I just finished a phone conversation with a writer I know. He is new to writing and he’s eager to learn his craft—although he already understands how to write strong, entertaining scenes. I remind him of this often. Still, he worries a lot. I remind him, also, that his characters are strong and they have suffered and we care about them. Characters have the power to invite us into their book so we follow them eagerly across the most tumultuous narrative seas; characters also have the less-than-desirable power to shoo us away from reading because we don’t care about them or we don’t understand what makes them tick and we don’t care enough to find out.
“Your stories are strong,” I tell my writer friend each week. I tell him that because it’s true, his stories are strong and true and filled with the potential to become deeper and richer. “Your characters are strong. And you are in the early stages of writing this book. It’s all good, you’re in good shape.”
“I guess…” His voice trails off and he clears his throat. I wait and after awhile he takes a deep breath. He says, “I’ve been looking at the structure of the story, taking the long view, and I’ve divided it roughly into three acts.”
“Okay, it’s a good idea to check in with the larger story structure,” I say.
“But now I feel a little disconnected from it, from my story.”
“That’s reasonable,” I say. “And there are easy ways to reconnect—through conversations with your characters, through exploring questions, staying curious, staying playful.”
I offer him several things to try, including a walk on the beach. He lives near the beach. He seems to like the ideas I offer, and he throws in a few ideas of his own, the energy in his voice rising. But then it drops off suddenly. There is a silence. Finally, he says one word that he stretches into two words: “Oh—kay.”
“You don’t sound okay,” I say. “Maybe oh—kay but not okay. What’s going on, what’s worrying you?”
“My faith,” he confesses, his tone heavy.
“Faith in my book, in my ability to tell a story, maybe it’s stupid, maybe I can’t do it, those thoughts get it my head and if they stay there sometimes my faith wavers…”
“And wibbles?” I ask. Then I explain about the old man I knew years ago who spoke little English but always shared his lunch and who was good at fixing things that “wibbled”. You could just tell by looking at his hands that he knew his way around the world a bit. By the time he’d tinkered and fiddled and worked with those things in need of fixing, by the time he wiped them with a clean rag and whispered to them, they stopped wibbling.
“He had faith,” I tell my writer friend. “And he also practiced a lot at fixing wibbles.”’
“Ah, so, Grasshopper,” my friend intones, nodding. “So with practice, my story will stop wibbling?”
“More or less,” I say. “And in the meantime, I’m here as a Keeper of the Faith for you and your stories. I believe in you. And you believe in you, too, when the voices quiet down. I’ve got some nifty tips for managing those internal voices, too.”
“Okay.” This time he smiles and he means it.
Our stories begin with seeds—an intense resonance with time and place, curiosity about a character, a few words overheard, the expression of love or outrage on a stranger’s face, a memory, the smell of chiles roasting or the scent of sandalwood on rumpled sheets, the bittersweet taste of dark chocolate, a few notes of a song played on a clarinet or a cello.
From that beginning we carry forth the work of a writer: acting on our curiosity, exploring, discovering, listening so very carefully to our characters and their world. All of this a way of watering and nourishing our seeds so they grow to seedlings and then into tall, strong storytelling trees.
There are times of questioning, and there are times of doubt and that’s okay, as long as we continue to strengthen our Faith muscles—those intrapsychic muscles that protect us and protect our tiny seeds so they have time to grow.