Monday, March 22, 2010

Where Stories Begin

Where do you get your ideas?

When I visit schools I can always count on students to ask that question. You’d think by now I’d have an answer.

The fact is: I have no clue. I have a process, so to speak. I have a rhythm to my days and to my reading, and I keep a writing journal where I literally scribble thoughts with no regard to coherence or punctuation. My advisor in college introduced me to Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, and I’ve used the techniques in that book to pull stories from my imagination onto the page. But where a particular idea or character comes from is anyone’s guess.

Teachers say Write What You Know. But what does that mean, really? I play tennis and just completed a book with a character who plays tennis. Those scenes were very easy to write. But another character in the book is a ballet dancer, and I can scarcely touch my toes. To write the dance scenes, I had to rely on research … which included interviewing dancers, reading books on dance, watching instructional videos, and even attempting to go en pointe in toe shoes (Which, by the way, I do not recommend. Ouch).

No one could ever accuse me of knowing dance. I’ve seen it, I love it, I attend the ballet, but that world is beyond my experience or abilities. Yet the dancers who have read my chapters tell me I got it right. How can that be, if we’re supposed to Write What We Know?

I think the knowing here is not necessarily about facts. We can research facts and go out and gather enough details to make scenes and situations authentic. But what we know, and what we are ultimately compelled to write about, are emotional truths. The patina of factual accuracy is not what drives a story, although it can bring a story to a dead stop if you get it wrong. Emotional truth is what makes a story come to life, and we have to write about what we know is emotionally true. I can’t dance, but I know about performance pressure, the desire to excel at something you love, and disappointment if you don’t meet your goals. Because I know those things, I could write about my dancer.

So I suppose one place where my stories start is feelings. At the time I wrote Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my middle-school aged children were going through the difficult phase (which I had gone through at the same age) of growing apart from old friends. Their pain was palpable; it brought back my own memories from those days. I knew I wanted to write a story about girl who had lost her best friend, so I began by mining those emotions and memories and what I knew to be true about that experience. A narrator emerged, and as I got to know her, the plot followed.

I’m sure there are hundreds of different answers to the Where-Do-You-Get-Your-Ideas question … and I’m always fascinated by writers describing their stories’ beginnings … but for me, even if the answer varies a bit from book to book, it always starts with a feeling. Tapping into what I know is emotionally true about a character is the only way I can write.

1 comment:

  1. It is easier to write about what you know. I remember reading somewhere that you should also write about what you want to know.

    I enjoy both pulling from personal experience and doing research. Sometimes the two overlap when I have an experience for research, like going lobstering.

    I agree that the emotional knowledge is key too. The nice thing about being a writer is you can use even the bad experiences in life.