copy editor / writer

Where Story Ideas Come From

One of the most common blocks to writing is the lack of an idea. Trying to find one can feel to some people like trying to fall asleep. But the truth is, the universe is full of stories. You are full of stories.

Ann Lamott famously said that you own everything that’s happened to you: tell your stories. She was talking about the fear of writing badly about someone, about memoir writing, but in general, mining your memory or simply paying attention to what’s going on around you is one good way to find story ideas.

In my first post, about what I’ve learned so far about writing in order to change my practice, I mentioned that I hadn’t written a story in 15 years. That’s true: I wrote stories from the time I could form the alphabet until I graduated from university. Then, nothing. I just couldn’t. How does one stop doing what one loves, just like that? I was as though I no longer knew how. Also, I thought I had nothing to write about. Probably there are many reasons. It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I was able to get started again.

If you love to write but are having a very difficult time doing it, or getting started (again), this may help you. I hope it does, because there are few things less frustrating than someone telling you what worked for them and then when you try, nothing happens.

First, though, you have to be open. You have to be ready for the idea. Don’t look or wait for inspiration. Be open to it.

This isn’t about forcing anything. This is about paying attention.

My first piece of creative writing after 15 years was pure hell to write. I was determined to get started again, to put myself out of my misery of wanting to write and feeling guilty about not doing it. I started a story with the ending. I wrote a couple of pages over several months. I didn’t enjoy a minute of it, and I haven’t touched it since…I don’t even remember when. It’s not even close to finished. It was about a woman who leaves her husband, and I thought I could write it because my first husband left me years before, and maybe turning the tide would help me exorcise the residual feelings. Write what you know, they say. (For the record, I say bah, humbug to that.)

But it was all Carol Shields-y, kind of like my stories in university. I adore Shields. I’ve read all her books. But this story I was writing, just, ugh. I wasn’t feeling it. And I realized it was because my voice isn’t really like that of Carol Shields. Also, I didn’t give a shit about writing a story about a woman leaving her husband.

That last sentence is a clue

Cut to April 2011. A violent event happened in my town less than ten minutes from where I live. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I looked up all the news on it. I had a million questions, because there wasn’t any news, really: just a measly paragraph scant on details. The event made me feel terrible and curious and depressed and I thought about it for months. I started writing a friend about it in an email. And the first sentence sounded like the beginning of a story. I ditched the email and started writing.

At first, as I said in my initial post, that “story” about the event was two paragraphs long and I thought it was finished. I really did. Of course, I was mistaken. I’m no Lydia Davis, after all. The problem at that point was that I didn’t recognize yet what had happened to get me writing freely, and what had to keep happening in order for me to keep writing.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Follow your bliss.” For writers, I want to tweak that a bit. In order to keep writing, in order to find your wellspring of inspiration (never mind the external, fickle muse)—in order to be able to start and finish a story, you need to follow your tugs.

In other words, what are you curious about? What do you think about all the time? What makes you have a lot of questions or feel passionate about it? What causes an emotional reaction in you?

I’ve noticed that there’s a fenced-in car lot at the end of a nearby street that always attracts my attention. I’ve wanted to sneak into it for years. I wonder about the cars left there. I sense its mysterious atmosphere, the Alsatian guard dog. Before, I used to drive by it and notice it. Now I’m conscious of the way I notice it. That’s why I’m going to write about it.

This is what I mean by paying attention to yourself. For me, the event that happened here hasn’t left my mind even still. I worked on that new story for three years, still curious about what had happened and why. That’s what kept me going. And I finished it. The first story I’d finished in almost 20 years, and which is going to be published in a couple of months. I still have questions about what really happened, but writing the story to answer them in my own way, in one of the many possible ways, alleviated the obsessive feeling, led me to the mine of personal memories I can write from, and also created ideas for other, loosely connected stories.

So your tugs are things that pique your curiosity or stick around like an earworm. They can stem from news articles, photographs, text messages, single words, conversations you overhear, things your friends talk about, events that have happened to you, other stories you read. They carry the ideas, and if you’re open and in a creative frame of mind, you’ll find them. You can write by constantly asking “what if” when entertaining these ideas, and answering the questions you have.

Become conscious of your thoughts and interests, of reoccurring dreams and images and memories. You follow these, you’ll have story ideas and motivation forever. It’s all in you. It all comes from you. As I was once told, you already have the story. You just have to meet it halfway.