From the Very Beginning: The Origin of Stories

“I feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off.”
~Willa Cather

“This week I want to focus a bit on beginnings, on where the stories start.... [S]tories...like to be welcomed, but hate to be called.”

Masha spoke this week of specific places she finds inspiration for her stories. Her post was quite romantic in that way, speaking of old writing desks and walking through the birches. "In the woods I’m in near silence but with feeling, the energy of life all around," she says, and I came away from her blogalectic contribution with a daydreamy sort of desire to go walking in the woods myself.

The naming of specific places of inspiration for my story ideas is something I can't easily do, however. When I can, it's not particularly romantic. In A.D.'s case, I suspect I was sprawled on the couch looking at Wikipedia.

Writers have endless different ways of finding story ideas. They play off dreams, they're inspired by favorite books or movies or songs or myths, they're hit by random epiphanies, they go walking in the woods. But the ideas themselves are cheap and plentiful. Compared to other writers, I'm not particularly prone to being overwhelmed with possibilities, but even I have a little folder in My Documents with enough starts to keep me going for several years, even were I to get no further ideas in that time—which is as unlikely as propositions get.

What matters most to the generation of stories, I think, is what the ideas do when they arrive.

As noted Friday, last week I attended a talk on writing by author William Dietrich. When I came home from that and read Masha’s post, one of the points Mr. Dietrich made struck me as immediately applicable to this topic. Most writers, he said, have three traits in common: curiosity, empathy, and critical thinking (a tendency toward skepticism and questioning).

I'd posit that story comes into being when an idea engages these traits. The history of my girl A.D. grew out of a sudden, explosive mix of literary alchemy, stargazer fascination, and a little mythology. There was curiosity in the form of a scientific thrill, something I knew I'd be willing to put research into. There was empathy in the form of a character whom I knew very quickly and loved very deeply. There was questioning in the form of a mythical basis that hit me right where I'm skeptical about a strain or two of popular thought. I had five ideas for NaNoWriMo 2009; for this one, the stars aligned and a story was created.

That's not to say, of course, that every tale will latch onto all three of these character qualities at once or with equal strength. Critical thinking, in particular, plays a more subtle role in fiction than it does in investigative journalism; rather than motivating the story, it generally works to keep it honest. In the origin of E.E.'s story, I can point to the connection with curiosity and empathy, but all I can say about critical thinking is that I wrestled with it in the writing. Questions can help drive a tale, of course. The Harry Potter saga would not have carried the meaning it does for so many people had it not wondered so passionately about the meaning and finality of death. But even at its best, skepticism has to remain subject to empathy, or it becomes agenda.

Of the three, then, empathy is arguably the most important to the engendering of tales. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, fictional characters must be loved in order to become real, real enough to speak to people of flesh and blood. But love raises curiosity, and from curiosity comes an openness to questions. It seems to me that story begins here—with a situation that begs to be known, a soul asking to be understood, a few great questions about the way things are.

If all that comes best to you when you're walking among the birches, so be it.


  1. ..it helps to be sort of over-run with birches. :)

    I really like the whole idea that writers share curiosity, empathy, and critical thinking..it's interesting. And it makes me wish I'd been there to hear him speak. I would stick imagination in there somewhere, but maybe that would fall in - and sort of between - curiosity and empathy.

    My thoughts about critical thinking are that it plays a larger role in the creation of the story than in the story itself. The writer needs to be able to examine and reject his own ideas, to judge what works and what doesn't.

    1. Your comments remind me of Brian Jacques saying that what writers need most is an imagination... I think curiosity and empathy are two of the primary outworkings of that quality. :)

      Interesting point about critical thinking, too. Examining and rejecting one's own ideas, knowing what works and what doesn't, is a lot of the process of finding out truth, which process is definitely important to art.


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