Notes from Candice Ransom

When Our Stories Won’t Speak


Two years in a row, I’ve wandered through the same abandoned house in Luray, asking it to give up its story.  The front door was open, but inside the walls were tight-lipped.  Both trips, my photos came out smoke-grey and silent.


This weekend I found another abandoned house.  I welcomed the opportunity to let my restless mind run loose off its chain.  I also hoped roaming someplace new would give me the answer to a problem I’d been wrestling with.


The past three months, I’ve been trying to settle on a book to write.  I’ve drawn from the well over and over and the bucket has always come up brimming with ideas.     


Some of those ideas greeted me eagerly, following me from room to room and I’d think, Yes, this is the one.  But then the idea would drift off and I’d forget about it.  A few days later I’d wonder, What was that idea again?  

Another idea was so good, I felt that old electricity sizzle in my fingertips.  I know this story! I thought.  Because it was mine. 

I began researching the time period (sadly, my childhood is now a “time period”), made discoveries that dragged me right out of the story.  My adult self couldn’t ignore what I’d learned.  My childhood self turned away in disgust for ruining a perfectly good idea. 

Some empty houses let me uncover the ragged, unvarnished truth and dare me to blink.  How much do you want to know? they seem to say.  How bad do you want this?


People inquire about my process, how I begin a new book.  I open a notebook and get a dialog going.  The notebook goes with me everywhere to record any stray thoughts (last summer Hollins writer-in-residence David Almond generously shared his notebook with my class–we pored over his dense notes scribbled all over the pages).  But lately, after a day or so, I lay the notebook down and won’t pick it up again. 

How bad do you want this?


As I wandered around the place, snapping photos, bits of its story came through.


It occurred to me that maybe this story, like that last hard-edged idea, isn’t mine to tell.


So what do we do when our stories won’t speak to us, shrug us off?

Should we keep going to the idea cupboard or grab the idea we already have by the scruff of the neck and insist it stays and behaves?  Jot notes and create character sketches until we make the idea viable? 


It’ s not enough to construct a narrative into being. 

Do we love those characters, that place, that story?  Do we think about them all the time?  If I truly loved all the ideas I pulled up in the bucket, I wouldn’t start notebooks and then abandon them. 


I suspect the book I really and truly want to write is an old one.  I’m worried the idea is too old (first came to me in 2009), but then ideas don’t have expiration dates.   It’s the one I keep coming back to.   I love the place.  Love the characters.  Love the story that’s waiting for me.

All I have to do is open the door and walk inside.

8 thoughts on “When Our Stories Won’t Speak”

  1. LOL, about our childhoods being “of an era.” Quaint notion, no? See also: vaguely disconcerting.

    But to your larger point, I do believe some stories are timeless. We nudge them aside, distracted as we sometimes are by shiny objects and ramshackle buildings—metaphors, perhaps, for our innermost thoughts and yearnings. But the story (our Story) waits patiently in the wings, just beyond our camera’s range. And we know, deep down in our hearts, that we’ll encounter it again and again, until we’re willing to sit with it and write.

    Least wise, that’s been my experience. 🙂

  2. You are so right. It’s so hard to separate the glittering new thing from the ratty fallen-down one. Shiny and new is fresher, more alluring, tantalizing. But some stories we might want to tell because it seems they are all we have left will lay down in the road like an old dog. If that story keeps coming back and meets me halfway, then maybe it’s time. But forcing the issue never works for me.

    And yes, sad to say, our era is history! I think even the 80s are considered historical! How old does that make *us* feel?

  3. Times passes and we don’t feel it. It was only when I heard a Guns n Roses song being played on Gold FM that I realised I was officially an old fart.

    Ideas are a funny thing. Some float around happily, content to just be an idea, some deteriorate and hold on only as delicate fragments of lace. Then there are the ideas that are like drummer beaters, keeping us awake at night.

    I am thinking about your research and the disruption to your idea. Since becoming a mum I am relearning some things about childhood. Even though childhood is about learning and absorbing knowledge [from an adult perspective], but to a child it isn’t about that, it’s about feeling. A child’s understanding of the world they live in doesn’t lie in adult facts. Sometimes it is a distortion of those facts. So there might still be a chance for that story to work.

    • You are so wise, Melissa, even though you think the Guns N Roses era is old (just kidding! To me Guns N Roses era is a blip on the screen!). I do believe that having children shows us childhood from a truer perspective. They do live from feeling to feeling, emotion to emotion, and don’t become mired in facts until later.

      Since I never had children, I’ve had to rely on my own memories which are becoming harder to access. This wasn’t much of a problem until I hit 60, or 60 hit me, not sure which. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks so much!

  4. The idea you love, the one that won’t rest and demands attention, might be the next book. You carefully tend your ideas and you dig in and work, which as I see it, is what gives the book life. I recall a statistic that said we have about 10,000 fleeting thoughts every day, it’s what we do with those thoughts that matters. Sometimes the thought is to call a friend, or make a special dinner. Sometimes the thought is the seed of a new creation. Perhaps your seed is about to sprout?

    • If the average person has 10,000 thoughts a day, I must have 50,000, none of them worth a flit! That’s why I can’t meditate, even on the simplest level. But you’re right–thoughts of the book that keeps coming back shouldn’t be ignored or put off. I think I don’t want it to be the next book because I foresee problems and–shall we say it?–lack of interest with publishers. Which means I’m cutting my idea off at the knees before I let it run. You’re right.


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