Is it a story?
My greatest teacher, the late Josephine Carson used to ask us this question, over and over.
She taught Creative Writing at Mills College, one of the last institutions that operates on the undergraduate level for women only.
Our classrooms were cozy; the campus lush and beautiful- an oasis in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Oakland. Its founding predated and preceded the conflict to come.
When I discovered Mills, it was at a time in my life when I was as lost as a person can be. Far from home, living in a small farming community after growing up in a big city, a hot dry place for a northerner used to lakes and woods, a new mother, with no friends, or family for company, and with a husband in medical school, I did not know which way to turn. 'Take up a hobby, read a book, try something new,' said every self help book available in the early eighties. With little time, and my writing dreams seeming to go up in smoke, I decided to take a drive. There had to be a school within a hundred miles, I reasoned, where I would find my way. So with my son in the car seat, and setting out in the one hundred degree heat, I headed for San Francisco, initially expecting nothing more than a chance to cool off.
After checking out several colleges and universities, I returned feeling it was impossible- too far, too expensive, not the kind of place that suited me. I saw myself turning into Sylvia Plath, but it was far too hot where I lived to ever consider sticking my head into anything hotter. I was spared both her outstanding talent and her ultimate demise.
Being a veteran of a girl's high school and summer camp, I thought a woman's college would be the last choice. Still determined, I went off to try again, alone this time, having a husband at home for the day. Turning off the freeway, I made note of the distance. Sixty miles exactly. Lots of people drove that far to work, I reasoned. Who? Well, some people had to. Once through the gates, I inhaled the scent of Eucalyptus and felt my hair stand on end. Home. I could barely contain my excitement. I loved the architecture! The first girl I saw walking to class had an absolutely smashing hair cut and looked really hip.
In the administration building, I marveled at the antiques, read up on the history, admired the founder's collection of tea pots. I collected tea pots. That did it. What greater sign could I possible be given? I looked at the requirements. No math necessary. I could not jump through the hoops fast enough, and once enrolled, the great wheel of my life turned for good.
Enter Josephine Carson. She was not an academic. She was a card carrying writer, a successful playwright and a person teaching from the perspective of giving us the tools of the trade.
Into our heads she drilled this concept: Is it a story? She said it so much that on the last day of class we presented her with a cake. In icing we had written her dictum: is it a story?
The truth is, we were all give to blathering, stream of consciousness, flowing from what we thought were our marvelous minds whose every thought was a worth preserving forever. Where were we going with this, she would ask. Straight to the rejection pile? What does your character want? Oh, we weren't writing about materialistic desire we would say, we were more interested in internal landscapes. Ha. Then what happens? Well, there is a new insight gained perhaps. IS IT A STORY? Did we even know what a story was?
Then we got the ultimate definition. It will stay with me forever. It makes words superfluous. Don't be silly! You can't tell a story without words. Oh yes you can. This is what she gave us:
Can it be danced?
A story is a chain of related events resolving a basic human need. The need to be loved, the need to belong, the need to gain mastery over our fate, the need to avenge a wrong, the need to overcome an obvious obstacle or limitation, all of these needs can create great stories.
As writers, we are limited to a one page query letter in order to obtain representation. Agents reading hundreds of these per week are looking for this one quality. If it is a story, it can be set down in an effective query letter. If not, the process of writing the query, could well send the writer back to the drawing board.
If it can be danced, it is a great story. Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, West Side Story, Giselle; I could go on and on.
Take a look around at the great books in your library. Read the first sentence. In all the best stories, it is right there.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish” The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway.
That is a story.