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Anatomy of a Writing Life

By Lisa Ballew

In school, I was fortunate to have teachers who shared their deep and abiding love of great literature with me, from the social tracts of Emerson and Thoreau, to the moralistic tales of Hawthorne and Melville, to the deeply personal stories of Hurston and Angelou. I devoured everything they put in front of me at a time when my mind was hungry for principles, a world view, and context. My teachers gave as much care and consideration to these authors, among others, as they gave to the math and sciences. And this was key. As a young person, I saw no reason why a life of letters wasn’t possible, but my halcyon days in the ivory tower were numbered. When it came time to figure out a career for myself, it was 2002, and I answered the siren call of law school.

The writing I did professionally as an attorney was exacting, specific, and succinct—a far cry from my youthful love of long, meandering expository writing. The habit, though, of writing for pleasure persisted. It filled idle time, pre-iPhone. At night, I filled page after page of journals with my careless scrawl about my days, my relationships, and my dreams. Did I give the row of clothbound journals lining my shelf a second thought? Hardly.

Years passed.

My journals were evidence of my transformation. Change happened to me when I wasn’t looking.

One day, that changed. We were moving. By “we” I mean my husband and six-month-old baby boy. And the dog. He was coming, too. I had to decide if lugging these things—the journals—to our new house was worth it. A quick flip through revealed what I suspected. They were filled with drivel, completely useless, and boring. So boring! While this was true, I couldn’t possibly toss them out. My journals were evidence of my transformation. Change happened to me when I wasn’t looking. While I was harried at work, stressed about money, and overjoyed with my new baby, I had become a completely different person from the one I’d hoped to be, one day. And that was OK. I had things to tell the girl who wrote in those journals, the one who thought she knew everything about growing up and finding meaning in life.

I couldn’t talk to her, but if I could write better, I could share my experiences with others. I decided to work at it. I wanted people, particularly people I didn’t know, to read me. So, I started writing op-eds, personal essays, and blog posts (yes, I had a blog). But I had a problem that I couldn’t ignore. Namely, people in my life didn’t want to be written about. To be honest, they had reason to worry: I wasn’t exactly known for my tact.

It wasn’t until 2018, wandering through the Melrose Public Library, that I picked up  John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story and realized that fiction might be the way to tell the world what I’d learned about life without upsetting anyone. As a student I’d been told that story is a powerful tool to get at the truth, but I didn’t really know it until I tried the exercises in Truby’s book, and I felt inspired to keep going.

Here is the marrow of wisdom I got from The Anatomy of Story:

  • The author has control. For starters, he espouses the complete control of an author over the novel, its characters, and its world. Right away, this appealed to my autocratic nature. In life, I may have missed the chance to tell off the boy who stood me up one night, but who’s to say the heroine of my story can’t kick that boy in the shins on page 23 of my manuscript? No one, that’s who.
  • The importance of a sound premise. What’s a premise? I didn’t really know. It’s the inspiration behind the novel. It’s the ‘what if’ statement that compels your butt in the chair to churn out pages each day. He says, “nine out of ten writers fail at the premise.” Was this true? Again, I didn’t know; But if it was, I didn’t want to be one of them. I came up with a premise for my novel. “What if a woman (like me, but not me) is befriended by the wife of an old boyfriend who has moved into town?” It’s one that I tweaked, discarded, picked back up and dusted off, tweaked again, and finally gave up on entirely. My revised premise is, “What if a young girl falls in love only to find out that her boyfriend is not who he says he is?” I am iffy on this one, but I will be certain of my premise before I am done. That, I can “premise” you.
  • “Write Something That Will Change Your Life.” I read these words on page 19 and knew I would write a novel, or, at least, I would try. If my journals had shown me anything, it’s that in life, change is the only constant, and I was completely oblivious to the role of “Chance,” that saucy minx! I went from moody adolescent to wife and mother, from lawyer to writer, and from a size 2 to a size 8, and none of it was how I pictured it. So why not embrace change? Why not yearn for it? Why not write it into existence? My would-be novel didn’t need to change the world, or even anyone’s opinion of me. It just needed to change me, and I was here for it.

Truby may not have much to offer writers looking for technical writing help, but he’s your man if you want to understand the difference between a middling story and a great story, and how to quite literally forge that emotional and intellectual connection with your reader.

Since first reading his book and starting my novel, I have thrown away hundreds of pages. I’m on the second, really the third, rewrite. Will my story see the light of day? That is another thing I don’t know. All I can tell you is the process of writing my book, after reading John Truby’s, has changed my life already, and I am better for it

Lisa Ballew is a member of the Writers Studio at Follow Your Art Community Studios.

Read more stories on Palette.

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