Where Do You Get Your Stories From?

Posted by on Sep 18, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

“Where do you get your stories from?” asks the suddenly interested payroll assistant that you were introduced to ninety seconds ago at your spouse’s company picnic. She’s staring at you with the open, hopeful, fascinated eyes of someone who has never attempted to tell a story in her life.

And now you’re on the spot. Every creative writer knows this question. Someone you don’t know particularly well is asking you perhaps the most impossibly difficult thing you’ve ever been faced with. And they are REALLY, REALLY, REALLY INTERESTED.

They don’t know it’s not a fair question. They have no idea that in essence, they are prompting you to concisely sum up the essence of your entire being. They’re blissfully unaware that they’re asking you to use certain chemical reactions in the current amalgamation of neurons in your head to decipher and understand other chemical reactions that most likely happened when your brain wasn’t paying much attention to said chemical reactions. They are asking you to have a moment of pure and complete self-awareness achieved only by seven or eight Tibetan monks in history. And you only have the allotted time before Tracey from Human Resources stands up on a picnic table and tells everyone the burgers are “just about done, so grab a plate!”

“My stories?” you answer. “Costco. I get them at Costco.”

Then you grin and shrug your shoulders. And everyone shares a laugh at the completely unsatisfying answer that your humor managed to deflect from careful examination.

But as dumb and accidentally intrusive as that question is, you know what’s great about it?


Why? Because as a storyteller, that question lets you know you’re special- that you have a gift others don’t possess. It’s akin to asking the payroll assistant, “How in the hell do you keep all those damn numbers and accounts straight? It’d make my head spin.” And it would. I wouldn’t have the first clue where to start.

A lot of times as writers, we hang out with like-minded people and thus feel everyone is working on a script or a novel or a short story -that we’re all attempting to get a protagonist past some sort of obstacle only to find another even bigger obstacle in the way. But that’s not true. Most people in the world aren’t doing this. It’s a staggering realization.

Want to know the second thing that’s amazing about that question? It gets you to examine where in tarnation you actually get your stories from. What fascinates you? What is it about particular people in particular situations that makes you want to sit down and spend the mental energy trying to understand them? What is it about your own life that you’re trying to work out via your characters? What the hell IS it?

Perhaps you know exactly where your stories come from. You may be thinking, “They come from a small pocket of grayish mush in the frontal lobe about two inches directly behind my right eyebrow, actually.” Well good for you. As for me, I’m not afraid to admit, I HAVE NO FREAKING IDEA. Not the slightest clue. And it’s not one of those, “One day I got nothing and the next day there it is,” type of deals either. It’s more like, “One day there’s nothing and then the next day there’s something but I’m not sure what, and then two days later there’s something else that kind of fits into the weird amoeba of an idea I may or may not have, and then a month later there’s something a bit more concrete, and then I get distracted with another project until nine months later I’m riding the stationary bike at the gym and I suddenly realize there’s enough to start writing on that idea I had way back when.”

But try telling that to someone at a company picnic. Try explaining that you have zero idea how your stories arrive at your brain’s loading dock. Odds are they’ll just squint as you watch the fascination slowly deflate from their eyes. They want you to say something mystical like…
“On the night of the full moon, I ride a yak deep into the woods where I lather myself in castor oil and rub my naked body against the Great Tree of Stories.”

“Wow, that sounds amazing. Can I join you next time?”

“You bet. I even have two yak saddles, so we’re good to go.”

That’s what they want. That’s why they ask the question. They honestly think you’re going to clue them in to some large, universal creative secret.

But don’t be afraid to let them know there is no secret. Don’t be afraid to look them straight in the eye and admit your own ignorance. Because what’s going to happen is that they’re going to go on believing a secret exists no matter what you tell them. They’re going to simply think you’re bound by some underground society of writers to withhold the information. It’s just human nature.

On second thought, just use the line about Costco.

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