This came up because I was reading a book by Stephanie Feldman titled The Angel of Losses. I really liked it, in spite of the fact that it was kind of a mess, structure-wise, meandering and digressing at every turn, and I could feel at times the frustration of the writer trying to contain this huge, fluid story into a marketable three act structure.
I have come to see the world of writers as divided into two main camps: the story chasers and the story makers. Story makers control the story. They think it up, then box it, beat it into shape, whip it into submission and produce it pretty much the way the envisioned it. They are in control. They are the masters of the game, and if the game doesn’t behave, woe is it. I have two friends who are story makers. They are both very successful in the commercial market because their way of doing things is very much in tune with the way the commercial industry wants writers to work: fast, with a clear and specific goal, no delays, no indecisive turns and unexpected complications.
Then there is that other class of writers, the story chasers. For us, the story doesn’t come from inside our heads, it visits us, tantalizes us with sneak peaks, invites us to hunt after it by leaving clues all around. We go on its trail, smelling its scent, following its track, always on the verge of catching it naked in the act: aha! There you are, story. I found you! But the story is always changing, always hiding a piece of itself in the sand, showing a curve of its snake-like body, but striking with its tail where we’re not looking.
I don’t know Stephanie Feldman personally, and I’m making a leap here categorizing her as a story chaser, but as I was reading her book, The Angel of Losses, I recognized a fellow soul. Even her protagonist is a story chaser, a professor who is hunting for the origins of a myth that takes various forms and shapes in different cultures across time. I have myself chased a number of myths through history, seduced by their similarities and baffled by their subtle shifts, and I think that I bring that same kind of curiosity, reverence and malleability to the stories I write, but oh, it is such a slow, slow process, and messy. No wonder I’m so slow.
It’s different with nonfiction. I don’t ever try to force nonfiction to fit into a story. I let whatever is inside me shape itself through me, and, surprisingly, because I don’t do it consciously, the memoir or essay comes out having a solid structure. I don’t know why that happens, and I don’t know why I can do that with nonfiction, but I have to work so hard with fiction at making it all make sense. When I figure it out, it will probably be too late, but it’s all right with me. I like a little mystery in the process.
So do you agree? Are you a story maker or a story chaser?