How many of the stories you love would you say have been made from “whole cloth,” that is, from pure imagination? Some writers say that much of their work has been woven from fabric as bodiless as air. I tend to think that even the most far-fetched fantasy is connected to a past experience that wants the writer to set it free. An actual event or situation, filled with compelling power, remembered or hidden in layers of memory, can inspire the writer to search beyond what is known to what is not.
Do you as a reader wonder like this about the genesis of stories you love, or do you simply love them? If they touch you, is it because they illuminate something personal or merely because they are good?
I wonder how other writers would answer these questions, but I can only speak for myself. I have begun stories from all of sorts of places. Once I had an urge to be a fly on the wall in the kitchen of a couple I often overheard at the next lunch table. They were custodians arguing quietly over the pregnancy of the woman’s fifteen-year-old daughter. I felt privileged that the woman would sometimes talk with me about what it was like to be poor and black in the South, about how her daughter’s misfortunes were stealing away her opportunities to complete her GED. When I became that fly on that wall, I had a story and a POV character. The idea for “That Girl,” now residing in my first collection, Filling Up In Cumby And Other Stories, began with an actual experience. From something I observed, I was moved to explore, up close and personal, something I didn’t. My imagination chose the colors.
Another time I was beset with a desire to imagine my ex-wife in the car with our son and me when we were about to run out of gas late on a winter night in the high desert. In the true version, my ex-wife wasn’t there, but keeping my sexual distance from her for the sake of our son was on my mind. Only there was no story. Pondering whether my POV character could keep that distance from a woman as compelling as the real one, I put an imagined ex-wife in the car with us. “The muse” then showed me who she was. Truth be told, she had similarities to the real McCoy, but other women I’d known – and my imagination – filled out her portrait. She painted her own colors, so to speak. Someone like me – though much more sarcastic – became the POV character. Fiction sprang from fact in a most delightful manner. “Filling Up In Cumby” found a home in a literary journal and became the title story in my first collection.
In another I wanted to describe the closing night of a popular café. I had nothing more to begin with than a lovely scene without a POV character or even the beginning of an arc. In a state of wonder, both came to me. In hindsight the man seated alone at a table for one resembles me but with a greater sense of isolation than I have ever felt. How did he become who he was? Did a lifetime of experience and my imagination alchemize him into existence? Did the second character, the waitress to whom he did not want to say goodbye after seven years of serving him, emerge out of whole cloth, or was she a constellation of ideal characteristics I carry inside? I can’t be sure, but finding her was another delight that led to the title story Last Night At The Vista Café, Stories.
All three stories began with something real. All three found their form from following my nose. I hope to hear from readers about where they think their most cherished stories come from. Let’s talk about that together.