Baby Got Back-story by Jen Violi

I’ve recently diagnosed myself with a common condition:  excessive backstory syndrome, that is, EBS.

EBS manifests in my human interactions as well as my writing.

Let’s start with the human.  You might recognize some of the symptoms:

I often feel the need to explain myself. Why I’m late.  Why I’m frazzled.  Why I’m wearing the leggings that don’t match the skirt.  What list of woes might have befallen me in the last week, month, or year.  You see, I need you to know why I’m not perfect.

So you know, baby got backstory.  I need it, so you can understand a few things.

If x, x, x, and x weren’t happening, obviously, I would have already brought the best snack to share, have bought my dream house, and be able to spout chocolate milk out of my right index finger.  I would be so self-contained that I’d have all of the everything everyone needs.

And then some.  I’d have such devastatingly toned tricepts, operating at such a high frequency of awesome, that when I extend them the resonance created would shatter glass.

Lordy.

When I’m not the one explaining myself, it’s easy to diagnose, to judge, to be the compassionate observer, to look and say, wow, she’s really stuck in that story.  None of us need to hear that again.  We just want to be with her right now.

Interesting.

Where writers often get stuck is in backstory.  Like me, feeling that I need to over-explain everything that’s happened in the hundred years before the story I’m telling, to the great-great grandmother of the protagonist’s grandmother and why she’s afraid of refried beans.  Getting so caught up in prequel that I forget to hook the reader into the present story.

So that the reader’s left saying, wow, that doesn’t really seem relevant.  We just want to get back to the right now of the story.

So it is in writing.  So it is in life.

I know that the people I love to hang out with and am energized by are the ones I can just be with, the present ones open to the magic of the moment.  It’s not that it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, but it’s about balance.

Yes, if you arrive at a party and were just in a car accident, it’s probably important others know so they can help you out with whatever you need.  But if you’ve had a shitty day of the regular shitty variety, do you need to replay the whole shitty day at the party?  Maybe.

Maybe if you’re the person who never does that and then finally lets it all out, because good grief, did you ever need that.

But maybe not if you’re the someone who gets stuck in your shit on a regular basis such that you can’t ever just be somewhere and participate without all of the lowdown.

Same with writing.  Unusal backstory, unexpected from a character—interesting.  Usual, not so much.

This summer I had an EBS breakthrough when I went to Hilton Head to retreat with a group that’s going into our twentieth year together.  There are ten of us who live all over the United States, and we don’t see each other all together very often anymore.  Although we started meeting weekly in the fall of 1995, eventually it became biannually and annually and then every few years.

We keep in touch via email but that only gets us so far.  So when we get together, we potentially have lots of catching up to do.

With pristine intentions, we used to do check-ins on our retreats, filling each other in with broad and small and medium strokes on all the was happening in our respective lives.  ALL OF IT.

So what happens when you gather a bunch of people who live ultra-examined lives and who love to dig into the mystery and know the importance of listening?

A lot of backstory.  EBS gone wild.

On some retreats, we would spend the better part of two days checking in, sometimes each of us going as long as an hour with some questions in between.  The only time left devoted to meals and sleeping.

Although I deeply love these people, I came to fear the check-ins, passionately lobbying for activities in which we could engage with each other in the now and learn about what was happening that way.

But this summer when we gathered close to the Atlantic Ocean, the heavens opened and our group found a solution so simple we wondered why we’d never done it before.  We had the brilliant idea of timing ourselves—ten minutes each to check in, focused on a particular question as well as where we might need to request some support from the group.

Holy business.  It was miraculous.  Suddenly we had room for some moving in-the-moment activities and even had some blended drinks from the Frosty Frog poolside while catching up informally.  So satisfying.

We cut the backstory, and our time together expanded and flowed better, and I saw that our solution could easily be applied to writing.  Basically, like this:

  • We gave ourselves a container, a limit, and
  • we framed the backstory with the audience in mind, helping us to
  • share not just for the sake of sharing, but on something particular and something with which we needed to engage the audience.

As it happens, I was able to see this application working wonders this fall for Kate, one of the beautiful writers I mentor.   Not sure how to tell an important story from her past without drowning it in backstory, she finally shifted from first into third person, and cut out almost 95% of the backstory.  It read like the best of Hemingway. All in the now.  It was incredible, so lean and powerful.

At first, I found myself tempted to urge her to give the backstory, and then I realized no!  Look at what she’s done.  It’s beautiful…perfect.  It sang.  She didn’t need it.

All that she left out, all that I was wondering?  That’s what kept me reading.

I suggested a few simple places where backstory might enhance, but that was it.  She had already done the big work.

Kate created a container, first by choosing 3rd person, a perspective that forced some objectivity.  She also kept her audience in mind, knowing she wanted to share one particular story of one particular relationship with them.  Finally, she engaged her readers by choosing to report only what could have been captured on video camera between herself and this other person, leaving questions and interpretations in our hands.

So how about you try?  With something you’ve written or something you’ve yet to write.  Write it or rewrite it without the EBS (and then please let me know how it goes).

Enter into the present moment and only bring with you the absolute essentials of what’s come before.

Let your story speak without you having to give it an excuse for it to be there.  What if it doesn’t need one?

And what if you don’t either?

This is something you might also try in your next human interaction, too.  Maybe not the third person part, because it’s creepy when people talk about themselves in third person, like I did at the beginning of this piece.  So yeah, don’t do that.

Treat your EBS with the best medicine, which is allowing your front and center story to shine.

Jen Violi is the author of Putting Makeup on Dead People, and founder of Jen Violi: The Business. As a mentor, editor, and facilitator, Jen helps writers unleash the stories they’re meant to tell. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, brimming with writing ideas and resources for you at www.jenvioli.com.

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