How a Girl Became a Writer, As Outlined by Nigel Watt’s “Eight-Point Story Arc”*
There once was a girl born amongst stories. Her mother read aloud while breastfeeding, cooed lullabies while hanging laundry. The older sister whispered fairy tales into the girl’s velvety ears. Grandfather bounced her on his knee, telling gothic stories of doomed salesmen and naughty children eaten by wolves.
Before she could write for herself, the girl brought her mother a pad of paper and a pencil and dictated a story about a poor family and a can of beans.
She found a best friend who also liked stories. They read time-travel romance novels and emulated the heroines by swooning on cue, fashioning their hair into wind-tousled tendrils, and cursing in 19th century vernacular. Damnable rogue! Filthy clod!
The girl stared at the author photos on the back of book jackets and yearned to be one of them. She especially wanted to look like Jackie Collins.
#3 THE QUEST
For a class assignment on creative writing, the girl wrote a story about a bottomless pit and fuzzy creatures called Skupskins (this was soon after she’d discovered Stephen King). It had a better plot than the bean story of her youth, but her teachers thought it too strange. This negative feedback, however, did not deter the girl. She liked the feeling of creating stories, the pleasurable release that came with connecting words, so she continued.
Her parents bought her a desk and a word processor. The older sister offered constructive criticism. The girl’s stories improved.
Teachers eventually noticed. She was given awards, cash prizes. One teacher, who was especially encouraging to the girl, warned her not to let life get in the way of writing. The girl swore that it wouldn’t. Ever.
She borrowed her mother’s lipstick, looked in the mirror, practiced her book jacket pose.
The girl wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote.
During the county fair, the girl met a boy at a 4-H food stand. A string of drive-in movies, Pizza Hut dates, and proms followed. There was an exchange of class rings. Now, instead of stories, the girl’s thoughts were consumed with the boy. She filled a scrapbook with wedding ideas and honeymoon destinations. She hoped their children would have her curly hair, his cerulean eyes.
Three years later the girl and boy broke up.
#5 CRITICAL CHOICE
In college the girl had a different advisor every year, and they all advised her not to set her dreams on becoming a writer. Perhaps they—being writers themselves—had good intentions of steering her toward majors with higher post-graduation success, but she was determined. Despite their warnings she majored in English and enrolled in every fiction writing course the school had to offer.
But the girl didn’t like her stories. She tried to please her professors by writing in the style of Alice Munro and Ann Beattie. She wrote about failed relationships and epiphanies when she wanted to be writing gothic tales of doomed salesmen, of naughty children eaten by wolves.
The professors didn’t appear to like her stories either.
She graduated with her undergraduate degree, yet she feared her advisors had been right.
Then the girl, now a young woman, married a wonderfully kind man who knew nothing about writing. They were happy together and soon had a baby girl of their own.
Ten years passed.
Now in her mid-thirties, the woman sometimes thought about writing, but the idea seemed frivolous. Sometimes she thought about her teacher’s warning about not letting life get in the way of writing. Sometimes this made her cry.
Then the woman’s wonderfully kind husband, who knew nothing about writing, bought her laptop and encouraged her to use it. She plunked out a few words about aging farm supplements longing to recapture their youth. A familiar streak of pleasure shot through her.
The woman then joined a writing group. She attended book readings and conferences.
She plunked out a few more words.
She studied form, tone, and timbre. She dissected literary journals and short-story collections, performing line-by-line autopsies in attempt to discover the heart of a good story and what makes it tick. She sutured paragraphs together with threads of Neil Gaiman, Karen Russell, and Kevin Wilson until the heart of her stories began twitching with life of their own.
She plunked out more words until stories emerged, mostly strange and tragic tales of pubescent girls, which she sealed in envelopes and sent out into the world.
After a few rejections and several edits, the story about aging farm implements was accepted. Then a story about a girl who longed for big boobs. Then another story, then another.
She wrote about the stories she overheard at family gatherings when she was a girl, tales of Civil War soldiers drinking soup out of shoes, of meandering children drowning in horse troughs. She wrote about how she traced the creases of her father’s calloused hand in church while listening about Abraham, Joseph, and Moses.
One day she finished a gothic tale about a girl and her ghost brother. She mailed the story with an application to a prestigious three-week summer program offered by her alma mater. The woman worried that the gothic tale would be passed over for stories about relationships and epiphanies, but a month later she received news of her acceptance. She had come full-circle.
# 8 RESOLUTION
The woman continued to receive both rejections and acceptances.
Sometimes she thought she should have an MFA. Sometimes she still tried to write like Ann Beattie and Alice Munroe. Sometimes she looked at her writing and cried because it looked like a plotless jumble of ideas. But in the end, the pleasurable release that came with connecting words was always stronger than her insecurities. So, the woman wrote. She wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote.
*Essay first appeared at Words in Place