Where Are YOU in Your Own Story Arc?

Lincoln by Howard MunnsThe other day I was being interviewed by a reporter at the local paper for a weekly column called A Day in the Life of …  These columns feature local, everyday people, from business owners to artists to worker bees to civil servants and volunteers. My particular column was to be A Day in the Life of a Writer. The reporter and I know each other, so the mood was casual, more a friendly chat than a grilling. He asked many of the questions I’ve fielded before: what genre(s) do I write, how did I get started, etc. Pretty much your basic interview. Suddenly, though, he asked me a question that poleaxed me. I sat there, mouth agape, brain churning, trying to figure out the answer to something I’d never thought about before.

“Have you written your best book already, or is that still to come?”

“Uh …..”

It was a serious question and it required a serious, deliberate answer. It also required me to delve deep inside myself right at that moment and find out how the two options felt. Had I written my best book already? I’ve got twelve novels and one non-fiction to my credit, all of which have been well-received. But my best? No. I knew on a visceral level that I still had more to come, more and better. I may never write the Great American Novel, but I knew without a doubt that I will write more stories, and they will be good ones. No, I have not yet written my best. I’m still on the rise. I’m still on the upswing.

I told the reporter about my father. He was an artist all his life, a commercial artist by day but a wonderful representational artist in his free time. I’m sure you’ve never heard of him: Howard Munns. He sold some of his work through a handful of galleries around the country, but he was a quiet man, unassuming and modest, and he was not comfortable promoting his work nearly as much as the rest of the family thought he should. He was self-taught and had a lifelong love affair with the landscapes and wildlife he painted. He died some years ago at the age of 90. The truly remarkable thing about him, though, was the fact that he was doing his best work when he was in his 80s. His eyesight wasn’t good, and if you looked closely you might see little places where the paint didn’t cover the canvas, but the pictures he was painting in his last years were the most beautiful and inspired work I had ever seen him do. The picture above, the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, was done when my dad was about 84 years old.

How many of us might be able to say that?

On the flip side, I can think of two authors right off that, in my opinion, peaked early and have never duplicated their best work. Stephen King’s The Stand is by far (again, IMHO) his best work. Compared to this, I find his other work to be commercial and uninspired, although to be fair, I must admit that I haven’t read any of his in the last few years. John Irving reached a similar pinnacle with A Prayer for Owen Meany. Likewise, his other works pale in comparison (and I freely admit I have not read every book he’s written). For both of these authors, the named books were absolutely perfect gems set high above the dross of 99.9% of all other books. I would kill to write a book like that.

But I would never want to know that my best book was behind me.

I don’t know about you, but I want the work that I do in my 70s to be better than the work I’m doing now in my 60s. I want the work that I do in my 80s to be better than the work I do in my 70s. It may sound weird, but I’d almost rather die with my best work undone than know that I had hit my peak somewhere along the way and was on the downhill slide in my writing. I’m not sure I could bear that.

So what about you? Where are you, as a writer, in the story arc of your life?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

50 thoughts on “Where Are YOU in Your Own Story Arc?”

  1. I would hope we each novel gets better, though I don’t expect readers to always agree with me on that. (I do agree with you about A Prayer for Owen Meany!) It’s hard for me to imagine ever “retiring” from writing. I can imagine wanting to retire from teaching, if only because the grading can be such a bear. My dad is also an inspiration to me — he’s a retired journalist still writing editorials for three newspapers as a freelancer at 80.

  2. My second book is much better than my first which did sell more than 10,000 print copies. I am still working on what I consider to be the most important book I will write … although it will be merely the first in a series of at least 3 books on the same theme.

  3. That’s very inspiring Melissa, and a great perspective to bring to the table. I know that I have two huge concepts in mind for books, but I haven’t written them yet because I didn’t think I had the chops to do the idea justice.

    I may be in the minority, but as a staunch King apologist, I have to disagree with your take on his body of work. I classify his stuff in three groups – the great early stuff (The Stand, The Shining, The Long Walk etc.,) the by the numbers/cocaine and alcohol fueled middle stuff (Tommyknockers, blech) and a career renaissance in the last few years. In fact, for me, 11/22/63 is as good and nuanced a work as anything else he’s ever done.

    I think it would be horrifying, as an artist, to look back and think, “I’ve already reached the pinnacle.”

    1. Shawn, I would guess there will come a time when you’ll feel confident of writing those books. I hope so! As for King, I confess I have not read his current stuff. He was losing me at Christine, lost me completely at Cujo. Altho I doubt I’ll get back to him, I’m glad to hear he’s doing better work. And yes, I think it would be awful to only have what’s behind you as your best work. I wouldn’t wish that on any writer. Thanks for commenting.

        1. Please don’t take this wrong, because I find most of what you wrote interesting (leaning toward inspiring), but I find your judgement of King unfair. If you haven’t read much since the Cujo/The Stand days you’ve missed a lot. Am I saying that he’s written better than, The Stand? Hmmm it would be tough, but many SK readers would say his best is his Dark Tower series. Hint if you ever get around to them: Don’t stop with The Gunslinger. It takes getting into the second book to really get hooked.

