What It’s Not: Finding the Story


February 3, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

giantunderwood2.jpgI am most definitely not at the stage of story development I like to be at two days before a story slam.

I have a draft; it’s about 500 words too long, the emotional arc is not clear, and it has no ending. I am not one of those people who write better under pressure – at least not where my storytelling is concerned. I am a very slow cooker.  And I’ve been rather spoiled in that regard for the last year or two.

When my freelance grantwriting business failed during the recession, it was hard to reenter the workforce.

I finally found a part time grantwriting job, twenty hours a week. I moved in with a friend, lived very simply. There was next to no money, but what there was was time.  Time, and energy.  Time to cook nourishing meals. Time to walk.  Time to sit in coffee shops with other creative people and mull ideas over and write what I wanted to write. I found I worked best in three hour blocks; I could map out the process I used to work on stories for different events several months in advance.

I got used to the luxury of time.

Now a lot of my time and energy is being used learning a second job. A job which is making me financially secure again, for which I am extremely grateful.  But at the end of the day, I am lucky what’s left of my mind can read, or surf the web, or watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

This blog is my lifeline where idea generation is concerned.

But I haven’t quite figured out when the mulling and the working and reworking is supposed to happen. At this point I need to move beyond a memory dump of all I remember about a particular event and decide exactly where in that steaming pile of manure the actual story is.  To rid the page of what the story’s not.

The quotations we’ve used to explore the word “frisky” have ranged from the deductive pronouncement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “A dog reflects the family life. Whoever saw a frisky dog in a gloomy family, or a sad dog in a happy one?” – to friskiness as playful flirtation in Luke Bryan’s “Rain is a Good Thing,” to the ironic description of the “frisky, eager and exuberant” young men in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 who “were glad the war had lasted long enough for them to find out what combat was really like.” 

The emotional tone of each quotation is quite different, and yet there are aspects of each in the supposedly five minute story I have right now.  

That can’t be good.  

And then there’s this final quotation from Henry David Thoreau, that seems to want to work its way in as well:

Henry_David_ThoreauIt is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! how gently lay  themselves down and turn to mould!–painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living. So they troop to their last resting-place, light and frisky…. They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,–with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.

So whether the story I am working on now will actually be in good enough shape to put my name in the hat on Tuesday night remains to be seen.

Fortunately I have a reason to finish my “Frisky” story it whether it is ready for the Slam on Tuesday or not.

Because I need to deliver the final version here, next Monday. Thanks, blogosphere.  In  the meantime,  I would love to hear from those of you who have day jobs and are trying to be creative on top of that work. 

Do you have a special technique or discipline that helps you find the time and energy to do the creative work you’d like to do on top of the work you have to do?

Let me know in the comments field, here or on any of the social media platforms I post to.

7 thoughts on “What It’s Not: Finding the Story

  1. jenna matthys says:

    Paula-I enjoyed yr post a lot! I work full time and find myself spending a lot of time thinking about what i want to write and not enough time writing it. When it comes to sitting down and doing the work, sometimes I let life get in the way. I think your 3 hour writing block is admirable. I really respect the fact that you took that extra time and discovered some stuff about yrself when you were working less, unlike myself who spent 8 months of unemployment in a fear spiral! I spent so much time worried about being unemployed that I wasted it. Now, I’m trying to have a writing day, where thats all I allow myself to do for at least 4-6 hours, and then during the week try and do a page a day of anything. For me, the biggest block isn’t time but feeling that everything I write is a pile of crap, and wanting to just scrap the whole thing. It’s super hard to have work responsibilities, life conflicts,make all the shows and events i’m invited to and dont get me started on aging parents! But everybody finds time for what they WANT to do, and I had better want to write, as it has saved my life more than once. Good luck on yr story.


    • Jenna, I can really relate to everything you’re saying. In fact one of my issues last week was that my mom went into the hospital with pneumonia. Trying to make sense of a past experience when you are in the middle of a current gamechanger can seem like a poor use of energy. But in fact it does build the resilence and flexibility you need to deal with present anxieties and ambiguity. I have found that it’s extremely important to let yourself write crap. It is, in fact, from those steaming piles that the food and the flowers grow. Good luck to you too!


  2. mollykelash says:

    HI Paula:
    I am in the process of writing a book (my first!) and have let everything else go, so I cannot tell you how to find that balance. If I am very busy with other things, however, I find that the evening just before dinner or just after can be a great time to polish what I wrote when I had time to really write last.


  3. I’m just a budding writer with no real threat of deadlines looming! I try to keep myself to Mondays/Thursdays, but I fear that as my tank begins to empty it will become much harder to maintain those deadlines while also producing something I’m happy with.

    What I’ve been doing is putting on something soft (Coldplay, Damien Rice, etc), pouring a REALLY BIG glass of wine, then sitting down and writing. A candle or two for mood, and shoo the boyfriend to the bedroom to play COD.

    At the end, I’m never fully happy with what I’ve produced, but I’m hoping to find my voice in time. =D


    • For me, the brainstorming work primes the pump, so the tank is never empty idea-wise. It’s just finding the time when I’m at my best, creatively, to revise and rework. Right now evenings are not good for that – they are better for reading, cooking (if i have the energy after work) and connecting with people. When I do have energy to work at night, it often wires me up so that I can’t sleep, which sets up a vicious cycle of not being good for anything during the day. But this is a great forum for figuring out how to rebalance my routine. I’m grateful for the insights of others. You’re doin’ great, Stacey. You have a fresh voice, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


  4. […] promised in my last post, here is the story I developed for the theme “Frisky” at StorySlamMN! this month. The […]


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