When a story isn’t

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Last week, I talked about the challenge of facing a story that needs to be told when we’re afraid to start telling it. This week, the obstacle on my mind is not having a story to tell.

I spent the first two years of my graduate work in Iowa struggling to figure out what the central narrative of my thesis would be. Sure, I had stories. But my story — the one I was supposed to turn into a book-length manuscript — eluded me.

Some of my classmates had entered with that central idea gnawing at them from within. Each essay they presented in workshop had a clear relationship with others they had submitted before; a body of work was visibly taking shape. I had no such idea. Even though I’d already given in to writing about my father when I wanted to move away from him as primary subject, I couldn’t imagine doing another thesis on him. I used precious workshop opportunities — we received about two per semester — to make a run at other subjects. Nothing coalesced.

“Some people only have one book in them,” my thesis advisor said to me, intending to reassure but seizing instead upon my fears. “It takes the effort of a lifetime to write it.”

I didn’t have a lifetime to write my thesis. I had a few weeks before I had to convene a committee to discuss my proposal and then move back to the Pacific Northwest to finish the work. I needed to be done commuting between Iowa and D., to find a writing rhythm that could fit around both our lives, but that very process of reintegration would be its own challenge to my success — I knew it in my mind, heart, and gut. Too afraid to say any of that to my committee, I searched my writing for a through-line, anything that might connect my previous semesters’ work so that I wouldn’t be starting from scratch in both my writing and my relationship.

I wish I could have told myself then not to look at that manuscript as the only shot at a long-form work. Of course I didn’t want to waste the chance to have my advisor’s one-on-one guidance — the point of the thesis process — on more experimentation, but the reality was that I wasn’t ready to write a book. Had I taken that crushing pressure from my writing bones, I might have been able to approach the project with more supportive intentions. To let experimentation be both lesson and goal in the work while I navigated my reentry into my marriage. I realize now that my advisor was trying to tell me this in her reassurances, but I wasn’t attuned to the message.

I did manage to cobble together a proposal with a central story, even if it wasn’t the one I had hoped to tell. Even now as I reread it, I can see valid, compelling questions I could have explored through the project had I been fully ready for the work. But my heart wasn’t in the asking, in the effort required to traverse the territory I’d promised to map.

When have you found yourself in limbo, waiting to feel the urgent call to write this down that deep inspiration creates? Share your experience with me by clicking the button below, and check out the next part of this story here.