Sunday, July 25, 2010

What’s Your Story Telling You?

Years ago when I was a student in Japan, I was invited out to dinner by a friend--another American student at my school--and her Japanese relatives. They invited me because my friend spoke no Japanese and her relatives spoke little English, and they wanted me to interpret. I’m sure they asked me because I was so poor that I didn’t charge much; a dinner out would suffice. And even though my Japanese was at its best during that time, well, you know that saying “A little knowledge is dangerous”? Who knows what lies, rumors, and bad karma were bred that evening because of me.

After dinner we took one taxi to drop us at our different destinations. The relatives were the first to be dropped off. As they were leaving the cab, the husband (I’ll call him Mr. Taniguchi, because this happened so long ago that I don’t remember their real names) decided to give an important message to his American cousin (let’s call her Annie). For some reason, he wanted to deliver this important message in Japanese. That meant, of course, that I would need to translate it. So I listened carefully, fully aware of the honor he’d placed on me, and then I turned to my friend and gave her the message in English. As I did, however, I felt that something wasn’t quite right. Something didn’t make sense, didn’t fit precisely. But I gave it anyway and hoped no one would notice the disconnect.

Mr. Taniguchi noticed, and without angst or rebuke, he repeated his message word for word and waited for me to interpret, this time correctly. Feeling less confident about my abilities and my listening skills, I gave my friend the message again. This new, altered, interpretation still left me feeling it wasn’t accurate.

All this time, the taxi’s engine was running and the meter on the dashboard ticked off more and more yen. Still not satisfied, Mr. Taniguchi patiently repeated his message. He didn’t raise his voice or simplify the words or the grammatical structure for my ears. He simply repeated the message, all the time with an expression on his face that said, “I know you’ll understand eventually.”

On the third try I got it. It clicked into place, and I rattled off the message perfectly for my friend. Mr. Taniguchi nodded and said, “Yes, that’s it!”

Lately I’ve been feeling the same way about the book I’m currently writing. You see, I believe that all the stories already exist, and they’re just waiting for us to interpret them, to give them a voice. I love the book I’m writing now, but I also know that’s it’s not fully told. I wrote the first draft and laid down the bones, headed it in the direction it needed to go, and gave it a beginning, middle, and end. I fell in love with the characters and their problems, and I rejoiced (and cried a little) when it ended.

However, even after I’d written the last word, the story seemed to say, “That’s pretty good, but you don’t understand me yet. Sit with me a while and listen to what I’m saying. I’m a patient story, and I’ll wait for you.”

I know that in time, by listening carefully and closely, I’ll write this story precisely and to its delight. At that time it will nod and say, “Yes, that’s it!”

Are you working through the revision process on a story or article? What steps do you take to make it just the way it should be?