Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue


Where Stories Come From

Filed under: creative writing,Ditchwalk Blog,stories,storytelling,writing — gator1965 @ 4:00 pm

Where do we get our ideas for stories? How do they jump (or creep) into our heads? Do they come from real life or our dreams or both? AND do all people have the same mental mechanisms for processing events and dreams into stories?

Mark Barrett, a freelance writer, storyteller and publisher of Ditchwalk blog, delves into these questions today:

Many moons ago I found myself in a bar called Green’s Grocery just outside of Nashville, attending a wedding reception for an old friend of mine. After wishing the newlyweds well I found an empty chair and struck up a conversation with a very nice man who turned out to be an accountant. When he asked what I did for a living I told him I was a storyteller. His eyes widened a bit as if I had confessed to alchemy.

From that moment it was little more than a hop, skip and jump to the question that every writer is asked sooner or later: where do you get your ideas? It was a question I’d been asked before, but until that day I had never fully realized that the human ability to invent stories or cobble them together out of life events is not universal.

As I talked with the man, and struggled to explain how ideas came to me, it became clear that he had never had the same thing happen to him. The more I tried to abstract the process, or explain it by using analogies, the more he insisted that the kind of narrative genesis I had been familiar with since childhood was simply foreign to him. The absurdity of the thought almost convinced me that he was pulling my leg, but it was obvious that he wasn’t. He simply did not think that way.

I remember, too, a similar moment from my youth, when I learned that an acquaintance of mine was unable to think in three dimensions. My brother and I and a good friend of ours had grown up talking about machinery and mechanisms, describing them to each other in our heads, and from that anecdotal experience I had extrapolated that all human beings can hold a six-sided die in their mind’s eye and turn it to any perspective. But that isn’t true. There are a lot of people can’t do that.

For the purposes of this post I’m going to side-step the question of whether such mental abilities can be taught. I have an opinion in each case, but I will save them for another day. What I want to nibble at here is the relationship between events and stories, and how different events may suggest narrative threads that are either plot-driven or character-driven.

The Trooper

A few weeks ago I had occasion to take a long, unexpected road trip on Interstate 80, from the East Coast to the Midwest. Toward the end of the trip, as I crossed northern Illinois in the wee hours of the morning, I rounded a sweeping bend to find a patrol car swinging it’s side-mounted spotlight onto my rapidly-closing pickup truck.

I was confident I wasn’t speeding, but as I passed the patrol car pulled out and attached itself to my flank. I was too tired to care much, so I held my course and waited while the officer ran my plate. When he finally pulled me over it was more a relief than anything else.

Fully expecting to be informed that I had been traveling 66 in a 65, I was caught off guard when the officer informed me that I had twice drifted over the fog line. What’s the fog line, you ask? Well, I asked the officer the same question, and he informed me that it was the white line on the right side of the road marking the transition to the paved shoulder.

(What I did not say at the time was that whatever else I might have been doing, I was one hundred percent sure I had not drifted across the fog line twice. In dealing with authority it is always important to choose your battles, and debating what an officer of the law believes he saw is a guaranteed losing argument.)

Further confounding me, the trooper asked what year my truck was, to which I responded that it had been manufactured in 2001. After showing my license and registration I was surprised when the trooper asked me to get out of my vehicle and follow him back to his car. Fully expecting to have my breath checked, or to be put through a field sobriety test based on my wanton disregard for the fog line, I was again perplexed when the trooper directed me to take the passenger’s seat in his patrol car.

I spent the next fifteen minutes or so wedged between the passenger-side door and the trooper’s sprawling array of center-mounted computers and gadgets. During that time he asked me what seemed like a wide-ranging, repetitive and inane series of questions. The only nugget of information that interested me was that the trooper had pulled me over not simply because of my fog-line abuses, but because my license plate had come back as belonging to a white, 1998 truck. (My truck is silver, although a number of people have told me it looks white to them.)

When I later expressed puzzlement that my registration could be so wrong, the trooper said he would show it to me on his in-car computer. He then went back to peppering me with questions about where I was going and who I was going to stay with when I arrived, and forgot to show me the errant registration information. He did mention that registration information is often incorrect, however, which I found both oddly amusing and not at all reassuring.

Finally, as the trooper began to ask the same questions for the third time, a second trooper strode past my side of the patrol car. As he walked into the headlights I could see he had a dog with him, and moments later the dog started working the truck, sniffing here and there. When the trooper I was sitting with asked me if I had any drugs in my vehicle I just smiled and shook my head.

In short order the dog gave my truck the canine seal of approval, and a few minutes later I was on my way again with a simple warning about drifting over the fog line. Three hours later I reached my destination.


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