          Now that I’ve attempted to defend him, I will admit that he seems to have a hard time equaling some of his better works. His latest, Revival, was promoted as a return to real horror. It did little for me. Even a die hard King reader, like me, can be disappointed. Bottom line though – we Kingsters (I made that up) believe a hundred years from now when many of us are forgotten dust, people will still be reading Stephen King – probably The Stand. LOL

          Forgive the ramble. It drives my girlfriend crazy.

          Great article.

          1. John, thanks for chiming in. I’m sure we could start an entire discussion on SK’s merits (or not). Maybe I just lost my fascination with him. I still believe Fire Starter and The Dead Zone are fabulous books, but I doubt I’d ever read them again. Different strokes.

  4. I want to be like your father, and still churning out books (hopefully each one better than the one before) well into my 80s, 90s, and dare I say it, like George Burns, when I’m 100.

  5. What a great question. I love this, Melissa. I love this so much. Thank you. I know that I have miles to go before I sleep, as they say. I know that I have not hit that story yet, and I hope that if I ever think that I have, there’s a better one beyond that. (And I agree with you about John Irving, IMO.)

    1. Thanks, Laurie; glad it struck a chord with you. Yes, I hope we all always have a better story in us than the one we’ve just finished. After all, the longer we live, the more we experience, the more we learn, and the deeper insights we have. Can’t let any of that go to waste! Thanks for commenting.

  6. Hi Melissa,
    My father too, was an artist of modest local reputation.

    I once asked him whether he’d ever painted the perfect landscape (I was a teenager at the time — very naive). He said that he hoped not, or he’d have to give up painting entirely.

    He painted landscapes until the day he died, in 1980. I have a few o his works.

    Cheers, KJD

    PS: Love the Lincoln painting, BTW.

    1. KJD, perfect response from your dad, and I think I might feel the same way. Once you’ve achieved perfection, what’s next? I would just love knowing I’m always on an upward trajectory.
      I’m glad you’ve got some of your dad’s paintings, too. I have many of my dad’s, and they still bring great comfort and joy to me. I wish I could say I own that painting of Lincoln, but he sold it to someone before it was even finished. At least I have the photo. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Thank you for your mentioning your father doing his best work in his 80’s. I was born in Korea, educated in the U.S. in engineering. After retiring I decided to be a writer to share what had been deep in my heart since childhood: to share the story of my family during WWII under Japan and during the Korean War. And at the age of 76, I published my story titled, Shattered by the Wars. Readers’ responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Now I can go home in peace. ( :

    1. Hi-Dong, thanks very much for sharing your story with us here. I’m so glad you did what you wanted to do. So many people have amazing stories in them, yet they never write them down, and then the stories are lost. You’re a wonderful ambassador to your generation who never thought it was possible. My dad actually wrote his autobiography, just for us kids, and after he died I scanned it in, added pictures and published it. I know he would have never dreamed what we can do with self-publishing these days, so it was an honor for me to do that. I’ve also published several books with his art, and I wrote the true story of my aunt, a prisoner-of-war during WWII. It’s so important not to let these stories fade away. I’ll have to look up your book; sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  8. Your question is certainly food for thought, Melissa. I sure hope I’ll be able to keep turning out better books in the years to come. It certainly seems as if I learn something new with each one I write.

    I didn’t much like “The Stand”, but I agree with you about Irving. I pretty much gave up on reading his stuff after “Owen Meany”.

  9. The description of your father is touchy and moving. Perhaps your best work will be one of your father’s and his unassuming work, yet beautiful. Perhaps as writers our best work is the one that brought enlightment to people around us. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Lilian. Writing about or for family is probably one of the most satisfying and honorable things we can do, I think. I’d love to write more about family; that’s on the to-do list at any rate. I want to write about my father-in-law. He was half German, half Cherokee, born on St. Patrick’s Day and died on Cinco de Mayo. Quite a character.

  10. Someone asked me once what was my favorite work and, without a pause, I replied, “My next one. The trick is to continue to challenge oneself.

    1. Great answer, James! I like that. I have noticed that my favorite does keep moving up the chronology, from my earlier books to my later ones. Good sign, I’d say. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Someone asked me once what was my favorite work and, without a pause, I replied, “My next one.” The trick is to continue to challenge oneself.

  12. Melissa, really thought-provoking post, thank you so much. My idea is to finish three novels (infused with eastern philosophy, but not boring, each plot culminating in some form of enlightenment) and then stop writing novels — just blog posts or whatever, and perhaps be of service to others. But who really knows? The writing bug is a powerful one as we all know.

    1. Mira, sounds like you have it all mapped out, although I would suggest that “just blog posts” could still be your magnum opus. If you do switch from novel-length fiction to short posts, that doesn’t mean they would be any less important or insightful.
      (And, BTW, from what I’m reading in your second book, the world would be a lesser place if you stop writing novels!)

