The Story Economy Blog

This Is Definitely Not the Whole Story

typewriterOne of my goals as a writer is to sell an essay to the “Lives” column of the New York Times Magazine. If you haven’t read Lives, it’s the magazine’s backpage essay that tells a short personal story. (Here’s a great collection.)

It’s not a goal about money or ego. It’s more about the challenge of the form: matching just the right story with 800 words of carefully crafted prose that manages to say what it needs to say without you noticing.

The thing is, Lives essays are exercises in restraint. For a writer like me, who loves to hit you over the head with realizations and “a-ha” moments, that restraint is a HUGE challenge. I want start from the beginning, tell you what I learned, and then tell you what you can learn.

But that’s not the point of the Lives column. It’s about sharing a particular moment—a little snapshot where something happens—and letting the reader put the meaning together. It’s the ultimate show-don’t-tell moment.

I actually found a blog on that gave advice about how to write a Lives essay. It said: “Don’t try to fit your whole life into one essay. Don’t try to tell the whole story. Tell a small story — an evocative, particular moment.”

It’s good advice for their format, and I followed it as I worked on the essay I submitted (rejection expected, but fingers crossed nonetheless).

But the advice to tell a smaller story and pick a particular moment: that’s actually pretty spot-on advice for any marketer. It’s the challenge of restraint, and knowing which part of your story to tell.

Save the Plethora for the Novel

To be clear, I don’t practice tons of restraint when I write this newsletter. I think of it as a weekly tour of my brain. I open it up, let it flow out pretty much as it comes, reread it a few times to make sure I’m not rambling too badly, and then I publish the sucker. I can’t let myself get bogged down in parsing and deconstructing and perfection. I’d never get it written each week if I did that. ¬†But that’s the beauty of blogging: it’s a dynamic medium, with lots of leeway.

That’s not as true when you are trying to make the most of one opportunity, like your elevator speech to a networking group, your presentation to the bank for a loan, your pitch to the board to approve the funds for the project you really want to do, or the video that introduces your company. That is a much more precious resource.

When I was working on that essay, there were so many things that seemed like dealbreakers: stuff I absolutely had to include. The asides, the subtexts, the backstories: these things build the richness and layers and complexity. How can I tell you this story without telling you that? And that? And definitely that?

I don’t think it’s ego that drives this. I think it’s the basic need to share and be understood that drives it. And the fear that if you don’t tell people everything, they just won’t get it. And listen, if you have the time and the word count (like, you know, a novel), by all means: include all of it! I love to lie in bed and read long novels. (I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things right now, and it’s completely delightful.)

But for those of us marketing and running a business that does not involve writing novels, we don’t get the luxury of communicating via 344 pages. We only barely get 30 seconds of attention. Small, particular, evocative, less, restraint, specific: these are concepts we need to cozy up to. And the other concept we need to make friends with is letting go. Release the plethora of background information. Just let it go. Now, I don’t mean let it go as a person. Of course keep it in your brain: it’s what makes you who you are. I mean let go of trying to include all of it in your story.

Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure, I know. It means you have to choose. Choosing is the worst, because it means un-choosing things. But the bright spot is that people often get a glimpse of it when they aren’t thinking so hard. For example, if I sit down with someone, and just steer them ever so slightly by saying: “Okay, give it to me high level: why did you start this particular company and what do think it’s really about?” they often automatically chose the best part of the story to start telling. They tell me about a moment—maybe even a specific afternoon when they decided. It often starts with: “Well, this is silly, but what really happened is . . .”—to which I say, no, it’s NOT silly! It’s how you should start your story. (Do you remember that my story sort of starts with making chocolate chip cookies?)

Listen, I know it’s stressful. It is work and it does take strategy and careful thought to figure out how to build that particular, evocative moment. Crafting a story that works hard without looking like it’s working hard at all is an art that’s learned through practice. Writers practice it by writing essays (and usually getting rejected).

How will you practice it?


  • Lauren Worsh

    Posted by Lauren Worsh on 11/14/13 12:18am

    Another excellent post. Thank you, Judi! I love your clarity.

    I've started to think of all the partial stories, all the vignettes, and all the moments as a kind of holographic microcosm of The Whole Story. The more present I am in wonder and appreciation, which requires that I stop rushing and really settle in to "listening" to the story/moment I'm giving attention to right now, the more I find that everything I need in that moment comes to me through the gift of that restraint.

    I think that just as there is restraint in writing and making art, there is a quality of restraint in receiving too. It's about restraining the mind's tendency to want "more" or the next thing, and inviting it to receive every little drop of what's here right now, in these words, this breath.

    Isn't this what we look for in good writing, too? Something that is so compelling and evocative, it opens the moment into timelessness.

    Thanks for helping remind me of the gift in restraint.

    BTW, I totally see you publishing an essay in the "Lives" column!

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