The interview question a writer of any renown hates to hear is, “Where do you come up with your ideas?” or some variant thereof. That’s a process difficult to explain, so it’s easy to say, “From my family,” or “From life.” But those answers are a bit glib, perhaps disingenuous to someone who sincerely wants to know how you do it to enhance their craft.
Every writer has to answer that question–or not–from his or her own background. When I was getting some counseling after my father’s death, the therapist suggested journaling. Yes, I journal-ed before journaling was cool. She told me to, as one presenter at AWP advised, “vomit words on the page.” Many of those journal items became stories in my collection of short stories, Rarely Well-Behaved, which was published in 2000. Other stories in the collection, however, just “came to me.” Yeah, that’s a technical term.
When I write short stories I’m a bit of a seat of the pants writer. I start with a picture, a word, or a snippet of conversation I’ve overheard and expand on it. I let it go wherever it wants, and sometimes that works. My short story “Trophies,” published in the February issue of eFiction Magazine started out as a writing exercise inspired by hand-fishing–from the fish’s point of view. Then it moved to a character with aspects of my brother and my father, and that character did something that a friend’s stepfather did years ago. In the end, the catching-fish-from-the-fish’s-POV got canned (a good thing), and the story got refined and published.
Sometimes the seat of the pants approach doesn’t work. Last year, I wrote a short piece about a tree that falls on a house, in response to a writing prompt from a magazine. The tree’s falling brought out pent-up emotions in a suburban community not unlike where I lived in Northern Virginia. Those hidden emotions boil over, and a slaughter occurs. I workshopped it and got some good feedback, then one person just went off on why I’d written such a “stupid mess.” I was going for quirky, psychological horror, but he excoriated the story, me, and why I’d ever thought I was a writer. Threw me for a loop, I’ll tell you. I haven’t been able to look at the story since, even though I thought it was a good piece of flash fiction. Who knows? Maybe I’ll overcome the clench in my stomach and have a second look at some point.
Almost every Friday, I write a 100-word story inspired by a photograph posted by Madison Woods, and since I’m a more visual person, I generally get more inspired by looking at something than by a word or a phrase. When I see the picture, the story plays out in my head, which is cool, but my mother used to think it was weird.
I’ve learned a lot about craft from the workshops I’ve attended at writing conferences, including the recent AWP conference, but I’ve also filed away conversations I overheard in Kitty O’Shea’s, physical descriptions of some of the unique people I observed, and a great talk I had with a cab driver on the way to O’Hare on Sunday. All fodder for the imagination.
Life, death, friends, family, your physical surroundings–all of them can have a story that needs to be told, so tell it.
What inspires you? Are you a story planner or a seat of the pants writer? Do you see the story in your head, or does it just come from the fingers on the keyboard?