One of the most common problems for writers, whether they write fiction or nonfiction, is coming up with story ideas. I meet a lot of writers who have the beginnings of a story premise, but they abandon it halfway through because they don’t really like it anymore. This is another problem entirely, but the fact remains that they have nothing to fall back on. And if you have no bank of story ideas, you’ll find yourself stalling out sometimes.
Contrary to what many people believe, stories are actually everywhere around us. But when we’re not in the practice of seeing or remaining open to them, it’s difficult to recognize them for what they are. I see story possibilities all around, in children running down the street, in the newspaper I open every morning, in the interesting tidbit I read last night about autism. I have trained myself to see stories.
This is key. You have to train yourself to see stories, too.
And the best way to do this, is to (1) remain open to your experiences, and (2) be prepared at all times.
The preparation supplies are different for everyone. I carry around this nifty pouch of notecards—cards that are written on already and waiting for another flash of inspiration to be added, and blank cards, for completely new stories. I have some fun, colorful felt-tip pens that make recording story ideas joyful to me, because I’m a little bit OCD, and I love color coding stories. I keep this pouch always at hand.
Before I recycle our newspaper, I’ll go through it again, searching for interesting premises with the eye of a writer, rather than a reader. I keep clippings in a folder beside my writing desk and periodically sort through these when I need a bit of inspiration.
When something I read or something my children say or do stirs up an essay I think would be interesting to write, I jot it down on a notecard, where it then gets rubber banded into a stack of them, for another day when I’ll stare at the notecards for 30 or so minutes and jot down anything that comes to mind on the topic I’ve recorded.
I write down every single idea, and I save it all for further brainstorm.
And I believe that this is why I see inspiration everywhere.
My first career was journalism. I was trained to recognize story potential everywhere, and this makes me supremely glad that I chose that career first, because it has followed me into my fiction author and essayist career. I still recognize stories everywhere. I still write down every idea possibility.
Writing down our ideas doesn’t mean that we’re committed to developing them. Sometimes we’ll get a couple of months down the road and realize that we don’t really have any interest in writing the story idea we recorded on that one notecard, because the emotion and the passion of the moment has passed. But the point of writing everything down is that we are constantly ready for the ideas that may come to us at a moment’s notice. And when we are ready for our ideas, the universe will supply them.
I know that sounds kind of new age-y and strange, but it’s true. I can walk outside and see anything at all and create a whole story premise around it. Maybe I don’t know the details, but there’s a character or a setting or a question that forms around it. I can listen in on a conversation that’s happening in a library, which is where I prefer to spend my time, rather than a coffeeshop, and a story premise can be built out of people or subject matter. I can spend some extra time with my children, listening to their questions, and I have another possible story.
One of the best practices we can commit to every day, until it becomes second nature, is to deeply observe our world. Pay attention.
Scientific research also shows that when we are open to our experiences, we become more inspired.
Authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, in their book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, say that “people who enjoy high frequency and intensity of inspiration in their daily lives tend to be more open to new experiences and report feeling greater absorption and flow in their activities. Openness to experience typically precedes inspiration, however, suggesting that those who are more open to inspiration are simply more likely to experience it.”
Remaining prepared at all times for our story ideas means that we are training ourselves to be open to experience, and, at the same time, inspiration.
Kaufman and Gregoire also report that “writers who are more inspired…actually do more work. Inspiration during writing is positively related to the productivity and efficiency of the final product. Inspired people are more likely, not less likely to do the hard work necessary to achieve their goals.”
So, you see, inspiration has many benefits.
The answer to the question, “Where do stories come from?” is both simple and complicated. Stories come from everywhere. But first we must be open to them and prepared to accept them.