How to move your story forward

Because even the most literary characters need to experience more than feelings.

Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter featuring conversations about the creative process, suggestions for nourishing yourself, and inspiring links.

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A few weeks ago I video-chatted with Nicola, whose beautiful debut novel comes out in March. (You’ll be hearing from her in a few weeks - stay tuned!) It was lovely to catch up with a dear friend who is also a writer, and as we talked about our projects, our reading stacks, and our lives, I realized something about my own work.

The first two books I wrote (unpublished; for the best) took place mostly in the main characters’ heads. In the first, a marriage unravels due to conflicting desires. In the second, an unconventional family grapples with grief. Things happen, of course, but the big stuff is largely internal - probably one of the reasons both books were deemed “too quiet” by editors.

In my current project, the main character makes a series of decisions, each one worse than the last. She still has plenty of ~feelings~ but most of them are in reaction to events, rather than the event itself. It’s a story driven by plot which, while not a novel concept, is new for me.

Things happen! Problems escalate! Characters end up in a pickle! Things get worse! Bad decisions are made! Fraud is committed! Sex, but with the wrong person! Prison is a real possibility! My other books took years to get from the first page to the last, but this one took roughly ten months, mostly because something was always happening.

Years ago, when I was a teaching assistant in my MFA program, I made my students play a game I called “Raise the Stakes.”

It started innocently enough. “Mary goes outside to check her mail,” a student offered. The person next to them would continue the story, adding an obstacle or a twist. By the end of class, Mary was saving the city from alien invaders or robbing a bank with her ex. The game was ridiculous, meant to illustrate not only cause and effect, action and reaction, but also how quickly you can lose control of a story if you’re not careful.

I thought of that game two Wednesdays ago when, in between livestreaming the violence at the Capitol and doomscrolling on Twitter, I came across this tweet:

Truth is stranger than fiction, but not by much.

A few days after my conversation with Nicola, the morning after the attempted coup, I woke up, opened my novel-in-progress, and started revising. The previous day’s work had brought me to a precipice, and a dangerous plan was about to go awry. I’d paused there so I could start the next morning’s work with some momentum, trusting the action would carry me forward.

Because when something happens, whether it’s a minor conflict or an insurrection, the story can’t end with our fear, our outrage, our despair. Feelings are not a conclusion; they’re a beginning. The only thing that matters is what we do next. As writers and as citizens, that’s our duty - to turn feelings into action. To experience an event, and then find a way to move the story forward.

Snack of the Week

These homemade coffee hazelnut biscotti were a special delivery, care of a dear friend and incredible baker in Richmond, Virginia. Biscotti is basically a cookie you eat for breakfast (they are best consumed after a good dunk in a cup of strong coffee) and if ever there was a time to start your day with a little sweetness, this is it.

Relatable Reads

  • Last year, I wrote an issue about how I was slowly deleting all my Facebook memories. Once that task was finished I turned my attention to Twitter. Before I could overthink it, I used TweetDelete to get rid of every tweet older than a year - nearly 3,000 of them, spanning over a decade - almost instantly. After a brief moment of panic, I felt one hundred times lighter. Want to erase yourself even further? This Wirecutter article also has some great tips for tidying your digital life.

  • I spend a lot of time thinking about capitalism and money, work and art, what we value and why. My own personal finance philosophy comes down to three main tenets: make your needs modest, keep your overhead low, and give back what you can. This New York Times article about buying nothing for a year and the book Having and Being Had by Eula Biss were two recent reads that strengthened my commitment to minimalism in different ways. (The Biss book is especially wonderful and received rave reviews from my book club - highly recommended.)

  • I Did Yoga Every Day for a Year, CNET. I’m halfway through Yoga with Adriene’s January yoga challenge. Because I love goals perhaps a bit too much, I’m already considering turning it into a year-long journey. The author of this short article did the same and I enjoyed reading about her experience.

  • Speaking of goals, I also liked this week’s issue of Girls Night In, which talked about the subtle difference between a goals-driven life and a values-driven life. The best part was this Toni Morrison quote: “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.” Such a good reminder.

A Brief Word

In my last issue, I asked you to share your Word of the Year for 2021. If you haven’t chosen one yet, it’s not too late! If you’re looking for inspiration, here are some of the beautiful words and phrases guiding us through the next twelve months:

  • Boundaries

  • Collate

  • Right Speech

  • Grace

  • Opulence

  • Move

  • Thrive

Coffee Club

Thanks to Emily H. for filling my coffee cup last week! Your generosity made the biscotti that much sweeter.

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