Guest Blog Post, Sara Schaff: Waiting for the Story

Sara SchaffMy sophomore year of college, I wrote my first good story. Or I should say, for the first time I enjoyed writing a story and didn’t want to hide in my dorm room once other people started reading it.

But as soon I finished the story, I couldn’t get back the feeling I’d had while working on it—the sense that something glittery and magical was happening, that the characters were coming to me fully formed, that the story itself was mysterious to me and yet familiar and easy to tell.

I went to my writing teacher in something of a creative panic, and what she told me sounded reassuring: “It can be a long time between stories, and the wait can be difficult.”

I wrote down her words with the reverence of a disciple for her guru, and I felt comforted with the thought that a good story would come again. I just had to be patient.

The problem was that while “waiting” for the next story, I wasn’t actually preparing for its arrival. Sure, I jotted notes in my journal, copied bits of overheard dialogue, and wrote the first pages of dozens of possible stories, but I stopped short of ever writing past the point when inspiration ended and boredom with my idea set in.

It took six more years before I completed another story. By that time, I was teaching middle school and making my students write essays and stories from beginning to end and then, on top of that, revise them after the first draft. It seemed hypocritical to ask twelve and thirteen-year-olds to sit through the hard part of writing without doing it myself, so very slowly, one sentence at a time, I hammered out a story about a failed painter struggling to forget the memory of the New York plastic surgeon who had fixed her nose and then betrayed her heart.

Spoiler alert: it was a terrible story. Stilted language, heavy-handed plot, and—despite what the ridiculous description above might suggest—utterly devoid of humor. I put away the story and hoped it would never find an audience.

And then I kept writing. Because while that story taught me that I was capable of writing badly, I also learned how to stay at my desk when I really just wanted to get up for another cup of coffee. That’s the kind of waiting I think my teacher was talking about—more prosaic than the lightening storm of creative inspiration I once expected, but also more practical for someone who wants to make a long career out of writing.

I continue to write terrible stories—though hopefully not terrible in the exact same way. I continue to want to warm up my coffee or look for jobs in countries where I don’t speak the language—basically, anything aside from writing that next scene in a story I’m struggling with. Every once in a while though, because I’ve been waiting for the story by actually writing and revising it, a more fluid process takes over, and the characters suddenly know who they are, where they live, and what to say to each other. It’s a pleasantly familiar feeling, and yet it always catches me by surprise.

Sara Schaff

Sara Schaff is the author of Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books, 2016), and her writing has appeared in Joyland, Literary Hub, Southern Humanities Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and playwriting at St. Lawrence University. Find links to her work at saraschaff.com.

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22 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Sara Schaff: Waiting for the Story

  • October 4, 2013 at 10:30 am
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    For me the revising and editing to work through the wait is necessary. Otherwise, fear that the wait will be indefinite can paralyze my creativity.

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  • October 4, 2013 at 2:58 pm
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    It seems as if I’m always stuck in this waiting phase. Waiting for an idea to strike or waiting until a writing assignment from a professor is due. I’ve found that I must sit down and force myself to write, and it’s okay to write something terrible. As long as I’m writing. Eventually something good will come of it!

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  • October 4, 2013 at 4:53 pm
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    The freedom that I felt after reading this blog was unbelievable. What a great statement, ” I also learned how to stay at my desk when I really just wanted to get up for another cup of coffee. That’s the kind of waiting I think my teacher was talking about” I think so often our own expectations are unrealistic to what really needs to be done. Staying still and sticking with it even when we don’t think we have it in us to do it. That is a reward within itself. Thanks for sharing!

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  • October 4, 2013 at 5:59 pm
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    Sometimes the mere act of sitting down to write is the most difficult part of the writing process. I know the feeling of getting distracted by something and that urge to get up (for me it’s usually late night Waffle House visits or games). But the feeling when everything starts coming together because you stuck it through and kept writing is definitely worth it.

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  • October 4, 2013 at 8:55 pm
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    One of my favorite author’s posted on their blog that no matter what they sat down and typed(she owned a type writer at this point) for an hour every day. I fail at her dedication but I understand both their and Sara’s emphasis to write, not matter if it’s good, bad or ugly.

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  • October 5, 2013 at 10:58 am
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    I usually end up in the ‘waiting’ period whenever I try to come up with the middle to my stories. I have ideas on how to start and end it, but its harder for me to come up with the ideas to maintain it, so, even now, I’m in that waiting period.

    Usually I only write when I feel in the mood because I feel that it isn’t a good idea to force myself to write. That’s just my opinion though.

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  • October 6, 2013 at 2:00 am
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    I think a lot of creative minds often struggle with that “waiting” period, thinking that a magical idea will come to them if they wait and that’s how the next beautiful story, poem, song, painting, etc. will be born. But that brilliant idea can’t become anything else unless you work at it, revise it, rewrite it. It isn’t some divine revelation, and it requires active pursuit. I know I definitely need to be more involved in my own writing, and realize that sometimes it takes putting that bad story on paper and lots of work until it becomes as rewarding as the first ones that made me enjoy writing so much.

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  • October 6, 2013 at 7:35 pm
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    I always have the hardest time with this “waiting” period, but I have found the best thing is to continue writing no matter what and it will eventually get better. It takes a long time, but it never fails. Sometimes a story that sounds really bad in your head might actually work well on paper.

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  • October 6, 2013 at 8:25 pm
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    I am slowly learning to overcome that little voice that always wants to be doing something else, whether it’s get up for that cup of coffee or switch tabs and mindlessly scroll through Facebook or Twitter. It takes a lot of determination to get over it, but once I’ve pushed through the result is always worth it!

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    • October 7, 2013 at 4:19 pm
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      Sometimes those little breaks are jsut what the creative mind needs, but usually pushing through the rough spots gets more down on paper.

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  • October 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm
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    This is quite inspiring of a post. I have been stuck on my story since freshman year of High School and through boring, tedious events of the book and other unexpected events in my life, I have not been able to get past the fourth chapter. This lovely post made my dwindling muse come alive again!

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  • October 7, 2013 at 11:08 pm
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    I can feel my inner Barnabee (my creative writing teacher) screaming right now. I never wanted to show him anything unless I felt it met his standards. Regardless, always had to turn something in and whenever I had an inkling of an idea, I wrote it down immediately. To this day, I still need constant reassurance over any writing or design I do and it’s something that I’m working to overcome.

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  • October 8, 2013 at 10:39 am
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    Ariel, learning to trust your own voice is one of the hardest things about the waiting process–about writing, period. It can also be challenging to look to our instructors and peers for honest feedback rather than reassurance that our work is good. Here’s what’s helped me: finding honest and generous readers of my work, people who respect what I’m trying to accomplish and want to help me get there. (Instead of helping me to write more like them.)

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