The writing of a story is a story in itself.
I would go so far as to claim that if a writer hasn't been frightened or at least disturbed in the process of writing, it probably isn't much of a story.
Is this change, this challenge, something that just happens along the way? Usually. Can it also be a matter of skill, something we can learn to do? I think so. Here's an example:
Several years ago, I sketched out a story in which a dead whale plagued a Native American fishing village. The main character, a sort of reluctant community shaman, neatly solved the problem after the authorities complicated the problem.
But the story didn't come together for me. Something was missing. I went to the toolbox
did some free writing. Put the story away for a few months. Rewrote it. Made a wall chart. None of this helped.
One afternoon in early October, I was driving near the beach, and an idea struck me. It had to do with an element of creation mythology called the "Earth Diver" myth. Many cultures, worldwide, pay homage to the idea that the Earth was once shrouded in water, and that a creature—an otter, a bird, a turtle—swam down, scooped up some sand, brought the sand into the air and the light and fashioned dry land and life from it. This myth had always appealed to me. Maybe because I liked water, liked swimming. Maybe because I appreciated the elements of risk, sacrifice, passage and transformation. The idea of mysterious depths, the journey into oblivion, represented by the sea.
Maybe this was what my story needed
something more elemental than my keyboard and computer screen. I would swim out and dive for a handful of bottom sand, take it home and fashion some kind of talisman from it. A tiny whale. A tiny moon. An otter.
I parked my car, walked across a broad stretch of windswept (and trash-swept) sand, and waded into thigh-deep waves. You can do this in Lake Michigan in early October
the big water doesn't lose its winter chill until July, and the summer heat doesn't bleed out until November. Fifty yards from the shore, the bottom started sloping down, and the waves struck me in the chest. I felt that, in order to be faithful to the earth diver model, I needed to get out to where the water was over my head. So I kept going, passing through shallower water atop a sandbar, until I found myself treading water on the far side. I waited for a nice, tall, mythical-looking wave, turned tail like a duck, and dove for the bottom.
It wasn't far. My fingers sank into the sand. I closed my fist, twisted like a fish to bring my boots down so that I stood, for an instant, on the bottom, and then leaped for the surface.
And just as I leaped, the undertow grabbed me. A whole underwater river began pulling me out, pulling me down.
Just as quickly, a wave plucked me out of the rip and set me down neat-as-you-please right back on the sandbar.
In my closed fist, I still held a few ounces of sand.
There's a sense of calm and wholeness that follows an experience like that. I drove home without worrying about wet clothes or wet car seats. The sand lay on a t-shirt, on the passenger seat, quickly draining and drying.
I never made the talisman. I did, however, go straight to my keyboard and write a new ending to the whale story. An ending that worked, and tied the rest together into a story called "The Whale In the Moon." (Haydens Ferry Review, Winter 2002; reprint: Second Writes, Spring 2008).
Does this mean we have to go out and swim riptides or walk on hot coals in order to summon good stories? Of course not. But it's in our power to create spaces and experiences during the writing of a story which will make that story fuller. Maybe the writing of a story is a story of stillness. Or newness. Or pain. Or pleasure. (Why not?) Just as in the earth diver model, there is chance and change in the process itself.
It might be interesting to look back at your work and see how often this has been true. "Oh," you might recall, "Li and I weren't speaking the week I wrote that," or "This was the time the dog was sick," or the basement flooded or you found the strange dead thing, or you were waiting to hear from the doctor. There's almost always a story behind the story.