I have been a writer my entire life. I made up stories before I could write. My sister and I would create the most amazing silliness out of the most mundane. I remember acting out skits that we learned from listening to comedy records and disc jockeys. After one particularly silly ‘for the family only’ performance, we slipped into a bit from the Wizard of Oz, linked arms and did the yellow brick road stutter step walk out of the dining room (our stage) singing the phrase “We’re off” over and over and over like a broken record caught in a endless loop. Not only were we telling our family that the improv show was over, but we were also fessing up that we knew were not the Ozzie and Harriet definition of normal. That was really something for kids our age to be aware of! I learned the lesson that creativity, and flash stories in particular, need to be about something not just about some things. Somehow I forgot that.
Writers get asked “where do you get your ideas.” Let me tell you that ideas are everywhere. I have a list of great ideas. Laundry lists of things that I could write about. Clever stuff. Original thoughts. Earth shattering “would you look at that” things. Just last night I had an idea about a guy who forgot that his vocal cords are not twenty years old anymore. But ideas are not stories.
For example, I had a clever thought back in the mid-90′s. It tied animal created paths to purpose built roads and then on to interstellar travel on not-so-original ‘warp lanes’. It was clever enough to make a few people chuckle. But that was all there was, and for most people the cleverness wasn’t enough. It was in all honesty very boring.
An idea, a thing, a clever turn of phrase alone can never be a good story. I don’t throw away these ideas. I keep them. They tumble around in my very quirky and very weird brain. They are still important ingredients for a story. They just lack something.
I kept that clever warp lane idea. One day it collided with another not-so-original clever idea that involved David Brin-ish intelligent Koala bears. Koala bears traveling up and down the warp lane tickled the silliness in me. But it wasn’t until I started thinking about why a sapient Koala would want to travel the warp lane that a story formed.
The ‘why’ gave me the something that the story needed. The something that knitted these clever and silly ideas together and gave them a reason to be told. Everyone, or so I think, experiences some form of prejudice. Mine was being a dirt poor kid growing up on a farm with poor dirt. My sister and I created stories for a reason. We were too poor to replace the television that had fried when a lightening bolt hit the antenna. Even if I had been popular, there wasn’t a lot of time to socialize. I had chores to do after school and on nearly every summer day. The garden wasn’t for a few fresh veggies to highlight an autumn feast, it fed us during the long winter. I was teased by my peers because my jeans had patches on them, my tennis shoes had plastic soles instead of rubber, and because my hand-me-down clothes didn’t fit well. I have listened to acquaintances talk of acts of prejudice that make my experiences diminish to nothing in comparison. But because of my experiences I had the hint of a hope that I could relate to the abuses they had endured. I cling to a lot of similar hints. They too are some things that can become part of a story.
It occurred to me that even a Koala rich enough to travel up and down the warp lane, no matter how smart or how dapper he may also be, would be considered uppity or someone to fear by others simply because he was different. Now that is something.
I typed out 95 words and The Journey was begun. I had a story.
But I didn’t recognize the lesson. I stumbled into a handful of other clever ideas that happened to get immersed in something that made them into stories. Prejudice is a common theme for me. One I really didn’t recognize fully until I had the clever idea for this post. But even this strong idea that resonates with so many people is still just a thing. Relating acts and effects of prejudice do not make a story. There has to be something; something more. It is a subtle distinction. Editors recognize it and sometimes even tell us that ‘something’ is missing. I can’t define this ‘something’ any better than with the examples I have given above. Maybe this is what people are really asking when they want to know where a writer’s ideas come from.
Here I am. It took me two full years of purposeful writing to remember a lesson I had learned as a child. A story has to be about something, not just about some things.
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