Where a story comes from

People often ask where stories come from.

Sometimes they’re inspired by things like this:


You go to bed after a fourteen hour workday, wake on a Saturday morning with the clamor of trying to pay the rent brandishing weapons in your brain like vigilantes tearing through a town.

Pick up the phone to see what time it is: 6:30am. Meh. Too soon to get up. Check the news? Why not.

There’s no more guaranteed disastrous way to start the day than by checking the news. If you’re a glad dystopian the endlessly repeated news stories must be titillating in all their rich misery: only a few paragraphs of coverage, of course, maybe a decapitated corpse. A catchy headline that may not quite capture the scene.

This is the Twitter age. Short attention span. Life in 500 words. Pay no journalists. Don’t give me all the story. Give me a life for free that I can easily consume in bits. Famine: eek. Bloody revenge? quick, show me the Vine!

Once in a while, however,  there’s a serendipitous bit of news. In today’s case a nun giving birth, not having realized she was pregnant. Simultaneously Christ is emanating electricity from his fingertips atop Corcovado. Bombs are blowing up in public places everywhere. Vigilantes in Mexico’s Michoacan state are fighting drug cartels who may or may not be funded by other drug cartels.

It’s the perfect naissance for a story, this fortuitous clustering of little headlines: a virgin birth from a nun at a time when the world is decaying into a pit of its own creation, electrifying Jesus. The mind spins a little. It reorients, like the earth wiggling on its axis. The torrent of work thoughts blows aside like clouds to yield to the fantasy, this seed of artistic creation.

The story begins like this: While the organism consumes itself, the 2nd Coming is being staged in a cloister in Rieti, a small Italian town.


Seeds need water and soil and, most of all, fertilizer.

Enter imagination:  neural alchemy. Fertilizer from the brain.

(Spoiler alert: imagination is really nothing more than the letting go of restraint and listening to the voices inside of you. It’s a bit like the devil in The Exorcist — Regan, strapped to the bed, her bedroom now essentially a naked padded cell, is visited by the priest, and the devil says through the girl: “Father, unloose my straps.” Imagination is the unloosening of straps, and the artist is the possessed.)

You write a line and scratch it out:

“Fleeing the anarchy of drug-riddled Central America…”

Too predictable.

The brain free associates and peruses the landscape of possibility that underlies her story. One of the questions you have is: How could she not know she was pregnant?

The brain, a vast resource, recalls that it’s not so uncommon. Why, don’t you remember watching this for about 3 seconds once…?

i didnt realize i was pregnant“Baby in My Sweatpants”

More curiously is: By whom did the nun get pregnant? According to the brief story, the child was named Francis, after the new Argentinian Papa. In the image selected by BBC to accompany the story, Pope Francis has a curious grin (see above).  Is this merely sly British humour or begruntled Protestant rumour?

It nags the storymaker: what was a nun from El Salvador doing in a small town in Italy? How did she make her way there? Of all the places in the world…

Electrical impulses surge:

“Sold into a nunnery by her starving parents…”

No, I don’t think it works like that.

Where a story goes…

That’s the difficult part.

All the seeds of creation don’t necessarily add up to a healthy yield. As Philip Roth once said, “Writing is frustration–it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation…You fail two-thirds of the time.”

Ideation is a breeze. It’s the followthrough where things get tricky.

Today’s moment of inspiration, it turns out, will go nowhere. The general concept will likely linger — the 2nd coming and the apocalypse — but the story of the nun herself will disappear. Probably it will fade away into neural dust — the  excrement of an electrical collision. She will go on with her life in real time, raise her child, deal with the Church. I might one day write a story of Mary Magdalene that lies in slumber and draw from the remembered sensations of the nun’s story. I may even unwittingly evoke lightning shooting from the fingertips of  Jesus above Rio in that one.

Not because I remembered it, but because it was there. Once.

And that leftover spark is really where stories come from.

(And this is where they reside: My current writing directory. Blurred of course. Much tidier than the boxes in the closet from the pre-computer days.)

writing directory - blurred 2014-1-18



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *