Your one story – have you figured out what it is?
“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”
― Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton
Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton that “Lucy Barton’s story is, in meaningful ways, about loneliness, about an individual’s isolation when her past — all that has formed her — is invisible and incommunicable to those around her.”
Lucy Barton, who is an aspiring writer, is told by a writer and teacher that she only has one story. For Lucy, that story might be the multiple shades of loneliness. She has felt it and she has chosen to write stories that help people feel less alone.
My Name is Lucy Barton, like Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, is so unadorned and lacking in sentimentality that I kept wishing Strout would suffer a mental lapse and write one purple prose phrase to inject life–even false life–into what I thought in the opening pages was a going to be a barren novel, a story so deadpan it was dead.
But as I read, I saw that the story was being raised from the dead and began to wonder if the author was animating a monster or a human being too beautiful for ordinary words. A little of both, perhaps. By the time I finished the book, I saw that it could not have been written any other way and that perhaps the life in it was precious and dear like the one blooming flower in the middle of the desert.
The bookseller protagonist, Jean Perdu, in Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop can “read” his customers’ needs in somewhat of a psychic sense and then hand them the books they require for whatever ails them. Perhaps he would hand his lonely customers copies of My Name is Lucy Barton because it’s a wonderful antidote to loneliness, fulfilling the desire of the fictional writer Lucy Barton and, for all I know, of Elizabeth Strout as well.
Do people really have only one story? If so, is this the story of their lives? What does it mean to apply this notion to a writer? Certainly writers don’t write the same book over and over as the output of most widely known writers attests. So maybe that story is something other than the plot itself, a theme maybe, or a focus on something like injustice, or triumph over adversity, or–yes–loneliness. Put that way, maybe we do have one “story” that we come back to in all kinds of ways whenever we write. Put that way, that one story is our great strength, the kind of strength that produces books Jean Perdu might dispense to his book shop’s customers who need them most.
If you write, I hope you have discovered–or are in the process of discovering–what your one story is. Among your talents and gifts, knowing that is like finding the philosopher’s stone. But don’t tell anyone. Let them find it for themselves the way I found the life in My Name is Lucy Barton. When readers discover your strengths while reading your work, those strengths have a much greater impact than any sentimental prescription in the author’s note at the front of the book that explains what you’re trying to do.
If you haven’t discovered your one story yet, it’s always possible that your muse already knows what it is and that you’ve already been writing that story many ways. Perhaps you’re so close to that story, you don’t have its name or summary inside your head. Your readers probably know it.
Perhaps your muse doesn’t yet know what your one story is because you are still discovering yourself, a thing you must do before your writing takes flight. Don’t stop looking, for I can promise you one thing, on the day you find your one story, you will feel that same joy Lucy Barton did when she said, “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy.”