When a story touches someone’s soul.
August 3, 2015
ONE OF THE LESSONS a writer learns earlier on is that every story has been told.
I don’t care how much an author wracks her brain to develop what she believes is a brand new slant on things, a new plot twist, a strange relationship between characters, an exotic setting, a life and death situation, she will inevitably encounter the reader who says, “Oh, yeah. That’s what happened in Joe Blow versus the Godzilla-like zombie alligator.”
Not to worry.
A novel’s uniqueness, and each is unique, derives from only one thing.
It emanates from the simple principle that each person holds within himself experiences, insights, character flaws and strengths, which belong only to him.
The older I get, the more I come to understand this notion, not only as part of the writing process, but as a fundamental aspect of the human race.
We see this uniqueness play out around each day.
Siblings reared by the same parents in the same home, educated in the same schools, born into the same provincial culture, see things as differently as night is from day. Spouses who spend decades with each other deeply in love discover day by day how they view situations through separate lenses, neither possessing the answer, each struggling to gain insight.
The very culture itself shifts and bends, perhaps breaks, as events take it in a new direction.
The plain truth of a book’s uniqueness lies in its ability to scoop up a few slices of life and fling them on a page. If the author does her job right, her reader will not say, “I never heard of such a thing.” She will say, “That happened to me.” And when she says it happened to her it won’t be because it happened to her, it will be because it happened to someone and that someone now represented to her in the book will become her companion, her guide, or her enemy.
Uniqueness is not a function of strangeness. It is a function of familiarity. For it is our common humanity we want to read about, how our neighbor, the person we know so well, managed to overcome sharp odds and maintain his sanity.
Maybe it is simply the story of plain old Joe Blow, not when he encountered a Godzilla toothed Zombie alligator, but when he steeled himself against the bill collectors, kept his head down and built a life for those he loved.
In the hands of an author the experience of every day life sparkles like a rare diamond.
Stephen Woodfin is the author of The Compost Pile.