Of Stories and Spines
I had this vision when I began my summer of taking time at least once a week to blog, especially about writing process and about being a reader, because I pretty much walk around with essays on both topics blooming in my head constantly. The facebook page has been pretty good, actually, but I meant to get the blog going again as well. June, however, had other ideas for me. First I was busy trying to sort out my preteen’s crazy summer schedule, and at the same time my mother’s side of the family was in turmoil because my grandfather kept ducking in and out of the hospital, nearly dying several times. On June 13 he did pass away, and I took a week to mourn, spending three entire days making this movie for my family, then attending the wake and funeral in Cedar Rapids. That movie is twenty-three minutes long, so feel free to skip it, but if you want to watch it I don’t mind at all, because making it was my way ot saying I love you to him. I meant it to be something I could give to everyone in my family (I took almost fifteen copies to the funeral and have five more on my desk I need to send to my grandmother), but in a move Grandpa would have loved, the pastor of his church showed it in the sanctuary on a big screen on perpetual loop during the visitation, and the last segment of it was shown during his funeral service. My grandfather was an amazing man: a WWII vet, a husband, a father, a government worker, and a grandfather to what I can only describe as a horde. When you get to the grandkids section with the 1970s fabulousness at 11:11, the baby is me, and I’m there with most of my siblings until about 12:30. He’s one of the reasons I haven’t blogged until now, because writing about him was important to me, but it’s taken me this long to be able to say this much. He was ninety-three, and he lived an amazing life, but I’m selfish and will not be ready to say goodbye to him when I am ninety-three. If you want to skip the video and just peek at a picture, the one above and to the right is Grandpa Morton and I sometime mid-seventies.
That movie is actually a nice segue into the topic I’ve been meaning to blog about, because as I put the memorial together, my daughter Anna watched me work, and at one point said in frustration, “I don’t know how you do that, make those kind of movies.” She says this because she makes her own movies, and please don’t hesitate to visit her channel and leave comments, but she gets paralyzed by the idea of making the family montages that I’ve made for trips I’ve taken and more frequently for Christmas and New Year’s with her godparents. So as I made Grandpa’s movie, I tried to explain my process. The only thing I could come up with was that when I made a video or wrote a story or even put together a playlist in iTunes, I look for the spine.
I suppose you could use theme as a synonym, but it’s not the same thing at all as far as I’m concerned. Theme is umbrella-like: it has veins, but it’s static, and while you’re drafting something, theme is the ceiling that was always there but you often can’t see clearly until you’re done on the ground. The spine is the way up to that canopy, all the vertebrae connected to each other and every individual aspect of the story. It connects everything rather than covers it, and you can use the spine to find your way anywhere else. Also, if you break it or try and do something off the spine, everything goes to hell really fast.
The other cool feature about a story spine is that you can start anywhere. Top, bottom, middle–you can compose out of order, skip things, or start at one end and dutifully work your way along. When you’re lost in story fog, finding the spine will always get you back on track, because it literally is the thing holding your work in place. Sometimes you don’t realize you wandered off until you’re on a limb over a death canyon, but so long as you figure that out before you drop into the pit of death, you can wriggle back onto the track and continue on.
Anna’s next question, of course, was how did she know what a spine was. Naturally, that’s a bit trickier, I’ll admit. I don’t know that I have a pat answer for how to discover it, either. I guess if pressed I’d say finding it feels a bit like fishing. You have to have an active line, and enough good stuff on it to draw your prey to you, but you mostly have to be patient and watchful. Sometimes what you think is a story spine is an old boot, and sometimes what you think is an old boot is the through-line of your story you’ve been waiting for. More than once I’ve thought I was following one kind of spine only to have it morph on me as I reached the end. I don’t think the story altered half as much as my expectations, but it’s always a kind of breathless magic to me, watching it happen.
Spine is so important because it’s what you as a creator use to make your story, but it’s also what your audience will use to consume your work as well. As a reader, I get so cranky when I find myself in the middle of a hot mess and don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, what story is being told. It makes me angry, makes me feel unsafe. When I read kindle samples, I’m trying to find that spine, to see if this writer has a nice path for me or if they’re an elephant clomping about in desperation. A good spine is like a train track, because story is a ride, and the track is what moves a reader through the story. As a reader, when I find one, I’m so, so happy. The best rides, of course, are the ones where I thought I was on one spine and at the end I have that same surprise I get sometimes while I’m writing.
