How to Write a Story that Feels Bigger than You

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Brett Henley. Brett is the author of i am convicted, a work-in-progress novel using a blog to transparently tell the story of Andy Dixon, an ex-felon who spent nearly three decades in the Tennessee prison system. You can join the conversation at i am convicted, Twitter and Facebook.

Storytelling is an inherently taxing and frightening process. Writers and our fragile, creative ecosystems are like fish in a barrel, resistance standing at the ready, finger on trigger.

We’re in it to the teeth. I know it, you know it.

So how do you manage an overwhelming feeling that the story you’re writing is much bigger than you’re prepared for?

Big Story
Photo credit: McKay Savage (Creative Commons)

The struggle

Like every writer or artist, I struggle. Despite experience or practice or talent or even the best of intention and commitment, I stumble like a small child most days.

As I willingly dive headlong into the maddening spin cycle each and every morning, my day usually resembles:

  1. Wake at 4am.
  2. Fight urge to use comforter as protective cocoon.
  3. Stumble into living room, where I stretch and offer the morning a few half-pint yoga sequences.
  4. Sit in the dark and stare at laptop for several minutes; it’s comfortably closed and resting on a plastic folding table tray confiscated from the clutches of Walmart’s home section.
  5. Sigh heavily as I bounce between inane tasks (like adding music to Rdio) and actual writing.
  6. Rinse and repeat, then resist urge to vomit in mouth when I see the output.

The more that is at stake, the more resistance will knife its way in, inviting complication and fear and all their nasty little friends along for the party crashing.

Struggle is part of the artist’s DNA, but it’s also largely indicative of how important your creation is to you and the rest of the world.

Accept your struggles willingly, acknowledge their presence, then move on.

Just write

There are implications for unfinished work that hum like a summer thunderclap.

Extreme avoidance, creative paralysis, heightened obsessive tendencies and a few blank stares for good measure – all common systems of resisting your work.

The secretly-good news:

There is no silver bullet.

Expectation, for all artists, is really just the devil hugging your ankles.

So you move, lifting each 100lb. creative limb in front of the other before the cement dries and writer’s block closes its jaws. No waiting for the trigger pull — just constant, wonderful movement.

To ship, to create, to allow the story room to breathe and avoid crushing it with insecurity — this is your best weapon against a story too big to wish away.

The really, really good news:

A truly game-changing story will essentially tell itself. You simply need to guide it home.

Strength in numbers

As someone much wiser once told me, “We are never alone when we choose to share our stories.”

What’s strangely frustrating and comical about writers is that we often fear rejection before we’ve written something to be rejected.

We face this aged paradigm in traditional publishing of content exclusivity — that we as writers need an established platform before our work is ready to be shared with the masses.

So we tinker, we obsess, we stretch our emotional limitations to breaking, all because rejection told us: you’re not ready.

It’s a mythological beast, the worst kind of hype driven by stagnant practices and precedent. In this new age of publishing, where any writer can produce and distribute their work internationally, this particular paradigm is overdue for an early grave.

Stop hiding and hoarding your work; share it. Learn not to fear but seek constructive feedback before your work is polished for consumption.

And finally…

It may feel akin to sleeping with the enemy, but embracing the imperfect creative process, one that simply advocates “do” and not perfection, is crucial to getting out of this alive.

Have confidence in the presence of chaos and ignore expectation, and you will find the right way to tell your story.

So, how do you manage when the weight of a story is too much? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: McKay Savage (Creative Commons)