Set Your Story Free: You Can Write the "Big Story"

In every class I teach, at least one student realizes that the short story she's written is the tip of the iceberg---one tiny part of a much larger story. And believe me, iceberg is the appropriate word. The writer knows that the rest of the story lies in the depths of her mind, beneath the surface of the words she's written. It feels big and hard to see and the idea of uncovering it is both exciting and overwhelming. icebergI know this moment well. It happened to me when I wrote about a trip to Mexico only to figure out that there was a much larger story at play. It turned into a memoir that dealt with marriage, divorce, and starting over, and it took nearly two years to make that transformation happen.

It's that two-year timeframe (not to mention the size of the iceberg) that leads many students to their next course of action: tuck that story away. They let it sit in the back of their minds, occasionally thinking about it in an "Oh, that would be nice to write but I could never do it" kind of way.

Does this sound familiar?

If so, let me be the loudest, most encouraging voice in your ear: You can set your story free, and you don't have to wait for permission from anyone but yourself.

It's the monkey mind (the part of the brain that frets, fills us with anxiety and worries all the time) that tells us otherwise, and we can learn to turn it off. Here's how:

GRAB A PEN AND PAPER.  At the top of the page, write "I want to write my story but..." Set a timer for five minutes, and go. See what comes after that "but". If you get stuck, rewrite "I want to write my story but..."

Now take a look at what you wrote. What kind of blocks came up? It would be wasted time if you didn't get published? Your story feels too big?

Now, turn those blocks around.

For each reason you came up with to not write your story, write down the opposite. Then come up with an example that would make that new statement true. Here's what I mean:

It would be a waste of time becomes It would be a good use of time. The author Malcom Gladwell has written extensively about the 10,000 hour rule---mastery of a skill comes only after spending 10,000 hours practicing it. You would be practicing the craft of writing and getting better at it.

That might sound deceptively simple. Your monkey mind might tell you, "Oh yeah? I can come up with a million reasons it would still be a waste of time." (The monkey mind likes to speak in generalizations and absolutes.)

If you hear that storyline in your brain, come up with another reason that writing your story would be a good use of time (for example, maybe you would feel happier knowing you were giving it a shot).

Come up with another reason, and another. Keep a list until you believe it. Such a shift in attitude is possible. You'll find a lot of reasons to write your story, and once you've done that, it will feel natural to give yourself permission to write your story.

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Ready for more? Once you've given yourself permission to write, it's time to start writing. That doesn't mean you need to know exactly how your story will unfold. I like to think of writing like tracking---we track our stories the same way we might track an animal. We look for signs as we begin to write. See what I mean.