Where do stories come from? The usual response, at least in my experience, is everyday inspiration: encounters or observations that spark curiosity, and thus, story. Sometimes it’s an article about the latest breakthrough in food processing, or plague, or an obituary two lines long. Maybe you hear about the Mango Man, a thousand stories in himself, and his fortune; a tale passed down from a friend who knows somebody who knows somebody else who works at the bank where he goes to withdraw fifty dollars every week. Perhaps you’re just going about your routine and something suddenly feels different, you notice you’re holding a red pen when you thought it was black, and you think about what that means. Story comes from everywhere and nowhere, all at once.
I’m always interested when someone asks an author what inspired them to write whatever it is they’ve written. Personally, such a question touches upon something, as a writer, I’ve always considered sacred, and often times, the answer is too complicated. How do you reverse engineer the spark, narrow down the open door, the breeze that that fueled the flame. In the midst of the chaos that is creativity, that single moment of concentration that feels like seconds but stretches on for days, is it really possible to find a single piece of flint? I might be able to recall what got me thinking about arson, but what burnt the building down is another story in itself.
Still it’s something I think about, especially when considering new projects. It’s not so much where to start, but how to fuel the imagination. When the everyday seems to intrude upon a process so centered it’s almost selfish, how easy is it to find the time? Do we reprioritize, put things off or not do them at all. Is it about balance, fifteen minutes, an hour. Maybe keep a notepad on the toilet for when inspiration strikes you. Keep a few sheets of paper at work and when the boss isn’t looking scribble down that bit of dialogue you’ve been mulling over. Story is in those scraps, the bits of marble we must sculpt down into structure, plot, characterization.
Those scraps are sometimes casualties of revision. As much as I love a word, a sentence, a paragraph, maybe even a page or two, they have to go. Story is not made up of beautiful parts, but parts that burn together, that create a fire in a reader that stays with them long after the smoke leaves their lungs. Those extra bits, as pretty as they may be, will only lead the reader astray. A body to focus on. Take them away from the real beauty that’s being composed. I find whole rooms sometimes in files on my computer. Characters not fully realized, scenes ripe for significance. You have to get used to the parts that are wasted, sometimes you have to build the whole house before you realize story is in the corner with the broom.
I find too, that it’s easy to linger on the things we don’t wish to leave behind. You can work and work and work a story to death before you realize it just isn’t working, and even then, you still go back and try to find a way around it. I look at different angles: going from past to present tense, sketching out the perspective of a secondary character, writing the whole chapter again. It’s frustrating, but that’s part of it too. I always know I need to revise something when I can’t figure out why it’s there. What’s the significance, what’s it doing, these are questions I’m constantly asking. If I can’t answer them successfully the part in question needs to be cut or changed until I can.
When everything feels perfect, I read it aloud. This is a good way to test the flammability of your prose. It’s also an easy way to find grammar mistakes and to get a feel of the rhythm of your sentence structure and word choices. This is especially true of dialogue, and even more so of writing Pidgin. What I think I understood, but didn’t quite realize until later, was the orality of Pidgin and language in general. Reading a bit of dialogue aloud will give you a good indication of whether or not something sounds natural. If you have to stop, repeat the sentence until you get it right, play with the words, move them around, ask a loved one to listen and see what they say. Read your writing, but listen to it too.
Story, for me, is about all of these things. There’s always more to be said, but much of it can’t be. Among the inspiration for certain stories, I also think the individual writing process is sacred and difficult to explain. It can be somewhat broken down, but everyone’s different and every time can be different too. One of the most important things I learned early on was to develop your own voice and your own process, something that takes time and dedication, something I’m always still learning to do.
Where do you find story? Is it a place, a time? Do you have a particular way you start writing?
How do you know when something's working, when it isn't? When you're done, are you ever?