  13. I must take issue with you on one point, Melissa: you are not just an ‘everyday’ person, you’re special and you stand out from the crowd.
    Having said that, perhaps you have a lot of British blood in you. We Brits have a habit of understating ourselves, and you’re doing it there. Never mind, you’ve provoked an interesting discussion and I’m sure that as writers, besides wanting to tell our stories, we all strive to improve our writing technique and style with everything we write. I mean, none of us want to produce weaker stuff, do we? So the original question must have been in part rhetorical.
    Then again, what the author feels is her or his best book, may not be what the readers and buying public think is. I have a particular soft spot for one of my books, but that may be because of the associations the story has and the emotional links that bind me to the people I wrote about (they’re real people, since it is non-fiction, and I didn’t have to make any of them up as novelists do). That book is not always what readers tell me they think is my best book.
    So who should be the ultimate judge of which is your best book?

  14. ‘Still on the upswing,’ I like that. Surely that has to be the answer that every writer at least hopes is true. Having said that, though, I also think that many of us – and I feel, intuitively, that you are one of those, Melissa – write the best, most unique, book we can every time we commit to a project. I know that at any time I am committed to a project, that is my favourite book; at least for the time that it is my number one priority. I also know that, again for me, each book I write represents a different part of my psyche; I don’t ever want to judge one against the other. I have no doubt that others people will; just as in the comments on Stephen King’s work. I’m no different in that respect, by the way: I actually think the best book he has written thus far is little thriller called ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’.

    So, my best book? It will be the one I have just finished, hopefully, when I shrug off this mortal coil; or the one I’m working on at the time.

    Excellent, though provoking article, Melissa.

    1. Thanks, TD. I would hope that all of us feel the same, that whatever we’re working on is the best so far, otherwise, why bother? As to comparing them, I agree with you on that, especially since I write across multiple genres. How do you compare an action novel to a romance? Or a spiritual fantasy to a satire? I often say that each of my books is my favorite–of its kind. It’s pretty much a flattened hierarchy. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  15. Thanks, Ian; that’s very sweet of you. I suppose I did inherit that same modesty from my dad, and my mom had English ancestry and very self-effacing as well. I guess I’d rather think of myself as ordinary and be wrong about that than think I was phenomenal and be wrong about that! But I totally agree: none of us wants to write mediocre books. We all want to write great stuff.
    As for who decides when we’ve done our best, that–like everything else about the art of writing–is in the mind of the reader or writer. Like you, my most popular book is not my personal favorite, so my opinion and my readers’ opinions don’t line up, but who cares? I will continue to write only what I believe to be good stories, stories I would want to read. That’s as much as we can do.

  16. What an insightful and perceptive article! It’s scary in any art form to think you lost it. My new book just released is better than anything I’ve previously written. That’s because when I go back and read the first couple books Random House signed for, I say, “who wrote this garbage!” I just started a new and rather ambitious project. I have to hurry because I’m 90!

    1. Daniel, you give us all hope! If you’re still writing your best stuff at 90, that’s wonderful. I applaud you. LOL about reading your old stuff and wondering who wrote it. Been there, done that. Luckily my stuff like that was never published to begin with; it just takes up space in drawers. Thanks for giving us all a living example of improving every day.

  17. Like many people and following many of the comments here I would like to think that my best work is not yet “out there” but I suspect that I am wrong.

    Many, Many, years ago now, in a short space of time, I wrote two short novels both of which seemed to catch the attention of their readers. After a short while I obtained a publisher for the first of them and it went on to sell well despite the fact that it was short and rather unusual. The poetry world hailed it as the best new novel in a generation. The follow up was released, though a tale of a very different sort, again it seemed that I could do no wrong. It was compared to Lovecraft (even if it was quite a sunny tale for the most part) Karen Blixen, Poe and Wilde, among others (I could not see it, never the less, it went on to sell) and I was riding high.
    My third novel (again rather short) was a modern romance and despite rave reviews sold many fewer copies than anticipated.
    I have written six other novels since then, yet none have sold as well as the first two (despite a couple of them being far better novels in my opinion)
    Yet I think that is where the problem lies. As a novelist, you build success upon success and when that graph turns into downward curve, it really does not matter how good your novel is. One bad novel and you are kaput.

    1. Raymond, I see two sides to this. As we discussed above, I got turned off on SK and have never been back to read any more from him, and some of your readers may have gone that route after Novel #3. Yet as also discussed above, SK could be writing more good (maybe better?) stuff lately which I won’t buy, but new readers might. There are always new readers coming up in the ranks, so we never run out of them, just have to keep working to get their attention. And, as we’ve also discussed here at IU in other posts, what we consider our best works may not sell as well as others. It can be tough to write what we feel are good stories but that don’t get much recognition. Only you will have a good sense of your own creative arc, but I do hope you won’t let this “slump” keep you from writing. None of us ever know when we might catch fire again. Good luck to you.

  18. I hope I never reach the point where I think I’ve written my best book. Favourite maybe but not my best. I hope I’m improving all the time. I hope my stories are getting better, I hope my vocabulary has expanded and the manner I put the words together is more refined, and I hope my blogs are getting better too, but none of them are my best work. Surely, that is yet to come?

    1. Vicky, I’m with you. I’m sure we all have more stories to tell. And about having written your favorite? You might be surprised. I’ve had several favorites over the years, and they keep getting supplanted by the next one. Happy writing.

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