I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately.
Well, I’m always thinking about stories. To be more specific, I’ve been wondering why certain stories find us at particular times, both as writers and readers. Those rare, magical occurrences when you read a novel, or essay, or play, and it is exactly what you needed in that moment, a ringing of a bell within you, the echoes of which will reverberate within you for years.
I’ll venture a guess that most of us carry the names of a few of these stories around with us.
So what makes that magic work, and as a writer, how the hell do you recreate it?
There’s a certain magic too, when a story you’re writing starts to speak to you and then, later, when it starts to click together. Like when you’re solving a jigsaw puzzle, and suddenly all those islands of pieces you’ve managed to assemble begin to come together to form a cohesive whole.
It’s those moments of magic that keep me writing stories.
I’ve been thinking about finding the right story lately because I have been having trouble writing. I’ve picked up, started, created new revision files for a dozen different stories over the last few months, but they have all remained silent and unknowable. For the first time in my career, I’ve failed to deliver a solicited story and have requested more time for almost all of my writing assignments.
The only thing I’ve managed to write is a pseudo-fairytale about a woman who gets caught up in trying to redirect a giant, perpetual motion machine.
I know why I’m struggling to write. It’s 2022 and the future is terrifying. Many businesses have reopened and live shows have returned, but the pandemic has taken a toll in both overt and subtle ways. Earlier this year, I completely upended my comfortable life, moved to New York City, and started a new job in an industry I knew nothing about. I recognize the cause of my exhaustion. But what I don’t know is how to find my way back to that magic.
Am I using this essay as an attempt to figure that out, and am I taking you, the reader, down this particular rabbit hole with me?
It’s nothing I wouldn’t do in a story anyway.
I was fairly lucky during the height of the pandemic, in many ways, not the least of which was that I had enough focus left for reading and writing in that infinite, stressful stretch of time from 2020 and 2021. Reading has always been a form of escapism to me and I needed it badly in those lonely months. I read and listened to around 120 books in 2021, hungry for stories in a way I hadn’t been for years. I consumed a great deal of speculative fiction, but also mysteries, biographies, romance, memoirs, and thrillers. I borrowed books through the library app randomly, barely glancing at the title or genre.
Before the pandemic, I could point at a handful of books that resonated throughout my life: The Hobbit when I was nine, Holes by Louis Sachar when I was a little older, Kelly Link’s short story collection Get in Trouble a few years into my writing career.
That resonating magic as a reader for me has always been about shifting the way I think about what stories are capable of, particularly in terms of protagonist and structure.
But something changed during the pandemic—the stories that resonated for me captured a moment or a mood that I myself struggled to articulate at the time. Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell captured my anxieties about the climate crisis and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata struck a chord about personal success and happiness.
I didn’t quite realize how badly I was craving a story driven by quiet, personal stakes, but not at the expense of the fantastical world building until I read Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. Its dedication reads: “For anyone who could use a break” and I remember thinking “Oh my god, that’s exactly what I needed” and “How the hell do I do that too?”
So how do you create a story that resonates with readers?
As a writer, you will most likely never know. If your story has a profound impact on a reader, those types of moments are personal, quiet, and sometimes not fully realized until years later. When a story is published, you don’t even know if it will find its audience.
But that doesn’t stop me from trying to create that magic for someone else. I’ve looked back and realized that at the heart of every story that resonated with me, there’s an emotional element that reflects something that I only half realized myself or I felt alone in.
There are many ways to tell a story, but I’ve always believed having a strong emotional core behind the imagination and the ideas is the best way to engage your audience.
Sometimes I need to go back and read a previous published piece, usually because I have to answer a question about it and I don’t remember what I wrote. Because I believe in emotionally engaging stories, I am often using my own as a starting point for a piece. So my older stories have become a time capsule of sorts, because I’m often reminded of what I was feeling or thinking about when I was writing or redrafting a story.
For example, my story “A Record of Our Meeting With the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised” published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in February 2022, was written during a particularly low point in my personal life. When Scott Andrews asked me to write a science fantasy story for that issue, I had grand ideas of blending magic and quantum mechanics, about people who change the world when no one thinks they can. But then I injured myself and for a few weeks I could barely walk. At the same time, I was interviewing for a new job and working 70 hours a week between engineering, writing, and job hunting. I’d been at it for months.
Except the work felt like it was leading nowhere, nothing was changing. I was burnt out, and I didn’t know what to do.
So what I ended up writing, if you take away the clever structure, was a story about a tea party with space fairies centered around a character who just really, really wanted to get unstuck, literally, from his current situation. Even as I was writing it, I mourned the fact that I had to put my other, more interesting idea away. But I had been creating fiction long enough to recognize this was the story that was speaking to me and one that I could write at that time.
As Charlie Jane Anders says in her excellent collection of essays Never Say You Can’t Survive, “Write the thing that you’re ready and excited to write—not the thing that you feel the moment calls for, or the story that you think will fix every broken thing in the world.”
Just in case I sounded dismissive of that story, please know I am incredibly proud of it. It’s weird and complicated, while still having the heart I wanted it to have. Despite being tired and stretched thin, I pushed myself as a writer by telling it. It was the story I needed to tell in that moment.
Who knows, it might be the story someone needs too.
Since starting this essay two months ago and finishing it now, I have found an apartment to call home in the city. I’ve taken a vacation, and I have the place and time to zone out and replay video games I’ve already spent too much time playing.
I’m hungry for books and audiobooks again. Better still, stories are starting to talk to me. Sometimes, on walks or on the subway, a piece of a story I was struggling with over the summer, clicks into place.
Because after months of thinking about it, I’ve learned something. That magical resonance I crave is not magic, not really.
It’s being open and constantly seeking out new stories and new story types as a reader. It’s being willing to try and come back later, and trying it again.
The reason why so many books resonated with me over the pandemic was because I read so much, and so many different types of stories. The reason why my own stories carry that spark for me is because I’ve learned to listen to what my imagination or subconscious is ready to work on and not being afraid to feed pieces of myself into those stories.
There’s a line from that pseudo-fairytale story, the only thing I managed to write last summer, that resonates for me now.
But in the meantime, you’re slowly resurfacing from the chaos of change, taking your inner monologue’s run on sentences and distilling lists of them, giving it all a bit of shape. The ritual is comforting, like putting on old, familiar clothes, like rediscovering yourself in this new, strange life.
The magic of the right story is you being ready for it and being open to receive it.
Or trusting yourself to tell it, to find that piece that resonates within you, in whatever story you decide to create in this moment.
© A. T. Greenblatt