THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
October 24, 2015
Greetings! This week I have a brief essay about where stories come from. Then be sure to check out my promotion of Susan Altstatt’s first novel, Belshangles. And at the end of the post, a final reminder concerning the 99-word story deadline for the November showcase.
But first let me tell you a bit about the book I just finished reading, one I recommend without hesitation. The title is Thoughtful Christianity: Faith and Action in the Way of Jesus. The author is Ben Daniel, a Presbyterian minister, the pastor of Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California. Yes, full disclosure: Ben Daniel is my son, and chances are I would not have opened the book if I weren’t so fond of, and awed by, and proud of him and his work. I am not a religious person. But this book is so full of wisdom and challenge, in matters of social and personal consciousness and conscience, that I am grateful to have read it and pleased to recommend it. Ben believes in knowledge, in reason, in curiosity and wonder. His moral and social views are progressive and inclusive. He’s also an articulate writer and a most entertaining storyteller. You’ll enjoy this book, and you’ll appreciate it if you have concerns or hopes for the future of our society and the planet we call home.
Where Do Stories Come From?
So you want to write a story? About what? Any ideas? Pardon my impertinence, but get used to the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Every novelist, story writer, playwright, songwriter, or screenwriter has to answer that question at some point.
I have three sources to suggest.
First let me suggest a premise: all good fiction is, at least in part, autobiographical. And by the way, that goes for historical novels, westerns, science fiction, and gritty police professionals, as well as “mainstream” fiction. What may seem like flights of fancy usually have some source within our own experience, or our own dreams of glory and nightmares of disaster.
Well, perhaps this is a conversation for another time. Meanwhile, let’s just accept that your own life is a rich source of fictional stories. Flannery O’Connor is said to have said, “Any writer who survived childhood has enough material to last his whole career.” She may not really have said that, because I’ve never seen a primary source for the quotation, and it’s been quoted so differently by different secondary sources that it may be apocryphal. But that doesn’t make the statement any less true.
I would add that the rich mine of materials isn’t limited to memories of childhood. Life is full of turning points, changes, choices, and consequences, and they’re all waiting to be exploited.
Where do we find them?
The Junk Drawer of Your Memory.
Every home has at least one junk drawer. Opening memory’s junk drawer is like opening a jar of insects, some beautiful, some with stingers or teeth. Where did this key come from? Who do I know who drives a Porsche? Why did I save this snapshot of my ex-husband trying to politely carve the birthday cake I made from scratch, when we both knew he didn’t want to be reminded he was turning forty? One joker card from the MGM Grand? As I remember, the joke was on me. My first report card. All A’s except for citizenship. Ticket stubs from My Fair Lady. I still have a Gene McCarthy button? I still have my draft card?
Every one of these keepsakes has a story, and the drawer is bottomless.
Historical novelists may want to explore that trunk in the attic. Horror writers will find Steve King lurking in the basement, sorting his bone collection and tasting Amontillado.
Rites of Passage.
Rites of passage are life-changing events common to many within any culture. Some of them are experienced in childhood: toilet training, learning to ride a bicycle, losing teeth, first day of school, being disabused of the myth of Santa Claus. Some come in puberty and adolescence: the driver’s license, the first kiss, the first heartbreak, the first drink. Some are the business of young adulthood: moving out and moving on, military service, college, first job, marriage, parenthood, traffic tickets, debts, and finding a career. Then come later life and what comes later than later life: grandchildren, arthritis, a crummy gold watch, funerals, and the chance to write your memories down for future generations. Some rites of passage are reserved for boys becoming men: learning to shave. Some for girls becoming women: buying a bra. Some rites of passage happen mainly to rich people, some to poor people; some to religious people, others to skeptics. So we don’t all experience all the same rites, but chances are that within any culture, we know people who have gone through experiences like these.
How to make a story out of a rite of passage you’ve passed through? First, it’s important to describe the passage in such a way that all readers (who share your culture) will relate to the experience. Second, and more important, it’s the goal of the story to show how your own experience of this rite was special, your own to claim, and how it changed you and made you a different person from the one you were before you went through that creaking door, that stretch of whitewater rapids, that midterm exam.
In any culture, there are stories we all know. Not only do we know them well because we learned them as children, but we’ve heard them over and over in varied and different retellings.
In the American/WASP/Judeo-Christian culture, to pick only one segment of our multicultural society (but the one I know best), most of us know a few common religious myths, such as the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the Prodigal Son. A lot of us know the same Greek myths, like the Myth of Sisyphus, the Complex of Oedipus, the Midas Touch, or Pandora’s Box. Then there are the fairy tales we grew up on: Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood.
These stories get shamelessly recycled, to great effect. East of Eden is a retelling of Cain and Abel. Pretty Woman is a combination of Pygmalion and Cinderella. The Ugly Duckling? It’s the basis of Dumbo, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and dozens of other heartwarming stories.
And you’ll no doubt find your own personal versions of archetypical stories that you can exploit for fiction, taking these stories we all know and making them into stories you alone could write.
So I challenge you: Write a story using an artifact from the junk drawer of your memory. Make the plot a rite of passage that you experienced, and base it loosely on a classic, archetypical story.
Warning: don’t make the parallels too obvious, and remember that a good memory is a good thing, but it’s nowhere near as good or important as a good imagination.
AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR
New from Daniel & Daniel, Publishers
A rock idol on the brink of self destruction, and a teen rock fan to cheer for.…
a novel by
The day after his concert tour closes in San Francisco, Tommi Rhymer, frontman of the English band Belshangles, comes to in a wilderness cabin. He has no clue where he is, or how he got there.
In the loft above him lies fifteen-year-old Miranda “Andy” Falconer. Her perfect day at the Belshangles concert went horribly wrong when her idol passed out in the alley behind his San Francisco hotel, in a state of undress with two under-age girls. But she knows rescuing him to her parents’ Sierra cabin was the right thing to do. What she doesn’t know are the physical and emotional effects of cold-turkey withdrawal.
Now Andy’s on her own in the deep woods, faced with a sick, furious, potentially violent man. She’ll need physical and spiritual resources she never knew she had in order to care for, outwit, and eventually outrun Tommi, before his sanity and sense of humor return and he recognizes the chance she’s offered him to put his life in order.
Belshangles is a bittersweet love story, a tale of imprisonment and conflict, redemption and growth.
Andy and Tommi are two of the finest characters I’ve encountered in ages, and their twosome is the stuff of dreams and nightmares in this brilliantly written picaresque novel. The story is exciting and strange, the heroine is up there with the greatest, and the writing is assured, witty, and sharp. Kudos to Susan Altstatt on this immensely readable debut.
—Terry Ross, editor of Black Lamb
Susan Altstatt has degrees in theater from Stanford and UCLA, where she attended as a Wilson Fellow and won a Goldwyn award for playwriting. She has since been acclaimed as a painter of the California wild lands; see artist’s website at www.altstatt.com. Belshangles is her first novel, and the first book of a trilogy. It was a semi-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards competition. She lives in Los Altos Hills, California.
To read more about Belshangles, see http://www.danielpublishing.com/bro/altstatt.html
Reminder: The deadline for November’s 99-word story submissions is November 1. That’s only a week away. I hope you’ll send me your stories!
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY:
Use the following sentence as either the first or the last sentence of the story:
“The old woman walked out of the bar with a smile on her face.”
Deadline: November 1, 2015.
If you follow the rules, your story will appear on this blog November 14.
Thanks for dropping by! See you next week, I hope. Meanwhile, keep writing, reading, and celebrating the Joy of Story!