Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Writing a Story No one has Read Before

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 16•19

I listen to a range of podcasts, but keep coming back to two fiction series from The New Yorker. These podcasts feature readings of short stories and include conversations with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. In one podcast an author, but not the author of the story, chooses and reads a story from their archives and explains why he or she chose the particular story.  One of my favorite episodes features David Sedaris reading Miranda July’s short story, “Roy Spivey” and their discussing and dissecting it.  Sedaris was blown away by July’s story, claiming that it was a story that changed him and the ending devastated him. The story along with their conversation about its intricacies and power is worth listening to here. Like Sedaris the story has stayed with me and reminds me of the primal delights of a campfire tale. Of the origins of all storytelling.

I have a lovely doctor who is a voracious reader. We squeeze in discussions about books during my appointments and early in the year, she described how she’d opened a novel to begin reading and then abandoned it. She said, “I just knew I’d read the story before.”

Now, she didn’t mean she’d read that exact book before, but rather that it was predictable. Possibly stale. Not worth her time. It might not surprise you, but no sooner were the words out of her mouth when I suggested some titles. Since then I’ve been passing along some of my favorite books,many with bendy, offbeat story lines and quirky, often outsider characters. All the elements in these novels are indelible, yet somehow realistic.  On my recommendation she recently finished reading Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, can’t stop thinking about it,  and is telling friends about it. And I’m recommending this gem to anyone who stops by here. It will also stay with you, and you’ll find yourself remembering the characters long after you close the final page of the luminous tale.

It’s fun to be a book connector.

Because as you know, books are meant to be shared. To be discussed, relished, and pondered over long after the story ends.  On that note, in case you missed it, I want to nudge you toward Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. It’s a wondrous, raw, and powerful novel.

It’s a hard-to-describe story about an enslaved boy growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados starting in 1830. The cruelty, brutality, and oppression in these circumstances can be felt. But then the novel takes a sharp turn, and shifts into an adventure and coming-of-age-story.

It’s also hard to describe how powerful and apt her language is. Soaring, lyrical, vivid, especially when she’s describing the natural world. Here are the opening paragraphs.

I might have been ten, eleven years old –I cannot say for sure–when my first master died. 

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keening, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance stooped, thin, asleep in a  chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap.I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels  in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit’s calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sunlight settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.

That was how it beganme and Big Kit, watching the dead go free. 

My question to you: Are you writing something no one has read before?

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