In This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes that she only has one story in her, and she keeps writing it over and over: "a group of strangers are thrown together." And it's true of the two novels of hers that I've read: Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant.
I had to ask myself whether I only have one story, and if so, what it
is. When it comes to short stories, I think I have many. But novels? All
three of my published books feature a character struggling to overcome
some monumental event from his or her past. Sometimes it's the fairly
recent past, as in The Secret Year and Try Not to Breathe; sometimes it's the more distant past, as in Until It Hurts to Stop.
There is forward movement; there are different kinds of relationships
and different settings; and some of these stories end more happily than
others. But I do see that common thread.
Even when I look at my
unpublished books, the ones that I think are the most successful (and
still might want to publish if I can fix their flaws) include that same
element. Is that what it takes for me to really get the wind in my
sails, I wonder--a character facing down the monsters of yesterday?
embraces her one story rather than fighting it. I'm still willing to
try to tell other stories if they occur to me--I won't shut the door on
new ideas--but if those attempts fizzle and I am left with my one story,
well ... that's no tragedy. There are thousands of ways to tell that
story. I am endlessly fascinated by how people heal, how they put back
together what has been broken or live with the cracks and the missing
pieces, and how they go about changing. I guess it shows in my writing!