(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)
There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.
I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.
Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.
The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.
For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.
Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.
Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.
As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.
For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.
Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.
Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.