The Story We Bring to the Story

by Steve Laube

With all the discussion about the craft of fiction and the need to write a great story there is one thing missing in the equation. The one thing that is the secret to great fiction. And it is the one thing the writer cannot control.

That one thing is the story the reader brings with them to their reading experience. As a reader I have the life I have lived, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, and the places I’ve been that I bring with me into the world your novel has created. This makes the reading of every story unique. No two people can read the same story the same way. This is why one person’s favorite book is another’s thrift store giveaway.

In the new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club author Will Schwable writes about the books he read with his Mom during the last years of her life. In his introduction he wrote something profound:

We all have  a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

This is the secret to the greatest novels of all time. They were written in such a way that my story, the essence of who I am, merged with that story and it became something new. Something unique. Something inexplicable. A new story. And then became a part of who I am…and a part what I bring to the next story I read.

That’s the story I want to read. Can you write it? I can’t wait to read it.

17 Responses to The Story We Bring to the Story

  1. Avatar
    Karen Robbins October 8, 2012 at 3:40 am #

    What a great quote and wonderful thoughts. Reinforces my belief in the power of words. They can be life-changing, enriching, and impact in ways we have no idea of as we write them.

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    Diana Harkness October 8, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    Every author’s story is enmeshed with their writing. That’s why I almost inexplicably relate to one author over another who writes equally well–I relate to the personal story behind the words. Looking back over the books I have read in the last year, I remember some vividly, others not at all. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the author shares my cultural background or my faith. Those vividly remembered books I pass on to others and, in so doing, I share the connection between the author and myself.

    That idea looms large even as I write. It’s the specter behind every sentence. Am I writing true? If I can’t say yes, it gets cut. I have cut chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words that did not ring true to me. And not without pain. Because what I cut rang true to authors I count as my friends through their words: Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine L’Engle and others.

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    sally apokedak October 8, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Wonderful post

    I argued with my favorite author once about one of his characters. He thought the character was motivated by one thing and I thought the character was motivated by something else. I told him he didn’t own his character and he couldn’t tell me I was wrong. I knew the character as well as the author did. My friend, the character, was not exactly the same boy as the author’s character friend was. Does that mean the author did a poor job of communicating the character? I don’t think so. I think we all give to our favorite characters some of our own back stories and motivations.

  4. Avatar
    Michael Snyder October 8, 2012 at 6:07 am #

    “That’s the story I want to read.”

    Amen. Me too. Great post.

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    Jeanne October 8, 2012 at 6:31 am #

    Good thoughts. I’m learning that the story of my heart and the story or my life are intertwined. Figuring out how to write the story of my heart beautifully is definitely a sweat inducing, challenging, humbling labor. My hope it that one day in the not too distant future, this story will be read and will stay with the readers.

  6. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel October 8, 2012 at 7:04 am #

    Love this thought!

  7. Avatar
    Joseph Bentz October 8, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Amen! This is the reason to write (and read).

  8. Avatar
    Ruth A. Douthitt October 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Oh so true!! Great thoughts. A great reminder. There is something bigger at work in our stories. Someone bigger!

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    Kathleen October 11, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    I have recreated the library mom provided for me growing up. It was part of our shared history.

    I’d like to read his memoir. Bibliophile banquet. Thanks for this post. I’m sharing it.

  10. Avatar
    Jenny Carlisle October 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    I’m dilibently working on that story right now! I hope it will affect at least one reader as strongly as it is affecting me.

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    Rosslyn Elliott October 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Steve- an excellent point. This was the central topic of my dissertation, based on the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote about “the dialogic imagination.” The other person’s ‘story’ is not only a part of the reading experience, but the essential challenge of every act of communication between human beings: creating the overlap between one person’s system of meaning and anyone else’s. It goes all the way down to the personal meaning of specific words, as “teeth” may be a neutral term for me but a highly loaded one for someone with a traumatic memory of having shark teeth removed from her arm. Imagine what synaptic explosions happen when you write a word like “angel” or “demon!” So what you’re saying is that the greatest fiction is dialogic, and in that, you agree with Bakhtin.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 12, 2012 at 9:04 am #

      Rosslyn, Thank you! I feel vindicated that a philosopher like Bakhtin had already explored this idea fully. I’ve ordered his work on “the dialogic imagination” to see for myself. I suspect it will make my brain hurt.

  12. Avatar
    V.V. Denman October 11, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    Reading – the opposite of dying. I like that.

  13. Avatar
    Dave B October 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    A while back, we tried to thin out our old books, but as I went through the stack, I was overwhelmed by memories of reading them to our kids … I parted with very few.

    We did find a solution. Although the grands seldom were interested in our books and videos (too many other things to do when they came over), the kids were eager to get them as they too had lots of fond memories and are now sharing them with their kids.


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