The following craft essay was previously published by Maryland Writers’ Association on THE BACK PAGE from Pen in Hand – Winter 2013 – vol. 26, n. 1
Where Do Stories Come From?
by Jan Bowman
A friend of mine who is not a writer recently asked me, “So, where do you writers get your ideas for stories?” Not trying to be glib, but I had to tell her, “Everywhere! The possibility for a story is everywhere!”
Asking where stories come from is kind of like asking where babies come from. It’s complicated to explain, and it depends on who is asking. Some writers I know dread this question. I haven’t done a survey, but it is probably the question that writers are most frequently asked. Writers don’t ask each other this question often, and if they do, it is usually in the context of recognizing the evolution of a particularly interesting idea that presents a creative new look deep into the heart of something that was sitting in plain sight all along. In that context, the question is generated from an appreciation and a shared understanding that stories are all around us. Writers look closely and thoughtfully at their world.
|Photo Credit – Jan Bowman – Grenada – 2011|
Sometimes writers want to explore a “what if” notion of some abstract concept that provides a hint of something larger, for example, social justice. Maybe the writer began to think about the unintended consequences of a gated community’s crackdown on people who look different from them. Such an idea could be examined as a fictional work or as a nonfiction essay, depending upon the inclination of the writer.
Or perhaps a writer sees an interesting scene like this one, or an odd human interaction that triggers ideas to light the creative spark, giving the imagination enough power to generate a story. The inspiration for one of my stories came from looking at an Andrew Wyeth painting that left me asking: Why does that woman staring out that window look so unsettled? So I imagined a life for her.
Some stories begin as a repeated dream that comes unbidden and suggests that the universe has outsourced a weird writing assignment to me. For example, if I have a weird dream about tomatoes, eventually I’ll have to deal with that one.
But how do I tell my friend about this process that seems overly mysterious, but really isn’t? I say that it is both simple and complicated. Ideas, like babies, require a process for conception that presupposes a purposeful and hopefully mutual desire for something good to come from a happy experience. Ideas for stories require a topic ripe for exploring, and after a suitable courtship and consummation, a period for gestation. The work is not done until the writer undergoes labor, and if the story doesn’t have sufficient time for gestation, it won’t form fully. The best ideas retained in the brain and never written, and rewritten, never grow beyond that point.
Maryland Writers’ Association website: marylandwriters.org
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Folio, The Potomac Review, Trajectory and many other journals. A recent story was an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction, and her work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, two Best American Short Stories, and a PEN/O. Henry Prize. She is working on two short story collections and seeking a publisher for a third collection. Learn more at www.janbowmanwriter.com
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