The Story Comes First

T sunsetIf I had to point to one piece of writing advice that upon which my work is built, it would be the fervent words of children’s author Jane Yolen.  She had just finished a lecture on the importance of addressing faith questions in books for kids, despite the fact that the primary book-buyers are public schools and public libraries, when a member of the audience challenged her: Shouldn’t writers be accountable to those who buy the books? Yolen got angry. “All writers are accountable to three things, in this order: First we’re accountable to the story. Second we’re accountable to ourselves. Only lastly are we accountable to our audience.”

So many of us jumble these priorities! We place the audience first, compromising our needs and curiosity and joy. Even worse, we don’t appreciate the story itself as an entity worthy of devotion. The story: a memory, an imaginative ramble, a question pursued with characters and moments in time. Stories are of us and beyond us. “The universe,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not of atoms.” By writing stories we make our world. Stories are a source of life. They have an energy and will all their own. A first draft gives the writer and reader a mere glimpse of this mystery. Only time and attention—revision—will lend that life force a body. Margaret Atwood calls writing reverse incarnation, the flesh becoming word.  In the beginning was a story—a mystery—and the writer loved it into being.

I’m increasingly convinced that what makes writing (both the process and the product) valuable is its service to the story. Nothing else satisfies in the end—not success, not recognition, not extraordinary craft accomplishments, certainly not money. Only an ever-deepening practice of curiosity and exploration, delight and humility, listening and lending voice, gives creative writing value.

(This is an excerpt from the book I’m currently working on, New Vision/Revision: Opening the Writer’s Heart & Art.)


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