Guest Post: Sharon Darrow on Back-Story, Future-Story, and On-going Action: Replicating Life with Authenticity

Learn about World within Words: Writing and the Writing Life.

By Sharon Darrow

When I talk to my students about point of view and plot action and their relationship, I find myself musing about how we humans really work.

Things happen to us and around us seemingly simultaneously: we receive stimuli (things and people act in our world), and we respond, observe, talk, think, move, and emote in a blindingly fast sequence.

Not long ago, while I was speaking to a student on the phone about how to revise her long passages of back-story into ongoing action and dialogue, we got very animated about the topic.

It was an exciting conversation and we were both completely focused. Because we’d been talking for a long time while I’d been sitting at my desk, I stood and paced around the room.

I went to the door to let the dog in, along with a fresh cool breath of air, and the beauty of the world rushed into me, the rain-washed day, autumn in Vermont, all green grass and red, orange, yellow trees, black and white cows on the hillside across the valley, and the way the astonishing light traced newly sprung maroon on the heart of a green-edged leaf just outside the window.

A bright metallic blue pickup truck went by, one that I’d never seen before and I wondered about the occupants and why they’d driven down this deadend road. Something about it reminded me of my brother-in-law’s work with his son to restore an old pickup they’d painted almost the same color, the thought of which then tugged at my heart because my dad would have loved to have been a part of that work, but he’d died five or six years before.

I shut the door and felt a twinge of hunger that brought an image to mind of the cheese sandwich I planned to fix for my lunch. And you know what? My student and I were still in dialogue, still completely focused on our topic of conversation.

Sharon with Katherine Paterson at Vermont College of Fine Arts

I told her all that had been going on in and around me as we’d conversed. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said. “The way the present and the past and the future melt into the same moment of real time.”

She completely understood. In her world the same thing had been happening, life moving around her and being reacted to by her even as we spoke so intently together.

Now, I keep reminding myself, especially in revision, that I (and my characters) live in all time at once—past, present, and future—even if our stories may proceed chronologically.

This is why the emotional journey of the character and the action of the plot are all of a piece, inseparable if what we are after is replicating life with authenticity in our stories.

We humans live only partly in the here and now; the rest of our brains are going like crazy remembering, seeing and re-experiencing snippets of visual and visceral memory, while we are processing incoming data and dreaming little daydreams of the future.

We live in the past, present, and future simultaneously and the events of our lives and our inner and outer reactions to them are intricately intertwined.

Cynsational Notes

Excerpt taken from Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life (Pudding Hill Press, 2018); shared with express permission.

Author Interview: Sharon Darrow on Worlds Within Words: Writing and the Writing Life from VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “Most of these chapters began as lectures for VCFA residencies. I had written them to present in my natural voice and to an audience of students working in a rigorous academic program toward the MFA degree. The revision process was meant to change spoken lectures into written essays that would be easier to read and yet still retain something of my spoken voice.”