My friend Padi Selwyn (coauthor of Living Your Life Out Loud) plans on taking the Read to Write workshop I’m giving at Copperfield’s Books. She’s picking up the fiction trail after having followed a career path from journalism training to marketing professional. She says, “My biggest challenge is prying open my imagination after years of being in the non fiction groove.”
Are you picturing a can opener to the head? A crowbar? I know how she feels. It’s not a matter of having no ideas. They’re in there somewhere. It’s a matter of getting them out and knowing what to do with them.
Prompts & triggers
Books and articles on writing craft are full of prompts, our lives are full of triggers. In my writing group, we’ve often flipped open a novel, pointed at a passage, and used it as a story starter or free write. I have stacks of free writes. You probably do too.
Circumstances and characters to suggest compelling stories are everywhere—in photographs of familiar or unfamiliar people, events, and places; overheard conversations on a bus; the face of the grocery clerk. We can take the classes, devour the craft books, get published, and still we come up against it: What next?
Starting a story is fairly easy. Taking it somewhere worth our time to write and a reader’s time to read is always a challenge. Here again, we do well to learn from masterful authors who craft a memorable tale inspired by a gesture, pairing of unlikely elements, or simple question: “What if?”
In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro talks about story seeds, how from “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens” she began Simon’s Luck. Munro gives this gesture to the hostess of a party that the central character, Rose, attends, where she observes the moment. “‘That’s Tasha,’ the hostess said. ‘We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.'” Rose observes the woman “crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected. The shawl around her shoulders was black, rimmed with jet beads. Some beads were crooked. Some were missing.” Details, when noted by a character, have significance. Rose, we discover eventually, has her own fears of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of giving and receiving love. She is the cat and the kitten.
In Life of Pi, Yann Martel assembles zoo animals, shipwreck, lifeboat, and—bingo!—a talking tiger! Pi tells a fantastic story, unbelievable but for the details of his survival. “In my case, to protect myself from Richard Parker while I trained him, I made a shield with a turtle shell. I cut a notch on each side of the shell and connected them with a length of rope. The shield was heavier than I would have liked, but do soldiers ever get to choose their ordnance?”
When Italo Calvino wrote Baron in the Trees, I wonder if he asked, “What if a disobedient boy named Cosimo, dressed up in his tricorne hat and green tunic, climbs a tree and never comes down?” Or did he just start writing, as if reporting: “It was on 15 June 1767 that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly. We were in the diningroom of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.” We might doubt the narrator’s memory, except that we get reliable details bit by bit—”a breeze was blowing from the sea” as Cosimo “pushed away his plateful of snails.”
Lesson for writers
Asking “What if?” can start a story. Asking “What now? What next?” can unleash imagination for vivid writing.
Take your story for a walk
Let a dog teach you a few tricks. Our beloved black Lab, Sparky, who died last summer, took me on walks for twelve good years. He’d sniff the grass, pee, pull at the leash, stop, sniff, pee, pull. He’d gnaw fallen apples, try to chase cats, yanking me along with him. He’d be excited in the moment, eager for the next. At the dog park, he’d run free, sniffing furry behinds, chasing balls, and eagerly come running when time to leave. He’d pant at the gate—”What now? What next?”
If you feel you’re forcing your idea, just take your story for a walk—literally and metaphorically. Stop and sniff. Look and listen. Touch and taste. What’s there? What might be? Follow the trail. Build detail upon meaningful detail. If you think you know the destination, keep it in mind, but allow for detours and surprises. If you don’t know the destination, look into the distance every now and then. Stop along the way, read a good book. Pay close attention. Accompany the author as he or she asks, “What if? What now? What next.” Learn how his or her story becomes.
In future posts, I’ll discuss techniques for making imaginative leaps. But it always comes back to feet on the ground, step, step, walk the story or let it walk you, detail by detail. And daily, also, let imagination run free.