Friday, August 17, 2012

Finding the Inner Story of Your Book--Behind the Outer Drama, What's the Real Meaning?

I worked with a writer a few years ago, who was writing a fascinating story.  He'd been through serious medical trauma, and he wanted to write a book about it partly to allow himself to gain insight, partly to help others experiencing this.

We first worked on his storyboard, tracking the outer dramatic events, and he listed them without flinching.  I felt some writerly envy as I read them--not because I wanted to experience what he went through, but because who wouldn't love a list of such strong outer events to frame a reader's journey.  Some were so intense, they felt like a page from a tabloid. 

Outer story intact, we next began to work on the inner story.    Inner story is the other half of all books.  It answers the questions Why?   And sometimes the questions What? and How? 

As in . . . Why should I care?  What did you learn?  How are you different?
Inner story contributes discovery to your book because it takes the reader along on a journey of meaning. 

I asked this writer to begin listing his inner turning points.  He sat for a long time in front of the computer.  Not much came out.  "I'm different," he said.  "But I don't really know how."

His answer told me a lot:  First, his book journey would be different than he expected.  He would have some research to do, to find his inner story.

Second, getting this book to a publishable quality would be harder than he imagined.  The outer events were digested--and because of this, comparatively easy for him to write.  But the inner meaning would require a different view, beyond his outer drama.  he'd have to get a broader perspective on his story.  I knew he could do it, but it wouldn't be easy.

The Surprise of Inner Story
We don't know what we'll get when we begin researching inner story.  Sometimes the meaning of our own books--our own lives, even--is not clear to us at first.  Many writers write books to discover this, but they don't always start out knowing this as a goal.

Inner story usually surprises us.  This is how I, personally, know I've found it.  Strong inner story is a journey of discovery, and those kinds of journeys surprise writer as well as reader as they find their way to the page.

A colleague once put it this way:  "If the writer isn't surprised, the reader won't be either."

Here's another tip:  Because inner story is also shown more often than told--telling too much defeats its delicate nature--writing effective inner story means being willing to not know everything when you begin.  Are you comfortable with that?  Not everyone is.   

The Situation versus the Story--Advice from Vivian Gornick 
One of the best books I came across, when I first began learning to write inner story, is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story.  This landmark book teaches writing from the inside out through exam­ples from Joan Didion and others--nonfiction writers who seamlessly build inner-story meaning directly into their outer events.  

Sometimes an outer event wouldn't even be all that dramatic.  Didion's short story about migraines was low-key compared to a murder mystery, but the inner story conclusion rocked my world as a reader.   

If you want to start learning inner story, study Gornick's examples.  You'll see how skilled writers use theme, repetition, pacing, and setting--all inner-story tools--to create meaning organically.  
Gornick gives the method too:  She says that writers must ask deeper questions of themselves and their material, to write not just the situation but also the story behind it.

So when I applied Gornick's advice to my book How to Mas­ter Change in Your Life, a memoir/self-help hybrid, I found myself adding new sections I hadn't meant to include.  They came forward as I began asking, over and over, the main question of my book: Why do some people bloom from life’s upsets, happier and health­ier than before, and others lose their way? Asking myself this deeper question showed me I needed to explore myself more--how I personally handled change.  And this meant disclosing many of my own traumas: divorce, business failure, cancer diag­nosis.  

Freewriting:  A Way to Balance Outer Structure with Inner Discovery
Scary as it is, inner story is best come about obliquely.  I use the technique of freewriting, or "writing outside my story."  I crept up on the meaning, so it didn't scare me away.
Freewriting is a weekly discipline in my writing life.  I carry a list of prompts (starting words, images, or phrases) to get me going.  I prepare to be surprised.  Usually, after some warm-up pages--my average is two pages of warm up before anything really worthwhile emerges--I can count on the writing changing.  A new direction.  A twist.  A realization comes onto the page.  Inner story is starting to emerge!

I feel a new energy in the writing, if it rings with authentic voice.

All genres need inner story.  When I was a nonfiction writer, I doubted this at first.  I was used to working from an outline with all my topics prepared, filling in with writing accordingly. Even though outlines bored me, I leaned on their reassurance.

But my journalistic pieces needed the meaning that comes from inner story. So I learned when to put my outline aside and do my freewrites, come at the piece without forcing any connection of topic with inner-story exploration.  Slowly I noticed my writing changing, improving.  I began publishing more. 

For example, in my memoir/self-help book, certain topics led to predictable places with specific outer information--a trip across the U.S. in my Volkswagen, business change and its effect on people. But other topics opened up a completely different kind of writing, such as how my life shifted the day my grandmother died. It was new to me, full of unexpected images and memories, reveal­ing surprising insights on lessons learned, the meaning of what I’d gained from my life-changing events. The inner story was emerging on the page.

Inner Story Is Not Linear  
Because inner story is born of the discovery process, because it can surprise the writer as it emerges, it is often dismissed by our linear minds.

But this is its beauty. The point of inner story is to discover and demonstrate the less obvious. Inner stories are essentially what we take away from the books we read: the point of the story, the meaning, transformation, or discovery that takes place.

And inner story can change people’s lives--both writer and reader. As a reader wrote me after How to Master Change was published, “Your book gave me hope that I can learn to navigate my life.” That is one big reason why we write our books, isn’t it?

If you are willing to follow the unexpected in your writ­ing journey, you’ll get to the inner story. It finds its way to your page via those nonlinear freewrites that allow you time and space to explore unlooked-at possibilities, to dive into subtler ideas.

Whenever I need more inner story in my manuscript, I try exploring what I don’t know yet about my book. Yes, it seems il­logical. But my creative self knows more than my logical mind.  
My book’s inner story appears in unexpected places, if I follow it. 

Exercise:  Assessing Your
Inner/Outer Story Strengths

1.  Write about an event you experienced this week, something that actually happened. Write until you have three or four pages. Try not to edit. Let yourself go wherever you want in the writing.
2.  Set the writing aside for an hour, then go back to it. Read it through.
3.  With a yellow highlighter, underline anything that seems to be outer story:  the plot, events, or specific action.
4.  With a blue highlighter, do the same with
any images, thoughts, feelings, interpretations, or meaning about what happened—the inner story.
5.  Look at the balance. Which was more plenti­ful in your writing, outer or inner story? Which doorway do you choose naturally?

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