Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout ‘I belong in a story’?
Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is “that belongs in a story.” Writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.
We snap mental photographs that hold story: the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown; or our dog’s evening vigil by the gate, her feathers backlit by the sun, as she waits for John’s return. There’s story there.
Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.
Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like the three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”
Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. I think that’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they make a good story. We savor vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.
Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day. or “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” According to my notes, this is something Eve Bunting’s dad said to her. or What’s the worst thing that could happen?
All these glittery bits, some as brief as a single word – ‘snarky,’ ‘hunched,’ ‘snick’ – I gather them in, always attuned for a word that fits into my work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.
Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, or Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.
And anecdotes. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.
Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.
I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged cobwebby hall. Golden light streams in through clerestory windows. Some bits seem to shift on the shelves and suggest themselves for today’s writing. They attract others and start to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.
When I work with material that has that supercharged quality – that “this belongs in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be. Those are the best days, right?