I always try to make my story spine an easy ride, and I try to lay it out looking effortless. I will tell you that never, not once, is it actually easy to put into place. Even when the first draft doesn’t have the equivalent of weird backwards vertebrae and oddball nerve patterns, I always go back over the story spine obsessively, trying to smooth it out. Pacing plays a role here, but pacing like character and plot come out of this central nervous system. If I get to the point where I’m selling a book these days, it goes into submission with me knowing exactly what that spine is, with me having worked so many adjustments on that sucker I could tack a DC after my name.
This is also why, though, I can’t have an alpha reader. I’ve had a few on very rare occasions, but even when it was people I loved and trusted implicitly reading over my shoulder as I wrote, the mere presence of additional eyes made me feel like the house of cards was about to fall. Lately I’ve only done beta readers in rare circumstances: Dan and my agent are always first readers, but unless I’m in a real pickle, they’re usually all I use. It’s too hard to find that spine when I have people commenting on what I’m doing. I’ve written about Sealing before, but I’m more a disciple to it now than ever. Something important happens when I keep my work contained until completion, and so that’s what I do. Some of it is focus, and some of it, I’m convinced, is pure magic.
Finding and following the spine for me is a quest. Writing has very much become a job for me–this isn’t a hobby, it’s what keeps my family functioning, and I’m as serious as a heart attack about the business side of my career. When I’m following the spine, though, the door on that side is shut, and I’m hunting for luminescent threads in the dark, trusting they’ll be things I can weave into works I can sell. Those moments in the deep, though, while I’m searching, are precious. Maybe that’s why I’m so determined to go into it alone, because it’s holy, and things like that are best done alone, at least for me. Writing with a partner changes that slightly, yet when I’m writing my section of the work, I’m still down in that deep pool, hunting and gathering in solitude.
The nice side effect of this kind of composition means it’s very rare I’m able to fall into the conceit of trying to write to please, to serve my ego instead of the story. It’s a lot easier to see the difference between those things in the silence. I always have the shore in mind, and because I’ve been blessed to get to know some of my readers personally, I very frequently think, “So-and-so is going to love this part,” and bringing that part of the spine to life is a joy I do for them. Mostly, though, I’m communing with the story itself, trying to find the veins that will allow it to live.
Because really in the end, that’s what the spine does. It allows the structure of the story to stand without me. I can’t hover next to every reader and explain things when I’m unclear. I can’t fill in vertebrae once the copy is set and distributed–once it’s out, it’s out, but if the spine is there, if it’s strong, anyone who was ever going to take that ride in the first place will be able to, with the same magic I used to find it, fill in the gaps that are best for them.
I think that’s why I love books so much, even more than movies: there are so many spaces for the reader in a book. What one person sees and absorbs and projects is absolutely different than someone else’s experience, and yet they’re all happening at the same time. A movie too, I suppose, but not in the same way as a book, at least for me. The spine of a story is the gift I give it, the ladder, the track, the delivery system for everything.
If I tell a story about my grandfather, I think of the spine. In that video I wanted to tell the story of his life via pictures–all of it, as much as I can. I used what I had and put out a frantic all-call to everyone in the family. What resulted from that was an amazing Dropbox cornucopia of images spanning almost a century, coming in from around the world. I learned more about my grandfather and my family through making that video than I did in the forty years I’ve known him. I learned from watching people watch it. I know too that my family learned about me.
I’m less concerned that my readers learn about me through my books, but I do want them to have that kind of communion with the work, to feel when they finish something I’ve written that their life is clearer or easier or happier or richer. I love that each story can illicit seven different reactions at the same time. I love that though the magic for me happens quietly, usually a year before anyone but my smallest inner circle see, it blooms even brighter once it takes its own steps into the world. Though writing is lonely, I love that moment of sharing the most, lingering in the back of the room quietly watching people open presents I left waiting.
All that happens, though, through the spine. Spine is essential. It is the way in and the way out for both composer and audience. It connects the story. It connects it to me, connects it to you. And when we’re very, very lucky, it connects us to each other too.