Oct 28, 2017

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

by Deb Graham

Whose story is it?

“Using the pointillism technique we’ve explored this week, draw a human foot. Due Monday.”

Confidently, I jotted down the assignment and headed home for the weekend. I got this! My grandmother was visiting, and she had the oddest feet I’d ever seen. Her baby toes curled under, and the corns near her big toes bulged.  I knew she’d welcome the chance to sit and pose for me while she crocheted. And I knew my art teacher would love it.

Pointillism; a series of dots gathered together in a foot shape; I knew I could excel at this art class’ first homework. I spent two hours carefully detailing every inch of Grandma’s left foot. My family agreed I’d caught the realism.

 On Monday, I slipped my sketch paper out of my hinged portfolio and clamped it on my easel to show the teacher when he circled the room. Ten minutes later, I was in tears, humiliated from the public mockery and scolding dished out.

 Inaccurate lines.

Bulge by big toe.

Baby toes grotesquely rolled under

 Visible boney structure and exaggerated veins.

And he announced my grade to the class; my very first D-. He said he only gave Fs when assignments were not turned in; this was a half point above not drawing at all. I held on another three weeks, then dropped the high school class, and with it, whatever latent drawing talent I may have had.

Today I secured a floor-length artist’s smock around my grandson; at only two years of age, adult clothing is always floor-length. I set him in front of an easel, and offered him his very first paintbrush.

“What color do you want?”

“Yite bwoo!”  No surprise there; light blue is his favorite color.

I sat back. The little guy dipped his brush in the paint. Sure of himself, he arched wide blue swaths with gleeful abandon. I envied his confidence and obvious joy. And I didn’t tell him how to hold the brush, what strokes to make or criticize his choice of color. This was his art, not mine.

I’m a writer and an author. I've published 17 books, three this year. I’m most comfortable in nonfiction because it’s predictable; I control the outcome. I’ve written two novels and I’m working on three more. Fiction tends to go off on its own, and I find that unnerving. Characters speak to me, scenes veer off where I hadn’t intended, plot lines refuse to stay on track. Nonfiction doesn’t behave like that.

When I first attempted fiction, I figured I’d need all the help I could get. I researched, starting with internet searches on How To Write A Novel, How To Set A Scene, How To Write Dialogue; the basics. I also sought human help, including a critique group, beta readers, and editors.
When I wanted to learn to draw, I sought a teacher. At this stage, I find both about equally helpful.

Readers change the voice, insisting Will has to use complete sentences, and Cinci can’t use run-on sentences, although that’s the way I hear
 them in my mind. Others call my style “Yoda-like” and insist on most sentences starting with He Was or She Went; passive to the point of yawning. One said a child couldn’t jump on a trampoline for ten straight minutes, but clearly, she hadn’t seen a joyful child on a summer’s afternoon. “You can’t kill off that character, or I’ll be mad at you!” wailed another. “Put him back!” 

If I listened to them, my stories would be unrecognizable mush.

An artist paints, then steps back, admiring. Never do they create a masterpiece, then hand over the paintbrush to a person to let them add a few strokes to the bridge or erase that tree on the left.

As writers, why do we open ourselves to peer-critique? No one can hear the story in our words, so why do we allow Them to change our voice, to dull its sharp tones, to conform the structure into mind-numbing dullness?  It’s time to stop running our writing through committees.

How? Trust yourself. You’re the one who can hear the character; let them speak, unflattened. 

Believe in your own writing. Trust the process, because what’s the worst that can happen?

Be brave! Get a copyeditor who will only find typos. Ignore any attempts to change your style or writing in any way; they’re only suggestions. 

Sure, rules of grammar apply, and punctuation is critical; I get seriously annoyed by authors who lazily neglect to close quotes or who think every sentence must be paragraph-length, and you just can’t spell “unique” as “yewneak” and expect me to bother reading the rest. I have my limits, and anything that requires me to use a magic decoder ring to read isn’t worth my time. But editors who seek to change your plot, characters, theme, etc should...go write their own book.

Writers are artists, and we need to trust our art. The world needs to hear our voice, our story, and sometimes, just telling it and putting it out there is best, rather than letting it be edited to death.

I can’t draw anything fancier than a straight line, but I can write. 


  1. I agree 100%! Always trust your creative voice it knows how to tell a story better than any writers group.

    1. I don't know what happened to my punctuation above.

  2. Well said, Deb. Thank you for sharing these insights.

  3. I find my response to this, as it is with almost everything, is yes -- and no. I require a committee because I get so lost in my stories I need people to point out when I haven't communicated something in the way I thought I had. It makes sense in my mind, but did I write it clear enough that it makes sense to anyone else? STILL - you can't care too much what others think. I have made myself sick rewritting, desperate to please the group, only to take a breath and change it back to what I had originally written - but maybe a bit better that time around. ;)

  4. I learned a powerful lesson the same way. In a grammar school setting, the art class listened to classical music while we drew whatever we felt. I was lousy anyway so I just drew squiggly lines in different colors. The young fella next to me drew a detailed car...we were 7-8. The teacher admonished him in front of all of us, demanded he redo the assignment. I often wondered what he did...what I did was avoid art at all costs no matter what lol


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