sometimes even an intended joke can make you reflect on more serious matters, and that’s a good thing.

  • BTW, I didn’t mean by that books recommendation that you shouldn’t have had the response you did to that presenter’s post. I meant that that presenter should not have been offended by that accident inconveniencing him. Just to clarify. 😉

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    I prepped your post yesterday morning, Kathryn, then went to Whole Foods a bit later than I usually aim for – I don’t do well with crowds. I was standing behind my cart picking fruit when a man (not sure I can call him a gentleman) pushed his way between my cart and one on the other side of the narrow passageway. When he – obviously – hit resistance, he pushed way harder, pushing my cart straight into my shins and stomach. My first thought was to introduce his head to the melon I was about to put in the cart. Luckily, writer brain took over. I ended up trailing him through the store (thankfully I didn’t get arrested for stalking) and coming up with one hell of a fun backstory for all the rude and weird things he was doing. He’s going in the WIP! 🙂

  • This was beautiful, Kathryn. Not just a lesson in writing good characters, but a lesson for life. You are right, back story is king. So is a little dash of patience.

    Dee Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  • Penny Richards

    Everyone is in such a hurry. amazing when we have more “time saving” conveniences than ever. We all need to slow down and “smell the roses.” I love it when there is a line of cars and someone passes me and then is stuck there.Really? That one car’s l;ength is really going to make a difference? As for writing, back story is vital to story and characterization. Not just the characters’ back story, but the writer’s. Every writer brings bits and pieces of him/herself into their work. We can’t help it. Everything that has happened to us has formed us into the people we are. The same goes for characters. Back story helps in conflict and plot development, since the way a character reacts determines what happens next.

    • The differing ways we all respond to traffic, listed in today’s comments, says a lot about our different backgrounds, as does how we feel when we are running late. So much fuel for story!

  • Kathryn, I read somewhere that “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I think there was even a video at one point with a bubble above each person head “going through a divorce” “mother has Alzheimer’s” “son has cancer” “was just fired” and they were carrying on. Everyone is, indeed, fighting their own hard battles. And that is
    their backstory.

    • So true. Especially evident at book signings for The Far End of Happy, where the line will be held up because someone has finally spoken freely of the taboo that emotionally shackled their family. The words come pouring out. Which is terribly gratifying for me, although I must come up with a pleasant way to delay the conversation so the line can keep moving…

  • biancaree

    Thank you, This put a smile on my face because I wasn’t expecting this point of view. I definitely will remember to be kinder when I feel myself getting edgy.

  • I always say, “Maybe his goldfish died,” to explain what I don’t understand about another person’s response or non response.

  • Robin Witt

    This is a lovely post, a great reminder. Thank you.

    Once in high school, I was driving from my parents house into our small town and a car came up behind me flashing their lights and honking and I thought to myself what a jerk they were, how unreasonable their hurry was.

    And I obstructed that drivers progress, preventing them from passing as long as I could.

    About two minutes later, I came around the corner and saw that car pulled over on the side of the road, transferring a passenger to the Ambulence they had been rushing to meet. I can only pray that the few second of delay I delibrately caused didn’t make any difference…

    In life we usually don’t get to see the ambulence – we just see the rushing driver, and we never know the why. But I try to remember that moment, when I see someone else in a rush, try to remind myself that if I was in their shoes, I might be in that much of a hurry, too.

    • Oh my Robin, what an excellent cautionary tale. Who hasn’t done that? One thing for sure, no one who reads your comment will do it again! Love this, in particular:
      “In life we usually don’t get to see the ambulance – we just see the rushing driver, and we never know the why.”
      So very true.

  • Oh this is a fantastic post Kathryn, and the opener gave me chills. I’m terribly sorry about your nephew. It’s so true that we don’t know the impetus behind the actions of our fellow humans, but good to remember they are there.

    • Love the word “impetus,” as it makes me realize that even gut-level actions we take without conscious thought come from things we’ve internalized from our backstories. Thanks for the added insight, Dana.

  • Nicely written, Kathryn. Thank you.

  • […] Over at the excellent Writers in the Storm blog, author Kathryn Craft has an excellent post entitled Backstory matters. […]